3 mental performance experiments that could take your athletic performance to the next level (even if they seem way too easy to work)

by Brian Cain, MPM

As a lifelong athlete myself, I’ve experienced firsthand what it’s like to feel like you’re capable of performing at a much higher level than you currently are. 

After a solid high school athletic career as a three sport standout athlete, I went to college on a baseball scholarship and fell flat on my face. Interestingly, my failure to produce on the field was NOT due to lack of motivation, work ethic, or effort. 

Looking back now, I can see clearly what held me back: Mental performance (or lack thereof). 

Here I was, a skilled, hard-working kid struggling to perform up to my TRUE potential. 

Over the past two decades of working with thousands of athletes, I’ve seen this same thing play out time and time again. 

I’ve watched countless athletes fall short of what they’re truly capable of due to limiting beliefs and struggles they thought there was nothing they could do to change. 

I’ve watched coaches continue to toss their hands up in frustration as an athlete, overflowing with talent and skill, continues to let distraction or lack of confidence derail their performance when they needed to be at their best. 

And thankfully, I’ve had the opportunity to step in and help many of these coaches and athletes discover the truth: It doesn’t have to be this way. 

With dedication to the mental game, you can overcome any limiting belief, any obstacle—and start performing up to your TRUE potential. 

Today, I’m identifying three of the most sinister limiting beliefs I see holding athletes back, and outlining mental performance “experiments” you can use to render these challenges obsolete so you can blast through plateaus and see what you’re really capable of. 

Limiting belief #1: If I just felt more confident—then I could start performing at the level I’m truly capable of. 

One of the questions I get the most as a mental performance coach is, “How do I get more confidence?”

Unfortunately I don’t have an answer for you. Why because you don’t get more confidence, you DO IT. You don’t feel more confident; you DO more confidence. 

Let’s talk about feelings for a minute, because feelings are not facts. 

Having worked with some of the top UFC athletes, I know this to be true. When those athletes—some of the toughest human beings on the planet—walk toward the cage, preparing to face their opponent, you may be surprised to learn they don’t always feel confident. 

In fact, they often feel nervous, anxious, and an overwhelming amount of self doubt. 

You’d never know though, right? That’s the point. These elite competitors know confidence is not a feeling; it’s an action. You can tap into this same confidence for your sport. 

The experiment: Fake it till you feel it

The greatest athletes I’ve worked with—and we’re talking World Champion UFC fighters, Cy Young Award winners, and others at the absolute top of the field in their respective sport—know confidence is a choice. 

In fact, 2015 National League Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta of the Chicago Cubs started writing the letters “ACE” under the brim of his when we started working together when he was in college at TCU. ACE is an acronym for “Acting Changes Everything.” If a Cy Young Award winner, World Series Champion and one of the best pitchers baseball has seen in recent years has to remind himself of acting confident at times, I am sure we would benefit from that as well.

This is the concept of “fake it till you feel it” in action used by the best athletes I work with including Arrieta and St. Louis Cardinals All-Star and former TCU Frog Matt Carpenter. Use this two step process to start competing with more confidence. 

Step 1: Stop relying on a “feeling” of confidence. 

I’ve noticed that many athlete’s think they’re mentally weak if they don’t feel confident, or if they can’t “will” their way to feeling confident. But as we’ve covered, confidence  is NOT a feeling. 

And even the best athletes in the world struggle to feel confident. So step #1 is giving yourself permission to be OK not feeling confident. 

That doesn’t mean you’re mentally weak. It doesn’t mean it’s not possible for you to compete with confidence.

Give yourself permission to stop relying on a feeling of confidence. 

Step 2: Own your body language, focus, and self-talk (BFS)

If you can’t rely on a feeling for confidence… what can you rely on? Your body language, focus, and self-talk. If you want to have more confidence, if you want to play bigger, you’ve got to know THIS is where confidence comes from. 

Confidence is a state you choose to get into. Confidence is a choice and that choice is made with your BFS. 

