How to Train Your Brain for Mental Toughness

5 Quick Tips To Increase Performance & Mental Toughness Starting Today

High school basketball coach Mitch Woods began working with Kathy Feinstein after the girls' basketball team suffered a crushing defeat in the 2008 season. The girls lost a regional match to a team they should have handily beaten—and had already beaten three times that year. “Really, the majority of that was a mental breakdown because we were clearly the better team that entire year,” said Woods.

During his interview, Woods looked at a laminated index card that was a part of the training. On one side is a photo of the 2009 Community School of Naples girls’ basketball team and the other side had a handful of sayings such as:

Refuse to lose. Leave nothing. A championship team is a team of champions.

Woods' team tapped into the challenge to win, by using these mantras along with a handful of other skills as part of a mental training regime by Naples sports psychologist Kathy Feinstein. It was a successful enterprise: Woods credits the mental skills they built that year with winning the state championships in both 2009 and 2011.

What is Mental Training?

As noted in Fit Nation magazine, "like Olympians, elite athletes and even weekend warriors, Woods discovered that mental training yields consistent positive results. But it’s an underused tool, especially in high schools."

Mental training is a way to approach our sports by controlling the attitudes we bring to practice and games. With a great mental training regime, you can reach peak performance and avoid the mental roadblocks you put in your own path such as performance anxiety of negative self-talk or even just 'psyching' yourself out.

“People come to see me because there’s some kind of a struggle,” says Kathy Feinstein, the Naples-based mental health counselor, who specializes in sports and exercise psychology, who worked with Woods and his girls’ basketball team in 2009.

“Like for instance an athlete [with] performance anxiety—performing one way in practice but they are paralyzed when they get out on the court," said Feinstein.

As featured in the Fit Nation article, here are 5 pieces of expert advice to train your brain alongside your body:

Get Ahold of Your Goals

Goal setting seems like an easy thing. You want to get a PR. You want to drop 10 pounds. You want to lead your team to win the championship. Goal set. Right?

What happens to that lofty goal when you face adversity? “The first couple of weeks you’re really gung ho, the third week you’re really hungry and tired and it’s difficult to maintain the motivation,” says Feinstein. “Just expect it isn’t going to be perfect.”

Rediscovering that initial enthusiasm can be easier by going deeper into why you want to achieve that particular goal. “There’s a lot more depth than you at first think.”

For example, you may want to run your fastest 5-k to date. “At first you want to have that sense of accomplishment,” Feinstein says. The trick is to ask why again. “I want that accomplishment because it’s on my bucket list. It’s on my bucket list because no one in my family has ever done it,” she says.

But how far do you go? “When you start to get to an emotional response then you know you’re kind of there.” Don’t be surprised if you’re responding to a bullying experience in the first grade as an adult—it’s a powerful tool to want to transform that old feeling.

Next, set your process goals—the “how” of your goal. Maybe it’s adding speed work, increasing workouts, improving nutrition or working on your mental game (more on that later).

And when you’ve hammered out your goal and the steps you’ll take—forget the goal.

“It’s important to set that outcome goal and then let it got a little bit, so you can focus on what you need to do each day to reach that outcome goal,” says Feinstein.

Be in the Moment

Meditation and it’s practical cousin, mindfulness, are making waves all over the place—from Oprah to Capitol Hill (where Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan is trying to get the government to bring mindfulness to the masses) to the basketball court where Kobe Bryant has talked about using meditation before big games. Even LeBron James is doing yoga.

Mindfulness and meditation reinforces those process goals you set. Feinstein advocates we all meditate, but that word can sometimes make people worry, so she doesn’t even call it meditation. “Working with middle school athletes, I talk about focused breathing. The sensation on the coolness on the inhale or the warmth on the exhale or the belly going in and out. Allow their mind to wander and then bring their thought back to the breath.”

When the mind wanders, don’t judge it, she says, just gently come back to the breath. This trains your brain to focus, so when you’re competing and your mind wanders to negative thoughts, you know how to get back to the present moment.

