by Michael F. Roizen, M.D & Mehmet C. Oz, M.D.
Q: I’m just as impressed by the mental focus of elite athletes as I am by their physical prowess. What types of mental tricks do elite-level athletes use that I can tailor for my own not-so-elite tennis game or to improve my running time?
A: You guessed it: Mental focus is key to the success of elite athletes. In fact, the motto of Mark Verstegen, the founder and president of one of our favorite training centers, Athletes’ Performance, is “Every day is game day”—in other words, every day you have to consciously commit to performing at the highest level.
For a weekend (or weeknight!) warrior like you, that means thinking daily—even when you’re sitting behind your desk, counting down the hours until you can hit the court or the running trail—about what you can do to maximize your health and physical performance. It might be remembering to stash healthy snacks in the office fridge and actually eating them, even when the vending-machine Doritos are calling your name; setting an alarm on your Outlook calendar to get up and stretch or walk around once an hour (and following through on it instead of hitting “Dismiss”); or resisting that last 11:30 p.m. email check to make sure you get a great night’s sleep.
One mental trick that may also boost your performance is visualizing or imagining positive physical outcomes. A study from the Cleveland Clinic found that while people who worked out saw an increase in physical strength, people who performed “mental” workouts (i.e., imagining themselves doing the moves) actually saw about half as much improvement as those who exercised, without ever lifting a finger (and for comparison, the control group that didn’t work out either physically or mentally saw zero strength increase). So while we don’t suggest you trade in a real workout for an imaginary one, spending some time visualizing your tennis game or your run—visualizing success—may actually help improve your game or running time.