Research Paper By Ian Hanavan
(Sports Coach, BELGIUM)
Gabe is a 93% FT shooter. He is at the line and has 2 shots. Two FREE shots that are, with no defensive scheme to stop him and no opponent in his face trying to alter his shot. It’s just him and the basket. Oh, and yes, there is 0.5 seconds on the clock and his team is down by 1 point. Gabe has 2 opportunities to make a basket to either win the game outright or at least make 1FT and send his team into overtime hoping that his teammates help him in the end to win the game. He’s tense, his hands feel heavy, his breathing begins to pick up and he goes on to miss both attempts and his team loses the game. From here Gabe’s FT plummets to an all-time low of 63%. Gabe feels completely deflated. He’s struggling mentally to have the confidence to make FT’s like he had always done. He’s feeling despair and beating himself up inside. He doesn’t know what to do or how to overcome this experience.
Coaching has a presence in sports. The character in the story above can be helped and guided by being mentally coached to face the obstacle in his eye and move beyond it to a successful place. There is no reason why Gabe cannot arrive at a place in his mind and body where he can take control and experience success.
In today’s culture, more than ever, athletes are having to endure more, withstand more, and take more responsibility in their athletic careers. As the pressure begins to build and if an athlete is not using the right type of tools then their experience of their sportive endeavors will begin to feel like drudgery and not bliss. Social scientists have conceded that getting into a place where the mind state performs freely as possible. Athletes can take control of this state which then helps them perform at their highest level. Dr. Chris Stankovich, Own the Game.
Every athlete in their career comes to a point where they feel stuck and face any obstacle in their journey to success. This can present challenges towards athletes where after trying some time and not succeeding they throw their hands up in the air and settle for mediocrity and devolve to, “this is just the type of player I am and this is how far I can go.” On the contrary, other athletes face this obstacle and explore every option available. On this journey of discovery, the players that navigate the very thing that could have been a hindrance usually find some method of mental strength and stamina that get them through. This can be achieved by their examination of the mind and how valuable it is to work this muscle between the ears, or it can be reached and experienced by a coach or community helping the athlete take control of his/her mental skills.
Imagery. Positive self-talk. Focus.
According to Dr. Jennifer Cumming, Sports Imagery Training, imagery means using all your senses (e.g., see, feel, hear, taste, smell) to rehearse your sport in your mind.
There are many benefits of using imagery in sports. The athletes that take this seriously and put in the work will see themselves incrementally improving. Visualizing themselves having and competing effectively are avenues that the athlete can embrace to improve his/her chances of seeing quicker results, staying motivated, and even rehabbing, in case of an injury, with a purpose to recovering quickly to play again in competition.
Using imagery is best used when it is vivid and meticulous. The more visual the player can conceive, the better. For example, “on what spot of the floor will I catch the ball and how much time will be on the clock and which quarter will I be in.” The details then become intertwined with all the senses (see, feel, hear, smell, and taste). For example, “I see how I am defended. My legs feel great to turn and jump and make this move. I hear the visiting fans shouting. There is popcorn in the air and it is so thick that I taste it.” From here, the outcome is always positively focused. The image in the mind being played is a successful outcome bringing positive energy and motivation to the player to anticipate that scenario so that when in it he/she already knows how it ends.
Ronaldinho, a professional footballer playing for FC Barcelona, and one of the world’s best footballers at the time, detailed beautifully his use of imagery before the World Cup in 2006. The article appeared in the New York Times Sports Magazine:
When I train, one of the things I concentrate on is creating a mental picture of how to best deliver that ball to a teammate, preferably leaving him alone in front of the rival goalkeeper. So what I do, always before a game, always, every night and every day,
is try and think up things, imagine plays, which no else will have thought of, and to do so always bearing in mind the particular strengths of each teammate to whom I am passing the ball. When I construct those plays in my mind I take into account whether one teammate likes to receive the ball at his feet, or ahead of him; if he is good with his head, and how he prefers to head the ball; if he stronger on his right or his left foot. That is my job. That is what I do. I imagine the game. (4 June 2006)
Upon the inception of sports psychology, positive self-talk followed shortly after and has been studied scientifically ever since. Research has proven that positive self-talk can boost athletic performance and negative self-talk can hinder results.
The reason I became such a successful athlete was my mind was saying that no matter who you put up against me, I am better, I am the best. Michael Jordan.
What research has begun to uncover is that positive self-talk is more than a positive attitude but a reframing of the mind. This reframing of the mind can improve an athletes’ overall performance, both physically and mentally allowing them to perform confidently and comfortably.
