IN THIS ISSUE:
Concentration is the key to athletic excellence. All too often an athlete or team’s faulty focus gets them into hot water performance-wise.
One important aspect of concentration is being able to stay focused on what YOU are doing. When athletes stop focusing on themselves and instead begin to think too much about the competition, then choking and performance problems are the end result. In this issue, we will focus (no pun intended) on this
important aspect of concentration.
ATHLETE’S LOCKER – “Concentrate on YOU for peak performance”
PARENTS’ CORNER – ” Did you know that MY kid is the BEST athlete in the
COACH’S OFFICE – “How to balance your scouting reports so they don’t distract
or psych your own team out”
DR. G’S TEACHING TALES – “How to never get psyched out again.”
“Concentrate on YOU for peak performance”
If concentration is the key to athletic excellence, then mistakes in concentration are the primary reason that athletes struggle performance-wise. Choking, slumps, performance problems, fears and lack of self-confidence can all be traced to the athlete’s mental mistakes in focusing. If you want to develop mental toughness and start performing more to your potential, then you have to begin to learn how to better control your focus of concentration. In particular, you had better learn how to keep your concentration squarely focused on you and what you’re doing. Let me explain.
Just about every athlete has had the heart-warming experience of getting psyched out or intimidated. You know the story. You’re feeling good about yourself and your game until you catch a glimpse of the opponent(s). Maybe they’re bigger, faster, stronger, better, smarter, etc. than you. Perhaps they have a more snazzy, expensive warm-up than you. Maybe it’s the matching back pack so professionally strung across their shoulder or that they have
the very latest in equipment. Perhaps, you notice that they’re using that new, high- powered, under-arm deodorant. Whatever it is about them that you think gives them the competitive edge over you, the sight of this opponent begins to strike terror into your little heart. You start to break out into a cold sweat. Your confidence drains suddenly to empty. Your knees turn into Jell- O and your arms and legs feel like lead. And the weirdest thing of all…You just can’t seem to stop focusing on them! You’re like a deer in headlights. Are you ever in trouble!
Isn’t it interesting that after spending all this energy on your opponent, your performance tends to go down the old tubes. That’s because 95 out of 100 athletes get knocked off center by focusing too much on their opponents. It is the MAJOR cause of psych-outs and intimidation. If you’re in that rare 5% and you always do better by concentrating on the opposition, then keep doing it. For the rest of you, listen up! Why, on earth would anyone in their right mind concentrate on something that makes them nervous, kills their confidence and destroys their game? Exactly…for NO good reason!
One key job an athlete has is to “stay inside himself” when he performs. That means the athlete needs to go out there and do what he does best. He needs to stick to basics and “play his own game”, “run her own race”, “Skate her own program”, etc. However, when you get too caught up in how skilled and wonderful you imagine your opponent to be, there is a tendency to begin to step outside yourself and try too hard. The internal thinking goes like this:
“She’s so good that I have to do something extraordinary just to be able to stay in the game with her.” The minute you start “bearing down” and trying too hard you are sunk! As an athlete your major concentration job is to stay focused on what YOU are doing. You need to block out your opponent and everything about them unless there are some strategic things that are USEFUL to consider and that will ultimately HELP your performance. In English this means that you should not get caught up comparing yourself with the opponent, unless you’d like to feel lousy about yourself. Comparing is a wonderful technique that far too many athletes use to kill their confidence.
Remember, the competition is inside of you. Your toughest opponent isn’t out there! He/she is inside. Go look in the mirror and you’ll see who the real opponent is. When you focus on how strong or talented the opposing team is, they don’t end up beating you! You end up beating yourself!
So practice focusing on YOU. When your concentration starts to wander to your opponent’s fancy $2000.00 a pair “Lair Mike’s” (we are not doing any advertising for a certain shoe company you may have heard of), quickly and gently bring your focus back to you and what you are doing at that moment. EVERYTIME you find your focus leaving what’s important and heading over to your opponent or even a teammate who you’re competitive with, IMMEDIATELY BRING YOURSELF BACK!
Be patient here. If you drift a lot, no problem! BRING YOURSELF BACK A LOT! A break in concentration won’t psych you out or ruin your game. What will wreck your confidence and tighten you up is a break in concentration that you don’t catch! Begin today to strengthen your ability to stay focused on yourself. Practice the “ball stare” exercise. Sit in front of a ball, puck, trophy, etc. Pick a spot on it and calmly focus on that spot. When your mind drifts, and it sure will, quickly bring yourself back to the spot. Try doing this for 3-4 minutes a day and you’ll further develop your ability to “stay inside yourself.”
