The Winning Mind

Larry Bassham -- (Olympic Champion) 2007


The 3 phases of a task

The principles of mental management

Performance analysis

Goal setting system

Improve concentration by running a mental programme

Skills development

Build a better you

The directive affirmation

Seven strategies of the mentally tough

1. Introduction

95% of all winning is achieved by only 5% of the players. They don’t just hope to win – the winners are convinced they will finish first. The only thing that separates the winners from the rest is the way they think. Winners expect to win and if you don’t have this expectation then you have no chance of winning.

Winning occurs when the player is in harmony with the idea that his expectation and his performance will be equal. Many players do not win because they lack the mental system to control their performance under stress. Most champions are sure that performance is 90% mental.

Mental management is about maximising the probability of having a consistent mental performance, under pressure and on demand. An outstanding performance is easy, only poor performance is afflicted by frustration and extra effort. When you play really well you are balanced and in harmony with your efforts. If you are to become a winner then your mental management system must be able to balance the three mental components, the conscious mind, the subconscious mind and the self image. All great performances are accomplished subconsciously. We develop skills through repetitions of conscious thought until actions are performed automatically by the subconscious mind. The self-image is the total of your habits and attitudes and can be changed. When the self-image alters, performance will change.

2. The three phases of a task

To properly implement the mental management system you need to understand that everything we do has three parts –

  • The anticipation phase
  • The action phase
  • The reinforcement phase

The anticipation phase is what you think about immediately before you perform. By running a mental programme you ensure that each shot will be executed in exactly the same way. Success is no accident – paying attention during the anticipation phase will make your goals easier to accomplish.

The action phase is what you think about as you perform – this could be the length of the stroke, the timing, the follow-through or just watching the ball etc.

The reinforcement phase is what you think about immediately after you perform. If it’s a good shot say to yourself – ‘That’s usual for me’. If it’s not forget the shot and go on to the anticipation phase of the next stroke. Too many athletes reinforce their bad performances by thinking and talking about them. Every time you do this you improve the probability of having another bad performance just like it in the future.

Remember champions carefully prepare for their matches, concentrate properly while performing and reinforce all good results. Ask yourself for example how well prepared you are for the match, how well you performed when circumstances were different from what you anticipated and finally what you reinforced. Do you praise others when they perform well, do you praise yourself?

3. The Principles of Mental Management

1) Your conscious mind can only concentrate on one thing at a time. If you are picturing something positive in your mind, it is impossible at the same time to think negatively. The converse of course also applies. This is a vital principle because it is impossible to think of winning and losing at the same time. You are either picturing in your mind something which will help you or something which will hurt you. If you constantly control the image in your mind in a positive manner it is impossible to have concentration errors or poor performance.

I control what I picture in my mind and I think about what I want to happen in my life

2) What you say is not so important. What you cause yourself or others to picture is crucial. The coach who says –‘Whatever you do, don’t lose’ – sets the player up for failure. The player automatically pictures losing! He would have been better to say – ‘Go out there and kill every ball’.

When you first begin anything, good performance is difficult because you are trying to do everything consciously. As the conscious mind can only do one thing at a time nothing works. It is only when the process becomes automated by the subconscious mind, which can handle many things at once, that performance becomes easy. This is why we need to perform not in conscious but in subconscious mode.

I remind myself that what others see when I speak and act is vital to my image. This determines how strong or weak they are in competition against me

3) The subconscious mind is the source of all mental power. You perform best when you allow your well-trained subconscious to do the work. However the conscious can override the subconscious and when this happens performance deteriorates. Conscious override is a major problem at the really big events because this is when the athletes try extra hard to do well – as a result they tighten up and lose their rhythm. Allow the subconscious to do its work, let it flow, trust in your ability.

I trust my subconscious to guide my performance in competition. I am so well trained that all my performance is carried out subconsciously

4) The subconscious moves you to do whatever the conscious mind is picturing. Being positive is the only way. Positive pictures demand positive results from the subconscious – if we think negatively then we can expect negative results.

I realise my subconscious power is moving me to perform what I am consciously picturing in my mind. I control what I picture and picture only what I want to see happen

5) Self-image and performance are always equal. To change your performance you must first change your self-image. The subconscious is always asking the conscious mind what it sees, then it starts to push in that direction. The speed is determined by the self-image. Sadly most people believe you can’t do anything about your behaviour and cannot change the way you are. In fact you are changing all the time as you age. The direction of the change can be determined by you or for you.

Your self-image is like the accelerator in a car and controls the speed and distance you can achieve. You limit yourself by your self-image. We all have a ‘comfort zone’, the upper and lower limits being defined by our self-image. As long as we are in the zone our self-image is content to leave us alone – however if we start scoring better or worse than our comfort zone, the self-image tends to slow us down or speed us up till we are back in the zone. Change the zone and we change the performance – to change the zone we must first change the self-image.

