My last sports psychology article covered 21 strategies that you can apply to improve your sporting performance. If you struggle to cope with adversity, remain free from worry, tend not to peak under pressure, get offended by what your coaches say to you, or struggle to focus as much as you would like to, I highly recommend checking that article out first.
When I shared these skills with the Vanuatu Women’s Beach Volleyball Squad, one question that I had was, “What skills do I try to learn first?’ Another question was, “When exactly do I try to apply them?” These are both great questions, as I don’t want anyone to overthink what they are doing too much, especially during a significant competition.
This article and the next one will try to answer both of those questions. Firstly, if you already cope well with adversity or peak under pressure every time, don’t even bother learning new skills. Just keep doing what you are already doing because it is working. However, if you have poor concentration and goal setting skills, do focus on learning the strategies that I have recommended and see if they work for you.
Now on when to apply these skills. Below is a checklist that I have created to see if you are already doing everything you need to do for optimal performance. This article goes into training for an upcoming event and before the competition. The next blog post will cover what is helpful to know during competition and afterwards.
Training for an Upcoming Event
1. Are you training/ practising enough to improve as quickly as you would like to? [_]
If you notice that you are not growing as much as you hoped, it is important to look both at the frequency (how often you practice), duration (how long you practice for) and the intensity (how hard you practice when you do) to know if one or all of these variables need to change. But, again, you can assess this yourself or figure it out with your coach or trainer.
2. Is your practice deliberate enough? [_]
You must have specific objectives for each training session and each week. It is also essential that you have particular skills that you are trying to improve with each activity you do that aims to help you meet these objectives.
3. Do you have baseline measurements of all the key things you want to improve, and are you tracking your progress with these measures? [_]
If you have not conducted a baseline assessment of your skills or the things you want to improve, it will be tough to know how much progress you have made. Baseline measurements could include your weight, vertical jump, flexibility, 40m dash, reaction time. Whatever aspects you and your coach want to improve, figure out a way to assess them and keep track of your progress concerning these things as you train and prepare for a competition. Then you will know if you are on the right track with your training or will need to switch things up.
4. Are you over-training and not giving your body enough time to recover between practice sessions? [_]
Load management is all the rage in the NBA these days. Wilt Chamberlain used to play 48 minutes a night for a whole season at his prime, never subbing out. Now some of the stars will sit out the second night of a back-to-back set, as teams have realised that playing two nights in a row increases their risk of injury. Signs of over-training may include mental exhaustion, muscle fatigue, impaired motivation and concentration and reduced performance. If you are experiencing these things or are concerned that you are overdoing it, talk to your coach, reduce your workload for a bit, and see what happens. If your symptoms go away and your performance improves again, you will know that you are on the right track.
5. Are you eating healthily and enough for your training objectives? [_]
Fresh vegetables and fruit and good sources of protein (fish and lean meats) and fats (eggs, nuts, avocado, some oils) and whole grains are generally considered healthy. Anything processed or deep-fried or too sugary or salty is not considered healthy, and having too much caffeine and sugary drinks isn’t recommended either. Still, there are sport-specific recommendations that nutritionists can provide also. If you burn an extra 3,000 calories of energy a day in your workouts, you will need to eat more and require more carbs than an athlete who is only burning 200–500 extra calories a day.
6. Are you getting enough sleep and rest? [_]
The average adult needs 7–9 hours of sleep per night. You may need more than usual after strenuous and extended training sessions. In between training sessions, try not to always be on the go either. Give yourself enough downtime for leisure, fun, socialising, relaxation and recovery.
7. Are you practising mindfulness meditation daily? [_]
Even 10 minutes a day can significantly improve concentration abilities during practice and competitions. Some people prefer doing it first thing in the morning. Others prefer the last thing at night. Whenever you think you could consistently do it, set a reminder on your phone, have a meditation app (e.g. headspace, smiling mind, calm, buddhify etc.) that can guide you through a meditation, and then do it at the same time every day for at least three weeks. Once it becomes a habit, you won’t regret starting to do it and building it into your daily routine.
8. Are you aware of unrealistic and unhelpful thoughts, and do you practice challenging them or letting them go? [_]
There are two ways that we can successfully manage unhelpful thoughts. Firstly, we can challenge and change them, which is a CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) strategy. To do this, notice what you are thinking. Ask if it is a realistic or a helpful thought? If it is not practical or desirable, ask yourself what ideas might be more useful to have. Then every time you have the initial thought, try to remind yourself of the more suitable replacement thought instead. Secondly, sometimes it is not the thought that we have that is problematic, but how much we get caught up in the idea or fuse with it. Each time you notice you are too fused with a thought, aim to create some distance or let it go using defusion skills, an ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) strategy. Imagine the belief in a different colour or font, said in a funny voice, or put it on a cloud and let it float away. Both thoughts challenging and defusion, can be helpful for people, so see which strategy you like best, and then apply it whenever your thoughts are impairing your performance during training sessions.
