Lessons from the Mind Gym by Gary Mack

In Advice

There are many books for athletes about mental toughness and training, all of them reminding us how sports are “90% mental and 10% physical”. However, this advice doesn’t give athletes the mental tools it takes to ensure that they are mentally ready for competition. In Mind Gym, An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence, Gary Mack’s book gives athletes exercises to do before competition, sayings to inspire hard workouts and guidance as to how to train their minds for superior performances. Complete with words of wisdom from all-time sports greats, Mack will help any athlete develop themselves into their best, starting with their mental outlooks.

It is true that certain ways of thinking can help or hurt athletes during their training and games. Professionals dedicate themselves physically to grueling lifting sessions, speedwork and scrimmages. While younger athletes do these things on a lesser scale, they neglect something that the pros can’t do without. Pros get to their levels by using their thoughts to their advantage, and once they are in the big leagues it is a vital component of their success. Without the proper mental training, higher-level athletes place themselves at a risk of burnout, frustration and getting in a slump.

Here’s some of the tips and tricks from the Mind Gym we felt were most helpful to young athletes.

  1. “Learn how to focus on the task and not let negative thoughts intrude” (Mack 9). It is not uncommon for people to tell themselves “not to do something” right before they attempt. This kind of thinking leads to the undesired action to happen. Our brains can only process one piece of information at a time, and if you tell yourself “don’t tighten up” right before you swing, you are more likely to tighten up then if you told yourself “stay loose and relaxed”. p. 9
  2. Many studies have been done to show if mental training in the form of imagery and visualization can improve performance. Mack talks about a such study that shows how athletes with mental training will always outperform athletes of equal ability who did not have mental training(Mack 14). This shows what a great advantage picturing success can be, and how it can give you an edge over your opponents. Practice visualizing parts of your game or competition. See yourself doing well and focusing on what you practiced in real life.
  3. Pressure in sports is inevitable. When you care about what you are doing and have worked hard, there is a degree of stress that you feel from yourself or from outside sources. Mack has talked to numerous athletes about handling pressure. Scott Hamilton, the 1984 gold medalist in figure skating said “ under pressure, people can perform fifteen percent better or fifteen percent worse” (Mack 21). Once you put in the work and do all you can before a competition or game, just go out and do what you love. Mack reminds us to stay in the moment, “pressure is created by anxieties about the future and remembered failures from the past” (Mack 136).
  4. Mack created the Seven C’s of Mental Toughness, characteristics that will help you appreciate and enjoy competition (Mack 25). They are: competitive, confident, control, committed, composure, courage, and consistency. Practice having these traits and you will see yourself become more mentally tough. 
  5. Mack conveys the message of tennis great Arthur Ashe in this section of his book: “You are really never playing an opponent. You are playing yourself”(Mack 40).  In order to put yourself in the best position to beat yourself and conquer your doubts and fears, you need to have a high opinion of yourself. You have to believe that you can be successful and you have to picture yourself achieving your goals. Otherwise, when the time comes, you may have self-defeating thoughts and believe that you don’t deserve to win.  
  6. You won’t get better at left handed layups if you keep perfecting your right handed layups. It’s important to be honest with yourself and work on what really needs development to see the most progress. Making changes in your routine and forcing yourself to get good at what you’re not good at can make a huge difference (Mack 50).
  7. Goal setting can do a lot for you. It can keep you motivated during training. It helps keep things in perspective and it can help you see improvement throughout your journey. Mack worded it very well when he said “If you don’t know where you are headed, you’re probably going to wind up somewhere other than where you want to be”(Mack 60). He also creates a helpful acronym, SMART, to assist in setting goals. You want your goals to be Specific Measurable Achievable Realistic and Time-bound (Mack 62). Keeping them within reach and reasonable allows you to get one goal at a time and not overwhelm yourself.
  8. If you want to win you have to work. Working hard is all about forgetting what other people think and say and committing to the process. It doesn’t matter how much “talent” you have, any player can become great based on his work ethic and enthusiasm for the game (Mack 69). Take it from Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi: “Once a man has made a commitment…he puts the greatest strength in the world behind him. It’s something we call heart power. Once a man has made this commitment, nothing will stop him short of success” (Mack 68).
  9. Don’t get distracted. Unfortunately many children’s sports role models take what they have been given, money, fame and a reputable name, and throw it away or use it for bad purposes. Some athletes use drugs, behave poorly, drive drunk and abuse others. They become distracted from their goal and from their life’s work. Do not become like these people. Nothing good can come from their behavior. Instead, “associate with people who will make you better” (Mack 70).
  10. In Mind Gym, Mack says that “Fate loves the fearless”(Mack 76). These powerful and true words should inspire athletes to not be dragged down by their own minds, their fears and doubts. If you are always scared of doing something difficult but that will really help your performance, you will never take a risk. “Sometimes the greatest risk is not taking a risk” (Mack 79).
  11. Everyone has a comfort zone. This is where we see ourselves playing, and it is often not our full potential. It is good enough to get by, but is it really all we can give? The answer is no. Mack talks about how part of this has to do with the self-image. If you see yourself as the kid who isn’t good enough to be undefeated, you will begin to feel pressure and you will not allow yourself to become undefeated, because it is out of your comfort zone. “Limits begin where visions end. You have to see yourself as a no-limits person” (Mack 84).
  12. When things get rough and nothing seems to be going your way, it is very easy to develop a negative attitude. But this is one of the worst things you can do. When everything is out of your control, the one thing you have control of is your attitude. By keeping it positive, you will be happier and more relaxed during times that you would normally tense up and stress out (Mack 100).
  13. Sometimes, athletes do all the right things, all the little things, and they fail to reach their full potential because they don’t believe in themselves. If you believe that you are not a starter or that you will never be as good as so-and-so, you’re probably right. Again, Mack reminds athletes of what baseball great Rod Carew said, “When you learn to shut off the influences and believe in yourself, there is no telling how good a player you can be” (Mack 113).
  14. Self-talk is a great tool for getting through the rough days of training. When you are so exhausted you don’t think you can run another step, but you still have to run drills, talk to yourself and pump yourself up. Mack includes part of a very powerful saying that all athletes can relate to:

