Are your athletes training great but performing poorly? Do you find that sometimes their heads are getting in the way? Are they worrying about the future, such as the next competition or competitor? Have they mentioned negative thoughts racing through their minds?
If this is the case, how much time do you spend working on training the mental side of the game? If the above describes you or your athletes, there is hope—learning how to train the brain while training the body is the key to having a champion’s mindset.
As a licensed clinical social worker with a private therapy practice in the Philadelphia suburbs, I see anxiety with children and teens growing at an alarming rate. Anxiety is considered an epidemic right now among our youth, and athletes are not immune to this phenomenon. “Nearly 1 in 3 of all adolescents ages 13 to 18 will experience an anxiety disorder In the United States,” according to the National Institutes of Health. While athletes spend hours working on their physical preparation, game skills, and specific techniques, very little time is spent on “the mental game.”As a therapist and a sprint coach, I see a great need for teaching our children and athletes how to exercise their brains in ways that will help them throughout life, says @jovif10. Click To Tweet
As a therapist and a sprint coach, I see a great need for teaching our children and athletes how to exercise their brains in ways that will help them throughout life.
Mindset, Self-Regulation, Goal Setting, and Imagery
As the famous Yogi Berra saying goes, “Ninety percent of the game is half mental.” Others, meanwhile, have suggested that 90% of the game/sport is mental and 10% is physical. If this is true, we have reached a sad state of affairs in youth sports.
Parents will pay top dollar to give their children specific technical training, such as batting lessons, pitching lessons, etc., and send their kids to special trainers for speed and strength and to top club teams. However, very little (if any) time is spent working on the mental side of competing. Instead, that mental aspect is often neglected until an issue arises. Athletics does not appear to treat the mental aspect of training the same way they do the physical and technical.
It is not uncommon for a parent to wait until a pattern of underperforming or persistent anxiety before or during competitions forms before reaching out to me to get their child help. When I explore with parents what their child has been doing that helps in the area of mental training, most respond with “not much.” I have had numerous calls and emails from parents contacting me right before a big competition.
It is important to explain to parents and athletes that while this mental training does help, it is not instantaneous, and there are no quick fixes. Just like speed training, this also takes time to develop. Many coaches know this is an issue and realize the importance, but they find it hard to fit it in and/or do not know how to address it.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “sport psychology is a proficiency that uses psychological knowledge and skills to address optimal performance and well-being of athletes, developmental and social aspects of sports participation, and systemic issues associated with sports settings and organizations.” What often separates good athletes from great athletes is the time spent working on their mental game. Many elite athletes work with a sports psychologist or a mental skills coach in order to perfect the mental aspect of their game and/or sport. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady—who has played in nine Super Bowls (winning six), with four picks as Super Bowl MVP, and 14 Pro Bowl appearances—started using mental coaching while still at the University of Michigan.
Working with a sports psychologist or mental skills coach helps athletes improve performance and consistency by working on their mindset (such as managing expectations and time management), their emotional regulation, and their use of imagery. Tom Brady is hardly unique, as elite athletes are no strangers to using mental skills to perfect their sports: In the 2014 Winter Olympics, the Canadians came to Sochi with eight sports psychologists, while the United States brought along nine (with five just for its snowboarding and ski programs alone).
How Mindset Impacts Performance
“Negative thinking is almost 100% effective.” –Bob Rotella, sports psychologist
There are some common behaviors, emotions, and thinking patterns that can negatively affect an athlete’s performance. How an athlete thinks about an upcoming competition will significantly influence their attitudes, actions, and emotions. Coaches need to be able to recognize these factors and learn ways to address them.
An athlete’s state of mind can have an immense impact on sports performance, directing them to succeed or fail. Negative thinking is a thought process where individuals begin to see the worst in everything. Many athletes have a negative mindset without even realizing it—complaints about workouts, weather, performances, or coaches are all elements of a negative mindset. Maybe you’ve heard athletes say things like:
- We have to run in the rain?
- I can’t do this.
- This is too hard.
- The coach just doesn’t like me.
These are all examples of language that does more harm than good. These thoughts are like weeds that will choke out the positive beliefs if allowed to grow. The more we feed these negative thoughts, the stronger and more widespread they will get.
Let’s look at a visual I use with clients and athletes about negative thoughts, or what we also call cognitive distortions. There is a story (attributed by some to be an old Cherokee Indian legend) of two wolves that is a great illustration of a battle we all have in life. The story goes something like this:
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil—he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”
He continued, “The other is good—he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you—and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
You have a battle going on inside you that is eternal; it will always be there, so you need to learn how to deal with it. The first wolf is easy to feed and appears to be automatic for many. Once you start with a negative thought, they start coming quickly and multiply, and the bigger and stronger the “bad wolf” inside then gets. One negative thought feeds the next, which makes the thoughts stronger and more frequent!
