For elite athletes, fitness fanatics and gym goers, having the right frame of mind is the best way to achieve the perfect performance. The highest level of intrinsic motivation is know as flow. Flow is described as the complete immersion in an activity to the point in which nothing else matters. Hungarian psychologist Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, lead psychologist in the concept of flow, claims that flow occurs when there is a perfect match between the perceived demands of the activity, and the perceived ability to meet the demands.

During flow, you lose self-consciousness and become completely immersed in the activity. This then creates a state in which the performer is intrinsically rewarded by the movement patterns involved, it is the ultimate experience among sport participants commonly known as being “in the zone”. Serena Williams once said “if you can keep playing tennis when somebody is shooting a gun down the street, that’s concentration” and ultimately “being in the flow”.

To help get into this optimum zone, many athletes listen to music prior to competition to relax, mentally prepare, concentrate on the task at hand and to facilitate a state of flow. Music has physiological effects on heart rate and adrenalin levels, and can be a stimulant. It can also be motivating and extend endurance during an exercise session (for example during a marathon run), diverting attention from fatigue and altering perceptions of exertion during workouts, all of which can facilitate the attainment of flow. Listed below are a range of psychological interventions which can be used as part of your pre-event routine, during training or competition to help achieve optimal performance:

  • Use Positive Self-Talk

Muhammad Ali was the master of positive self-talk and self-affirmation, with his famous quote, “I am the greatest” (inspired R Kelly’s hit track ‘World’s Greatest’) He used this statement so frequently, and with such conviction, that eventually even his biggest rivals came to believe it. You can create your own self-affirmation statements too, in order to boost your confidence in your chosen realm of activity. These will affirm to you that you possess the skills, abilities and self-belief necessary for success. For a distance runner, it could be “I always run my own race” helping block out pressure from other opponents on the field. For a mountaineer, it has to be “Ain’t no monntain high enough”.

Added with Music: Lyrical affirmations – songs that contain lyrics with positive affirmations of exercise such as “work your body”, “push it” or “run to the beat”. For instance, well known positive and inspiring statements such as “If you put your mind to it, you can surely do it” (‘Move On Up’ by Curtis Mayfield) or “I believe I can, I believe I will” (from the dance movie ‘Honey’ soundtrack) can lead to positive motivational consequences, and in turn a more successful performance. Motivational lyrics can be found in a variety of catchy tunes, so listen, believe and then achieve!

  • Visualise Success

Seeing is believing, as they say, and having structured imagery or visualisation allows you to see in your minds eye the desired outcomes you wish to physically bring about. By recreating these outcomes using multi-sensory images (sight, sound, touch), There is strong scientific evidence to suggest that you greatly increase the chance of attaining superior performance, as images program muscles (Karageorghis & Terry, 2011). 14-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer, Michael Phelps claimed “before the Olympic trials I was doing a lot of visualisation. And I think it helped me to get a feel of what it was going to be like when I got there”.

Added with Music: Music can create imagery in your mind that is motivational; such as through associations the piece has with within popular culture, such as the “Rocky” film series soundtrack, or through personal memories. Also, M People’s “Proud” was used as the backing track for many sports images put together for the London 2012 Olympic Bid. Why not get creative by putting together your own performance montage, whether it be for an individual or team sport. Images of  successful performances, working together, a hard training session, motivational team talks, accompanied by a meaningful and inspirational soundtrack. Watch it in the changing rooms before you go out and give your best performance yet!

A study conducted by Pates, Karageorghis, Fryer, and Maynard (2003) revealed that three collegiate netball players tested on the effects of pre-task music and performance-related imagery on flow states and netball performance. Two out of the three players reported an increase in perceptions of flow (while all three showed improved shooting performance). Pates et al. concluded that music with imagery has the potential to enhance athletic performance by triggering emotions and cognitions associated with flow.

  • Get Pumped Up

Jose Mourhino, celebrated football manager and self-proclaimed ‘special one’ once said “It’s taken me 15 years to become an overnight success”. The term motivation comes from the Latin word “movere” meaning “to move”, and describes the powerful inner force that allows us to direct behaviour in a certain way. Motivation is clearly an essential component of performance, and helps us to gain that optimum flow we wish to achieve during training and competition. Having clear goals gives you a sense of direction that can help you stay motivated, (working towards small process goals, and achieving them will help you reach that end outcome goal).

Not everyone has the same kind of motivation and experts believes there are at least two main kinds. Ego orientation: Playing sport because you want to be the winner. Task orientation: Playing sport because you enjoy being the best by improving your own personal best performances. You can have both kinds of motivation – but it’s best to be high in both ego and task orientation or low in ego and high in task orientation. People with these types of motivation work hard at sport and do not give up when things are not working out.

Added with Music: Consider the focus of a top athlete like double-Olympic medal-winning rower James Cracknell. He has an ability to enter “the zone” and become highly motivated in order to achieve his goals. One technique that Cracknell used was to listen to loud rock music just before competition, in order to create an optimal mindset to race. Cracknell’s musical preference steered him towards the Red Hot Chili Peppers, however music is a very personal choice and so consider which tracks are most likely to get you motivated and into a winning mindset. Also, marathon world record holder, Paula Radcliffe quoted “In training build-ups for major races, I put together a playlist and listen to in during the run-in. It helps me psych up and reminds me of times in the build-up when I’ve worked really hard, or felt good. With the right music, I do a much harder workout”.

Now, you’re ready to GO!