Positive self-talk can be described as having conversations in your mind that consist of mantras, sayings, inspiring words that help athletes take control of their mind by developing mental toughness and positive feelings regarding their craft that can help them at the moment to perform at an optimal level, Positive Self-Talk Improves Performance, Delice Coffey.
Using positive self-talk creates a perspective shift. This shift can be defined as moving forward, it’s a sense of feeling good about an athlete’s performance, and helps them persevere through challenges in their sport.
Athletes who master the technique of positive self-talk curb negative emotions and self-doubt and champion confidence, motivation, and productiveness. These three elements give the athlete the most control of their mind, body, circumstances, environment, heading into competition leading to the best chance for success.
Focus can be defined as, “pay particular attention to,” Oxford Dictionary. It can be one of the most misunderstood aspects of athletes preparing themselves for success.
In sports, it is necessary to have a game plan when it comes to applying focus. When an athlete pays attention to what he/she needs to do and what the next required thing is, this can contribute to a type of laser focus that aids good athletic performance. In his book, Own the Game, Dr. Stan Jankovich, he talks about how an athlete can have too wide of a focus or too narrow of a focus. If a player has too wide of a focus their attention can drift toward how the fans are responding during a match, or why the coach is yelling on the sidelines, and in some cases, during practice, if the athlete is bored, his attention span can drift to what he had for breakfast and why he didn’t like it.
The opposite approach of having too wide of a focus is having too narrow of a focus. An athlete can be concentrated so much on not wanting to make a mistake that he makes a mistake. Because of the tension in his/her body, they are prohibited from loosely and confidently performing their task. Another way of being too narrowly focused is aiming for perfectionism in one’s craft, and again, it will be inevitable that the player falls short of this goal because errors will happen and there never is the absolute perfect performance. It is somewhere between these extreme measures of applying focus that optimum performance is found. The athlete will have to apply himself and find techniques that work for him to achieve this optimal performance and satisfaction.
Some techniques or tools that can be used before a competition or in matches can be the use of cue words. Cue words can be a visual stimulant the athlete sees that can harness his/her concentration back onto what needs to be given attention to. For example, athletes can write que words on their shoes, like focus. When the athlete is struggling mentally, all he or she has to do is look down on the writing on their shoes and see this word. Immediately it can bring focus. Other types of que words can be acronyms, mantras, or a string of words and phrases on a piece of paper the player looks at before starting the competition.
Jim Taylor Ph.D., in his article on Sports: Understanding Focus in Sports, coins the phrase attentional field. He goes on to say that this is everything inside of you, “such as thoughts, emotions, and physical responses, and everything outside of you, including sights and sounds, on which you could focus. Focus is the ability to attend to internal and external cues in your attentional field.”
Athletes who master their main focus within their attentional field, focus on what is the next thing. Examples could be, tactics, countering their opponent, the score, the next play, what is working well at the moment, etc.
Athletes who have a poor focus in their attentional field find themselves focusing on ques that are irrelevant to their performance and sport. These cues could be negative thoughts, self-doubt, anxiety, or the mindset of playing NOT to lose rather than playing TO WIN.
When athletes engage in focus, the benefits of using it create a Teflon wall around the mind and do not allow anything in there to harm or get in the way of them achieving their optimal level athletically.
Mental Sports Coaches in their role of coaching an athlete to overcome their obstacles help athletes overcome their fears, self-doubts, and limiting beliefs in their minds. The player then can retake control of this part of the body and see and experience success more frequently and regularly.
When dialoguing with the athlete, it is important to meet them where they are at. A lot of emphasis in today’s sport is focused on the physical. The role of a mental sports coach is to help bring awareness to the athlete that there is another realm, in the mind, that can be tapped into. Every athlete strives, whether they realize it or not, to have a mind-body connection. When these clicks for the player and they begin to use the tools and techniques provided by the coach, their athletic performance and enjoyment of the sport will improve astronomically.
Imagery, Positive Self-talk, and Focus are just three tools that sportsmen/sportswomen can use to control as many variables as possible heading into the competition, during, and after.
Athletes allowing their whole self to be coached mentally by a sports coach realize, “two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction,” C.S. Lewis.
Cumming, Jennifer Dr. 2014. Sports Imagery Training, University of Birmingham.
Stankovich, Chris Dr. 2010. Own The Game, Sport Science Training for Peak Athletic Development.
Coffey, Delice. 2019. Positive Self-Talk Improves Performance.
Taylor, Jim Ph.D. 2010. The Power of Prime, Sports: Understanding Focus in Sports.
Cumming, Jennifer, and Richard Ramsey 2009. Advances in Applied Sport Psychology, Imagery interventions in sport.
Carlin, John. World Cup 2006. New York Times Sports Magazine.