I am aware that my performance and self-image are equal. I am eager to change my habits and attitudes to increase my performance

6) You can replace the self-image you have with the self-image you want, thereby permanently changing performance. Most of us are aware that something has to change for our lives to improve but we want the change to be in others or other things and not in ourselves. NOTHING IS GOING TO CHANGE UNLESS YOU CHANGE YOURSELF FIRST. The self-image resists change. At times it will even discourage you – ‘What makes you think you can beat this girl, you’ve never done it before?’ instead of ‘We are going to do whatever it takes to win this time.’

I am responsible for changing my self-image. I will choose the habits and attitudes I want and cause my self-image to change till it ends up as I want it to be

7) The principle of balance – when the conscious, subconscious and self-image are all balanced and working together, good performance is easy. In this state you work smoothly, efficiently and seemingly effortlessly towards your goal – you are balanced and in harmony and great performances can become a reality. The key is the ability to experience this state under pressure and on demand.

I cause my conscious, subconscious and self-image to move towards being in balance thus increasing my performance without frustration

8) The principle of reinforcement. The more we think about, talk about and write about something happening, the more we improve the probability of it happening. Concentration is nothing more than the control of your mental picture. Remember the subconscious moves you to do what the conscious mind pictures. If you can control the picture you control the performance. Be careful what you think about! Picture doing well and don’t spend time listening to the problems of others lest you inherit their problems. What you want to talk about is your good shots – by doing this you increase the probability that you will have more good shots in the future. Fill your thoughts only with your best performances and you cannot help but be successful.

I choose to think about, talk about and write about what I wish to have happen in my life

9) The self-image cannot tell the difference between what actually happens and what is vividly imagined. Rehearsal is mental practice. You are mentally duplicating everything you do when you’re on the table. Rehearse only good performances so that there is no negative reinforcement. Mental practice can be powerfully effective. If you consistently rehearse what you want to achieve, what you imagine can become reality. Rehearsal also controls pressure, the stress you feel when you are in competition. Pressure is in fact neither good nor bad and is necessary for performance. Too little or too much and bad consequences occur, the right amount and world records fall.

Pressure can be divided into two parts – anxiety and arousal. Anxiety is fear. We fear many things and fear is not always a bad thing. What many people do not understand is that fear can be controlled and one of the best ways is through experience. Rehearsal can help by giving us mental experience in a pressure situation. Rehearsal reduces fear. The second part of pressure is arousal – this is your level of excitement. There is a point between relaxation and arousal where your mental performance is maximised. It is sometimes difficult to attain this optimum mental level. Rehearsing that you are playing well will help you in this respect, especially a few minutes before you go on court.

The self-image cannot tell the difference between what actually happens and what is vividly imagined

10) The principle of value – we appreciate things in direct proportion to the price we pay for them. People who struggle for years to achieve a goal appreciate it even more. Challenges on the journey are also not only common but of value. Finding solutions to problems is essential to growth.

I realise that the problems I must overcome to reach my goals just increase the value of the goals, once they are achieved

4. Performance analysis

This is the process of recording essential information that tracks your progress and needs to take only a few minutes per day. The purpose of a journal is to add organisation to your training programme – it should contain a written record of five key planning areas. A performance journal provides athlete and coach with a valuable resource for improvement without burdening either with unnecessary paperwork.

  • Your schedule. This identifies time slots that you plan to devote to some area of your training.
  • Your diary. Fill out training and competition sessions, time spent and what you accomplished.
  • Your solution analysis. Your chance to write down solutions to any challenges you have discovered during training/competition. Also anything you have learned and even problems you have not solved. Reference to this section will reduce further errors.
  • Your success analysis. Here write down anything you did well. When you do this you improve the probability that you will repeat the success.
  • Your daily goal statement. Goal statements should be achievements which are currently out of reach but not out of sight. Every time we write down a goal we are that much closer to reaching it.

Another use for your journal is to record you training and competition programme for the year. Schedule all your major tournaments both home and abroad in the master calendar. Look for any conflicts with school, work or family commitments. Count the number of training days till the next competition and then over the whole year – you may be surprised at how few there are. Prioritise your training –which is best for you and your development – an England training camp or training in Germany or France? Maximise the training hours available by planning in advance. Too often valuable training time is lost due to inadequate planning.

Next write down a projected training budget for each quarter.

  • What new equipment will you need to reach your goals for the year?
    • What is the best time to test such items and if you need to buy them what is the cost?
    • What supplies do you need (balls for example)?
    • Don’t lose training days through poor planning.
  • What are the travel costs to get to competitions, matches, training etc? Consider both fuel costs and accommodation – do you have friends or family you can stay with. By planning in advance you may be able to combine say a competition and training camp and save money or even to travel with another player/coach.
  • What fees will be charged for entering tournaments, training, camps etc?

