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It's all in the Mind

Brian Mackenzie explains the techniques that will allow an athlete to relax and to focus their attention positively on the task of preparing for and participating in a competition.

The increased stress of competitions can cause athletes to react both physically and mentally in a manner, which can negatively affect their performance abilities. They may become tense, their heart rates race, they break into a cold sweat, worry about the outcome of the competition, find it hard to concentrate on the task at hand. This has led coaches to take an increasing interest in the field of sports psychology and in particular in the area of competitive anxiety. That interest has focused on techniques that athletes can use in the competitive situation to maintain control and optimise their performance. Once learned, these techniques allow the athlete to relax and to focus his/her attention positively on the task of preparing for and participating in a competition.

The 4C's

Concentration, confidence, control, and commitment (the 4C's) are generally considered to be the main mental qualities that are important for successful performance in most sports.

  • Concentration - ability to maintain focus
  • Confidence - believe in one's abilities
  • Control - ability to maintain emotional control regardless of distraction
  • Commitment - ability to continue working to agreed goals

The techniques of relaxation, centering, and mental imagery can assist an athlete in achieving the 4C's.


This is the mental quality to focus on the task at hand. If the athlete lacks concentration, then their athletic abilities will not be effectively or efficiently applied to the task. Research has identified the following types of attention focus:

  • Broad Narrow continuum - the athlete focuses on a large or small number of stimuli
  • Internal External continuum - the athlete focuses on internal stimuli (feelings) or external stimuli (ball)

The demand for concentration varies with the sport:

  • Sustained concentration - distance running, cycling, tennis, squash
  • Short bursts of concentration - cricket, golf, shooting, athletic field events
  • Intense concentration - sprinting events, bobsleigh, skiing

Common distractions are anxiety, mistakes, fatigue, weather, public announcements, coach, manager, opponent, negative thoughts, etc.

Strategies to improve concentration are very personal. One way to maintain focus is to set process goals for each session or competition. The athlete will have an overall goal for which the athlete will identify several process goals which help focus on specific aspects of the task. For each of these goals, the athlete can use a trigger word (a word which instantly refocuses the athlete's concentration to the goal), e.g. sprinting technique requires the athlete to focus on being tall, relaxed, smooth, and to drive with the elbows - trigger word could be "technique".

Athletes will develop a routine for a competition which may include the night before, the morning, pre-competition, competition, and post-competition routines. If these routines are appropriately structured, then they can prove a useful aid to concentration.


Confidence results from the comparison an athlete makes between the goal and their ability. The athlete will have self-confidence if they believe they can achieve their goal. (Comes back to a quote of mine - "You only achieve what you believe").

When an athlete has self-confidence, they will tend to: persevere even when things are not going to plan, show enthusiasm, be positive in their approach and take their share of the responsibility in success and fail.

To improve their self-confidence, an athlete can use mental imagery to:

  • visualise previous good performance to remind them of the look and feel
  • imagine various scenarios and how they will cope with them


Identifying when an athlete feels a particular emotion and understanding the reason for the feelings is an important stage of helping an athlete gain emotional control. An athlete's ability to maintain control of their feelings in the face of adversity and remain positive is essential to successful performance. Two emotions that are often associated with poor performance are anxiety and anger.

Anxiety comes in two forms - Physical (butterflies, sweating, nausea, needing the toilet) and Mental (worry, negative thoughts, confusion, lack of concentration). Relaxation is a technique that can be used to reduce anxiety.

When an athlete becomes angry, the cause of anger often becomes the focus of attention. This then leads to a lack of concentration on the task at hand, performance deteriorates, self-confidence in ability is lost, which fuels the anger - a slippery slope to failure.


Sports performance depends on the athlete being fully committed to numerous goals over many years. In competition with these goals, the athlete will have many aspects of daily life to manage. The many competing interests and commitments include work, studies, family/partner, friends, social life, and other hobbies/sports.

Within the athlete's sport, commitment can be undermined by:

  • a perceived lack of progress or improvement
  • not being sufficiently involved in developing the training program
  • not understanding the objectives of the training program
  • injury
  • lack of enjoyment
  • anxiety about performance - competition
  • becoming bored
  • coach and athlete not working as a team
  • lack of commitment by other athletes

Setting goals with the athlete will raise their feelings of value, give them joint ownership of the goals, and therefore become more committed to achieving them. All goes should be SMARTER.

Many people (coach, medical support team, manager, friends, etc.) can contribute to an athlete's levels of commitment with appropriate levels of support and positive feedback, especially during times of injury, illness, and poor performance.

The way forward

If I were to choose one of the 4C's to focus on initially, then it would be self-confidence. In my role as a coach, I find that my athletes are very highly motivated and so they tend to possess high levels of commitment and concentration and adequate levels of control. This article has been in the context of developing the athlete's mental approach and how their performance can be improved through an analysis of the 4C's. Coaches, you may find it very beneficial to apply the 4C's to your role as a coach.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (2003) It's all in the Mind. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 2 / June), p. 9-10

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (2003) It's all in the Mind [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Brian Mackenzie is a British Athletics level 4 performance coach and a coach tutor/assessor. He has been coaching sprint, middle distance, and combined event athletes for the past 30+ years and has 45+ years of experience as an endurance athlete.