The Power of Prime

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Sports: Psych-up Techniques

How do you psych up when you get down in a competition?

Though less common than overintensity, letdowns in intensity can also cause your level of performance to decline. A decrease in intensity causes all the things that enable you to perform well to disappear. Physically, you no longer have the blood flow, oxygen, and adrenaline necessary for the strength, agility, and stamina you need to perform your best. Mentally, you lose the motivation and focus that enables you to perform well. Just like psych-down techniques when your intensity is too high, you can use psych-up techniques to raise your intensity when it drops.

Intense breathing. Just as deep breathing can reduce intensity, intense breathing can increase it. If you find your intensity dropping, several hard exhales can take your body and your mind to a more intense level. It's a useful practice before a performance to take two intense breaths. In fact, I encourage you to make intense breathing a part of your training and competitive routines when you're intensity goes down.

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Move your body. Remember that intensity is, most basically, physiological activity. The most direct way to increase intensity is with physical action. In other words, move. Walk or run around, jump up and down. Anything to get your heart pumping and your body going will raise your intensity.

High-energy self-talk. One of the main causes of drops in intensity is letdown thoughts. Thinking to yourself, "I've got this won," "The game is over," or "I can't win this," will all result in your intensity decreasing because your mind is sending messages to your body that it no longer needs to perform. When this happens, you can be sure your performance will decline. When you start to have these thoughts, you need to replace them with high-energy self-talk. Self-talk such as "Keep attacking," "Close it out," and "Stay pumped" will keep you motivated and focused, and your body will respond with more intensity.

Intensity keywords. Just as you can use keywords to lower intensity, they can also be used to counter letdowns and to psych yourself up. Saying intensity keywords such as "Charge" and "Hustle" with conviction and energy will raise your intensity and generate positive thoughts and emotions that will enable you to perform your best.

High-energy body language. It's difficult using high-energy self-talk and intensity keywords without also having high-energy body language. Pumping your fist or slapping your thigh will also get you fired up and will increase your intensity.

Music. Music has a profound physiological and emotional impact on us. Music can be used to raise your intensity and get you psyched up and motivated. The over-all sensation of listening to high-energy music (e.g., rock, hip-hop) is a generalized sense of excitement and energy.

Key Competitive Situations

There are common competitive situations in which you can expect that your intensity will shift away from prime intensity. If you can identify these situations when they occur, you can more quickly take steps to prevent a change in intensity that may hurt your performance. These competitive situations usually relate to when you're either ahead or behind in a competition, or the competition is on the line.

Overintensity is most common in pressure situations such as in the finals of competitions or an overtime period. Anytime you believe that you must win a point or a game, your intensity will probably rise beyond your prime intensity. Focusing on the outcome, particularly on the possibility of failure, will cause you to feel anxiety that will likely hurt your performances.

Underintensity is seen most often in competitive situations where you believe that you have the competition won, for example, you have a big lead or time is running out, or you think you have no chance of achieving your goal. In the former case, you believe that you don't need to try any longer because you believe you have the victory in hand. In the latter case, you are giving up, so you're telling your body that it can relax now.

There is not, however, a consistent pattern in how intensity will change for all athletes. Athletes in the same competitive situation can experience different changes in intensity. For example, when within sight of winning, one athlete may have an increase in intensity and feel very nervous because she's never defeated her opponent before and doesn't totally believe that she can this time. While another athlete in the same situation might have a decrease in intensity and feel a letdown because she's already mentally in the locker room thinking about her next competition. You have to figure out how you typically react and then use the psych-up and psych-down techniques I described in this and the previous issue of Prime Sport Alert! to achieve and maintain prime intensity.

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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