Have you read the Sports section of your newspaper lately? I have. I do every day. I am always amazed by how much of what I read refers to mental aspects of a player's or team's performance.
Try it sometime. Read an article in that section and see if you can spot it. An athlete, a coach, the writer, inevitably someone mentions something about what is going on beyond the physical aspects of the sport performance. That's because the mind plays such a powerful role in ultimate behavior. The possibilities of success for an athlete who learns these techniques, and how and when to apply them, are endless.
While you may not have heard specifically of "sport psychology" before, you have most certainly experienced it whether you knew it or not. That is why this is so exciting for me, and why I love what I do. I get to point out, put a name to, common sense that is not commonly applied. My clients inevitably experience that "a-ha moment" and there is a noticeable improvement in every aspect of their performance.
Consider your own performance, be it in sport, business, or elsewhere. When you were successful, how did you feel? How did you prepare for a meeting, a presentation, a game? What went through your mind? When you made an error or even failed entirely, what thoughts appeared? Did you have a good talk with yourself? Replay what happened? Tell yourself you won't do it that way again? You were using mental techniques to affect physical behavior. Whoa! Breakthrough! We all are capable of great success and improvements in state of mind and behavior. The key is knowing which techniques are most effective, learning how to use them, and when to apply them.
Back to the newspaper articles. Golf is in the headlines here in DC, as the AT&T National is in full swing (pun intended). Considering the actual physical effort in golf--swing, hit--takes mere seconds of the player's time, there is an awful lot of time out there when the player is left to think. In today's Washington Post, writer Barry Svrluga writes,"The walk from the ninth green to the 10th tee at Congressional Country Club cuts across the pristine practice green...There is, in those few hundred paces, a chance to think, be that productive or destructive." (emphasis added)
Young golfer Jordan Spieth, just 19, felt he just needed "one break" to rebound from less stellar play. His outward appearance along the course reflected his inner voice. His shoulders slumping, eyes unfocused, he looked like a beaten man. "Maybe lost a couple of shots with my emotions there, which is upsetting," he says. He let some shots affect his thinking about future shots, a big liability in this or any game.
On to London, where Wimbledon finished its opening week. Here we find more than just physical play at work for Serena Williams, number one seed. What could she have to think about when she is already so successful? Remember a rule of thumb in competition is to take each moment, each play, set, match, win for itself. Learn from it and move on. So for continued success, the mental training cannot end. "I feel like I try to play better as each match goes on," Williams said. "I try to find out something I can improve on from each match."
From calming nerves to self-talk to refocusing to self-evaluation, ultimate performance depends not only on physical skill and strength, but on command and application of mental tools as well. The importance cannot be overstated. Still unsure? Open the Sports section, and read all about it.
Happy Father's Day! My thoughts today turn to my own Dad. He is an amazing man. (Don't we all think the same of our Dads?) I decided today to reflect on how my Dad encouraged me in my athletic pursuits. He instilled a confidence in me that served me well both on and off the field.
My dad was not exactly an athlete growing up. He was, by his own admission, a scrawny, skinny little kid. More water boy, less superstar. He likes to say of his position on the football team, he was "Left Out." He and the bench were best friends. He was much more interested and talented in the arts, acting and singing. More acting, I guess. He says of his time in Glee Club, "The director would look my direction, stop us and say something didn't sound right. We'd try again, at which time I would just move my mouth without actually singing. The director would nod enthusiastically and remark, 'Yes, that's better.'"
Dad had three kids (I'm the middle child), all of whom were involved in sports. Dad was right there every step of the way. He was a linesman for soccer games, he was our #1 fan in the stands. Dad would practice outside with us as long as we wanted. He never let any insecurities he may have had from his own sports experiences influence us or our participation and experience. We could play whatever sport we wanted. There was no pressure to be the best, just to have fun.
I recall a track meet I had in high school. Our team was sorely lacking in female long jumpers. That is to say, we had no female long jumpers. I volunteered to carry the event for this meet. I was not a standout sprinter on our team, so the coaches had little hope for my success in the long jump. They consequently gave me little assistance, but wished me luck in the meet. Looking back knowing what I know now, yes, those coaches could have used a sport psychology consultant's input! But I digress.