If you think you are beaten, you are. If you think that you dare not, you don’t. If you’d like to win but you think you can’t, it’s almost certain you won’t. If you think you’ll lose, you’ve lost. For out in the world you’ll find, success begins with a fellow’s will. It’s all in the state of mind. Life’s battle don’t always go to the stronger or faster man; but sooner or later the man who wins is the man who thinks he can. (Mack 118).

    15. All too often, successful athletes ruin their flawless reputations by not controlling their anger. Yes, it’s true that sports will bring out your emotions, but showing your anger can reveal a bad temper, which can     be an advantage to your opponents. Gary Mack interviewed several renown professional athletes, who all had to work on controlling their anger (Mack 122). Acting on your anger will only result in poor behavior. Instead, focus on channeling your energy into being fairly aggressive on the field and pushing your body and mind to get better. 

    16. The best advice in Mind Gym about dealing with fear before and during competition, training and games, is to “remember, fear doesn’t keep you safe. Your training does”(Mack 130). Once you put in the work, don’t let the “what if’s” hold you back. In the moment, the worst thing you can be is afraid.

    17. Have you ever found yourself in a rut, and so frustrated because you have done everything you can, but can’t get out of it? Athletes like baseball player Jamie Moyer have. Mack offers advice to his athletes when they feel frantic and that they have to do a million things. He tells them “When you find yourself in a hole, the first rule is to stop digging”(Mack 143). Next time you feel yourself getting worked up over your game, take a step back, and relax.

    18. One of the many reoccurring themes in Mind Gym, trusting yourself is one that takes care of many other issues. Memorable words from the book are, “If there are doubts in your mind, your muscles won’t know what to do. Switch from the thinking mode to the trusting mode” (Mack 167). Once you get to the site of competition, stop thinking and doubting, and just focus on playing.

    19. At the end of the day, what matters most is that you didn’t cheat yourself. You could have gotten praise and accolades from your coaches and from friends, but if you do not do your absolute best, you will be letting down the person in the mirror. Mack calls this the “mirror test” (Mack 214). If you can look yourself in the eye and confidently say that you gave it everything you had, you passed the mirror test. If you can’t, you still have more to give.

    20.The last words Mack shares in his book should not be forgotten. “It’s always too soon to quit” (Mack 224). Don’t give up because of fear or because you don’t believe in yourself. Put in the work, be honest with yourself and have fun. It’s always too soon to quit.

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