MENTAL PREPERATION Getting started and staying motivated
Think about what you want out of your sport
Focus on what you want to achieve
Set realistic challenges
Set goals that measure how well you did, not who you beat
Set positive goals that tell you what you do, not what not to do
Set target dates to achieve goals
Identify a strategy to achieve your goals
Record your goals, make a commitment, tell someone
Evaluate your goals
Have others help you achieve your goals
Keep your goals flexible
Competing at your best
The mind and the body are two parts of a whole, with each affecting the other. When athletes perform well they usually have expectations about their ability to do so – they feel confident and are excited and challenged by seeing how well they can play.
When athletes feel challenged by competition, the brain releases a chemical that gives them a feeling of being nervous, but know that these nerves are good and help performance. Having too many worrying thoughts increases these chemicals; increasing heart rate & perspiration, affecting concentration and tightening muscles – resulting in poor performance. Often we are relaxed in training and tense in games so our approach is different. Try the following strategies:
use key words to remind you of the important aspects
calm yourself by taking a couple of slow, deep breaths as this fills up your thought space so there is no room for worrying and stress
focus on technique in lead up games rather than accuracy
Drifting thoughts occur all the time and affect the on field information that they take in. Athletes should practice catching drifting thoughts in and away from the playing environment, here are some strategies:
Every time you catch yourself speaking negatively, stop and refocus on another subject – this will decrease your negative thoughts
As you increase your ability to catch drifting thoughts, try switching them to positive thoughts
Change your expectations to realistic ones – if you are not worrying about achieving unrealistic goals you will be more positive and feel challenged rather than afraid of failure
Having too little chemicals can also affect performance – without the excited feelings, high heart rate and nervousness, athletes can feel lethargic (making reactions slow). A good example of this is when a stronger team, expecting to win, have difficulty concentrating and are being beaten by the weaker team, who have come in expecting a tough game and are therefore more focused and better prepared.
To stop ‘social loafing’ all players need to take responsibility for the effort they put into the game.
Set personal goals
When playing weaker games set winning margins
When playing weaker games work on aspects of your game, which at other times would be too high risk.
When playing stronger teams plan to get the most out of your own performance.
Preparing for competition
Athletes, who are serious about sport and motivated to perform well, often have ideas on how they should prepare for competition. Many believe that this involves sit alone quietly and focusing on the event. This is only beneficial if the thoughts are constructive and confident, some athletes need to be distracted with light, chatty non-sporting conversation in order to keep away the negative thoughts. Knowing when to prepare mentally and when to switch off is essential.
When to switch off:
Some athletes mentally exhaust themselves by stressing about goals and performance. It wastes energy being anxious and afraid of competition, therefore it is important to take time away from your sport and have other interests that relax and refresh you. The focus needs to be inward and appropriately timed.
When to switch on:
Some athletes are scattered in their thoughts and distract themselves to the point of failing to adequately prepare. A good preparation is the difference between going into an exam having done the extra study, rather than just what was retained from the classes – most of the time the extra study produces better results. Successful sports people don’t compete without preparation or planning.
Preparing for problems and challenges
It is important to be prepared for problems and challenges that may arise whilst in competition.
Athletes and coaches:
Discuss a training / competition situation that could cause you or your team a problem
in the training environment
when travelling with a team
when new members come into a team
when you are given little court time (‘benched’)
when there is a change of coach
when your team plays a ‘stronger’ team
when your team plays a ‘weaker’ team
in a foreign environment
What problems could arise
Discuss situations where the athlete has made a bad decision. How did the athlete feel?
Discuss situations where the athlete made a good response. How did the athlete feel?
What different way could athletes respond in either situation?
What are the better options or responses?
Parents and teachers:
Discuss with your athletes the aspects of their life that are important to them outside their sport
Help them maintain a balance between their sporting interests and other important areas in their life. It is healthy to have other interests to reduce stress.
Being in the game 100% of the time
Athletes are most effective when they are focused. There are four types of focus used by successful athletes.
Smart thought – planning, or playing strategically in a game, the way we think, the game plan. It is important to be analytical and make rapid decisions, take in information from several different sources at once and coordinate or set up lays.
Body awareness – what is happening in your body, how it feels and moves through space. Athletes need to use their body awareness to monitor their energy, adjusting the intensity of their effort throughout the event.
Single focus – what is happening immediately in front of / around the athlete. The ability to ‘keep your eye on the ball, get into correct position while being jostled and bumped by your opponent’.
Seeing the bigger picture – using broad, external focus to take in the big picture. The ability to scan the playing arena, plan what you intend to do in relation to your opponents and team-mates and acting on this broad focus.
Good concentration is not necessarily a lot of thinking; it is often a quiet concentration and clear mind. It involves thinking in the now rather than ahead about the effort required to finish and risk being overwhelmed by the thought. It is about feeling, experiencing and concentrating on what you are doing right now.
If you think too much, it can clutter the mind, turning the stress up too high and burning up energy on worrying.
Good concentration is knowing what to concentrate on, when, where and for how long and keeping it simple, but not too simple that you become too narrow in the process.
You can only take in so much information at once so it is important to focus on what is happening around you now, rather than the mistake you just made or what you will have for dinner.
It is also important to shift your focus at the right times. Athletes need to know when to move from a single focus to the big picture and back again at the exact right times.
Concentration need not be at top speed, elite players often watch and observe. They do not have to think too much about the basics as these have become automatic. These skills can be learnt.
Sometimes great concentration happens – most of the time it requires work. It comes at the end of hard, consistent preparation and experience. It requires work – just like the physical aspects of the game.
The longer you stay mentally in the game – the better you play (catch drifting thoughts, use key words and focus on something that you can control).
Seeing is believing – Mental imagery
All over the world athletes dream about success as they drift off to sleep – landing a triple axel, holing a 20 metre putt, shooting the winning 3 pointer on the buzzer. Mental imagery is a technique which the athlete employs as many senses as possible to recreate a sporting experience in their mind.
How does it help to dream about performing well?
Athletes practice in their minds the best way to perform – like making a competition plan, which programs a strategy into your mind.
The brain sends messages to the muscles in the body that would be involved in the movement being imaged, even though the body does not actually move. By sending these messages the brain reinforces the nerve pathways and can speed up the development of motor pathways, helping the athlete acquire the skill sooner.
Seeing yourself make errors can result in negatives occurring:
You send the wrong message to your muscles, which does not reinforce good technique
By seeing yourself perform poorly, you may worry, tighten up and feel lethargic by the time competition starts.
If you see yourself failing you reduce confidence. This may cause you to alter your strategy and move away from a strong performance because you are afraid.
Creating successful mental imagery:
Most athletes have the tools to mentally image and some may already be doing so without realising
It may be like you are watching a video of yourself or seeing yourself perform from within your body
Focus on what you want to happen or a positive experience you have already had
Use it to help strengthen existing skill
When preparing for mental imagery find a quiet place where you can sit or lie down without being disrupted for 10 minutes – take a couple of long slow breaths imaging that you are letting go of any stress and muscle tension
When using mental imagery it is important to start with a successful situation (not something that is too challenging for you) and gradually making it more challenging and competitive.