How to Improve Athletic Performance

how to improve athletic performance

Athletic performance training extends beyond physical exercise. Your mental health is also crucial on your path to becoming a top performer. 

Just as physical fitness is essential for peak athletic performance, mental health plays an important role in maintaining focus, resilience, and emotional stability amidst the pressures of competition. 

In my coaching experience, I’ve found that athletes who prioritize their mental wellbeing are better equipped to manage stress, cope with setbacks, and maintain a positive mindset, all of which are vital for sustaining long-term success in their respective sports. Ultimately, recognizing and prioritizing mental health in athletics is essential for promoting holistic health and maximizing potential in sports for any individual.

The strategies below take practice—just like the time and practice you’ve put into your sport. The result? Improved athletic performance for your lifestyle, both on and off the field.

how to be a better athlete

[Image: Mikhail Nilov via Pexels—Practicing mindfulness can improve physical performance for athletes at all stages of life.]

Training Beyond the Gym

The playing field, track, or court isn’t where victories are truly won. Those are battlegrounds, yes, but it’s your mental preparation that determines if you leave them as a champion or if you fall short. 

Building up your mental toolkit isn’t a luxury. It takes time, determination, and consistency. Every athlete has triggers—moments where your inner critic drowns out your training—but you also have habits that put you in peak focus. Taking time to reflect and analyze what causes both and how you respond can help your journey forward.

Here’s how I approached my training outside the gym, and how you can do the same.

Focusing on Physical and Mental Gains

Many think visualization is just about imagining yourself lifting the trophy. That’s part of it, but to achieve your true potential, you need to go deeper. Envision yourself…

  • Overcoming challenges
  • Recovering from setbacks
  • Staying relentless even when it hurts

Beyond that, feel the emotion of that event. What will it feel like to win? To beat your opponent? To hold that trophy? These emotions are what drive us to keep going.

Focusing on the end goal isn’t only about seeing the wins. It’s also about programming yourself to react calmly and decisively even when those unexpected obstacles come up. 

And remember, visualization works best when you use all your senses. 

Engage sight, sound, touch. Hear the crowd, feel the adrenaline surge, picture your movements with clear precision. The more your visualizations come alive, the more deeply you prime both your body and mind for that level of performance in the real world. 

It works, and it’s backed by countless scientific studies.

Overcoming Mental Blocks

The toughest opponent you’ll ever face often isn’t the person across from you—it is you. 

Overcoming internal barriers of fear, self-doubt, or even burnout is essential, yet challenging because it requires deep introspection.

Start by dissecting what those fears are hiding. Fear of failure could be an easier excuse than admitting to a skill gap. Fear of change might be the discomfort of having to work hard in a new way. Naming your fears, honestly, dissolves their power over you and lets you address the actual root cause. 

Elite athletes don’t achieve greatness without setbacks. By analyzing these moments of failure objectively, you’ll gain valuable insights into areas that require improvement. 

If you’re looking to grow in both a personal and professional capacity, take your mistakes and turn them into valuable learning opportunities.

Mastering Performance Focus

Every single race I won, all 2,900+ of them, wasn’t decided on the track. It was decided in the minutes, days, even weeks leading up to it. 

Top athletes all have the physical training down already. Even average athletes know how to work out. But to consistently outperform opponents, it comes down to one thing that many athletes don’t know how to do: mastering focus under pressure. It’s something a gym setting alone can’t give you, no matter how much you train physically.

Pre-Performance Routines (PPRs)

PPRs aren’t about superstition; they’re about taking control before chaos hits. In racing, the pre-race environment can be chaotic, so I had to carve out my own zone of focus. For some, it’s the same warm-up playlist or another ritual that allows the mind to reset.

And you know what? These strategies actually work. You have to experiment and determine what works best for your performance style and mental space. It’s about getting you into that flow state where training takes over and fear gets muted. 

One of the most important factories is consistency. Committing to your pre-performance routine of choice for practice days and non-practice days wires in those triggers your body will respond to when it matters most. 

Some of the most accomplished athletes of our time stand by their routines. Take Kobe Bryant’s pre-game behavior, for instance. Locked in and focused, this is what a champion looks like. 

Maintaining Motivation

Everybody and every day is different. On occasion, I wasn’t motivated to stick with my  routines–this was most often after nasty injuries or crushing losses. What got me back in action? Reminding myself why I do what I do.

Find your purpose, visualize and write it down, and refer to it in those low points. If your reasons don’t excite you, your performance will reflect that. 

Small wins can keep the fire lit. Sometimes it’s not about a championship trophy, but that one skill or benchmark you’re focused on crushing. Use these tips to stay motivated:

  • Audit Your “Why”: Are you driven by trophies—or a deeper love of the sport/craft? Be honest and intentional as you reflect.
  • Visualize It: Maybe you’re living out a dream you had as a child—one that no one believed you would achieve. Write down what drives you, so that you can reconnect when passion wanes.
  • Remember That Micro-Wins Matter: Break down big goals into achievable steps. The regular dopamine kick of hitting those should keep you going.

Managing Your Ego

Winning brings ego. It’s inevitable. Let it drive you, but also channel it outwards. I won because of trainers, mentors, stablehands, and even those early competitors who raised my game. Recognizing that kept me from entitlement, which kills progress. 

There’s always something to learn from someone. Your win today can become their motivation to become better tomorrow—be generous with your knowledge, don’t hoard it. 

Becoming a Winner

Earning a trophy or medal is validating. I’ve won many, and I’m humbled when I think about how far I’ve come in my career.

Every technique I shared didn’t come from textbooks; it came from facing my own limits and overcoming them. You have that same ability to unlock your next level of performance. That’s what separates contenders from those who make history.

Your physical and mental wellness goals are unique to you. If you’re unsure about how to set these benchmarks or where to begin, mental performance coaching can help.