Arguably, the most elusive skill mastered by the greatest athletes is mental toughness. Champions possess not only exceptional physical skill, but also the mental ability to remain focused and in control regardless of the circumstances. We can train to become stronger, faster and more efficient movers in competition, but can we train our brains to increase our focus and overcome our mental deficiencies?

31 Heroeos Project 2015 Athletes Photo by Charlotte Foerschler Photography(

Entering competition can be daunting for a variety of reasons, but maybe the biggest unknown is how to prepare mentally. In order to get a better grasp of brain and its role in competition, I consulted Dr. Jim Afremow, author of The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train and Thrive (Rodale, 2014).

 Through his company, Good to Gold Medal, Dr. Afremow coaches and consults individual athletes and teams across the world. He has practiced for over 15 years and worked with athletes in most of the major professional sports organizations, as well as U.S. and international Olympic competitors. Basically, he knows his stuff.

One of the first things Dr. Afremow reminded of is that participating in an athletic competition involves taking a risk. He said, “But what do you risk? Bruising your ego. We pretend that losing (or not finishing) is the end of the world. It just doesn’t work that way. If you go out there and compete at your best, without fear, as if you love this opportunity, you can leave your ego on the sideline.”

And leaving our egos out of competition—or even daily WODs—seems to be a challenge for many of us. He points out the difference between threats and challenges. According to Afremow, we control challenges, while a threat controls us. While we might feel threatened by other competitors, the event itself, or our performance on a scoreboard, we need to embrace the challenge.

Afremow says, “Threats, in sports and in life, are often illusions. They exist only in your imagination. If you don’t win or perform well, what happens? Just that: you don’t win or perform well.” If we can remind ourselves of that concept, I believe we can remove a lot of the self-inflicted pressure and be free to perform at our best.

The following are some tips for achieving a strong physical and mental performance:

  • Begin the event with the right mindset. Develop one good phrase to help you relax before the event: “For example, an elite tennis player I worked with would sing and say to herself the verse, “Relax, don’t do it…” from Duran Duran whenever she felt tense before or during a match.“
  • Turn negative self-talk into positive talk and a plan for action. He suggests we “rephrase words so that you build positive thoughts, phrases and pathways in your brain to give you a better physical response. Instead of saying, ‘My legs are killing me!’ You can focus on the specific action, ‘I’m gonna attack this section of the course. Lift those knees; pump those arms!’”
  • Breathe deeply. When we take shallow breaths or hold our breath, we increase muscle tension, which impairs performance. Deep breathing will calm the mind and relax the body.
  • Focus on the steps to victory, not the victory itself. Trust the training, stick to the plan instead of worrying about your competitors or the scoreboard. Instead of thinking, “What if I lose?” think positive thoughts such as “Stay on target”, “Focus on the process” or “Be all in.”

I specifically asked him via Twitter how I could get through World’s Toughest Mudder—the biggest physical challenge I will be facing in my life. He put on his coach’s hat and in 3, 140 character segments he gave me some awesome encouragement:

To contact Dr. Afremow, visit

Connect with him on Twitter @goldmedalmind

Find his book, The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train and Thrive anywhere books are sold.


About Metcon

Metcon Media is headquartered in Southern California and is a media company dedicated to promoting a healthy and active lifestyle through functional training and proper nutrition.
Metcon Media’s functional fitness lifestyle specific agenda gives our readers a variety of training and nutrition related articles, podcasts and video from experts in the field on fitness and nutrition as well as other interviews including breaking fitness and nutritional news, product reviews and advice from certified coaches.

View All Posts