You have a choice of which wolf you want to feed. When you feed the “good wolf,” the “bad wolf” gets weaker. Change the language you use and feed the good wolf. Start telling yourself positive messages, believe in your ability, and begin to move forward instead of being stopped by fear. This is a great lesson to teach our athletes on choosing to feed the right wolf and to practice these new messages on a regular basis. They will not believe it at first, but the more they stop the negative message and feed the “good wolf,” the weaker the “bad wolf” gets over time and loses its power.
The language you use on a regular basis has to be positive. Stopping the negative thoughts in their tracks as well as practicing positive thinking daily is key in having a positive mindset. Choosing to feed the “good wolf” is a change that will leave you feeling happier and healthier.
Staying positive is a skill, and we should work on it daily. An athlete can develop positive affirmations and thoughts in place of the negative thoughts and practice saying them several times a day. Eventually, they will begin to believe it and retrain their brain.
Negative thinking is a mental brick that weighs athletes down and keeps them from reaching their potential. Mental mistakes and setbacks are part of any sport, but if the athlete spends time thinking about the past or worrying about the future, they miss the present! They may be there physically, but they are not there mentally. It’s time to drop the mental brick, let the thought go, and refocus on the present moment.
One way an athlete can put a mistake, setback, or negative thought behind them is to learn to stay in the present. If you want your athletes to perform under pressure to the best of their ability, they need to practice and learn how to stay in the present.If you want your athletes to perform under pressure to the best of their ability, they need to practice and learn how to stay in the present, says @jovif10. Click To Tweet
“Mindfulness” is a popular term these days, but some people are not sure what it means: Mindfulness is being present without distraction. With the current generation’s on-the-go attitude, the distractions of social media, and the loads of academic work for student-athletes, being present is tough. Practicing mindfulness begins with learning to notice the distraction, letting it go, and then coming back to the present moment.
It may be helpful to develop a mental or physical reminder to assist in letting go and refocusing on the present moment. A method that was first made popular by Dr. Ken Ravizza, a professor of applied sports psychology at Cal State Fullerton, was to place a miniature toilet in the dugout for players of the 2004 Fullerton baseball squad to “flush” their mistakes and move on to the next play. That season the team went on to win the College World Series! Whether you use a visual of “dropping the brick” or “flushing it,” it can help athletes let go and refocus on the here and now.
Strategies for Emotional Regulation
“Believe me; the reward is not so great without the struggle.” –Wilma Rudolph, sprinter
Fear and anxiety can be significant mental blocks for many athletes. It is important for them to recognize anxiety and see how that emotion can push them to success or pull them down. Anxiety is a normal and natural part of life, but not when we are constantly anxious about everything. When we can learn to face adversity calmly, we will see great success.
Coaches should be able to not just recognize the negative thinking that occurs with anxiety but also understand the physiological symptoms: shortness of breath, feeling hot, racing heart, and feeling shaky are among the most prominent. If an athlete’s body responds to fear in these ways, they need to first calm their bodies and use self-regulation skills.
Self-regulation is when an individual gains physiological arousal back under control. Deep breathing (or belly breathing) is one way to help athletes self-regulate: Cue them to slowly breathe in through their nose and out through their mouth 10 times, and that will begin to calm them down.
Once the body is calm, they can then tackle the mind. Calm body = calm mind. You can even have the athletes add affirmations while breathing: My body is calm and relaxed, or I am calm and relaxed. Incorporating daily breathing activities into warm-ups or warm-downs can help athletes tremendously.
Fear of failure prevents many athletes from reaching their full potential. This year, I had a sprinter who was coming back from an injury lose a race before even getting to the starting line. During warm-ups, I saw it: fear in the eyes, sweating, dilated pupils, distraction. When checking in with them, they were feeding the “bad wolf” by remembering the last time they raced on that track and got the injury, complaining about being in lane 1, etc.
The sprinter went out and ran just as I expected—not reaching their full potential because their mind had convinced them otherwise. This fear can manifest itself by an athlete not trying as hard as they can or not trusting a coach and doing what is asked of them. These individuals may already have excuses for why they can’t do something, setting themselves up to fail.
Some athletes also exhibit a fear of success. Fear of success—who fears success? I know it may sound strange to some, but this is real. Some individuals are worried about the increased demands and expectations that accompany success. These athletes will do just enough to be good but will not push themselves further: They like to stay in the comfort zone.
