This week is the start of the high school spring season in the Sacramento region. This means the afternoons on campuses will be filled with the sounds of popping leather during games of catch, whistles starting sprints on the track and in the pool, the cracking of bats in the cage, and coaches barking instructions across the field. In this era of sport, there is a strong likelihood a majority of these athletes have spent the winter months honing their skills, strengthening their muscles, and developing new talents through specialized training. But how many have been working on mental skills? As this new season gets underway, I wanted to put out a few pieces of advice that are often overlooked elements of mentally preparing to compete.
In my experience, one of the critical elements of athletics that gets lost is the value of keeping it fun. Instead, in my interactions with clients I hear constant reference to the need to reach certain achievements or marks in order to “be ready for college”, or to get the infamous scholarship. The focus then becomes an environment of pressure. Coaches are pushing harder to get athletes on to the “next level”, and to justify their own efforts. Others are seeking wins and titles as validation of their position. Similarly, I hear of parents looking for the “investment on return”, believing that having their child earn a scholarship is going to repay all of the hours and fees during youth and prep sport. The way this shows up in my office is an athlete struggling with burnout or overtraining. Thus, one of the key things I try to do is help athletes regain the fun.
A simple way of putting fun back into your sport is to reflect on what got you interested in the first place. What did you like about playing when you first realized the passion you found? Another method is to put games into training. Pete Carol is well known for creating a high performance culture by asking his players to compete in everything they do. I love this idea, and you should understand this doesn’t mean it needs to be intense at all times. Intead, try putting competiitve games into practices. Pitchers can rank the amount of movement on a breaking ball while they work in the pen together. Winner gets a day off from raking. A relay team can compete to execute the cleanest pass in the middle of the zone. Winner gets the first ice bath at the end of practice. By putting play into skill development you increase motivation, and build mental flexibility in your athletes as they test themselves to improve.
A second important strategy to starting your season well is to implement goal setting. This is a skill I have written about frequently, and that should tell you the value it has. Yet, doing it in a certain way is important. One of the most critical aspects is to have athletes set goals for themselves. Coaches (and parents) who try to set goals for teams and individuals steal autonomy, and this can crush motivation and work as self-sabotage. In my experience, coaching to help athletes reach their own goals is much more fun and rewarding for all involved.
In addition to allowing athletes to create goals for themselves, other key factors need to be implemented. The goals being set should be a reasonable challenge athletes recognize as motivating. This promotes growth at a more rapid pace than does the pressure to please someone else. An athlete’s goals should also be linked to his/her own personal values for competing. Allow an athlete to set goals that maintain a connection to their own values. Once set, an athlete benefits from breaking their goals into “chunks” that can be monitored throughout the season. Doing so utilizes a continuous proces as a measuring stick of progress, rather than as an absolute measure of success/failure. When doing this with my own clients and athletes, I have found they benefit from being able to recognize their own progress, and take ownership for things that need improvement.
A final strategy to implement into the start of this coming season is to practice gratitude frequently. Too often we allow our approach to sport to become “work”. The culture around athletetics has become a homage to those who can “grind” more than others. For the majority, this results in the burnout and overtraining state I mentioned previously. I like to remind athletes that participation in sport is actually a choice, and one that many others around the world will not have an opportunity to make. Being grateful for the chance to compete, in something you find interesting and rewarding, while also improving your physical health is something we would be wise to remember. We are priveledged to live in a society that promotes and celebrates athletes. Seeing the “spotlight” as part of that celebration can often times protect you from the unfair criticisms and pressures others try to put upon us.
As a word of caution, I also don’t mean to imply that gratitiude should be seen as an exercise of obligation to coaches or parents. Unfair treatment of athletes can and does happen, and these people do not deserve gratitude. However, there are strong psychological benefits to authentic contemplation of what you are grateful for in the opportunity you have. Doing so develops resilience and determination when things do get difficult, because the athlete is reminded that all situations are fleeting, and there is something to look forward to when hardship ends.
So I wish all of you who are starting a new season the best of success. If you trained hard over the off-season, this is a moment you should anticipate with excitemet. But don’t neglect important mental skills that will help you throughout the season. Remember to instill fun into your training. Set goals as an athlete that are important to you. And take time to reflect on what you have to be grateful for as you train for the competitions ahead of you. Should you find yourself needing more help in this area, why wait? Make the call, bring in an expert.