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DEVELOPING A MENTAL SKILLS PROGRAM FOR TEAMS

Posted by BOB TWIDLE on Dec 14 2006 at 04:00PM PST
How to Develop a Mental Skills Program - Ray Lauenstein, MS There comes a point in a player or teams lifetime that the level of competition it competes at becomes a level playing field. The higher up the ladder one climbs: HS, Junior Nationals, College, Professional or simply through the state playoff system, the less variations in physical skill you see from team to team and player to player. Given that the talent levels are pretty much equal, what can be done to separate from the pack? What can be the “difference maker!” Where can you find an advantage? Equipment? No, everyone has access to the same bats, balls, gloves and pitching machines. Coaching? Perhaps in a few cases, but most coaches at the higher levels are sound students of the game. Physical tools? To a degree yes, but the higher you go, the more alike players become in these areas. What does that leave you with? It goes by many names: “The mental game”, “Mental skills”, “ Mental Toughness.” Whatever you want to call it is fine, but the basics are the same. Teams and athletes with sound mental skills will routinely be at the top of the level they compete in? Why? Reasons why mentally tough players and teams succeed: 1. They perform consistently well regardless of competition or pressure. 2. They rarely slump and when they do slump, they are able to adjust and snap out of it quickly. 3. They are focused on performance more than outcomes. The consistent performance leads to positive outcomes over time. 4. They practice with a purpose and understand how each small aspect of practice relates to the greater picture of individual and team goals. 5. They are not afraid to takes risks, step outside their comfort zones and learn from their failures. No one ever got much better without trying something new or out of the ordinary. 6. They have the skills to deal with short term or normal game/match failures by refocusing on the next task at hand quickly and clearing the past from their thoughts. Operationally defining mental skills in action. The concept of mental skills can seem theoretical and that often turns players and coaches off from giving it a fair shot. Take the time to think through the possible benefits and cause effect relationships mental toughness presents. Below are several scenarios where real life is brought into mental skills. 1. Leaving the bad behind and moving forward. How often do you see a player strike out and carry it out into the field with him where he promptly makes a mental error or a boots a routine play? You can see the body language in action: head down, kicking the dirt, no chatter or communication to other players, etc. In essence the player is playing the field while still carrying the bat with him. Or how about the pitcher who throws a bad pitch and on the next pitch tries to make up for it by throwing two strikes at once, only to fail from trying too hard. Players and coaches need to understand the warning signs of a player loosing control and not “releasing” the prior performance. Body language is an indicator: tightened muscle action, physical sign of irritation such as a snap of the glove at the ball when taking the throw from the catcher, or jamming a golf club into the bag after a poor shot, change of pace from normal performance routine, shallow breathing, and so on. The key is to be able to notice these things and intervene before it is too late. Ways to intervene include taking a few deep breaths, incorporating self-talk, sprinting out to the field as a release of the pent-up energy, etc. Interventions are specific to each player and the written and physical confines of the given sport. 2. Slumping. Slumps are treated in sport as part plague and part voo doo. Athletes always talk about being in a slump; in fact there is an analysis to paralysis syndrome going on. Athletes talk so much about what they are doing wrong that it becomes reinforced even more. Add to it the comments or ideas from teammates, relatives, friends, coaches and media and you have a confused player, who presses to find a fix, and ultimately gets away from the basics that made them who they are in the first place. Simplify things when you slump! On the other side of the coin is a red-hot player who will not talk about his current string of “luck” for fear of jinxing it! If you notice the attribution cycle in effect, there are internal attributions of failure (me) for slumping and external attributions (luck) for success . Why wouldn’t you talk about success and want to reinforce those things you do well. Is it really just luck and something you cannot hope to recreate until another magic “stroke of luck” passes again? Or is it a fluid union of well learned skills executed flawlessly in a competitive environment? Mentally tough players are able to understand what they do when things go well and revert back to them during a short slump. Some keep logs about what their thoughts are and what they do for training, diet and sleep. Others study video. Players who do not slump for long periods of time keep a consistent approach to the game, believe in themselves and their approach and only make changes when they see a deviation from what is the norm. 3. Pressure/Perform- relax etc. Feeling pressure is a fact of life for all players. Pressure builds from many angles: Self pressure or a drive for perfection, parental pressure to not let them down, financial pressure if you are hoping to earn scholarship money for school, team pressure, pressure of being scouted, fear of failure, and many other complex psycho-social interactions which add to a players perception of pressure. Athlete’s who perform under pressure usually enjoy the challenge of the situation. Fear of failure might be a motivator, but it usually leads to avoidance behaviors such as malingering (prolonged injury), reduced effort, or behavior that leads to punishment (benching). Excelling under pressure requires several skills: a. Focus on the task at hand only. When you are task focused, external variables, which often create the perception of stress, seem to vanish. b. Physical Relaxation. Maintain steady breathing; conduct your normal pre-performance routine, and normal muscular tension for the task you are performing. NOTE: Fine motor control movements such as putting a golf ball, or shooting an arrow require a different amount of muscle tension versus putting the shot, a corner soccer kick or jumping for a rebound. c. Confidence. Belief that you can actually do what it is you are being asked to do. Confidence goes a lot farther then people think. Being confident averts the need to overly think something through prior to performance (Remember, analysis = paraysis). d. Been there done that! Nothing can replace experience, which is why a veteran team or players often (not always) plays better under pressure. Many athletes are able to create valuable experience via advanced imagery techniques. e. Practice. Winning is pressure situations is made possible by practices which prepare for these moments. Intensity, situation simulation, scrimmages, repetition under pressure. They all play a part. 4. Practice- Mentally tough players understand that the practice field is where they are made. Nobody turns it on just for games, especially the higher up the ladder you climb. It simply can’t be done. Even the great ones can’t mail it in and expect not to get burned. Michael Jordan earned a reputation as a fierce, if not maniacal, practice player. His career speaks for itself. For an athlete each practice presents an opportunity to: - Improve focus –on tasks at hand - Set small goals – work on them and achieve success - Simulate game situation challenges – virtually any situation can be rehearsed. - Fine tune strengths and develop weaker parts of the game- you will not try a new dive or move for the first time during the league championships! You do it in practice first. Coaches should understand that practice must mirror game pressure and situation as much as possible if they expect their players to perform. Do not expect your players to hit curves if they never see them in practice. A QB cannot run a 2-minute drill unless he practices it at full speed on Wednesday, and corner kicks are lost without plenty of repetitions in practice. 