Where Slumps Really Come from and How to Help Struggling Athletes
Where Slumps Really Come from and How to Help Struggling Athletes
Slumps and repetitive performance problems are a natural and terribly frustrating part of any sport. They can sometimes drive coaches to distraction and athletes into quitting or early retirement!
Unless you can learn to constructively handle times when you fall into a slump or suddenly have problems performing in your sport, you’ll have a difficult time reaching your full potential.
So where do slumps come from? It could be from a number of places:
- A bad performance at a really BIG game
- Too much pressure from coaches
- PARENTS who push too much
- Unrealistic expectations (parent’s, coach’s or the athlete him/herself)
- Family or social problems
- An injury or series of them
- Two or more bad performances in a row
- Trying too hard
- Faulty mechanics in your individual sport
- The alignment of the stars and the planets!!
Performance slumps, IF THEY ARE UNRELATED TO PHYSICAL AND TECHNICAL FACTORS, are almost ALWAYS self-maintained by the athlete. They are a direct result of what the athlete says to him/herself before, during and after he/she plays.
I like to use a term called GIGO, which stands for “garbage in, garbage out,” when that self-talk turns negative.
If you tell yourself that you’re going to bomb, strike out or boot the ball AGAIN and, while you do so, you accompany these comforting words with failure imagery, (garbage in), what you’ll get back out in terms of your performance will be another bad game (garbage out).
The graph shows the cyclic, self-maintaining process of the slumping athlete. It starts with something as ordinary as a bad game, but quickly leads to negative self-talk as the athlete begins to trash him/her-self and abilities, which lowers self-confidence, sets up poor expectations for the future, destroys concentration, and so on until the cycle becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This negativity is also accompanied by what I call SELECTIVE DISTORTION. All this means is that you develop a long term memory for all your problems and failures and a short term memory for all your successes. In fact, frequently the slumping athletes forget that last month they had several wins and even broke their own record! Focus on just the negative and ignore your accomplishments and in no time flat you’ll DIMINISH your own abilities and find yourself in a seemingly insurmountable slump where negative beliefs, increased fear and worry, and lack of concentration rule your athletic life and leave you feeling miserable.
So how can you get yourself or one of your athletes to finally get beyond that slump? Good question! I thought you’d never ask!
Below is a very simple model that I have used with hundreds of stuck ball players, swimmers, tennis players, gymnasts, divers, skaters, soccer players, and other athletes. I will be greatly abbreviating the steps because it’s a lot of information, but I highly recommend my book Sports Slump Busing: An Athlete’s and Coach’s Guide to Busting Slumps and Overcoming Blocks to really dive into these strategies further.
STEP #1 RULE OUT THE PHYSICAL/TECHNICAL/MECHANICAL
Before you assume that a slump is mental, you have to rule out the physical or mechanical reasons that might be causing it. Is there anything mechanically wrong with your stance, grip, swing, stroke, or balance? Is there anything physically wrong with the athlete’s eyesight or depth perception?
If there is a lack of physical endurance in the athlete and this contributes to repetitive performance problems, then the solution is to specifically focus on building up stamina. This is an example of a slump that should be addressed through targeted physical training. As the athlete improves their skills in this particular area, their confidence will improve and the slump will be a thing of the past.
STEP #1A DOES THE SLUMP SIGNAL A FAMILY PROBLEM?
Sometimes a persistent block or slump is an athlete’s way of dealing with family pressures or interpersonal problems. Many younger athletes I’ve worked with have “used” (unconsciously of course) their slump to help them deal with pushy parents, or to “tell” the coach that something at home is very wrong and as a cry for “help”. Also, if you're a coach, then you need to take an open and honest look at your own behavior in relation to the athlete. Sometimes athletes get stuck BECAUSE of the coach and how he/she deals with them.
STEP #2 DEVELOP AWARENESS OF THE BLOCK AS A FAULTY MENTAL STRATEGY
Slumps are most often SELF maintained by what the athlete says to him/herself or thinks just before a performance. As an athlete you want to come to learn the dialogue of your “inner coach” because what he/she feeds you is responsible for keeping you stuck.
As a coach you want to get that athlete to teach you HOW you could have the very same performance problem that he/she has. Get them to tell you what they SAY to themselves, THINK and SEE when they’re in the hole, while waiting in the on-deck circle and while up at the plate, (or in the field before the ball is pitched). What is the dialogue of their “inner coach” at these points?
STEP #3 NORMALIZE AND REFRAME
Performance slumps are NORMAL!!! To be a good athlete you have to come to understand that over the course of your career you will have bad games and periods where you can’t hit the broad side of a barn, or times in the field when your fingers are made of stone. This does NOT mean that something is wrong! A bad game or two or three does not necessarily mean that you are in a slump.
WHAT CAUSES ANY SLUMP TO GROW AND PROSPER IS WHAT YOU SAY TO YOURSELF ABOUT THOSE BAD GAMES.
It’s directly related to your mental strategies.
