A while back I was working with a baseball player who came to see me because he was struggling with simple execution. He talked about being extremely frustrated with “hiccups” with throwing. He had tried quite a few tricks, most from suggestions of his coaches and teammates, but nothing seemed to help. In fact, the more he worked on getting past the issue, the worse it seemed to get. According to him, the more aware he became of the issue, the harder it was to do something he had previously done with ease thousands of times before. And he isn’t alone. I’ve had several athletes in various sports talk to me about similar experiences. Wrestlers who couldn’t “pull the trigger”, golfers who “yipped” with certain strokes in a game, and quarterbacks who seemed to “lock up” when a throwing lane opened up. The root cause for each of them was different, but once the pattern emerged, the bigger issue became anxiety about the issue itself. Through these experiences, I’ve come up with a general process of correction that can be used in coordination with other work I do with the athlete.
The long and short is to go back to the beginning – know what the goal of what the movement is intended to accomplish. Although I frequently talk about avoiding outcome focus during execution, this is different. The intention here is to provide insight into the most efficient/beneficial movement to get the outcome you are looking for. This then highlights what the movement should look and feel like, and becomes a starting point for bringing training back to basic fundamentals.
Once you recognize what the physical skill should look like, break it down into simple elements or segments that make up the whole. Much like the whole-part-whole dynamic of teaching new skills to beginners, each of the segments can then be worked on in training as ways to relearn correct movement patterns. As an example, an infielder can break down fielding and throwing into elements of receiving the ball, setting a base, transferring to a throwing position, throwing the ball and following through. And with each of the sport specific examples identified in the opening, you can likely see how this would work for each of them. Practice can then be done with each segment separately to ingrain the movement, and then “zip” them back together to relearn the entire movement pattern.
As the athlete improves the movement pattern, other variables can then be introduced to target what is triggering the anxiety, as well as challenge the athlete for greater response time and accuracy (sport dependent). For example, the quarterback may be struggling with the proximity of defensive pressure. Once he has demonstrated an ability to perform the entire movement pattern cleanly, he can add in bodies or objects that mimic a throwing lane, then movement of bodies coming close to him, with increasing intensity as he masters being calm and executing cleanly. This execution work can then be paired with mental skills that promote managing emotions, maintaining focus, and other psychological factors.
Another key factor to address here is athlete motivation and confidence. Both of these can be addressed by giving the athlete an opportunity of “ownership” by implementing her own creativity. Often times coaches design the entire drill, and then present expectations for results. This can hamper improvement as the athlete once again experiences pressure before feeling good about how she is executing. Instead, allow the athlete to design aspects of the drill by giving herself a challenge. In a sense, making a fun game out of the movement work. As an example, a golfer struggling with putting might challenge herself with proximity circles around the cup. While practicing, she can attempt to score a certain number of points by having the ball stop inside circles of varying values (10 putts that score 40 points; 10 points for the hole, 5 for the first circle, and 3 points for a second larger circle). As her execution improves, she can change the point values, or alter the number of strokes to score the point total. This type of “play-work” can be implemented into any type of sport, and returns the element of fun back to a pressure situation.
I often remind athletes that the toughest part of sport is that each is testing us to failure. Although we are told that we are “playing”, and that things should be “fun”, the reality is that expectations (of ourselves, or by others) creates a sense of pressure that can start to erode our ability to execute seemingly simple skills. While working with a sport psychology professional can help to alter the psychological patterns that get us off track, there are also physical dynamics that mental coaches can help with as well. Should you find yourself needing more help in this area, why wait? Make the call, bring in an expert.