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The Power of Focus and Mental Performance in Sports Training

by Walter Urban(more info)

listed in exercise and fitness, originally published in issue 199 - October 2012

Researchers have proven that stress, anger and anxiety, when triggered in an athlete, can tighten muscles, tense up the body, hamper and negatively affect breathing, and generally act as a hindrance to performance. This result is no different if you are 12 or 35!

The American Psychological Association defines stress as the pattern of specific and nonspecific responses an organism makes to stimulus events that disturb its equilibrium and tax or exceed its ability to cope. Anxiety as an intense emotional response caused by the preconscious recognition that a repressed conflict is about to emerge into consciousness and anxiety disorders as mental disorders marked by physiological arousal, feelings of tension, and intense apprehension without apparent reason.

Walter Urban Pull UP

Walter Urban Pull UP

The Association goes on to state that acute stress is the most common form of stress. It comes from demands and pressures of the recent past and anticipated demands and pressures of the near future. Acute stress is thrilling and exciting in small doses, but too much is exhausting. But because it is short term, acute stress doesn't have enough time to do the extensive damage.  Common symptoms which might appear in sports are:

  • Emotional distress - some combination of anger or irritability, anxiety, and depression, the three stress emotions;
  • Muscular problems including tension headache, back pain, jaw pain, and the muscular tensions that lead to pulled muscles and tendon and ligament problems;
  • Stomach, gut and bowel problems such as heartburn, diarrhoea, constipation;
  • Elevation in blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, heart palpitations, dizziness, migraine headaches, cold hands or feet, shortness of breath, and chest pain.

Ray and Weise-Bjornstal (1999) further described seven categories in which an athlete may experience stress. They went on to describe the categories as: affective, behavioral, biological / physiological, cognitive, imaginable, interpersonal, and sensory. They further pointed out each category has its own signs and symptoms.

In part, many athletes don’t reach their performance potential because of stress or anxiety making them think too much and leading to improper breathing.

World Championships Plzen

World Championships Plzen

I have been Powerlifting for 15 years and a member of the Canadian Masters Powerlifting Team for 3 out of the last 6 years. I finished 6th at the World Championships in 2010 and placed in the top 10 in 2005 and again in 2009.  As a member of one of the strongest Powerlifting Team’s in North America we (I) train 3 to 4 days a week 2 to 3 hours a day, 50 weeks a year drug free! I am also a small business owner and the father of three beautiful young daughters Dakota 12, Sayge 9 and Paisley 5 so stress and sports are an integral part of my life.

For the last 10 months I have been lucky enough to be working with one of the most respected mental performance coaches in the world.   This helped me prepare for setting a new Guinness World Record for the most amount of weight squat lifted in one hour totalling 127,245 lbs at the age of 53!

Walter Urban Neuro Study

Walter Urban Neuro Study

On Saturday morning May 26th, 2012 I acted as kind of bio-neuro feedback test subject for the mental performance team to show how our thoughts translate instantly into emotions, and emotions into physiological responses - and how this effects sports performance.

That day the team from a mental performance training center gave a demonstration of the biofeedback / neurofeedback techniques used to train athletes in things like mental toughness and proper breathing and I was the test subject. Hooked up to sophisticated computer transmitters that registered a number of indicators on a screen, I was questioned by a relaxation and stress management consultant. The questions evoked reactions in my mind and body. Graphs on a screen would rise and fall as I got my thoughts under control by moderating my breathing and relaxing my mind.

One basic concept is that when tension builds up in the upper body and shoulders it makes it very difficult to breathe properly from the diaphragm. Tension in the shoulders slows an athlete down.

The question is; why does tension build up?

There are a number of reasons this can happen:

  1. Previous injuries;
  2. Worrying about the expectations of a coach;
  3. Worrying about the expectation of a parent;
  4. Fear of failing;
  5. Stress;
  6. Anxiety;
  7. Anger.

This can all lead to a ‘busy brain’, or thinking too much.

While a busy mind might be good for multi-tasking activities, it’s not good for sports or activities that require focus. In high focus sports a busy mind is the last thing you want. The busy mind in some respects can be traced back to stress and anxiety. There are many factors which can cause an athlete to experience stress or anxiety.

