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more articles by Gerson, Henry D. , MD  |  author's bio

The Psychology of Peak Performance in Athletics and Everyday Life

Special to the Journal By Henry D. Gerson, MD


In recent years, elite American athletes have appreciated more and more the importance of mental preparedness and the key role it plays in achieving peak performance.  Top European athletes have long embraced mental fitness as an integral part of athletic training and now the concept is catching on in the US as well.


There are two main issues in preparing mentally for peak performance. The first is accessing and strengthening a peak mental state for performance conditions.  The second is developing patterns of excellence in practice and day-to-day living that support vitality and consistent performance.


Exercises for mental preparedness

There are steps you can take to help yourself prepare for a peak athletic or artistic performance or a peak performance in any area of work and personal life. The process involves remembering a time when you delivered your best prior performance and then committing details of it to memory.   You should make a mental note of the features of the experience.  Athletes often describe these experiences as having a sense of timelessness, immense focus and “tunnel vision” on the task at hand, freedom from distracting thoughts, a sense of flow and sureness, and even an absence of ego.  Recollecting the precise details of that peak state makes it more familiar.


As you anticipate your next event or opportunity for peak performance, mentally rehearse and amplify the qualities of your last peak performance.  This kind of recall, rehearsal and planning is related to meditation, and self-hypnosis, and can be very effective in helping you duplicate an outstanding performance experience.


Superior athletes often devote the same energy and focus to practice as they do to competition.   Similarly, if we give full attention to our day-to-day activities and find ways to make them optimally challenging, we can create daily opportunities for access to the peak performance state.  If an activity is too easy we get bored, if it’s too difficult we get anxious, but if it is at the right level to stretch our capabilities, we practice for our best performance.



Cultivating awareness

Cultivating awareness in action is also vital to peak performance.  Awareness is a broad processing of all that is around you.  It’s not like what we refer to as “thinking.”  In the peak state your responses to what’s happening around you are spontaneous, coordinated and appropriate, and happen faster than conventional “thought.”  When the situation demands you can switch to “normal thinking,” and solve a specific problem, but then you return to open awareness.  Concentration training can help you be more familiar with the difference between heightened open awareness and normal thought, enabling you to optimize their balance for every situation.


Achieving vitality

Vitality is synonymous with peak performance in daily living.  One key to vitality is connecting your daily activities to some higher core beliefs or a purpose you identify with.  Connecting the what/where/when/and why of the things you do to the who-you-want-to-be as a person fosters more consistency in your performance and less conflict in your life. We’ve all read in the news about star athletes who struggle after achieving sudden fame and fortune: they maintain good performance in their game but become erratic and undisciplined in their behavior off the field.  Vital living involves more integration between the athlete’s on-field action and day to day life.


No matter what our vocation, striving for peak performance can enrich our lives.   And by taking the steps of remembering and rehearsing peak states, and connecting our daily activities to our core beliefs, we can best realize our potential for excellence and vitality.


Dr. Gerson is a board certified in psychiatrist and the Medical Director of Behavioral Services at Cayuga Medical Center.   He has a special interest in exercise for mental wellness.    

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