The track meets were held on weekdays after school. For Dad to be able to come, he would have to leave work early, not as easy to do in the pre-"flextime" world. But leave he would. Even when I explained the long jump situation, and reiterated that he most certainly did NOT need to come, he still showed. And as I sprinted down the runway, leaped like a boulder from the white line and landed rather ungracefully in the sand, he was there cheering wildly. I felt like I had set a World Record.
When I came to my senses that long jump and sprinting were not my things--my body is, to my dismay, perfectly suited to long-distance running--I switched to cross-country. 5K runs now. Dad offered help in the transition; he would practice with me. Not a natural runner, Dad had participated in a few races of his own in the past, enduring without having even trained. I still don't know why he did those. Anyway, what Dad was, is, always will be, is a Marine. He was a Marine reservist ("if you go through boot camp, you're a real Marine!") for many years. I was told from a young age that I could do anything because I am a Marine's daughter. "I can go days without food, nights without sleep." This is important to tell you so you will understand his will, his drive to never give up, to keep up with his teenage daughter, for heaven's sake, on a 3.1 mile run. So we went to a course and ran. Bless his heart, as they say in the South, he did it with me! I'm not sure I truly appreciated at the time what it took for him. But I "got it" on some level. All I needed to know was he was there. He tells me now he called on every reserve he had just to keep up. He was NOT going to quit.
We also shared an affinity for weight training (he often referred to his biceps being as big as Arnold Schwarzenegger's, and offered the tape measure to prove it), and boxing. We worked out together in gyms and in the garage. He taught me all he knew about boxing from years of watching and, as I understand it, actually participating in "smokers," unofficial amateur boxing events in his youth. Even today the "pa-pa-pa, pa-pa-pa" sound of the speed bag instantly brings me to his presence and makes me smile.
Our time together was so precious to me. It was during these workouts that I was able to really talk to him about anything and everything. The sports pursuits brought us a direct line of communication. A time of laid-back, informal conversation. He imparted his wisdom on many issues, I soaked it all up, while we sweated it out.
Now, at 71, Dad is maybe a little less active but no less a competitor. He still compares biceps, and will take anyone on in arm-wrestling. He walks and participates in square- and round-dancing. And he continues to encourage me, as well as the next generation, his grandchildren who excel in football, ice hockey, and rock climbing.
The perseverance my Dad embodied, his encouragement and unconditional acceptance of me, gave me the confidence to try, to fail miserably or excel greatly in athletics or any other pursuit, and to keep on trying. I don't feel that I have any limits to what I can accomplish if I put my mind to it. He taught me that I can do anything. Well, I am a Marine's daughter, after all.
Ah, summer. Warm weather, sunny skies, crickets chirping, the barbeque grill calling my name. Oh, and my workout and practice schedules get completely screwed up! Kids; we love 'em. We also love having a consistent schedule while they are at school. So, what now? For me, summer means the ice rink schedule changes. My coveted morning public skate, where I practically have the ice to myself, is gone in favor of hockey camps. Gym workouts are tough to make, especially since my kids are too young to stay home by themselves and, according to them, "too old for the little kids" care center at the gym. So do I just "take the summer off? No way, that would be way too tough for me mentally. If you're like me, your brain needs the boost of regular activity as much as your body does.
So what do we do now? Well, we start with reframing and setting some new goals for ourselves. Reframing is a fancy word for figuring out what we were doing and why, what we were getting out of it, and seeing it in a slightly different way. Then we can find a way to keep our activity (albeit in slightly different form) this summer.
Take your current workout or activity schedule and write it out on a piece of paper. For me, it would be:
Skating: Mon., Tues., Wed. mornings
Strength training at the gym: Tues. and Thurs. midday
Yoga: Thursday midday
The first obvious step is to see if the locations where I have these activities provide opportunities at alternate times. Skating was the most problematic because while there are other public skate times offered (evenings), the chances of having the empty rink I "need" are slim. Gym strength training is the easiest--this can be done at any time, including weekends or evenings when my dear husband can be home with the kids. Luckily summer also means the kids' afternoon, evening and weekend activities have taken a little break, so that's helpful. Yoga is a little more difficult since the particular variety I enjoy is only offered that one time each week.
