Your memories create the stage for every life interpretation. When you experience a life event, you first rely on a similar memory experience to decide how you will respond. Essentially, your memories of events and how you perceived those events determine how you will choose to perceive and respond to a current event.

For example, if you are feeling good at the beginning of a game, your memory might indicate that you are poised to have a great game; subsequently, you expect that you’ll have a great game. Even small mistakes or missteps do not seem to deter your expectation of a great game. In the end, you have a great game.

Then why don’t you feel that way more often so that you experience positive performances more frequently? It is a valid question, so let’s examine further.

Where Does Your Brain Spend
Its Time And Energy?

Your brain spends two-thirds of its time and resources working to detect potential threats to your survival. Your brain is constantly looking for threats. It is trying to protect you, but in the process your brain tends to ignore or minimize happy events because they offer no significant survival benefits. In fact, your brain is so focused on detecting threats that it confuses life events that simply pose a challenge and instead perceives them as threats.

Worse yet, your brain immediately stores past negative experiences into your long-term memory, while positive memories have to persevere for longer periods to garner space in your long-term memory. In short, not only does your brain spend its waking moments seeking potentially negative and threatening information, it doesn’t naturally value positive memories as greatly because they offer less importance to your survival.

Your Memories Are NOT Always
Your Best Friends

Best friends offer support and remind you that everything will be OK even during difficult times. Your brain, on the other hand, isn’t as concerned about your feelings. It is more focused on ensuring your survival and will bring negative memories forward in an attempt to protect you. Your brain doesn’t distinguish between a genuine threat and the challenge of competition that results being behind on the scoreboard, making mistakes or playing poorly. In fact, during a game, when the pressure rises and winning is on the line, your brain naturally reflects on past failures, and you feel threatened.

When you perceive a threat, your muscles tighten, your breathing constricts and your attention focuses on the perceived threat. Subsequently, your body tightens and you lose focus on the challenge of playing your best. Then the situation can get really ugly.

OK, so the game goes south, and you lose. Time to move on, forget that game and focus on the next one. Not so fast! This is how slumps begin.

Your Worst Performances
Are Front and Center

It is nearing game time. You are working to concentrate on the game. Where do you think your mind naturally takes you? What are the pervading thoughts? They go something like this: “I hope I play better than the last game.” I don’t want to repeat those same mistakes.” “I need to play better this game.” These seem pretty harmless, right?

NO! In fact, they’re really focused on the memories from the last game and all of the feeling associated with the memory. You may recall, from the earlier paragraph, that the memory creates the stage for your interpretation of the current event, or in this case, your upcoming game. You are really dwelling on the things that went wrong, which increases the pressure to succeed and places your body in a position to fail.

Remember, when you perceive a threat or pressure, your muscles tighten, your breathing constricts and your focus is on the perceived threat; in this case, another bad game. This is exactly how the downward spiral or slump begins, and it all started because of your brain’s natural tendency to recall threats in an effort to protect you.

How Can You Train The Brain?

It is important to realize the role that your brain plays in your performance. You need to become aware of the thoughts that fly through your brain. This can be accomplished through mindful awareness of what you think and how you perceive events as they occur. Becoming cognizant takes a little time and training, but it is an important first step in self-control during competition.

You also need to employ counter tactics to recognize the difference between real threats and the challenge of competition. Some of these counter tactics should include recalling positive memories prior to your game, mindfulness training and thought reframing or management. All of these counter tactics can be achieved through visualization, meaning you can train your brain through visualization to counter and manage perceived threats that occur during competition.

Bottom Line

When you visualize or imagine yourself in a competition, your brain does not differentiate what you imagine from your memories. In short, when you imagine yourself managing stress in competition, your brain — with training — stores the information much the same as it would if the event had occurred.

Visualization training can prepare you to handle the emotional roller coaster of competition by staying mindful and focused on your best memories. Most importantly, with visualization you can manage your brain’s threat detection system.