The factors which can increase stress and anxiety are: physical demands, psychological demands, environmental demands, expectations and pressure to perform to a high standard, significant other stressors, relationship issues and life direction concerns (Reilly and Williams, 2003).

“Despite the well-documented benefits from exercise and sports participation on mental health, some athletes will at times experience psychological, emotional, and behavioral problems” (Mann, et al, 2007). “Many factors which can influence the performer’s psychological state and so alter it from the optimum required for their performance” (Graham-Jones and Hardy, 1990).

I can honestly say that the techniques I learned from my mental performance coach, have helped me calm down, breath better, and conserve more energy. In an endurance sport like weightlifting, such skills are indispensable. I also sleep much better now that I have more control over my thoughts.

Besides breathing and learning to control the amount of thought activity in your brain, there are a number of other ways experts recommend coping with stress or anxiety. (Hann, 2000). Reilly and Williams (2003) list a variety of coping methods that an athlete can use to help limit stress and anxiety by categories which include: “physical demands, psychological demands, environmental demands, expectations and pressure, relationship issues, life direction concerns and uncategorized stress sources.”

For psychological demands they suggested using “pre-competition mental preparation, management, positive focus and orientation, and training hard and smart.” For physical demands they suggest, “rational thinking, pre-competition mental preparation, changing to healthy acting attitudes and behaviour, and training hard and smart.”

I believe the mental and breathing aspects of sports and non-sports activities are key in elite performance.  However, each person and athlete is different. Its all about trial and error and finding out what works for your body, mind and specific sport. 

There are a variety of coping mechanisms available for athletes who may be suffering from stress or anxiety. Each athlete needs to figure out which one works best for them, and that may take them a while as they need to try out each mechanism for a while to see if it works for them. There are many methods available including relaxation, visualization, biofeedback, mediation, stopping negative thought, and enhancing confidence.  If you do the research you will probably find even more proven methods and some ground breaking activities in research.

Learn to respect and control stress and anxiety while learning to use breathing and thought control to setup your game. Both will lead to a successful outcome.

References and Bibliography

American Psychological Association 750 First Street NE, Washington, DC 20002-4242

Graham-Jones J. & Hardy L. Stress and performance in sport. New York, New York: John Wiley & Sons. 1990.

Hann YL. Emotions in sports. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics. 2000.

Mann BJ, Grana WA, Indelicato PA, O’Neill DF and George SZ. A survey of sports medicine professionals regarding psychological issues in patient-athletes. American Journal of Sports Medicine, 35:12, 2140-2147. 2007.

Ray R and Wiese-Bjornstal D.M  Counseling in Sports Medicine. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Books. 1999.

Reilly T and Williams AM. Science and soccer. New York, New York: Routledge (Tyler & Francis Group). 2003.

Further Information

To find more information on Walter Urban, World and National records or his training please visit



  1. MrSportPsych said..

    Dr. Vietta Sue Wilson is famous for her work with the Coaching Association of Canada from 1980 until today. This suite is designed for professionals, educators and researchers who want to use biofeedback with athletes, executives and other peak performers. It includes a specialized assessment script and an excel report that allows easy interpretation and implementation of a training program. Sue's Suite is available here:

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About Walter Urban

Walter Urban BS MBA is an American born Powerlifter and Guinness World Record holder and challenger living in Canada. He is a member of one of the strongest drug free Powerlifting Teams in North America the Iron Foundation, 19 to 53, male and female, who train 3 to 4 days a week 2 to 3 hours a day, 50 weeks a year drug free - most for over 15 years! On September 15, 2011, at the age of 53, Walter set a new Guinness World Record for the most amount of weight squat lifted in one hour live on Live with Regis and Kelly, lifting 127,245 lbs drug free. Walter competed in the Powerlifting World Championships in 2005, 2009 and 2010 placing 6th representing Canada in the Czech Republic. Walter holds an MBA from Bowling Green University and a BS in Economics from Albright College. Walter is a licensed private pilot, licensed skydiver, a former pro ski racer, hang glider pilot, runner and Formula Ford race car driver and a former member of the 1982 United States Parachute Para-Ski Team. Walter is the President and owner of Urban Dynamics Inc a consulting company Walter and his family reside in Guelph Ontario. For more information on Walter visit, Twitter walterjlg, Facebook Walter Urban.

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