“My kid is the best athlete in the world”
In my vast experience of the human condition it’s not unusual for parents to
have a slightly distorted picture of their child’s athletic prowess and potential, yours truly included. Just as every child goes through a stage when they see their parents as the strongest, fastest, smartest in the world, (Oh, why couldn’t they still feel that way about me today!!!!!!), so too do some parents view their athletic offspring in this very same way. “I don’t want to brag or anything but my Billy has the ability to catch in the BIG’s! That’s B-I-G as in Major Leagues!” “Yeah, but my sally is going to skate in the Olympics! And you can take that to the bank!!!!”
Sooner or later, every child grows out of this “my parents are the greatest” stage and then, in adolescence, enters the “my parents are total idiots and a massive embarrassment” stage. Unfortunately, however, while their children move on, some parents don’t suffering from a kind of arrested development. That is, they never seem to grow out of the notion that their children will be supporting their retirement with a lucrative, multi-year contract with a major professional sports organization. While this occasionally does happen (about as frequently as getting struck by lightening 7 years in a row, at 7:00pm on consecutive June 7th’s), the VAST majority of the time our child stars do not grow up to follow in the lucrative footsteps of Michael and Tiger. So sorry! I don’t mean to burst your bubble. It’s just a harsh reality that some parents must come to terms with and a good argument why these same parents need to help their children keep the sport in perspective. If you’ve read the Mental Toughness Newsletter before, then you’ve already heard my opinions about what the primary goals of your child’s sport should be: To HAVE FUN and HELP THE CHILD FEEL GOOD ABOUT HIM/HERSELF. When organized the right way, with appropriate adults involved, kids should come out of their competitive sports experience feeling stronger and better about themselves. Unfortunately this doesn’t always happen…But that’s another story…
As a parent you can help your child through this process by making sure that they don’t lose sight of these important goals AND by making sure that you keep your child focused in the right way. How do you keep your child focused in the right way? By encouraging him/her to concentrate on him/herself and NO ONE ELSE. Think about this. When athletes focus too much on the competition, on others outside themselves, they consistently run into performance problems. Similarly, when parents focus too much on their child’s competition, and those individuals who they feel their child needs to beat or outperform, not only will that parent be an unhappy camper, but he/she will ultimately end up inadvertently “sharing” some of this unhappiness with their child-athlete.So what I am saying is simple and basic. Keep your child focused on themselves and what they are doing. If another athlete on the team moves up to a higher level, help your child stay out of the “comparison trap.” Don’t complain to, or question the coach why your child isn’t moving up and Sally/Johnny is. Encourage your child to push his/her own limits. They can’t do this if you are feeding them the “comparison diet.” Infamous figure skater Tonya Harding’s mother used to feed her daughter a steady diet of this comparison poison, “If you can’t be # 1 honey, then you’re nothing.” Now there’s a recipe for disaster.
If another member of the team excels and wins an award be gracious and complementary. Don’t put that athlete down or share your jealousies with your child. It will not do them any good to feel and hear you being unable to keep their sport in perspective. You will also be inadvertently teaching them a terrible lesson about handling others’ successes. If you feel terrible when their teammates excel, you’ll teach them how to do that for themselves.
I think one of the “hooks” that frequently catches parents and causes them to do this is somehow feeling diminished themselves if little Johnny gets out- played, scored on or out-run by an opponent or even a teammate. Little, evil, hideous (and not-so-abnormal) feelings of jealousy begin to ooze up from the primal depths of the unconscious into a parent’s consciousness and start to cloud both good sense and perspective. When left unchecked, these feelings can get a parent cheering just a little bit too hard for their child and taking just a little too much pleasure in some other kid’s failure. Sometimes these feelings can cause a parent to push a child too much to excel and win, regardless of the means.
If you are aware of entertaining any of these normal feelings, don’t despair and please don’t waste any time feeling guilty. Instead, simply work on helping your child focus on him/herself. Remember, the real opponent is inside, not out there. Therefore it is important that you DON’T focus your child on beating another teammate or opponent. Challenge them to go for it and to push their own envelope, to go as far as possible for them. In this way, each child can feel successful. In this way each child can feel like a winner. After all, isn’t this supposed to be what youth sports is all about?
“How to balance your scouting reports so they don’t distract or psych your own team out.”