5. Confidence- Numerous studies published in peer reviewed Sport Psychology journals indicate a strong relationship between an athlete’s self-confidence and his/her ability to perform. Basically, a confident player will outperform one or of equal or more ability, who is not confident. Confidence has many faces… Confidence that you know you can do the task at hand –I can set this ball precisely where my hitter needs it! - Confidence that you can do the work or put in the time to prepare for the task at hand! Confidence that you are fully prepared and ready for the task(s) at hand – healthy, fit, rehearsed! Confidence in your teammates abilities to do their part of the overall task- trust was built during practice and preseason; successful and perfect practice. Confidence that you can overcome failures and bounce back – the first setback does not railroad you, it offers a lesson to improve upon and get better next time(s.) Building Confidence Some people seem to be born with an endless supply of confidence and borderline cockiness. Yet all people harbor thoughts of self-doubt from time to time. How is confidence built? In many ways! Confidence is built by… a. Positive and affirmative self-thoughts and internal talk. b. Achieving in practice what is expected and encountered in competition. (See point 4) c. Knowing that you are physically, mentally, emotionally and strategically prepared for competition. d. Setting, striving for and reaching goals e. Learning from failures –don’t dwell, objectively look at what you did and admit weaknesses (call them development areas, it implies you can work to develop them) f. Willingness to risk failure even if it means doing what is not comfortable or usual. Self confidence is seen in how people walk, talk and carry themselves in general. All athletes should carry their head high, stand tall and be assertive. Strong physiology and body language will reinforce the feeling of confidence. Basic tools of mental toughness training. 1. Self and team knowledge. Assess the strengths and weaknesses of the team and individuals. Imagine knowing you have strong legs and a weak upper body. Also imagine that the upper body weakness was causing your performance to suffer. Would if make sense to just focus on legs because they are easy to work and you feel good about the strength you have there? No, of course not! You will work on the upper body! The same is true mentally. If your team blows leads late in the game all the time, you have a problem. A good coach will address the issue: conditioning, late game defense, holding onto a lead against a pressing defense, missed free throws, etc.– and force you to work it out in practice. If you don’t analyze where you lost the edge, how do you know where to find it? Many coaches ask how to develop mentally stronger teams and players. The key is creating a long term program that is reinforced each practice and game. In addition the program needs to be split up into a team and individual aspect. Take the following steps when incorporating a mental skills program. 2. Educate yourself first. There are two excellent resources on the market today for preparing mentally, both sport specific and general. Baseball players should read ‘Heads up Baseball: Playing One Pitch at a Time” by Ken Ravizza and Tom Hanson and also “The Mental Game of Baseball” by Harvey Dorfman and Karl Kuehl. These two books will give you ample materials to work with. I recommend the Mental Training for Peak Performance by Steve Ungerleider for general concepts as well as sports like cycling, running, skiing and swimming. Take your pick for golf, there are dozens, and many for tennis. Go to www.humankinetics.com, the leading publisher of sport related resources and there are over a dozen books on Sports Psychology. You don’t need to be a psychologist or hold a Ph.D. to understand the principles of mental toughness training. What makes these books so helpful is that they give the average person a very easy to use format for incorporating mental skills into a regular practice or training session. 3. Evaluate your team and individual players for strengths and weaknesses. To target your application of mental skills you must know what you do well and what you don’t, both as a team and as individuals. For example, does your team: Lose leads late in the game, have trouble coming back, and play better on the road or at home? Understanding the things you do well will help you attack the things you don’t. With this knowledge you can make weaknesses a focused goal to work on in practices. Setting up scrimmage scenarios is a great way to help your team achieve success in areas of weaknesses. 4. Educate the players and parents on the efficacy and goals of the program. Explain how it works, why you want to do it, what you expect, how the parents can support the efforts. Encourage parents to read the books you have read so that they become invested. 5. Meet with each player on an individual basis. Pinpoint strong and weak points. Devise a plan to attack those. It always helps to ask a player what he things his strong areas are and what areas need development. As a coach you might approach this as part of your “player development” program - every college and pro team has one - and the area you see needing work will seem like a positive thing for the player as he is now “Developing” himself rather than having a weakness pointed out. 6. Start simple. Set goals for each practice which are targeted at solving a bigger issue and also works toward building team confidence. 7. Repetition. Just like hitting and fielding, mental skills require constant work so that they become second nature when game pressure is on. For example, reinforce goal setting by asking players to have a small goal for each swing in the cage. One day it might be “quick hands”, another it is “keep your weight back longer”, and finally “throw the hands.” These can be tailored to each player as needed and tailored to your coaching philosophy. 8. Evaluate often. Check in with players about how they are feeling. Do they see improvement with any of the weak points you discussed? Are the strong points still strong? Are they finding the program useful? Do they have suggestions or questions? Work with the players. Make feedback voluntary and anonymous in necessary. Summary The key to a mental skills program is to go slow and gradual. Don’t feed the players too much at once. If players don’t want to buy into it, don’t force them. Allow them to come around on their own. When given an honest try, mental skills programs work and make better players.

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