Let your imagination run wild.
One of the most popular mental skills techniques is imagery training, where athletes picture themselves executing key plays — driving a soccer ball toward a goal or reeling off a flawless dive — in the hours, days, weeks and months before a big competition while calling the sounds, smells and atmosphere of competition to mind.
When Dr. Hacker worked with the 2018 women’s Olympic ice hockey team, she had them repeatedly imagine specific moves they’d need to perform in competition. To make this mental rehearsal more realistic, Dr. Hacker sometimes asked players to do it at the arena while wearing their uniforms, gripping onto their sticks, and inhaling the smell of the ice rink — but not necessarily moving their bodies.
Regular practice of this type of sensory-based imagery technique, some studies suggest, can in some cases improve sport performance as much as a similar amount of physical practice — without putting any strain on the body.
If you have an upcoming challenge, like giving a speech, you can use this strategy by imagining yourself reeling off the talk from start to finish, incorporating as many sensory details as you can. What will it feel like to stand on the podium? What kinds of sounds will you hear in the auditorium?
Stress yourself out — on purpose.
Mental skills coaches might also devise “pressure training” regimens that induce the anxiety athletes will face in competition. “I’ve worked with teams where we just pump in this chaotic music during practice,” Mr. Alexander said. “They have to figure out how to work together when they can’t hear the coach’s voice.” Likewise, Dr. Hacker sometimes assigns soccer players kicking drills on an impossibly tiny square of field to get them feeling mentally ready for tough game day ball-handling.
In a small study of college-aged golfers, those who practiced putting under higher-pressure conditions — while being filmed, for example — performed better than those who practiced without any pressure.
To create your own pressure training plan, find ways to ratchet up your stress levels as you prepare. Anxious to nail a crucial work presentation? Do a few practice runs in front of a group of colleagues. Prepping for a tense chat with a family member? Role-play the chat with a friend beforehand — and ask them to make provocative remarks so you can hone your response.