In this week’s player development feature, we’ll focus on some off-the-field methods to get athletes to realize their full athletic potential. When it comes to fulfilling athletic and team potential and delivering in the clutch, mental toughness development is just as important as physical training and technical skill instruction. Athletic counselor and sport performance expert Chris Stankovich defines mental toughness before revealing some offseason strategies that will get athletes ahead of the competition.
What is Mental Toughness?
First, it’s key to illustrate the different components of athletic success.
1) Physical. Players must be in good shape, pay attention to their diet, have an exercise routine, get rest, stretch, etc.
2) Technical instruction. This pertains to the skillsets necessary to performing a certain sport. For lacrosse, it could be shooting, dodging, riding, passing, etc.
3) Mental toughness. Here, it’s about making these previous things come together so you can play in perfect harmony. Your mind and body can be in sync so that you can play a sport effortlessly and with great confidence. Also, focus is key at the task at hand so you have a high motivation level from the beginning to end. It’s also about the ability to bounce back and have that element of resiliency in order to reach the highest level you can as an athlete.
The mental component is the piece that allows you to execute and play in games the same way you do in practice when there is no pressure. Remember, mental skills can be learned, and as a coach, the more you buy into the mental skills training, the easier it will be for your team to grasp and apply the concepts.
Confidence vs. Anxiety
Confidence is key for any sport. Often, the more confident you are, the better you will perform. Meanwhile, anxiety is often what leads to “choking.” This is when athletes know what to do and can perform in a practice situation, but not in games. It often begins with irrational fear, which is self-imposed pressure due to outside factors that have no impact on the game. If an athlete has this fear, typically it leads to anxiety. With anxiety comes shallow breathing, an accelerated heart rate, negative self-talk and sweat – and they all work against the mind-body sync and are detrimental to their play.
When anxiety happens, players play below their ability. It goes right back to the top of the model: More fear and anxiety and inevitably poor play.
It’s ideal to have mind-body synchrony or “flow.” This is being in that optimal zone where play comes naturally and you don’t have to really think about what you must do. It’s automatic. Here are some tips on how to begin developing that in the offseason.
Offseason Strategies for Developing Mental Toughness
Start developing your mental toughness strategies in the offseason or preseason. This is a great way to get ahead of the competition.
The first thing that athletes should do is Goal Setting. A number of studies have examined goal setting for teams who have set measureable, controllable goals, and compared the results to other teams that set no goals or “do your best” goals. The goal setting group almost always outperformed the second or third groups who didn’t set goals. When done properly, this can accelerate performance.
Key Components of Goal Setting
1) Get with your team during the offseason or preseason and talk to them, get to know each other, and start the goal setting here. Create a positive climate. When doing goal setting, kids should feel comfortable and loose and allow themselves to expand their minds and write down on paper what they want to achieve. As a coach, create that climate that allows kids to think about what they can accomplish and can look forward to.
2) Get the kids with a notebook and do some brainstorming. This isn’t necessarily good or bad or right and wrong, it’s whatever comes to mind. You want to prompt your athletes about some of the things you want to accomplish in the upcoming year. What do you want to improve? What type of player do you want to be looked at by the end of the season? This is imagery. It’s where the athletes see themselves by the end of the season. Encourage them to write whatever comes to mind, no matter if realistic or not or long term or short term.
3) Develop a goal ladder of long-term, mid-season, short-team and micro-goals. Remember, the more specific you can get, the easier it is to track the progress. If it’s too difficult, they will no longer sustain motivation to that goal. If it’s too simple, you will also lose motivation. You must find a balancing point that sustains motivation.
Micro-goals are the little things, like being on time, being prepared, well rested, hydrated, etc. These daily things make all the difference. Long-term goals should be specific, measurable, challenging, realistic, and controllable.
While it may be easier for girls than boys, journaling is a crucial piece to athletic success, but you must buy into it and encourage others to do it. As a coach, you must explain the importance of writing things down. Our memories are not that good. But here, all goals can be seen on a daily basis.
Every kid should have a notebook they can write in during the season. Remind them that professional and colleges athletes do this. Normalize this practice for them. It’s not just busy work. Date each entry and keep personal notes, like stats, ideas, feelings, questions to ask, goals to see growth.
There are three questions to get the most out of this. First, what did I do well today? This works on the confidence piece. Second, what do I need to improve upon? And third is “other”, anything the kid needs to do to prepare for the future. It could be academic related, too.
The dividends are huge here. You are essentially cataloging a training program. During the season, the kid can go back and see points, accomplishments, statistics and other things. It’s important to know that confidence development comes with time. There is no right or wrong way to do it, but it’s key to do it to get their confidence up as much as possible for the season.
The previous clips can be seen on Championship Productions’ DVD “Winning the Mental Moments: Developing Team Toughness in the Clutch.” To check out more performance training videos, check out our extensive video library.