Frequently we come across talented athletes who inexplicably “fall in a hole”. These tend to be highly touted athletes who have been dominant before, or shown great promise. Then, without warning, they seem to fall into a funk. A shooter who can’t make a basket, a hitter who can’t get out of a funk at the plate, or an athlete who makes uncharacteristic and repeated errors. If you have been this athlete, you understand the desperation to find a solution and get back on track. As a coach or parent, you find yourself both perplexed and irritated. And truthfully, all anyone wants is for things to get better.
Like any performance issue, there is no simple and singular cause. Instead, there are multiple potential causes. One key source is pressure. This is likely not a surprise. Yet, so frequently I see athletes who feel like they are being “squeezed” to do well. Recently, I’ve worked with an athlete who came to me describing symptoms of anxiety; a sense of panic when at bat, distracted thoughts and worries while in the field, and unwelcome dread while sitting in the dugout. As she described her experience, it became very apparent that the pressure was coming from the style of coaching she was receiving. Each time an athlete made a mistake, or failed to produce, she would be “pulled” from any further play until the player who replaced her made mistakes, and thus begins a cycle of player rotation based on punishment. Technically this is known as negative punishment. In practice, the athlete became overwhelmed with a fear of making mistakes, which became a serious distraction when trying to execute.
Similarly, athletes can be plagued with worries and doubts about how others will perceive them. Often times athletes feel “obligated” to impress or please others, regardless if overt demands have been placed on them. For some it is a sense of duty, and for others there can be the worry that a mistake will be costly for others. An athlete I worked with previously noted he felt a strong sense of responsibility to meet the expectations of his fans. That’s right, the people we dream about as kids, cheering us on and celebrating our triumphs, had become a heavy source of pressure. He described feeling obligated to make sure he deserved their attention and adoration. While it is not uncommon to hear players talk about the negative aspects of unruly or unhappy fans, many do not realize that some players feel as though they need to “please” fans with results.
While pressure (real or imagined) can be overwhelming, there are others who feel a sense of pressure because of previous poor outings. There was a pitcher I was working with who had had a terrible outing during a playoff game, resulting in his team losing. To be honest, it was probably the worst game he had pitched since he was a kid. And it left a mark. As the new season started, each time he took the mound he would visualize poor pitches and the deflated looks on his teammates faces. Simply, he just could not let go. His peers and coaches pleaded with him to “move on” and “forget the past”, but for him it lingered like a tremendous burden. As a result, each outing became a laboring exercise, and a lack of focus on the present moment.
Another source of falling into a hole is about being overloaded. Different than feeling pressure, this is about pressing for results, being overtrained, or suffering from burnout. Each of these has more complex issues involved, but for the purposes of this article, these are about physical states negatively influencing our psychological state. I’ve worked with athletes who become nearly obsessed with getting specific outcomes, and then end up trying too hard. A sprinter I worked with comes to mind. She was so intent on running a specific time to beat another runner that she ended up becoming too tight. This didn’t allow her to execute her natural stride and run fluidly. Backing off that focus allowed her to be more lose and run faster. In the same season, I was working with a distance runner who was convinced that she needed extra work to reach her goal of dropping her time. So she began running extra miles outside of practice, disregarding the training plan her coach had set. The result was fatigued muscles that could not recover, as well as causing dis-regulation of her metabolism and cardiovascular system.
So how does an athlete “get out of the hole”? The first step is to recognize the cause. If the issue is stress (see above examples about pressure), then the athlete can work with the coach to scale it down. Essentially, the best course of action is to simplify and go back to working on fundamentals. A common phrase for this is to “stay within yourself”, or to “not do too much”. However, these are often given as advice during a game/competition. However, the best use of this strategy is during practice or training. Bring it back to simple execution in routine situations to regain the feel for execution. In coordination, emphasize recognition of positive execution and effort, and deliberately recall past successes to remind yourself of what you know how to do.
Secondarily, if the cause of the slump is feeling overwhelmed, then you need to scale it back. Yes, this sounds similar to the above recommendation. However, the focus here is to implement the axiom “less is more”. The athlete would benefit from taking a few days off to re-energize, and feel fresh. If burnout is the issue, shorten practice with quick and simple activities that avoid boredom. If pressing is the issue, lessen the focus of practice by narrowing the focus of situation and execution. Keep things simple, and lessen the volume of information. These strategies provide an opportunity to increase the value of practice by limiting the amount of time spent. They also give the athlete a chance to “get away” without “cashing out”. Helping yourself (or your athletes) stay fresh means letting go and doing less.
As I noted at the start, betting stuck in a hole is complicated. And getting out of it requires knowing why you ended up there. In each of the scenarios and remedies noted, the key is to find a way to alter your perspective and simplify. Keep things simple and narrow your focus of expectations to execution. Should you find yourself needing more help in this area, why wait? Make the call, bring in an expert.