Divide your year into quarters as each period may be different in terms of goals and focus. A lesser time period is also easier to track and to record. Some parts of the year your priority may be competition while other parts you can work on conditioning or new ideas.

Also do not make the mistake of omitting to allow time for rest, repair and reflection. You need time away from your sport to reflect on your goals, training methods, where you are going and how to get there. During this period you can draw up an outline plan for the coming year.

Finally you should set up training objectives for the year in 3 major areas –

  1. What aims do you wish to achieve in training by the end of the first quarter?
  2. How many hours will you average in each training day?
  3. How will you spend these hours?

A well-planned training programme will improve your competition results.

5. Goal Setting System

One habit separates the top 5% of winners from the 95% who just play – the setting of goals.

  1. Decide exactly what you want. Exact and exciting goals.
  2. Decide when you want it. Time limit helps you to focus.
  3. List why you want the goal. What reasons are important? Should be your goal and exciting.
  4. Determine the obstacles in your way. What habits and attitudes must you change? How much extra time must you put in?
  5. What is your plan to get your goal? Prepare a written plan.
  6. Ask important questions. Will the plan work? Is the prize worth the price?
  7. Schedule your plan. Put your plans on a calendar. Monthly and daily.
  8. Start now. Don’t hesitate. Put in quality effort, consistently and you can do anything.
  9. Never reach a goal without setting another one. Once you near your goal, goal-set beyond this.
  10. Never, never quit. Be persistent, stay with your plan until it’s completed.

6. Improve concentration by running a mental programme

Winning requires you to develop a consistent mental picture. It is possible to duplicate an exact mental series of pictures before every performance, thus achieving mental consistency. Running a mental programme serves two vital purposes –

  • The mental programme is a series of thoughts which, when pictured in the conscious mind, will trigger the subconscious to perform the appropriate action.
  • The mental programme controls the thought process occupying the conscious mind. An occupied conscious mind cannot choke, be pressured or have a break in concentration.

The mental programme should be run every time and for every rally. It has five steps and should be run in training as well as competition –

  1. The point of initiation.
  2. The point of attitude.
  3. The point of direction.
  4. The point of control.
  5. The point of focus.

POI -- Grip the racket properly and assume the usual ready stance for the serve or receive.
POA – What does it feel like to serve well? Decide how to serve or receive – receive may be more than one alternative.
POD – Picture a smooth serve/receive action and good contact on the ball.
POC – Maintain balance and prepare the racket for the serve/receive.
POF – Focus on the ball, keeping the head still and play.

By running the mental programme you do not have time to think of anything negative or to be distracted. You are protected from failure and a bad performance.

7. Skills Development

The subconscious is where your skills are developed and where your training should be focused. The amount of your skill and the size of your subconscious circle are determined by three factors –

  1. How often you train.
  2. How efficiently you train.
  3. What you reinforce.

1) Catch yourself doing something right. Far too often players concentrate on what they are doing wrong and try to isolate the cause of their problems. What they really need to do is to study the right way of doing things. If you study failure you will become an expert on how to fail! Instead think only of your successes and never of your failures. Always talk positively. ‘Next time I will hit a better shot’. ‘That’s a good shot, what did I do right’.

2) Train four or five days a week. One day a week is worse than none at all, two or three will maintain your level, four or five (working hard) and you will improve.

3) Wherever you are be all there. Don’t think about other things (home, work, family etc.) in the training or competition hall. Be there 100%.

4) Rehearse the match day in the training session. Rehearse in your mind that each training is the competition. Feel the match, make it vivid in your mind.

5) When you are playing well, play a lot. When you are performing well that’s the time to train more. When you have a bad day, stop – don’t practise losing.

6) We raise and lower ourselves to the standard around us. Train with people who are better than you and you will get better. It is vital to be around winners. Seek opportunities to be around people who are where you want to be.

7) Make a bet with yourself, when you win it, pay up. Make a bet that you will attain a goal (five hundred forehands without a mistake) and when you reach it, reward yourself. You will soon find you are working harder in training and enjoying your improvement.

8. Build a better you

Are any of these attitudes familiar?

  • I’m great in practice but not so good in matches.
  • I start well but lose it at the end.
  • My forehand won’t work today.
  • I’m technically sound in my game but get nervous under pressure.
  • I can’t stay calm when things go wrong.

These are the type of statements you hear from many players. They are all temporary self-image attitudes and can be changed. Why not –

  • I perform better in matches than in training.
  • I always finish well.
  • My forehand never lets me down.
  • I always perform well but especially under pressure.
  • I’m always calm and cool even when things go wrong.