STEP #3A DISCOVER WHAT FUNCTION (IF ANY) THE SLUMP PLAYS
Occasionally, a slump or block “does something” for the athlete. It serves some kind of purpose or “positive intention”, although the athlete is rarely aware of this. A slump can keep an athlete safe and free from parental pressures to win. That is, it’s the athlete’s way of saying “Back off, I can’t do any better, can’t you see I’m in a slump”. It can protect an athlete from the fear of failure. Sometimes an athlete who’s stuck will stop trying. Even though they are failing, the slump gives them an excuse to not really go for it, and thus helps them avoid REALLY failing had they tried. It can also “help” an athlete (on a superficial level) get a whole lot of attention from the coaches and parents.
Remember, sometimes negative attention is much better than none at all.
STEP #4 CHALLENGE FAULTY BELIEFS
The blocked or slumping athlete is one that has stopped believing in him/herself.
As a coach you have to help your athlete restore this belief in themselves. You have to continually challenge and confront their “I can’ts” and “I’ll never’s”. Unless you can restore their belief they will continue to stay stuck far longer than is necessary. As an athlete you need to learn to once again believe in yourself.
STEP #5 EAT AN ELEPHANT/G.O.Y.A
One of the best strategies for busting a slump or getting over ANY obstacle is simple: DO THE THING THAT YOU ARE MOST AFRAID OF OVER AND OVER AGAIN AND IT WILL NO LONGER SCARE YOU. Fears and slumps keep athletes from working on skills and improving. The more an athlete avoids something, the scarier it gets!
Help your athletes TAKE ACTION and move towards their fears. Have your athletes approach their fears using the EAT AN ELEPHANT strategy, ONE BITE AT A TIME. Break their performance problem/block into small pieces and then have them work MORE, NOT less.
STEP #6 RESTORE CORRECTIVE IMAGERY
One of the reasons your athletes stay stuck is because they are “watching” the wrong movies in their head. Slumping athletes usually view the wrong imagery when they think about or mentally rehearse an upcoming game. They “see” themselves falling, striking out, or coming in last. Remember, images program and control your movements. Have your athletes use mental rehearsal positively as a BRIDGE to get themselves unstuck and playing well again. Correct mental practice nightly will soon lead to correct actual performance. One of the ways to get unstuck is to mentally practice getting that big hit/goal/perfect landing or making that great play over and over again.
STEP #7 RESTORE PROPER CONCENTRATION
Athletes stay stuck MAINLY because they concentrate on the wrong things before and during a performance. Your focus needs to be on what YOU are doing and on the important performance cues, i.e. the pitcher’s release point, a teammate looking for an opening, the positioning of your hands or feet, etc., in the HERE and NOW and NOT everywhere else. The slumping athlete’s focus is usually IN THEIR HEAD on their last run or the last error they committed (in the past) or in the future on the “what if’s” of screwing up again. As long as an athlete maintains this FAULTY focus he/she will continue to play poorly. Help your athletes learn to switch concentration to the visual or kinesthetic cues in the HERE and NOW necessary to play loose and strong.
STEP #8 REPROGRAM THOUGHTS/SELF-CONFIDENCE WORK
The slumping athlete maintains a lot of inner negativity. Because of repetitive failures, he/she is continually down on him/herself. This negativity is part of the problem. Help them work on changing their mental diet. Help them get off all that “mental junk food”, (“I stink”, “I’ll never”, “I can’t...”etc.). Do not collude with their negativity EVER!!!
STEP #9 AROUSAL CONTROL STRATEGIES
Athletes that get stuck in a slump are usually too nervous before and during a performance. There is too much uncertainty and distraction floating around in their body to play well. In order to snap that slump, they must LEARN TO RELAX. Teach them any number of relaxation skills that they can use to lower their tension.
STEP #10 ACT AS IF
Have your athletes ACT AS IF they are in control and confident instead of in a slump. Acting as if has to do with how the athlete carries him/herself before and after a performance. It refers to their posture. Watch a slumping athlete and you can SEE this in how they carry themselves in the field or arena. The shoulders may be hunched up or drooping, the head is usually down, facial expression usually reflects unhappiness and/or disgust and their step is usually slow and tentative.
ACTING AS IF is what I call a WINNER’S FALL BACK POSITION. When a winner is feeling intimidated, they ACT (posture, breathing, movements) confident; they hold their head and shoulders up, have a relaxed smile or passive expression on their face and have a spring in their step. When a winner is feeling anxious, they ACT calm, physically; Get your athletes to practice acknowledging inside that they may be bummed out or intimidated, but ACTING AS IF they’re confident and capable on the outside, physically with their posture.
Follow these 10 guidelines and soon you’ll be able to put that slump behind you. If you are still having trouble and can’t seem to get unstuck, CALL ME! Or learn more about these techniques in the related books and packages below.
If you’ve ever been in a slump and gotten yourself out of it, how did you do it? What worked for you?
If you’re a slump-busting coach, what’s been your most effective communication approach towards helping athletes?