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5 Tips for Building Mental Stamina

WebMD Feature

Watching the Olympics, we're all awed by the athletes' bodies -- the perfect physiques of gods and goddesses. But one of their greatest assets is something you can't see -- their mental stamina.

"Athletes can get far on raw physical ability," says Robert E. Corb, PhD, a psychologist and director of the Sports Psychology Program at UCLA. "But what separates the truly elite from the rest is that they know how to use their minds."

You can build up mental stamina with training, just like physical strength, experts say. It also has many uses. "Mental stamina skills aren't only for athletes," Corb says. They can help musicians, actors, writers, or anyone who needs to perform, he tells WebMD.

How can you build up your mental stamina before your next race -- or presentation at work? Here are tips for Olympic athletes and office workers alike.

1. Think Positively

"Self-confidence is probably the most important mental characteristic that athletes need," says Corb. Self-confidence doesn't just stem from physical ability. We've all seen highly-skilled athletes who lose their self-confidence and fall apart.

How do you get more self-confidence? Corb urges people to listen to what they're saying to themselves -- maybe not even consciously. "If you keep saying, 'I'll never be able to do this,' before a marathon, then you won't be able to do it," says Corb. "If you say something enough to yourself, you'll make it true."

Corb stresses that building self-confidence is a mental exercise that you can practice. Listen to what you're saying about yourself. If what you hear is negative, correct it. Consciously think more positive thoughts.

In time, interrupting negative thoughts and replacing them with positive ones will have a real effect on your athletic performance -- and overall outlook, Corb says.

2. Use Visualization

Visualization is a common technique for handling stress. When you're overwhelmed, imagining yourself in a calm, soothing place for a few minutes can help you manage the stress. Athletes use it in other ways.

"Some athletes use visualization right before a game to practice mentally," says David Geier, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon and director of Sports Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina. A basketball player might close his eyes and think about what a free throw will look like. A sprinter might imagine the gun going off and the first few steps. Visualization can give you a mental space to rehearse.

Corb suggests another type of visualization. "I tell people to visualize past achievements," he says. "It's almost like a highlight reel that you play back in your mind. Focus on times you felt really good, and remember that feeling." It can give you a real boost, he says.

3. Plan for Setbacks

If you're a marathon runner, there are times when you'll hit the wall. If you're a golfer, you'll make a bad shot sometimes. These things happen. What really matters is what you do afterwards.

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