I sat in the back of the room listening to a high school football coach’s
assessment of the opposing team that his squad was going to have to face the next morning. The coach was sincerely trying to ready his men for the challenge that lay ahead. Let’s listen in….”These guys are big! They’re strong! They are incredibly fast! They have one of the best quarterbacks in the State and they have two great receivers! To date they are unbeaten in our conference.” Just as the coach finished his “objective” analysis, and before he could branch off into what he wanted his athletes to do to combat all this firepower, I heard one of his better players mumble under his breath to another teammate, “We are toast!! We are so in big trouble!” And so they were……
There is no question that having some sense of who your opponent is and what their strengths & weaknesses are can be valuable to a winning effort.
However, there is a fine line between readying your team for the contest and
completely psyching them out. Unfortunately, and inadvertently, this football coach did the latter. His team went out the next day and got totally hammered. They played tentatively and completely intimidated.
There’s no question that concentration is the key to athletic excellence. What your athletes focus on before and during the game determines whether they’ll soar with the eagles or cluck with the turkeys. Pre-game focusing is therefore a critical component in getting your athletes to perform the way they’ve been trained. Getting your athletes to focus on themselves, their job, and playing their own game is the heart of pre-game focusing.
John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach of UCLA was said to have never scouted his opponents before games. His reasoning was simple. He felt if his team played their own game and executed correctly, they would have done everything in their power to increase the chances of winning. Obviously coach Wooden knew what he was doing. His teams won an unprecedented 10 national championships. Does this mean that you need to completely avoid scouting the opponents? Not necessarily! I think that having a sense of your opponent’s style of play and their strengths and weaknesses is critical. What it does mean, however, is that you have to carefully balance the info that you give them so that you prepare your athletes for the competition without getting them overly focused on and psyched out by the opponent. Remember, one of the major causes of psych-outs and performance-disrupting intimidation in athletes is focusing on the real and/or imagined strengths of the opponent. When an athlete gives too much “air time” in his/her head to the opponent they tend to get knocked off center and out of their game.
Believing that the competition is too powerful leads athletes into playing poorly in one of two ways. First, like the football squad mentioned above, the athlete will come out completely intimidated and tentative. Second, the athlete will attempt to raise the level of their game to meet the imagined challenge. Trying to raise the level of your play because of the opponent is a huge mental trap. It causes an athlete or team to step outside themselves and start pressing. They stop doing what usually works for them and begin to try too hard. As far as performance goes, trying too hard is absolutely deadly! The pitcher who tries too hard loses his speed and control. The basketball player caught up in trying too hard starts forcing his shots and committing stupid turn-overs. The runner or swimmer trying too hard tightens up and slows down. Trying too hard is the game of diminishing returns: The harder you try, the worse that you’ll play.
When you present any scouting info on the opponent you must keep this trap in the back of your mind. Emphasize what your team and each athlete needs to do in order to neutralize or undercut the opponent’s strengths. Focus your athletes on playing their game and staying inside themselves. Label the “trying too hard” trap and help your athletes stay calm and loose before the contest. Being loose and relaxed pre-game is one of the keys to peak performance. Also be sure that you keep your athletes focused on what you want them to do, not what you don’t want them to do. One of the most common mistakes that coaches make is using the word “don’t.” “Don’t let them score here.” “Don’t go out and foul.” “Whatever we do, don’t let them get the ball on the inbounds.” “Don’t fall asleep on the restarts!” Coaching by focusing your athletes on what you don’t want to have happen will get you exactly that! You can use the word “don’t” all you want in your coaching as long as you follow it by EXACTLY WHAT YOU WANT YOUR ATHLETES TO DO! However, in clutch situations, I’d advise you to keep your athletes completely focused on what they want to have happen, not what they are afraid will happen.
DR. G’S TEACHING TALES
“How to never get psyched out again”
I must have been all of 16 when I went to this prestigious invitational tournament. It was my very first appearance there and I had been excitedly looking forward to competing and demonstrating that I too could play at a higher level. I had spent many hours honing my game and was ready physically. I was in great shape and could run all day. If opponents were technically better than me or physically stronger, then I’d make up for those deficits by physically and emotionaly wearing them down. I was a human backboard. I was not a very overpowering player. However, everything that was hit to me would come back. Because of this, one of my biggest advantages was my
opponent’s frustration level. I would carefully cultivate it during a match and then use it to win. As I walked onto the court for my very first match I felt surprisingly calm and confident. I had looked at the draw sheet and didn’t know my opponent. No problem there having to play a top seed. And I smugly thought that my opponent had absolutely no idea what he was in for. I was early and my guy was nowhere to be found so I began to stretch and loosen up my arms and legs.