B = Body Language

Always get big. Stand is if you’re 10 feet tall and bulletproof. Head up, shoulders back. Picture how someone like LeBron James or Patrick Mahomes would walk out onto the court/field… and then channel that same posture for yourself. 

F = Focus

Focus in the moment on what you want vs. what you want to avoid. You may have to go to war mentally to let go of the negative thoughts and direct your focus on what you want, but it’s worth the battle. Also, make sure you’re focusing on what you CAN control—not what you can’t. 

S = Self Talk

This is the voice inside your head that you use to talk to yourself or the voice you hear as you’re reading this right now. Intentionally fire yourself up with positive, empowering language, saying things like “I am the best”, “I’ve got this”, and “You can’t stop me.”

Limiting belief #2: When I lose focus during competition, there’s nothing I can do to avoid the downward spiral in performance.

I’ve worked with tens of thousands of athletes over the past two decades. And I can say without a doubt, one of the biggest challenges of competition is learning how to avoid letting one mistake, one missed shot, one bad call, etc. turn into more lapses in performance. 

Often, athletes believe this is just part of their DNA, an aspect of their competitive self they can’t do anything about. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Fact is, everyone is susceptible to losing focus and letting mistakes or bad plays derail their performance. 

Some just recognize this as a part of competition that they CAN control—and that’s why they succeed. Give this experiment a try, and you may be surprised at how effectively you can bounce back from “mistakes” and refocus. 

The experiment: Use this three-step release routine to regain focus in the face of adversity. 

Helping athletes develop greater focus is an extensive part of my mental performance mastery training programs. And while this often involves a number of different strategies, today I want to focus on just one facet my approach: The “release routine.”

First: Develop a 3-step “release routine.”

We’ll get into when and how to use this in a second, for now just focus on developing a routine that follows these three steps:

  1. Do something physical—this could be clapping your hands, tapping your chest or hip, hitting your glove three times (baseball example), etc. There really is no “right” or “wrong” here, just identity a physical action that will be easy for you to remember. 
  2. Take a releasing deep breath to bring oxygen into your system, oxygenate your brain and slow down your heart rate to get back in control of yourself. It’s really that simple, one intentional, slow, controlled deep breath.
  3. Have a verbal trigger that brings finality to whatever just happened and moves you on to the next play/pitch/shot/etc. Again, whatever you will remember. It could be “next play!”, “one play at a time”, or “next shot”, or “so what?”, whatever else resonates with you. Just make it short and memorable. 

Next: Anytime adversity rears its head and you feel your focus slipping, immediately go into your release routine. 

This release routine is your secret weapon against adversity. 

When a ref makes a bad call and you’re tempted to fly off the handle and let it disrupt  your focus… go into your release routine. 

When you make a bad play and you’re tempted to “get in your head” and get upset… go into your release routine. 

When the game feels like it’s speeding up on you, or when you’re folding under pressure… go to your three-step release routine. 

Watch in this video below, SMU Quarterback Matt Davis hit his 3-step release routine after throwing the ball behind his intended receiver. You will also see his intended receiver Courtland Sutton (an NFL All Pro in 2019 with the Denver Broncos) clap his hands after he misses the pass as the first part of his release.

Last (but not least): Practice and get better with time. 

It will take some time for the 3-step release routine to be the natural thing you turn to. After all, you probably have years of conditioning tempting you to do something different. 

That’s to be expected. Simply practice you release routine as often as possible, and over time it will become an automatic part of your process—even in the heat of competition.  Athletes like those mentioned today, Jake Arrieta, Matt Carpenter, Matt Davis and Courtland Sutton, they all practice their release as part of their regular baseball and football skill specific training. Practicing their release is just as important to them as practicing how they throw or catch.

Limiting belief #3: When I don’t perform up to my TRUE potential—it’s due to lack of mental toughness, and I don’t “have what it takes.

Coaches and athletes are quick to blame lack of mental toughness as a blanket statement for explaining athletes who struggle to perform up to their talent/skill level when the lights of competition come on.   

