Muscles and raw talent alone won’t serve up a maximum bench press, faster sprint times or winning goals and touchdowns. That’s because every game or workout is won in your mind long before it’s won on the field.

However, sports psychology is set to a hair trigger because there’s a fine line between psyching yourself up and psyching yourself out.


The science behind it

To fully understand how this brand of head shrinking works it’s best to boil it down into its smallest components, which is best described by the work of Japanese scientist Masaru Emoto.

He studied the molecular structure of water when it was subjected to different conditions, namely: words, pictures or music. The results were extraordinary because the water exposed to positive thoughts, words or music transformed into symmetrical, complex structures while the water exposed to negative thoughts, words or music was electrochemically disorientated, distorted and disjointed.

If you consider that your body is made up of around 70% water then it’s easy to see how psychology and slightly offbeat sports performance-enhancing tools can be highly effective.

That said, one wrong step you can derail all your progress, so it’s important to know how to exploit your brain and make valuable decisions on a day-to-day basis. That way, when match-day arrives or when you want to hit a new PB, your body and brain will be hardwired for success.


Visualize your success

What happens out on the field or in the gym is a result of what happens in your head.

Sadly, visualization isn’t always the cakewalk everyone makes it out to be because it’s not easy tidying up the clutter bouncing around your noodle. Work, your spouse or family have the ability to draft untold happiness into your life, but they also come with a healthy dose of thoughtfulness.

Of course, mindfulness is perfectly normal, yet it can be hard to give your brain the breathing space it needs to play out a future exercise scenario in your head.

To clear the clutter there are two well respected ways for successful visualization. “First, it’s better to keep it constant by visualizing for 10 minutes a day rather than for two hours once a week,” says Ross visualizations, psychological sports coach and neuro-linguistic programmer.

“You should make everything as vivid as possible, attaching emotions to the scenario you’re playing out. Next, stay positive and visualize what you do want rather than what you don’t want.”

Choose wisely before choosing your visualization subjects and stop if you go off on a tangent.


Active visualization

You don’t just have to visualize in a quiet meditation-like room before training – you can do it while exercising. This is especially useful if you’re working the muscles at the back of your body.

Think about areas such as your glutes, lats or hamstrings, which aren’t something that glare at you in the mirror, unless you’re scoping out the fit of your new Levi’s.

This can leave your brain feeling somewhat removed from their existence. So to maximize their work rate you can forge a mind-muscle link by imagining these muscles flexing and relaxing when you train them – close your eyes if you have to.

It may sound like hocus-pocus, but research in the journal Neuropsychologia found this increased the amount gym rats could lift by 13.5%. Proof that a sharp mind can create even sharper muscles.


Trick yourself fitter

Your mind is an incredibly powerful tool and even mightier than a surgeon’s scalpel if you consider that research published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that arthroscopic knee surgery was no better than placebo surgery in a randomized controlled trial.

In this study, 180 patients with knee pain received either real surgery, where cartilage debris was removed, or simulated surgery, in which small incisions were made without inserting instruments or removing cartilage.

Two years afterwards patients in both groups reported the same improvements in pain, and at certain points during this time the subjects who received the sham-surgery actually had better outcomes. This is proof the placebo effect is real and a highly exploitable feather in your sports psychology cap.

So if you train with a partner then forge a mutual agreement about being dishonest regarding the amounts you’re both lifting. If you’re doing big exercises (squats, bench presses, deadlifts) then get your training partner to be a little vague about how much weight you’re lifting, especially during drop sets where there are likely to be several small plates on a barbell. So if you’ve got your one-rep maximum on the bar of 220lb, have them tell you it’s only 110lb.

You’ll be surprised how this will help drive more reps out of your muscles. The trick is to only tell each other at the end of the workout which sets were truthful.

This will also work for endurance athletes looking to clock off more mileage. A little bit of deception can lead to very honest results.


Learn to fight your off-button

When you feel as if you’ve reached the point of no return your body often has plenty more juice in the tank and research in the British Journal of Sports Medicine has pinpointed where that stop order comes from.

“Our brains turn on the pain before we actually run out of fuel,” says study author Dr Tim Noakes. This is your built-in safety net because your brain tells the body to shut down to protect it from injury.

But champion sports people have figured out how to fool the brain and slave-drive their bodies into doing more, even after the brain says no.

Research in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences found that people’s expectations about the pain they’re about to receive reduced the pain ratings by 28%, which they equated to a shot of morphine.

Expectations of decreased pain powerfully reduced both the subjective experience of pain and the activation of the pain hot spots in the subjects’ brains as seen via brain scans. This proves that your brain allows expectations of pain to shape the processing of actual pain signals.

So if you’ve earmarked a gruesomely steep hill for an interval training workout or plan on doing a CrossFit-style circuit then taking the time to prepare yourself for pain will actually make your efforts feel easier.


Surround yourself with good people

Even athletes involved in individual sports such as golf or MMA have huge support networks these days. When they win they never give props to themselves because they know their trainers, nutritionists and practice partners have all played their part.

And even if you’re a one-man wolf pack, this is a strategy worth adopting on the eve of a big competitive event such as a marathon, fight or match.

Positive people in your home camp make an enormous difference because research at the University of Exeter, UK, found that encouraging words from friends and family boosted athletes’ confidence during stressful situations.


Find health and fitness advice and more in every issue of TRAIN magazine.