Optimizing performance: learning from elite, world-class athletes

By Col. London Richard
Air Force Special Operations Command

Elite athletes consistently perform at a higher level than those who are merely average. That seems intrinsically obvious. However, it is not just their ability to win more consistently, elite athletes prepare differently and optimize their performance through a combination of goal setting, visualization, self-talk and arousal control. Those same positive and adaptive cognitive behavioral strategies used by world-class competitors can be used to enhance success in the military.

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Goal setting involves setting your own performance objectives with a clear plan for how you will achieve them. Setting long-term goals keeps you focused on the big picture, while short and midterm goals guide and motivate you over time. Goals should also be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-sensitive.

Specific goals are clear and well-defined and can often be framed by answering the five “W’s”…who, what, when, where and why. Having measurable goals prevents frustration or burnout because you are able to assess progress over time. Goals should also be relevant and time-sensitive. An example of a SMART goal might be: “In order to improve my physical fitness, I will swim 1,000 meters in less than 20 minutes within 16 weeks,” while that broader plan will likely require smaller segmented goals in order to truly be achievable. Goal setting is critical to any successful endeavor because it helps to focus your attention, prioritize efforts, enhance persistence and develop effective learning strategies. Otherwise, suboptimal performance or outright failure is more likely as the person procrastinates or simply flies by the seat of their pants without a viable plan.

Visualization creates or recreates an experience in your mind. If you have ever seen an Olympic or professional athlete with their eyes closed prior to a competition, you are likely watching them relax and visualize. Skiers visualize themselves skiing the downhill run. Divers visualize the mechanics of their actions as they smoothly flow through the motions of diving into the water. Even elite aviation acrobatic teams like the Air Force Thunderbirds use visualization.

Mental imagery is a proven skill for increasing the probability of success. You literally rehearse and practice the action before doing so in competition or real life. It is important to involve all your senses and make the images as realistic as possible. That way when the skills are physically accomplished, you have already realistically done them in your mind many times before. More than 90 percent of professional athletes use visualization. However, there is a cautionary note. Although you may occasionally include alternate outcomes and how you might respond, it is important to visualize success and not failure.

Self-talk influences success or failure in any sport, profession or activity. Thus, interpret yourself and your performance in a positive and adaptive manner. Individuals who berate themselves, their team, or their own performance through negative dialogue create frustration, fear or self-doubt which takes your attention away from things that matter. Anger, fear and depression also reduce performance by changing mental and physical arousal/physiology for the worse.

Physiology is everything, especially in sports or activities where achieving an Ideal Performance State is critical. An IPS is the point of optimal, physical and mental arousal where you perform at your best. Positive self-talk is not the same as arrogance or naïve optimism. It simply reflects a conscious decision to flood yourself with positive, nurturing, performance-enhancing thoughts that change mental and physical arousal for the better.

The last component of performance optimization involves arousal control. Elite athletes effectively manage their physiological arousal to enhance performance and strive towards their IPS, which incidentally varies depending upon the person and the sport or activity being accomplished. Some people perform better at different arousal states, and some sports also require divergent levels of arousal. Even within the same sport, different levels of arousal are indicated.

Arousal control also entails managing the physiological effects of your stress reaction, so learning effective stress management strategies is important. Deep breathing and muscle control are two ways to control arousal. When you are angry, afraid or stressed, your breathing becomes faster and shorter, while your muscles become tense. Those reactions can adversely affect your performance and take you away from your IPS, but changing your breathing so it becomes slow and deep takes back control and optimizes performance. The same is true as we consciously relax our muscles. Remember, if you do not control your stress response, it will control you.

We can learn a lot from elite athletes, whether competing in sports or engaging in high-demand activities on and off duty. As world-class athletes themselves, our elite Special Tactics operators already understand that concept. We must hone and develop skills over time to improve or master them. Additionally, personal capabilities and competencies are perishable, so if you don’t practice them on a regular basis, your skills will quickly degrade.

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Optimizing performance: learning from elite, world-class athletes