4 Sports Psych Strategies to Help You Hit Your Money Goals

Football Field Graphic FBN

In just a few days, over a hundred million people will be watching the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos face off for total football domination.

And as Super Bowl fever spikes, you may be wondering: How do professional athletes keep their head in the game? After all, with the pressure on, their mental toughness has to equal their physical prowess in order to emerge victorious on the gridiron.

Well, here at LearnVest, we like to take a money angle on everything, even the biggest sporting event of the year. So we asked several sports psychologists to talk about the mental techniques that trained athletes use to stay focused on the big win—and then talked to a money pro to see how these strategies can be applied to your finances.

1. Use Your ‘Muscle Memory’

Turns out the mantra “practice makes perfect” isn’t really what athletes should strive for—“practice makes automatic” is more apropos, according to Scott Goldman, director of performance psychology for theUniversity of Michigan’s athletic department.

How It Helps Athletes: The more a competitor practices a goal-winning move through repetition, the more those actions become engrained in their muscle memory. “You stop thinking about it, and it becomes routine,” he says. With enough time, the body automatically knows what to do—your job is simply not to get in its way, Goldman tells his athletes.

How It Could Work for Your Money: Making some of your financial decisions automatic as well can help get you across the goal line. Whether it’s a contribution to a 401(k) plan that comes out of your paycheck, automated transfers to an emergency fund or monthly deposits toward a big savings goal, you’re helping to build your savings “muscle.”

“Automaticity is a great concept when applied to money,” says Larry Moskat, a Certified Financial Planner™ and owner of Retirement Income and Inheritance Advisors in Scottsdale, Ariz., who also has a background in clinical psychology. “It removes some of the formidable barriers to accumulating future funds—namely, distraction, second-guessing and the ‘paralysis of analysis.’ ”

In other words, once you get in the habit of automatically paying yourself first, you no longer have to agonize over whether you’ll have enough at the end of the month to put toward your financial goals—it becomes an intrinsic part of your budget. “Normal feels good and is sustainable over time, as it eventually becomes reflexive,” he says. “[Automaticity] removes the human ‘thought interference’ and replaces it with, simply, a habit.”

RELATED: Kick-Start Your Goals: 4 Money Tasks to Automate This Year

2. Break Down Big Goals Into Smaller Ones

An athlete who says he simply wants to become a better player won’t find it very achievable unless he can break down that goal into individualized, measurable components, according to Jack Lesyk, director of the Ohio Center for Sport Psychology and performance psychologist for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

How It Helps Athletes: A basketball player who wants to up his game could start with his free-throw percentage, and then, find a behavior that will help him start improving that statistic. “Each day the player can say, ‘I will shoot 25 free throws and have the coach observe me to give me feedback and monitor and correct [my shots].’”

How It Could Work for Your Finances: Many money goals, such as paying down a hefty student loan or saving for a big anniversary trip, are often years, if not decades, away. So to help you keep chugging toward the finish line, it helps to create mile markers along the way.

“Sure, you might have the goal of retiring comfortably, but how do you get there?” says Moskat. “You have to take that long-term goal and create a short-term goal of saving X dollars per month.”

Like the free-throw shooter, you may have to incorporate behaviors that aid you in your efforts, whether it’s cutting back on a monthly expense you no longer really need so you can divert that money to savings, or deciding that you’ll devote X percentage of any future raises toward your goal. It also helps to remind yourself what you’re saving for when you feel your motivation flagging. “Simple things like hanging up a picture of your goal, your destination, or your [future] purchase can help support you when the urge to splurge rears its sabotaging head,” Moskat adds.

RELATED: The Beauty of the Bite-Size Money Habit

3. Filter Out ‘True but Useless’ Information

When an athlete is faced with a formidable opponent, it’s easy for her to get caught up in facts that don’t contribute to a winning game plan. This is data that Caroline Silby, a sports psychologist and adjunct faculty member at American University, calls TBUs—“true but useless” pieces of information.

How It Helps Athletes: “Maybe someone is physically stronger than you, or maybe the coach isn’t giving you the playing time you deserve—OK, now what?” Silby says. “It’s up to the athlete to process this information and figure out if it’s really important before determining whether it warrants a response. Hint: Under-responding to stress is key.”

Trying not to dwell on TBUs can also help an athlete maintain perspective when she feels disappointed by her performance. Missing five saves in one game, for instance, doesn’t mean she’s now a failure as a goalie. “Isolating the incident into a one-time performance, rather than extrapolating it as an indicator of the rest of your sports life, is key,” Silby says. “That will make the emotional impact of the event less severe and make finding a solution easier.”

How It Could Work for Your Finances: Many of us are prone to beating ourselves up for past money mistakes, such as the credit card debt we rang up in our younger years. Or we’re so focused on a specific money hurdle we have to overcome—like paying down six-figure student loan debt—that it paralyzes us from moving forward with any other part of our finances.

But it’s pointless to dwell on these TBUs when your energy should instead be focused on how to make progress. “I spend time with clients to undo that circular, agitating self-critique by pointing out the things they’ve done right—that they’ve been adding to their 401(k) for years, that they sent X number of kids through college, that they’ve covered their health care costs,” Moskat says. “It’s all in an effort to help them see that we all make mistakes, [but] it’s what we do after we make mistakes that counts.”

Your ultimate goal should be to minimize the number of ‘postgame analyses’ you have to do because you’ve become so attuned to your budget that you instinctively know when you’re about to go over.

4. Do a ‘Postgame Analysis’

Sports stars know that in order to keep improving, they need to go to the videotape—that is, spend time analyzing their performance so they are cognizant of how they can improve.

How It Helps Athletes: “When they gain awareness of the actions and traits that contribute to high-level performance, consistency and control can be achieved,” says Silby. She often suggests, for example, that athletes keep a log for a week to identify three accomplishments they achieved each day, and the one action that contributed to each successful outcome. “People who complete this exercise experience a boost in happiness because making connections between our own actions and positive outcomes is empowering.”

How It Could Work for Your Finances: Did you burn through last week’s flexible spending amount three days in? Then it’s time to do a budget debrief so that you understand which expenses threw you off-kilter.

“In much the same way athletes review game tapes, so, too, should a wise consumer do the same when trying to get their arms around the question, ‘Where does all my money go?’ ” Moskat says. By analyzing your expenses, you may have discovered that those $10 drop-in fees at the yoga studio really add up—signaling that it’s time for the multiclass discount pass or, better yet, an at-home workout DVD.

RELATED: Secrets of a Psychologist: How to Train Your Brain to Make Smarter Money Moves

LearnVest Planning Services is a registered investment adviser and subsidiary of LearnVest, Inc., that provides financial plans for its clients. Information shown is for illustrative purposes only and is not intended as investment, legal or tax planning advice. Unless specifically identified as such, the individuals interviewed or otherwise listed in this piece are neither clients, employees nor affiliates of LearnVest Planning Services and the views expressed are their own. Please consult a financial adviser, attorney or tax specialist for advice specific to your financial situation. LearnVest Planning Services and any third parties listed, linked to or otherwise appearing in this message are separate and unaffiliated and are not responsible for each other’s products, services or policies. LearnVest, Inc., is wholly owned by NM Planning, LLC, a subsidiary of The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company.