Contrary to popular belief, our athletic careers over the long term follow the Pareto Principle – the reverse of the rule: 80% of the results come from the 20% of your body above your shoulders. We spend a ton of time working on physical development, but the mental side of sports is by far the most important. There are two ways we can think about developing mental performance in concert with our physical improvement.
1) Develop the body to strengthen the mind
2) Develop the mind to strengthen the body
In my experience, our community has leaned towards the process of strengthening the body to strengthen the mind. This is an obvious route to take and has proven effective: improving one’s capacity to absorb stress through increased strength, cardio, and movement ability gives an athlete a ‘longer leash’ before feeling the physical stress that can manifest into cognitive/emotional stress.
Additionally, we identify pushing through perceived physical pain (overexertion, ‘one more round’ mentality) as a road map to improved mental toughness. I subscribe to this train of thought. Anecdotally, I can list dozens of situations in which the ability to outwork a peer or an adversary has given the victor a perceived mental advantage when the two meet again. This is a completely valid, if not brutish, way of developing the whole athlete.
But what if we can’t train with our peers, or play against our enemies? What do athletes do when they have exhausted their ability to physically push themselves, or need to reimagine their training schedules?
This is a great opportunity to work on strengthening our minds to improve our bodies. We have the time; and they are worth the effort! Try some of these proven methods to get your mental processes in place so you can maximize your physical abilities!
1) Set goals
Every athlete has a long term goal or set of goals. A vision board does a great job of visualizing what the future you could look like. How do we go from ten year goals to ten day goals? Like everything we speak about – break your big ideas in smaller, more digestible bites. During this isolation period – set daily goals, or at the longest, weekly goals. And commit to seeing them through. Be consistent in your preparation: that is the number one objective of this mental training process!
How many times has an athlete said they were going learn a difficult new trick tomorrow, or make 50 free throws in a row; only to see the day come and go without success? We have the time – use it wisely. The mental development is improving your process and discipline.
Set goals based on your process, not on the desired outcome.
Why? We want to foster habit formation and routine development in aspiring athletes. Having a methodology to improve yourself will transfer into the next goal, while an outcome not reached can breed apathy for the goal itself. If you want to get to 50 pull-ups, you have to start by building a consistent routine of executing pulls -ups on a regular basis. If your athlete aspires to juggle a soccer ball 1000 times, she might not get there on day one, or week one. But by making it a priority by setting specific time aside every day to work on her goal, your athlete is creating associations in her brain between spending dedicated practice time improving, and improving. Consistency is key.
The process that athletes go through when acquiring new skills, or improving themselves physically, is as important to their long term development as the acquisition in question.
Idea: Athletes - sit down and write out two ambitious goals for the month. Make one goal a physical goal (ten pull-ups, 100 consecutive jump ropes, etc.). Make the second goal based on a skill (dribble sequence, off-hand post moves, etc.). Make the goals specific as possible - a hard number, time, or sequence. Now commit specific time during the day when this is the only thing you work on. Ten minutes, maybe fifteen – the quality of that work is more important than the quantity.
If you can break down the goal into smaller bites that fit into the week – do it! Breaking goals down into smaller bites helps athletes better understand their process and take command of their activity. What are the components of your goals (footwork, balance, stability)? Can you break your goals down by pattern and become an expert at those first? If you want to be different, then you have to be willing to try new things.
Example: I want to improve my mile run by 10 seconds over the course of the month. That breaks down into a 2-3 second improvement every week, which we can look at in a four week period as 3-3-2-2 = 10 seconds total. Break that down even further into an improved half mile time of 1-1.5 seconds. Suddenly these numbers don't look so difficult, and these smaller increments will be repeatable during multiple weekly trainings. If it matters, measure it.
2) Cue Development
Science suggests that there is more of a mind-body connection than we once believed. The mind processes feelings before addressing thoughts; we feel anxious or excited before we consciously think about being anxious or excited. By setting the conditions to control how we feel during situations, we can supercharge the effectiveness of our habits. Cueing is a method used by athletes to self-regulate by introducing consistency into a constantly changing environment.
Example: there is a reason basketball players go through a routine before shooting a free throw. The routine allows an athlete to focus on the process and not concentrate on the gravity of the upcoming shot. What is the first thing you see most of these athletes do at the line? Take a deep, calming breath. They are, perhaps unconsciously, telling their bodies to loosen up.
We can begin to develop habits that calm and focus our mind now in a reduced-stress environment by developing our own cues. Cueing is an effective way to put you mind in the right space to perform. When I was playing in the NFL, every time we broke the huddle I had a three word cue to myself depending on the type of play. Cueing helps you lock in for what’s next.
There are opportunities in every competition to reset, take that deep breath, and give yourself a reminder. Out of bounds plays, timeouts, or penalties allow any player to steal a small moment for themselves.
To be an effective cue, it needs to:
1) Involve some type of physical stimulus that invokes a specific mindset (deep breath, hopping on balls of the feet, etc.)
2) Use short language that triggers an association with the desired process (quick hands, eyes up, etc.).
Where many of us make mistakes, is that we only practice these cues when we are already feeling stressed. In order to use these as positive reminders they need to come at all times during the competition, not just when things break down. Cueing is talking to yourself in a positive manner throughout the competition. You are talking, not listening! You are in control of the entire process!
Idea: Pick one thing in your game that you want to consciously improve on during competition. If you need help, ask your parents or coaches. On a piece of paper write down your goal, and now write down a short, positive command you will give yourself during your next training. At the top of the page – write down how you want to feel when you are improving; one word if possible. Imagine what you can do physically to feel that mindset - excited, calm, confident, alert.
Take that piece of paper and put it in your gym bag, write it on your batting glove, put it inside your wristband. We want to see that cue and that emotion as often as possible, but at minimum immediately before training. Next time you go out and train, focus on your short cue whenever you have a break in training, keep the emotion you want in the front of your mind.
Stick with it! Developing habits is not an overnight trick, but this will give you the tools to focus on the process of developing. When we all return from isolation, you will be amazed at the difference your efforts have made in your game!
For questions please hit me up @UnrivaledESS or email me at email@example.com - keep working and share your stories with your community!