• Joe Puentes, Psy.D.

What I wish I knew as a student athlete that I know now as a Sport Psychologist.

Updated: Aug 5, 2019




Studying, training and now practicing in the field of Sport and Performance Psychology has certainly changed my life for the better. I love what I do and WOW have the concepts and skills benefitted my performance under pressure and so many of those I have worked with. My passion now is teaching what I call this gold mine of information to others so they can find their gold nuggets and cash them in for their own riches.


I would do about anything to go back in time and know what I know now as a Sport Psychologist and be able to use it in my prime as a high school and college athlete. I would have 1) performed better, 2) struggled less, and 3) had a lot more fun competing. Below I’ve summarized the top 7 performance tips that would have helped me enormously back then, that I fortunately get to share with you now. Be a gold miner in this article, find the most valuable pieces that work for you, put them to work and then reap the rewards in your own performance!


1. Stop wasting so much energy on overthinking results.

All the time that goes into over-analyzing stats, comparing records, worrying about averages, looking at rankings, all of it is essentially a waste of precious energy. If someone could have told me, first, STOP IT, it doesn’t help actually make you perform better to focus on those things, and second, take even a percentage of that time and energy and put it into quality practice, it would have made a monumental difference in my life. Instead, now I know peak performance comes from focusing on what you can control, your preparation, your effort, your attitude, your composure in the face of adversity, your competitiveness. These are what truly increase your likelihood of success and are much more rewarding because you actually have influence over them.


2. The conversation you have with yourself in your head matters.

Step back and observe the actual conversation in your head around your performance. If you had to write down what you heard, what would it say? Athletes who struggle with this tell me their self-talk leading up to an event locks them up and has them battling inside of their head rather than on the field against the opponent. Problematic self-talk includes self-criticism (beating yourself up), catastrophizing (fearing the worst), and blaming yourself or others (poor me or this is not fair). Having thoughts like these pop into our head is one thing, but feeding them, as if somehow they will magically make things better is not effective in improving performance. Instead, fill your head with realistically positive and optimistic thoughts, i.e. “I got this,” “I’m calm, confident and ready,” “I want this,” or “I’ve competed tough before and I can do it again.” I recommend filling an athlete’s journal with quotes, mantras, lyrics, just positive, inspiring, motivating stuff to review before competition. If you want great performances to come out, you have to put great things in, both physically and mentally.


3. There is an optimal amount of how fired up to get for performance.

There is a lot of science behind this one and could be a blog post all its own, but I’ll keep it short here. Performance science has shown that there is a relationship between physiological arousal (how fired up you are) and your performance. We measure this by heart rate, rate of breathing and muscle tension. Not fired up enough, or more common, too fired up (aka overly anxious or angry) is not ideal for your brain and body functioning in sport. We perform our best in what is called our optimal zone of arousal. Core Sport Psychology skills such as deep breathing, positive self-talk, focusing, and visualization help athletes get into the optimal zone when they find themselves out of it. In summary, you need to be fired up for performance, but too much is not ideal. Having a plan for getting back into the zone if you find yourself out of it, taking even one or two good deep breaths, gives you yet another competitive advantage.


4. Real improvement happens 1% at a time, otherwise it is just wishful thinking.

This one, above all others, has me wishing I could go back in time. I really, REALLY wanted to be better when I competed but ended up spending more time wishing I was, rather than putting in the high-quality practice it takes to get to the next level. I wanted overnight change and big jumps in success and when that didn’t happen I became discouraged. I wish someone could have told me what I know now, real positive change happens one rep, one set, one practice, one day, one week at a time. Progress happens in what you are doing right now, right in front of you, the next 1% step that is reachable. Grind now, shine later. You win championships in the postseason but you earn them today.


5. Deep breathing and positive imagery are secret weapons.

I truly was a skeptic of doing things like these when I competed. I thought just toughness and competitiveness alone could get me through. While those are important, I’ve come to realize that being mentally trained, knowing how to use breathing and imagery, can take performance to the next level and be a competitive advantage. Fortunately, I was taught and then led through breathing and positive imagery exercises in graduate school and the light bulb went on. Now I use it and teach it all the time. By the way, these two tools are free, easily accessible and supported by research. There are some really cool ways to use them before and during competition and I love to teach clients how in our meetings. Most athletes though can start to benefit today, right now, by practicing taking deep breaths when it makes sense and imagining performing at your best before competition.

  • Check out two examples of relaxation and positive imagery here: PPC YouTube.


6. Hardly anything improves performance more reliably and consistently than sufficient quality sleep.

Yaaaaaawwwwwwn. For those of you that already know you should get more sleep, you probably hate seeing this reminder and just want to pass it over. DON’T! Why put in so much time and effort to get ready to compete and then potentially sabotage it by watching one more episode or dinking around on your phone for one more hour? The science is there to back this up. If you are serious about improving your performance and you don’t carve out enough time for sleep, start here. Don’t believe me? Look into it, find out what the most elite athletes and pros have to say about sleep. As far as I can tell its unanimous. Want to perform like an elite athlete? Prioritize sleep.


BONUS CHALLENGE: Get good sleep, every day, for one week. See the results for yourself.


7. Positive change is not linear but has loops that are essential for next-level growth.

Lastly, this is the tip that clients tell me more than any other concept, has the most long term benefit to their performance mindset. Change does not happen in a straight line over time. Positive growth naturally happens with loops in it. The key is not to panic in loops but instead to look for the growth opportunity. What can you learn and gain from the setback? Over time, the athletes that come to recognize challenges and performance dips as part of the necessary process of improvement, spend less time worrying, suffering and doubting and more time focusing on what is needed to move forward. That starts to add up over years of training and separates the good from the great from the elite.


Challenge: Identify 1-2 "gold nuggets" from the article (something you found valuable), write them down, and then go implement them, starting in small ways, in your life. You have to put these to work, for them to work for you.


Thank you for checking out the blog and congrats on taking one more step toward improving your performance.


Next step: Want to dive deeper? If you think you or someone you know would benefit from one on one Sport Psychology services, contact us to set up a free consultation at (707) 596 - 8280 or email at info@performancepsychologycenter.com.

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