Sports | Sports Columns

QUAN: Mental fitness key to athletes success

With the fall sports season slowly coming to an end, many winter sports are set to begin their first weekend of competition. As a senior getting ready for my final season of college squash, I’m looking forward to the upcoming matches and adding a strong finish to my career.

Most of the time, preparing for a new season involves a lot of physical training. Over the summer, athletes across all sports are logging in extra hours at the gym, on the track, in the pool, or on the field to get stronger, faster, and better. It’s during these precious summer months away from competition that we can focus on tweaking the little details to improve our games. These are the sessions in which we build the skills to avenge past losses and secure future wins.

After we return to school, regular practice sessions reinforce the new techniques we pick up over the summer, and biweekly strengthening and conditioning sessions in the varsity weight room keep us physically fit. The attention never seems to move too far away from the physical preparations necessary for us to succeed in competition. Packing all of this physical training during preseason makes sense. Once the season starts, there is not much more I can do to become stronger. With weekends of up to three or four matches and strenuous practice sessions, sufficient recovery and staying “fresh” outweigh the merits of loading on extra conditioning sessions. As the saying goes, “What’s done is done.”

But if I am not necessarily getting “stronger” in the physical sense, how do I get better as the season progresses? As the weeks go by, the improvements in my game are not because I’m running faster. Most of the progress comes from accumulating “court sense”, gaining more accuracy in my shots, and remembering what it feels like to play under pressure. For most athletes, finding themselves mentally at home again in the middle of competition can help them gain the confidence necessary to secure strong wins and defy odds.

If college sports have taught me anything, it is the importance of “mental fitness.” Even though physical fitness tends to soak up all of the attention, I believe that mental toughness is more crucial to the success of an athlete. On several occasions, even when I was in peak shape, a weak mental game unraveled my chances of winning a comfortable match. The mind has the ability to cripple the body more heavily than a little soreness or a nagging injury. Lacking a stable mental game can spell disaster on any given day. On the other hand, complete confidence can make an athlete feel invincible. With movements coming almost effortlessly, the game generates an impenetrable flow, and success feels inevitable.

However, mental toughness does not just encompass keeping your confidence during a single game. It means taking wins and losses throughout the season, learning from your defeats and successes, and working through pain, soreness, and injuries. Because the squash season includes the winter break, it seems extra long, stretching over the course of almost five months. Being mentally tough also involves the day-in and day-out commitment to the sport and not allowing yourself to “burn out” before the end of the season.

After learning how much of a difference a strong mental game can have on my success, I am glad that the Athletic Department has added a sports psychologist to its ranks. Dr. Brent Walker, the associate athletics director for championship performance, has years of experience providing mental training services for athletes at all levels. He has already taken initiative to help varsity athletes by hosting several workshops on confidence and visualization, and will continue to meet with teams and individuals.

Much of what Dr. Walker has to offer will help improve our individual and team performances, both in competition and in our day-to-day lives. The insights he shares with us may even benefit us when we move beyond college and adopt lifelong careers. I believe that that’s the power of strong mental fitness. But for now, I’m looking forward to making the improvements in my mental game to start and end my last season right.

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