WHAT IS THE OFF-SEASON REALLY FOR?

As the school year winds down, athletes and coaches tend to see this as the time of year to “gear up”. This time of year also becomes difficult for parents as they attempt to balance the demands of coaches and family time; which often means deciding to take that vacation, or commit to the “offseason schedule” in hopes of guaranteeing the child gets to play in the regular season. And today’s athletes often find it difficult to decide between more (offseason workouts and teams), or other teenage pursuits (getting a job, time at the lake, etc.). While this may sound familiar to the families and coaches involved in the traditional high school setting, there are still others who have committed to the year-round club sport who find the balance even more difficult. If this entry has you reading to this point, perhaps it is time to take a step back, take a deep breath, and see the big picture. I encourage you to contemplate four questions about the offseason:

• Should this time be spent in preparation for next season?
• Should this time be spent as “time off”?
• Should this time include extra competition?
• Should this time be spent doing something else, something fun?

The answer to each of these questions, when contemplating the offseason, is “YES”. The difficulty now is in figuring out how to achieve all of them during the same period. I propose you start by breaking it into three domains; issues and concerns to be aware of, planning it out, and putting your plan(s) to work.

The first thing to do once the season/school year has finished is to pay attention to the athlete for signs of either burnout or over training. These are bedfellows that are often mistaken for one another, but are actually different issues. Ironically, both lead to problems ahead (poor performance, increased rates of injury, and eventually quitting). Burnout can be recognized in athletes who seem to lack interest, focus, or drive compared to their previous levels. At the same time, you may notice the athlete has developed a flat effect, meaning that he doesn’t seem to have positive or negative emotions with regard to practices and games. If in this state, you may also see signs of “silly mistakes” that are below your athlete’s ability level. As the term implies, this athlete is burnt and would benefit from time away to recharge.

Similarly, over training can be a serious issue for athletes. Symptoms here include fatigue or very low levels of energy, chronic pains, or signs of physical anxiety (higher resting heart rates, elevated blood pressure, or unending soreness). Too often, athletes with these symptoms are told to “toughen up” and push through. If your athlete is complaining about these issues, I recommend you listen to her. If this is an “extra season”, time away may actually benefit the athlete better in the long run when it really counts (the regular and post seasons for the sport). Time away from the routine of the sport allows the body and brain to heal and repair.

The careful reader will have noticed by now that I have not said “time off”, but instead “time away”. This is a critical point to be made, and brings me to the second phase of the offseason – planning how to use the time effectively. My first recommendation is time away. The approach to this can vary from a few days of rest to increasing time in other pursuits. This allows the athlete to get a mental break from the grind of practice and games, while also finding interest and motivation for something new/different (which our brains are designed for anyway).

The second element of planning is to purposely schedule time to appreciate what you have been through. Whether you suffered disappointment at the end, or reached your highest goal, the process was an elevated and sustained period of stress. This needs to be managed on a psychological level, or you may set yourself up for other risk factors (i.e. increased likelihood of injury). Thus, take time and find a way to go through the process of acknowledging the outcome, accepting what has happened, and allowing yourself to turn the page. If you find you (or your athlete) is unable to do so, it might be the right time to reach out for help and talk with a sport psychology professional.

The third step in planning is to outline what is next. Simplified, is there more to achieve, or is this the end of the road? Both require planning in order to make for a successful transition. If it is time to reach for more, begin by evaluating the plusses and minuses of the past season. Then make a plan to polish and grow by perfecting what you do well, while challenging yourself to improve in other areas. Keep in mind that in the offseason, “less is more” is a good rule of thumb. Athletes won’t need as much time committed to training, unless there is a specific competition that requires peak performance. Just as important here, make balancing your time with other interests/needs as a part of your plan.

Athletes (and coaches) who decide they are done, also benefit from making a plan to go forward. Regardless of your reason to retire, this will be an emotional and psychological loss as well as a significant change in physical activity. Seek out an activity that gives you a sense of purpose, as well as a new way to feel challenged to grow. And along the way, know it is okay to grieve being done. This is also an important area sport psychology professionals work in, and I have worked with several athletes/coaches who have benefitted from guidance through this stage of their career.

For those of you who are still in the hunt, its now time to get to work (and rest). Commit your time in writing by blocking out dates on your calendar, posting personal and motivating quotes to yourself, and making contracts with coaches, trainers, and/or teammates. When setting up your offseason calendar, approach it the same way you do the traditional season – target the peak, build up to that point, and schedule time for rest and relaxation. Finally, know where you can get the training you need. For some, this is with the same team and coach you compete with in the regular season. For others, getting individualized training is the path. Hopefully you also realize the benefit of including work with a sport psychology professional to help with all of the issues outlined above.

To conclude, the offseason isn’t what it used to be. To be competitive at a high level now means committing year-round. However, too many perceive this as year-round practices and competitions in a never ending cycle. However, more and more research is proving that rest and relaxation are as just as effective in reaching high levels of competition. The key is in balancing life activities. If this post speaks to a struggle you have felt, it may be worth the time to talk with sport psychology professional about the mental side of performance. So why wait? Make the call, bring in an expert.

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