With the fear of success also comes the fear of failure. Once an athlete succeeds, they may worry that this will be expected of them: What if they can’t do the same thing again? Someone who experiences this may compete in a very guarded manner, never really giving 100%. They never let themselves and others know what they are actually capable of.
There are a few strategies that can help in overcoming fear and getting your brain in the best mental shape possible:
- Define what success is to you. Weed out what you think others want and expect and zone in on your definition of success.
- Set goals and objectives to reach them. When setting goals, a good tool to use is SMART goals. These are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-framed. Make sure goals and objectives are realistic and individual—think about how good you want to be and how much effort you want to invest in the sport.
- Break goals into daily, monthly, seasonal, and career goals. It is good to start with the long-term goal or the big goal and work your way backward. Then, look at the steps/objectives it will take to achieve this goal.
I like to encourage clients and athletes to make a vision board or map. When they can see what they are working toward, it motivates them and makes the goal more tangible.It is important to expect setbacks and plan for them, says @jovif10. Click To Tweet
Sometimes an athlete can have a setback, which is an event that they can’t get past: a missed ball, false start, getting beat in a race, missed pass, fumble, or an injury that they can’t seem to get out of their mind. When this happens, they are not fully present and hold themselves back. It is important to expect setbacks and plan for them. All athletes have setbacks and failures, so they should embrace this concept. Every setback has a setup—look for the setup.
Utilizing Guided Imagery
“Always turn a negative situation into a positive situation.” –Michael Jordan
Another popular strategy among elite athletes is visualization, or the use of guided imagery. Webster’s defines visualization as the “formation of mental visual images” and “the act or process of interpreting in visual terms or of putting into visible form.” Guided imagery is a relaxation technique based on visualizing pleasant things and body awareness to help individuals create sensory-rich images in their minds and bring about a desired physical response.
Including all the senses—sound, sight, smell, tactile, and taste—will deepen the experience and make it more realistic in the athlete’s mind. Research has shown that when an individual imagines themselves performing a task, the brain sends out electrical signals comparable to when the person actually does the task. Other studies have shown the practical impact that utilizing guided imagery can have on performance.
Athletes can use guided imagery or visualization by consciously controlling a script in their head as a technique to build up their best mental game. They can do this by spending time building resources of past successes and key performances, building future templates, and walking through the event step by step and practicing the skill perfectly.
A few years ago, I worked with a middle distance runner who was having some performance anxiety during competition. This athlete realized how her thoughts were holding her back and causing a lot of unpleasant physical sensations as well. As she was getting ready for the state meet, I helped her develop the perfectly imagined 800-meter run. It was important to incorporate all the senses and make it as real as possible, integrating her own language in the imagery and walking through that ideal race, step by step.
We brought in the temperature, the sounds of the crowd, the feel of the track, the sound of the starting gun, and the sight of the scoreboard, along with some other specifics just for her race. We also came up with key phrases that were unique and important to her, like “turn and burn,” to add to the guided imagery. We ran the script from the morning of the event all the way through the finish, experiencing the feel of winning the state meet.
The idea was to make it as authentic as possible, so it felt like it was really happening when she listened to it. I encouraged the athlete to listen to the script over and over, so that by the time of the big event she’d have already run it 100-plus times in her mind and would feel calm and confident. Can I just tell you the excitement and joy I experienced watching on TV as she ran the exact race we scripted? It was unbelievable! She then gave an interview to a newspaper and used the terms she came up with in the script when describing the race. When we talked later on, she didn’t even remember saying any of it—it was that automatic!
Guided imagery is not something you try once and hope it works, but something you must develop and practice regularly. Guided imagery is also perfect for athletes who are limited in practice due to injury or the amount of practice space. Incorporate guided imagery daily to be at your very best!
Exercise the Brain
“Life’s battles don’t always go to the stronger or faster man. But sooner or later, the man who wins is the man who thinks he can.” –Vince Lombardi
To be at the top of their game, athletes must exercise their brains daily: visualizing and mentally rehearsing how they want to feel, think, perform, and be. Coaches can encourage athletes to stay mindful and be in the present moment, teaching them to let go of the past, learn to be flexible, and adjust to surrounding conditions.To be at the top of their game, athletes must exercise their brains daily: visualizing and mentally rehearsing how they want to feel, think, perform, and be, says @jovif10. Click To Tweet
Have them change their internal dialogues and fill their brains with positive talk. Have them come up with a mantra and practice deep breathing daily. Tell them to be confident and always believe in themselves—great things will come if you work your brain like you work your body.
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF