As a sports psychologist I know that mood and focus are inextricably linked. When you’re in a positive mood you can work harder, push through tough workouts, and focus on new challenges with additional clarity. When your mood is low, it can feel like a chore to exercise, you procrastinate and make excuses, and giving up on tough tasks is easy to do.
The good news is there are sports psychology strategies you can adopt to improve your mood, and in turn, help you stay focused on short and long-term goals, from completing gruelling workouts to training for a race. All of the suggested strategies are based on proven, peer-reviewed scientific research.
1. Change your perspective
If you can identify the cause of a mood that leaves you lacking focus and motivation, try to think differently about the situation that caused that poor mood. Are you giving more importance to what happened than you should? Is it really that bad? Will you look back on it in years to come with great sadness, or even remember it?
Typically, the cause of a bad mood only seems important in the moment and in reality is wholly insignificant. The negative impact of indulging a poor mood to its natural conclusion of demotivation and lack of focus, however, is very real.
Just as a photographer will change position, look at the subject matter and adjust the lighting to get a good photo, you can follow similar processes to change how you think about whatever it was that affected your mood and regain your focus.
2. Set achievable goals
When you’re not in the mood, it can be hard to muster the energy to exercise, but physical activity is often the best thing you can do. Motivate yourself by thinking about your goal for the exercise session and how you’ll judge success/failure. Tell yourself that you’ll already have achieved one goal simply by getting started in the first place.
Give yourself another attainable goal. For example, to run for 10 minutes. Once you get to 10 minutes, see how you feel. Usually, the act of moving changes your mood and after 10 minutes, you’ll likely want to exercise for longer. People often surprise themselves by how much they can do. In turn, the sense of achievement you’ll get from having proactively shifted your mood is a mood-booster in and of itself.
3. Create a positive association
Music can have amazing effects on the human brain. Studies show it can do everything from reduce cortisol (the stress hormone) to encourage you to run faster, for longer. Music can even help you feel energetic when you’re tired.
Make a playlist of songs that inspire you. Of course, this will be subjective to your own tastes, but as a rule of thumb the brain responds positively to songs that have motivating lyrics, a strong beat, and connect to memories associated with success (which explains why the Rocky theme is such a good fit for the film).
Get your playlist ready and put it on whenever you’re getting ready to train. On the occasions you’re not in the mood to exercise the positive associations you have with the music will have you reaching for your kit before any internal excuses can persuade you otherwise.
4. Go outdoors
While any exercise is a good mood-booster, it’s even better if you can do it somewhere green or by the ocean. Nature has a calming effect. That’s because the sights, sounds and smells of nature stimulate the production of serotonin (the happy hormone), with research finding that as little as five minutes in a natural setting can improve mood.
If you can’t easily get outdoors for whatever reason, one study found that even just looking at photos of yourself in natural environments improves your wellbeing. You don’t need to spend a long time doing it either, short blocks of 30 seconds can be useful. Put up pictures in places where you’ll often see them (I find the fridge door is a good spot!) as these act as a constant visual reminder.
5. Visualise past successes
If you want to feel energised to train, one strategy you can use is associated imagery. Sit down, relax and identify a previous athletic performance of yours that you consider to be excellent. Create a mental image of it and try to enhance the clarity of your images, sharpen the intensity of the colour, and tune into the sounds around you, your emotions, and how you physically felt.
Replay this mental image and re-experience the passion, purpose, efficiency, and confidence you felt at the time. Set a timer and do this in 30-seconds bursts and you’ll soon be motivated to work towards creating more excellent athletic performances to draw on in future.
Andy Lane is a Professor of Sport Psychology and Director of Research Excellence at the University of Wolverhampton. A Fellow of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES), Andy is Health Professional Council registered and a British Psychological Society Chartered Psychologist. Andy achieved a sub-3hr time in the London Marathon.