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Using Sports Psychology to Improve Your Fitness

Fitness has a mental component, in addition to physical challenges. Even if you're in great shape, you can encounter intellectual obstacles that can decrease your motivation and stifle your performance.

When professional athletes start experiencing these obstacles, they usually seek help from sports psychologists to get a mental edge. However, it does not matter what your skill level may be, as everyone can benefit from mental health training. Here are techniques that can increase your fitness motivation and enhance your overall athletic performance. (If you have any health concerns or conditions, be sure to check with your health care provider before beginning or changing an exercise program.)

Tolerate failure

To become a good athlete or improve at your favorite sport, you have to be able to tolerate failure and accept it as part of the process of succeeding. Without failure, you don't learn, and without learning, you don't get better.

Dig for motivation

You must have an emotionally compelling reason to stick with an exercise program.

For serious athletes who train for four to eight years at a time, the motivation might be an Olympic gold medal. Daily, they relate their practice sessions to this ultimate prize. But for others, a compelling reason for working out could be to get into top shape, lose weight or feel better.

A trick: On the days you don't feel like working out, sit down and think about how good you'll feel when you're done.

Compete against yourself

Another important component of motivation is not comparing yourself with others. For example: If you work out regularly at a gym, channel your competitiveness into the progress you're making, not against the highly fit person working out next to you.

The same is true when competing. Tune out the runners around you when running a race.

Hold mental rehearsals

If you're trying to master a particular physical feat, such as diving off the high board or perfecting your tennis serve, imagine yourself doing it. Make your image vivid enough that you can see, feel and hear it.

Stay in the present

In the midst of an activity, it's easy to fall into the trap of concentrating on "the uncontrollables," such as the weather, your opponent, your opponent's record or how you've performed in the past. Instead, stay in the present.

While you're running a marathon, for instance, concentrate on the rhythm of your breathing or your arm swing, not on the length of the race or the other runners.

Plunge through a plateau

Plateauing, or reaching a stagnant level of fitness or performance, is a natural part of training. It can dampen your enthusiasm and motivation, however.

Talking to other people who have achieved your goal will help you improve your exercise performance when you've reached a plateau.

To help yourself stay positive, create a daily victory log, which is a record of what you've done right while training or working out. Your victory log might read, "I ran five miles today, and at the four-mile mark, I pushed myself when I wanted to stop."