I looked at skating and yoga and what I need or get from them. Skating gives me cardio training and the opportunity to develop and practices my skills. Yoga provides relaxation, strength and balance development and meditation. When I think about it, the elements of my yoga practice are actually things I can do at home with my mat and maybe even a yoga DVD. Not ideal, but its not forever, either. I have some equipment at home that can also help me with my core/balance work. Check.
For skating, I need to look at my goals. Mainly skill development and practice. Ideally I would have all the space I need to perform each skill. So I reframe--are there skills which I can practice that require smaller space? Actually, yes, many. My focus for the summer, then, will be to work on these basics. If I really think about it, many of those skills are ones I had considered a little "boring" in relation to later elements I acquired, but they are vital to master if I really want to move on in my figure skating. Setting this new goal for myself actually brings a bit of excitement, rather than lament and yearning for the lost ice time and space.
The cardio training I may be missing from being unable to skate full-out can be made up in a big way--go outside! Here's where the aforementioned kids come in really handy (I knew they would). They are always up for some outdoor fun, as is my trusty golden retriever. I think I'll have more than enough opportunites to get active.
So I think I'm all set. How about you? If it seems that all is lost, take it one step at a time. And, to paraphrase an old adage, remember "This summer, too, shall pass." Probably too quickly. Before we know it we'll be back to the old schedule. We might even miss the summer changes.
I had a delightful and productive meeting of the minds last week with an affable, engaging golf pro, Mark Guttenberg. Mark and his wife, Leslie, are owners/instructors of Guttenbergs Golf Development Programs in Aldie, Virginia. As I grow my practice to include golfers, I know it is vital that they learn the mental game of golf. I thought it would be interesting to hear from one of the best players and coaches just how effective he feels mental training is for golfers, and how he himself uses it in his game. Mark has been playing golf competitively for 50 years, and has won many tournaments. He has always been a big believer that much of the game is mental--considering you are really only physically "playing" for a mere fraction of the time you are on the course. Focus, control of emotions and confidence are key to a successful game.
We talked about using imagery, positive self-talk and cue words. Mark emphasized the importance of a brief, well-rehearsed, effective pre-shot routine. The pre-shot routine serves to calm the golfer immediately prior to the shot, focus attention, establish an effective mindset and prepare the proper timing for the swing and ultimate shot. With the golfer involved in such a routine, he leaves no room in the mind for distracting or negative thoughts. He is in the here and now, no past shots, no future outcome. This focus is essential for good performance.
Another aspect we discussed which I find really interesting, is the idea of attaching a certain feel to the performance. Essentially bringing "emotion to the motion." The more positive, heart-charging emotion we can consciously or subconsciously attach to a particular movement, the more likely we will be successful performing it. Imagining how great it will feel inside when the shot goes the distance, the ball drops in the hole, the crowd goes wild, all of these emotions can increase the golfer's (or any athlete's, really) sense of confidence and belief even before the shot. A good time to make the connection might be in practice. Every time you are successful, celebrate! Make the celebration as big as you want, the more emotion the better. Eventually the emotions will be there in comp, even in anticipation of a shot you have been successful making at some point.
Mark is not an anomaly, as many golfers have a grasp on the mental game. However, Mark noted, while every golfer knows there is a huge mental component, they don't always know how to access it and make their mind work for their game. Ah, looks like that's where I come in! Be sure to check this website for more articles for golfers in the coming weeks.
It was a great visit--a big thank you to Mark for his valuable time! If you would like to learn to play golf from the #1 PGA ranked teacher in Northern Virginia for 14 consecutive years, check out Guttenbergs Golf Development Programs at www.guttenbergsgolf.com.
"Even if you are on the right track, you will get run over if you just sit there."
Personal Best Sports
The sports world is filled with stories of perseverance, failure and success, personal struggles and public triumph. Each story provides insight into the mental side of sport and activity.