As I did so my confidence began to grow. I was ready. I really belonged here. This was going to be great. Then my opponent walked onto the court and I quickly sized him up. He was my height, about 5′ 8″and kind of thin. However, what immediately caught my eye were the 5 brand new, matching racquets confidently tucked under his right arm. He introduced himself to me and I couldn’t seem to take my eyes off those 5 brand new racquets. In a span of less than a minute he had grown another half a foot and stood 6′ 2, with bulging muscles, looking down at me.
As I looked at his new sticks I knew I was in big trouble! In my mind those racquets meant one thing, this kid was good! He must have had a racquet contract with the manufacturer and everyone knows that those companies just didn’t give freebies to anyone. You had to have a tournament record that proved that you deserved them. Ever been psyched out or intimidated before? Well, it always comes when you make one very basic mental mistake. Concentrating too much on your opponent!
To perform your best you have to focus on you, your game and your job! Spend too much time “admiring” your opponent and you’ll mentally take yourself right out of the competition. Like a rabbit in headlights I just couldn’t pull my eyes and mind from those racquets. As we warmed up I kept thinking about how talented this kid must be. And he looked so tall all of a sudden. I bet he was at least 6′ 6″ and built like a rock! I was so unnerved that I didn’t even stop to calmly assess my opponent’s actual game. All I could see was his imaginary one based on those 5 racquets. I don’t know if I thought this kid was some kind of Octopoid and that he was going to use all 5 sticks at once to beat me into the court. So when you warm up, what’s your job? That’s right, to loosen YOU up. To get a good feel for YOUR strokes and YOUR game. To build up YOUR heart rate. And, in tennis, to make some initial assessments about your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately I did none of these because I was too concerned with HIS imaginary strengths. In my head, HE had no weaknesses, even though, had I opened my eyes, I would have been able to see them clearly. And I’ve never played someone so tall before. I bet he stood at least 6′ 8″…I mean this guy was a monster! When the match started I was a bit in awe. In tennis, as in any other sport,
your job is to relax, stay inside yourself and play your OWN game. Trying too hard, pressing, attempting to do things that you don’t ordinarily do will only tie you up in knots and destroy your performance. However, in my stress induced, pea-sized brain this wasn’t an ordinary situation I was in. It was, in fact, an extraordinary situation. And, I reasoned in my oxygen-starved brain that extraordinary situations called for extraordinary efforts! Therefore, I felt that my normal game of staying back and wearing my opponent down would not be adequate enough to beat this 5-racquet wielding, fire-breathing, 7 foot super-hero. So I started trying too hard. I went for winners on almost every ball I could. I rarely go for winners. I tried to attack the net on everything! I’m usually far more patient and selective about coming up to the net. I was, in short, playing some of the more mentally challenged tennis of my short career.
Before I knew it I was down in the match 3 games to 0. What do you expect playing someone so good, someone with 5 brand new racquets!!!? I kept trying too hard, going for winners and making tons of unforced errors. In no time it was now 6 – 0 and he had easily won the first set. My word, I thought, he was so unbeatable!!!! It is a known fact that when you’re nervous you have extremely limited access to your brain cells. I kept pressing and going for winners and in a flash I was now down 3 – 0 in the second and final set. And that’s when I gave up……What was the point I reasoned? This guy and all his racquets were too much for me. He was unbeatable…so I stopped pressing, stopped going for winners and just relaxed. Isn’t it funny that you will ALWAYS play your best when you have absolutely nothing to lose? When you have nothing to lose who your opponent is, is mostly irrelevant. So I kept the ball in play and the very first point I did this, this guy hit the ball out. I didn’t think much of his mistake and continued to just get the ball back. After-all, I was toast! No way I was going to win…..and then he hit another ball out and then another. I was completely dumbfounded as I watched this “great” player make one stupid mistake after another. I suddenly realized that just by getting the ball back I was giving him an opportunity to demonstrate his true game. As I climbed back into the match, I couldn’t believe how stupid I had been by assuming how good he was. I had totally psyched myself out! Only on this day, I was very lucky to learn my lesson before it was too late. FOCUS ON YOU. PLAY YOUR GAME. FORGET YOUR OPPONENT! CONCENTRATE ON YOUR JOB AND WHAT YOU DO BEST AND YOU’LL NEVER GET PSYCHED OUT AGAIN.
Are you consistently underachieving or struggling with a performance difficulty? Call me today, I can help.