But in reality, there are specific, fundamental skills these athletes need to learn in order to overcome whatever barrier is truly the cause of their sub-optimal performance. 

Struggling to perform in pressure situations may come across as a lack of mental toughness or competitive grit, when in reality it may be a lack of awareness that developing a particular mental performance skill set could correct. 

The experiment: Gain awareness about what is truly hindering your performance—and develop a skill set that will help you overcome it. 

Let’s think back to limiting belief #2 discussed above for second: “When I lose focus during competition, there’s nothing I can do to avoid the downward spiral of my performance.”

Instead of writing that off as a scenario where someone just doesn’t have enough mental toughness, we identified a very specific skill one could develop to combat a very specific challenge. 

This is true of any challenge you face that’s negatively affecting performance. 

The key is being able to develop the awareness needed to a) identify what’s truly the issue, and 2) being able to master a skill set that will help you overcome whatever is standing in the way of performing your best. 

Use this three-step “Well, Better, How” process to increase your awareness of which areas of performance may be holding you back and to develop a process to overcome it.

Step 1: Ask yourself, “What did I do WELL?”

At the end of a specified time period, take a few moments to reflect on what you did well. We always start by recognizing the positive—because there is always something positive to focus on. 

Step 2: Ask yourself, “What could I do BETTER?”

Now is your opportunity to increase awareness around where you can get better. This isn’t about identifying all the ways in which you “failed”, this is simply about using the power of reflection and observation to look for places you can step up your game and improve. 

The goal here is to get as specific as possible. So instead of simply stopping when you identify “I got distracted and then made a number of bad plays in a row”, dig deeper to identify what CAUSED the distraction. 

For example, using an example from earlier in this article, perhaps a “bad” call by the referee sent you into a tailspin of anger, which led to you losing focus on what you can control, which led to mistakes. 

The clearer you can be at identifying specifically what started the lapse in performance, the better. That way, in the next step you can identify something you can do to correct it moving forward. 

Step 3: Ask yourself, “HOW am I going to do ‘x’ better?”

Now that you’ve identified something very specific that you can do better in the future to reach your goals/perform at the highest level possible, it’s time to take ACTION toward getting better. 

Your goal here is to develop a specific plan to implement so you can overcome whatever you identified in step #2. 

For example, let’s say you realize that a bad call by the referee derailed your focus. You could implement the three-step “release routine” outlined earlier in this article so that the next time this happens, you have a process to turn to so that you regain focus. 

When/how often should you do this? 

This could be each day, each week, each practice, each competition—you may have to experiment to find what works best for you. 

The important thing is that you’re doing it, and you’re doing it consistently.  I personally do it every Sunday and with the athletes who are in my 1-1 coaching program, we do it every Monday as part of our weekly coaching call.

Keep experimenting, keep growing. 

The key to continued growth is the willingness to search for ways you can improve performance. And you can probably see why I’m such a big fan of self-experimentation: It’s a win-win. 

You’ll either get a reaffirming confidence boost and confirmation you’re already on the right track, or you’ll get valuable information about how you can change to get better. 

This isn’t about “getting it perfect.” This is about finding out what works for you, being willing to challenge beliefs that may be holding you back, and taking action—one small, slow, steady step at a time. 

To get started, I’d encourage you to read through the limiting beliefs outlined above one more time, identify the one that resonates most strongly with you right now, and follow the experiment listed. 

You may be amazed at what you find, and the kind of impact it has on your performance—even if it seems way too easy to work. 

Your next step: Take my free, 3-day course to discover the systems and secrets I use to help world-class athletes perform at an elite level

If you found today’s article helpful, and you’re interested in learning more cutting-edge mental performance strategies, I’ve put together a free 3-day course that you’re going to love. 

In this course, you will learn how to:

  • Unlock your potential and make adversity your advantage by developing an elite mindset.
  • Become a machine of consistency by establishing the right performance routines and habits of excellence.
  • Get clarity on WHO you are, WHAT you want—and discover the behaviors you must start and stop to get the results you’ve been lacking.