Listen to Your Thoughts

On the topic of the mind wandering—which you may realize happens constantly when you start meditating—it’s important to take note of the places the mind is wandering to, especially while you’re competing or training in your sport.

“Develop an awareness of your self-talk, [like doing] a formal assessment after a performance. What went well, what were you doing, what did you learn and what do you want to do differently next time. What triggers there were. Develop a pattern so you can develop some sort of plan.”

Let’s say you’ve been working on your mindfulness or meditating, and you realize that, for example, while you’re on a run, you keep telling yourself you’re tired. Or you’re lazy. Or you’re never going to beat your last 5-k time.

First, acknowledge the thought, but then change the self-talk, says Feinstein. “Creating a confidence inventory of support of why you can achieve this goal can be really beneficial.” Look at the things you’ve already accomplished in the past—whether it’s losing weight or running a super-fast split or getting up every day at 5 a.m. to train.

Woods says the team worked together to make all those aforementioned slogans on the index card for the basketball team—things that meant something to them. And they revisited them over and over again to be able to remember those process goals they needed to work on to win.

But don’t be surprised when the negativity busts in again. “That’s where really sitting down and setting a meditation practice is important,” Feinstein says, because you can get back to the present moment over and over (and over) again.

See Yourself Doing It

“This is the fun part,” says Feinstein. Some call it visualization, and some call in imagery, but any way you slice it, imagining yourself at your goal is a powerful tool for your brain.

That’s because your brain is wired to believe its self-conjured images.“When you put an image in your brain with what you want, something called the reticular activating system works as a filter. [It] helps you pay attention to all the things that will make that happen,” says Feinstein.

And here’s where it gets really interesting. Visualization can increase your skills without any practicing whatsoever. Feinstein says an Australian psychologist, Alan Richardson, ran a study that measured free-throw ability in basketball.

He selected three random groups. The first group practiced free throwing for 20 days. The second group only practiced free throws twice in the 20-day study. The third group practiced only twice in 20 days, but visualized making successful free throw shots for 20 minutes each day for the course of the study.

After establishing a baseline, Feinstein says the study found the first group improved 24 percent, the second group didn’t improve, and the third group—the one who visualized daily—improved 23 percent, almost as much as the group that actually practiced.

Feinstein suggests visualizing right before bed. With her clients, she creates a recording that they can listen to. The important part is to be vivid.

“Let’s say you’re running. Imagine what you look like, what you feel like, what you’re smelling. Use all your senses. What it feels like to push through and finishing and what it feels like when you cross that finish line. Your brain doesn’t really know the difference between what’s real and what’s imagined,” says Feinstein.

Putting Your Mind to It

It sounds too good to be true—that imagining yourself slim, strong and a champion can just poof you into one. Feinstein cautions that mental training is actually pretty tough work. The good news is, athletes are used to hard work.

“People will spend a lot of time practicing the physical part of our sports, but then they don’t focus on the mental. It requires the same effort as our physical training. It takes a lot of energy to just develop an awareness of what we’re doing while we’re training and realize, oh my gosh, I’m beating myself up. And then the energy to recognize it and then the energy to change it. It’s a process,” she says.

And our brain is working against us, because it’s designed to keep the status quo. To take the “shortest cut and be the most energy efficient—to do what its always done,” she says. So, Feinstein suggests working through your mental training plan with a buddy.

“It is two people setting goals and being accountable and checking in. You can talk about what got in the way,” she says. Maybe you need to change up your self-talk while you run. Maybe you need your buddy to gently tell you that you’re not following your plan, without judgment.

Which is exactly what the team from the Community School did. Each team member worked on their individual mental training, while also holding their teammates accountable for keeping their heads in the game. In the end the edge the girls had may have been in their head—but the two state titles, well those were real.

Read more about Kathy Feinstein's work with the High School Basketball team and see more expert advice on mental training featured in Fit Nation Magazine.