What can account for the change? All you have to do is to shift the self-image and the change will be permanent. We all tend to perform within a certain ‘comfort zone’. Your self-image keeps you within the zone and makes you ‘act like you’. If you perform inadequately then the self-image turns up the power till you are back in the zone. But if you do too well the self-image cuts the power till you drop back into the zone again. If you are in the zone the self-image is content and does not interfere. The means that if you wish to perform better then you must change your self-image and raise the ‘comfort zone’ levels.

This is the most important skill you will ever learn because you can only change and improve performance by changing your self-image. To do this however you must accomplish 4 important tasks –

  1. You must be willing to undergo change.
  2. You must identify the habits and attitudes you need to change.
  3. You must set up a new self-image which is in direct conflict with the old.
  4. You must exchange your old self-image for the desired new one.

If you turn your weaknesses into strengths, your performance will surely benefit. In this respect problems and frustrations are valuable keys to your success. For most athletes often their problems are negative attitudes and poor reinforcement. Each time you do something good, reinforce it – ‘Yes that’s good’. Each time you miss, forget it. Olympic athletes call this technique – feast or forget. Run a mental programme before each match. Reinforce success by recording details in the journal. The self-image cannot stand a conflict, if the old and the new are radically different then something has to go. If you continue to visualise your new self at some point the conflict will be resolved by the exchange of the old attitudes for the new.

9. The directive affirmation

This is a paragraph written in the first person present tense describing a person’s goal, what the goal is worth, the plan to reach the goal and the habits and attitudes affecting the attainment of the goal. It is rehearsed repetitively causing the self-image to change.

September 30th 2006. I am the best girl table tennis player of my age in the UK and among the best 25 women in the country. I enjoy the recognition as the best in the country. I have taken a major step towards the accomplishment of my next goal – to be European Number One. I always run a mental programme before each match I play and reinforce each successful shot by saying – ‘That’s the one’ or ‘Good girl’. I am a member of the best club in Great Britain. I record my performance analysis and read and visualise my directive affirmation every day. I train or play matches 4 to 5 times per week for up to 3 hours a time. I train on close-to-table play and also defending from further back. I utilise progressive serve and receive practice and work to increase my forehand spin and power. I exercise each day. I feel and look great. I am stronger, fitter and faster every day. I am the best girl table tennis player of my age in the UK and among the best 25 women in the country.

Reshaping the mind is very like reshaping the body. If you have a poor attitude, the likely cause is repetitive negative reinforcement rather than repetitive overeating. Repetitive change of your thinking habits is the best way to bring about an attitude change. The directive affirmation is a tool to effect permanent change.


10. Seven strategies of the mentally tough

1) Transportation. This is an important way to shorten the amount of time you need to move from being just good at what you do, to being great or the best. The fastest way to evolve is to transport the habits and attitudes you need to perform at a higher level and adopt them now. Essentially this means that you mentally transport yourself to a higher level of performance. Imagine yourself being at this level now. Grab hold of the champion’s habits and attitudes and bring them back to where you are today. Don’t live in the present mentally – use the principle of transportation to take you where you want to be.

2) Your past is not a prison. Mentally tough people do not think about the past. Your present is not your potential. How you perform today doesn’t determine how you will perform in the future – unless you allow your past to pull you back.

3) Imitate the champions. Find out what the best players in your sport are doing and how they are behaving and you do the same. I guarantee that the top 1% are not thinking like the other 99%! If you think and train like most people then you’ll perform like most people. How do you find out what the champions are doing? Ask them!

4) Train hard, compete easy. The mentally tough work much harder in training than in competition. Outwork your competitors, go that extra mile. But don’t over-try in competition – we’re often taught that the harder we try the better we’ll do. Relaxation is the key – find the right level for you which gives peak performance.

5) Visualise before the match. Success in your sport will certainly be enhanced if you rehearse you actions mentally prior to a crucial activity. Mentally go through the competition the evening before and again before playing on the day. Rehearse your strategies and think only positive thoughts – think back to some of the best games you have played and how well you performed with very little effort. Your game just flowed! If you do this your subconscious will be primed, like a guided missile, with the kind of performance you expect to have.

6) Take all problems as positive. You cannot always control what happens – what you can control is how you handle what happens. Every problem has a positive side. Look on problems as a challenge, as an opportunity. Obstacles are only obstacles when you allow them to be. Shut the door on the past and open the door of the future. Ask one question – ‘Who is the one person in the world who can best help me solve this problem’. Go to him or her and only talk with this person and no-one else.

7) Have big dreams. Don’t settle for mediocrity – dream big and big rewards will follow. Dreams will drive you to accomplish great things, things happen when you dream big, the doors of opportunity will open wide. When you set a big goal, you become energised and this will help you to do things that were impossible to do before.

When you work with elite performers you observe a pattern. In every group of people you find 80% thinking one way, 15% thinking nearly the opposite and the top 5% who innovate.

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