Top 5 Most Mentally Challenging Sports
In all the years of working with athletes, it has become apparent what the top 5 most mentally challenging sports are. The biggest factor in making this assessment is the number of places or moments when negative mental demons can pop up and enter the mind. While it may be apparent that most of the top 5 are probably individual sports, what may be surprising is the team sport that is in the #5 position.
Why individual sports are so mental
There’s no one else to rely on in individual sports. There’s no one else to blame. Total responsibility of the performance is based on the individual doing the work. If the day goes well, the individual has done well. However, if the day goes poorly, the individual has done poorly. All of this causes an astronomical amount of pressure, as well as, many other mental challenges – increase in anxiety and negativity, and decline in confidence to name a few. These are just a few of the the key mental elements that can destroy a performance.
Recognize the key moments that make or break your performance
In individual sports, the athlete is solely responsible for mental and physical performance which creates a lot of pressure and on top of that, there are a lot more moments during performances for negative mental demons to show up. For most athletes, nerves, stress, or anxiety start the night before a competitive event. Those nerves continue into the next morning and then into (at least) the start of the event. Because individual sports can start and stop multiple times over a period of time, it leaves the opportunity for negative mental demons to creep in to the most critical moments. With all of this, there is more time for overanalyzing and overthinking.
The top 5 most mentally challenging sports
In my experience over years of being an athlete, competing, spectating, and now working with elite athletes all over the world, there appear to be five sports that require the most mental toughness, the most mentally challenging persistence, and the most mental training to control one’s game and experience peak performance.
Most swimmers fall into what I call the 7-day self-sabotage cycle. Seven days before a meet, they are already doubting and stressing about their competition. You can imagine how big the nerves can get and can compound over and over each day. The good news is that swimmers can break this cycle and lessen the nerves so that on the day of they are present for the competition and ready to perform their best. To get here though, they have to minimize the nerves the night before, pre-meet, swim starts, and in-between races with creative and personal routines. And then, they also need a productive way to evaluate each race and their overall performance to further grow and master their skills.
Gymnasts are very similar to swimmers. They fall prey to the 7-day self-sabotage cycle so we work on very similar things in very similar areas to swimmers.
Some tennis players struggle with the sabotage and the nerves a week before a tournament. The areas where most tennis players struggle with are before a match, pre-serve, and a way to reset, refocus, and let go of mistakes between each ball. Tennis players can also strengthen their control in these areas and in turn, decrease anxiety and negativity, and increase confidence. Like swimmers and gymnasts, tennis players also need a space and time to evaluate their performance so they can grow.
Golfers handle their perceived stress very similar to tennis players and we work on similar things: pre-round routine and pre-shot routine, and evaluating their performance. But one big difference where golfers struggle is a way to deal with unoccupied time between holes and each ball.
Baseball? Baseball also has a lot of downtime – waiting to go to bat and waiting for the next batter. And pitchers who are waiting to take the mound have a tremendous amount of pressure and too much time to think. This downtime leaves room for doubt to creep in and take over. Not all team sports have as much downtime as baseball unless an athlete is sitting the bench. The mental toughness baseball players require is a combination of all of the above: stopping the 7-day self-sabotage cycle, minimizing nerves (doubt) the night before and morning of, developing a pre-batting routine, practicing ways to reset and refocus, letting go of mistakes between plays, and productive ways for them to evaluate their performance.
Link up physical training with mental training
All sports are physical and all sports are mental. No sport is void of mental toughness. Every athlete needs mental training for their specific environment. While this is true, individual sports tend to be ‘more mental’ in nature than most team sports. In team sports, there are others to rely on to pick you up when you are down but in individual sports that’s (generally) not the case. Not only is there not others to rely on which places the performance on you alone but there’s a lot of stopping and starting in most individual sports which lends to overthinking and overanalyzing performance. With the right mental skills, any negative mental demons can be dealt with and managed to create an environment for optimal success.