9. Are you practising in ways that simulate the conditions and pressure you will experience during the event? [_]
Andre Drummond was an awful free throw shooter in basketball games in his first few NBA seasons, making much less than half his shots. Yet, in training, he could make 9 or 10 out of 10 regularly. If this is similar to a skill that you do well in training but poorly during events, experiment with the stakes during practice to make it more game-like or have more on the line. Every missed free throw at training might equal two laps of running around the court or 20 pushups. It would mean that the athlete may tense up a bit more, meaning better preparation and more practice for tense in-game situations.
10. Are you also allowing yourself to have fun, experiment with skills and play games? [_]
Extreme athletes like skateboarders and freestyle skiers don’t always practice deliberately, especially not those who started the field. They improved their skills by doing what they loved, playing around with their friends, and challenging each other to push their boundaries and see what was possible. So even though deliberate practice is the best way to improve specific skills, getting into a flow state and not thinking about things too much is the best way to improve performance. Don’t forget to have fun, play around, push yourself just outside your comfort zone, and see what happens.
Before a Competition
1. Do you have a consistent pre-competition ritual? [_]
Before games, I try to have a low-GI carb-heavy meal the night before, get 8 hours of sleep if possible, get up at my usual wake time, eat protein shortly after waking, and not have too heavy a meal too close to competition. Next, I pack my bag with all I need and arrive at the stadium about an hour before the game. I then warm up a little bit by myself. After this, I stretch and listen to music that helps me to get pumped up and focused. I then discuss the game plan with my team and coach. Finally, we all go out as a team and warm up together before the introductions and the game begins.
2. Does it help you perform at your best regularly or allow you to get into the zone quickly? [_]
If your pre-game ritual doesn’t help you perform at your best, see what you can do to shake it up. Maybe get there earlier than you usually do. Find a quiet spot. Bring headphones and do a 10-minute meditation. Practice a few easy skills to fire up your muscle memory and boost your confidence. Listen to music and focus on your objectives for the day. Visualise yourself making the moves you want to do and being successful doing this. Add something in that you don’t usually do, or take something out that you don’t think is helping, and see the result. Over time, you’ll know what helps and doesn’t, and what to do more before a competition.
3. Do you know what type of environment is most helpful for preparing yourself before the competition? [_]
Some people are more extroverted and like to be around people, socialising, connecting, laughing, and having fun. Others are more introverted and like space from others and quiet. Experiment with this before competitions, and soon you’ll know what environment is best for the significant events.
4. If the ideal environment is not available, do you have a backup plan of what you can do? [_]
Let’s say you prefer space and quiet, but there are no change rooms around, and you need to remain by the side of the court. You may need noise-cancelling headphones or other things that can still take you away from where you are a bit so that you can focus and do your pre-game ritual and get into the zone for when the competition begins,
5. Are you aware of your arousal level before a game? [_]
Think of this on a scale from 0 to 10, where ten is overwhelmed, anxious and panicky, and zero is as relaxed as you can be. Check in to your physical symptoms and give yourself a score from 0 to 10.
6. Do you know what arousal level is ideal for you at the start of the competition? [_]
If you compete in a sport where precision is critical, you may want to be at three or a four. If you need to be aggressive and reactive, like in boxing or American football, it may be better to be eight or nine. Once you know what number you are at, determine if you need to increase or decrease it to be ideal for the event.
7. Do you know how to pump yourself up if you feel apathetic, lazy or tired? [_]
Let’s say that your arousal level is at a one or two, and you need it to be at a six; what can you do to pump yourself up? Do you need some caffeine or sugar or an energy drink? Do you need to jump around to get your lymphatic system flowing? Do you need to watch motivational videos or listen to a pump-up music soundtrack? Do you need to remember your values or goals, why you put in all the hard work at training or why you love the sport? Whatever you decide to try, give it a go, and if it works, repeat it next time. If not, move onto something else.
8. Do you know how to relax if you feel too overwhelmed, worried, stressed or anxious? [_]
Let’s say you are at nine or ten and want to be at five or six. There are thousands of spectators ready to watch you. You start to worry that you are feeling too anxious and tense and won’t perform well as a result. Try to re-frame this anxiety as excitement. Remind yourself that being pumped up means more oxygen to the limbs, which can help you run faster, jump higher, put in more effort. Then if your arousal level is still too high or you are worrying too much, ground yourself. Look at what you can see, hear, touch, taste and smell. Remind yourself that you are safe and there is no danger. Take some slow deep breaths and put your focus on one thing at eye level in the distance. Tense your muscles, breathe in, then release the tension as you breathe out. Stretch nice and slowly. Remember the objectives you want to focus on within your control, and think back to times when you have successfully done this. Remind yourself that you can do this, exhale all the air, and then go out there and give it all. People don’t tend to regret losing as much when they know they have given it their best!
Dr Damon Ashworth
5 thoughts on “The Professional Athlete’s Checklist for Optimal Mental Performance: Part One”
Always good stuff Dr. A
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Good info. I think you touched on it and it’s basically implied for athletes, but getting feedback from someone else such as a coach helps a lot.
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