Upon entering any competition most athletes are proficient in preparing their bodies; Right nutrition, warming up the muscles, pre-game warm up, etc.; however the pre-game mental warm up and preparation is often lacking or not nearly paid attention to enough. Sports and competition are unique in that the body and mind are moving quickly at once with demands of desired outcomes. The mental aspects and demands upon a player/team quickly accumulate. As you go through a game small errors can lead to rhythm changes, momentum shifts, and possible compounding errors which can quickly lead to a loss that could have been prevented with a couple of quick, in the moment mental adjustments.
These quick adjustments which I call “Resets” actually start before you even step on the court or into competition. To be able to quickly make a mental adjustment in the middle of a match you must first enter the match with a “quiet mind” (clean, blank slate if you will), and deeper sense of self awareness. Much like a computer our brains work on neural pathways and connections. When your computer/brain is bogged down with too many applications (distracting thoughts) running at once, your efficiency to perform tasks (motor planning and executive functioning) become compromised. We know this in the computer world because we start to see error messages. Loading information is slow (buffering), and eventually a crash can happen. When your computer is rebooted and Reset everything runs smoother and more efficiently.
Amazingly, we are able to perform this same action with our brains. Competition can trigger a fear response mechanism which can be translated into fight or flight reaction, which I translate into a pendulum effect of anxiety in the competition world. This anxiety rests upon the “inverted U Hypothesis”, which states that one must have the optimal anxiety level to perform in the flow state or the zone. This basically translates into the competitor needing to modulate ones anxiety level so it’s not too high and not too low. The other key ingredient to a strong mental game is FOCUS.
SO, how do we attain these two key mental aspects Optimal Anxiety and Focus to RESET? I will list the ingredients much like a recipe:
- Diaphragmatic Breathing: in through the nose for a 6-10 count and back down 6-10 count 5-6 minutes. Your out breath is one second longer than your in breath. Clear the mind, relax the nervous system. Close to competition 1 hour or less. In competition. This is 1 or 2 deep belly breaths, while incorporating your Reset or Cue word (step 3). There is much more to diaphragmatic breathing, but this is a start.
- Introduce Visualization: how do you see yourself playing? Set your intention and focus here, zero in on how you will play and what you will do. In the moment see the serve, pass, or shot the way you practice it.
- Cue Words/Self Talk: Establish your cue words that you will use in the moment to reset and get you back in the game. Short, specific, direct and impactful statements or words: pass the ball, move your feet, Right Now, Be Aggressive, attack, dig deep, let it go or simply RESET. To make this effective knowing yourself and having Inner Awareness is key.
- Posture: project winning positive posture, head up, chest out, NOT deflated or head down. Focused on getting the next point, NOT what is going wrong or not happening or future outcome focused thoughts.
- In Moment Process Focused: Do NOT think outcome focused—“how many points you’re down, were going to win, we are too far down, we can’t come back.” INSTEAD, what do I (we) need to do RIGHT NOW.
- Deep Breath: The impact of 1-2 deep breaths can do wonders in saving your game and R
- Intensity level: Understand the moment and energy going on with your team or yourself. Here you are modulating your anxiety and intensity level. Either it needs to go up or down. You will use SELF TALK to adjust this—yelling, screaming, “Let’s go”, or lower it—“Nice and easy”, “one point at a time.” Sometimes it just takes ONE BIG PLAY. A big hit, shot, or ace. USE it to carry you through and shift the momentum.
It starts with your breath (1 to 2 deep belly breaths), assess the situation, and pull from your grab of above listed strategies. Use 1, 2 or all of them. Feel what you need. Then implement. You may ask “how do you have time for all this in the moment. Let’s remember the brain is fast “HOW fast”? Well research has shown that the brain processes 20 Million Billion bits of information every second and can process an image in just 13 milliseconds. SO yes you have time between serves or foul short or what have you to visualize, breathe and RESET before the serve.
The important thing to take away is that RESETING takes practice in your mental preparation well before you even step on the court. It’s important to incorporate these strategies consistently, practice your breathing and make them apart of your game so it’s an unconscious reaction.
Ami Strutin-Belinoff, M.A., LMFT
mental peak performance training