Have you ever faced a pressure moment during a game when your nerves got the better of you, and…You. Just. Couldn’t. Focus? You made a move, but it was far from clutch.
It’s a scenario even the best are familiar with. “During the summertime, I see guys make 10 to 20 free throws in a row, but when they get to the game, they freeze up and overthink the shot,” says Philadelphia 76ers All-Star forward Elton Brand. (Watch a video with Elton Brand about free throw shooting.)
Many athletes practice the physical aspects of their sport, but ignore the psychological. If you’ve ever battled nerves before a big game, know this: you can win the mind games. Train to improve your mental approach—and take your performance to the next level—by using the three strategies outlined below. With the extra time that summer affords, learn how to tackle mental challenges that might compromise your game.
1. Develop a Routine
One of the easiest strategies to implement is a pre performance routine. It works well when you identify a game situation that’s causing you trouble, such as shooting a foul shot, kicking a field goal, or shaking off a botched play.
When you have a routine, it focuses your mind on what’s important—the mechanics of completing the play—and helps your body perform more automatically. A routine also helps you relax, because you feel comfortable performing it. Brand’s free-throw shooting routine is to “take a few deep breaths, relax, get my hand formed into the proper placement that I like it in, bend my knees, locate the rim and then follow through. I leave the hand up ’til (the ball) goes through the net.” His mind is focused on the routine, not the pressure of hitting the shot.
Getting back in the game after a bad play is another situation where establishing a routine can help. Some experts recommend practicing by putting yourself in similar situations, so you can develop a routine that works. For example, you can go bowling or play golf, which require that you quickly move on after a setback. When you throw a gutter ball, teach yourself to flip a mental switch and start fresh with the next roll.
2. Mental Moves
Visualization involves mentally rehearsing what you want to happen. Star softball pitcher Cat Osterman combines routine with visualization to get herself back on track after a couple innings of poor pitching. She says, “There have been times I started well. Then during innings three and four, my pitch isn’t working for whatever reason. I come to the dugout, go into a corner really quick and collect myself. I imagine throwing a pitch and seeing it break how I want it to and what my body does to make that happen.” The ultimate benefit, she says, is reassurance and confidence. Watch an exclusive video interview with Cat Osterman about her game-day routine.
If you struggle to concentrate or start to lose your cool during a game, practice the following method.
- Close your eyes and maintain a focused, relaxed attention.
- Begin to build concentration by envisioning details about your technique—how you hold the ball, your stance and posture.
- Imagine going through the motions that allow you to successfully execute the movement; see the ball travel to a desired spot.
- Envision the feeling of success. What you see in your mind subconsciously sticks.
3. Put Pen to Paper
“At the end of the season, you refl ect, you see some of the things you did well and (what) you need to improve on,” says New York Yankees SS Derek Jeter. Reflection is valuable during summer break. Take advantage of the season to start keeping a journal, where you review the past season and set goals for the future. If you think writing is for the weak, you’re wrong. Logging your thoughts has long term benefits, not only because you can track your athletic successes, shortfalls and goals, but because it gives you insight into your mindset.
For example, if you find yourself scribbling phrases like, “I need this win” or “I need to play well,” sport psychologist Dr. Rob Bell says you’re building unnecessary pressure. Cut yourself some slack and tone down your thoughts to something like: “I would like a big inning today,” or “I want to play well.”
Simple enough, right? Well it works. Dr. Dan Vitchoff, a mental training and performance coach, adds that by channeling your thoughts more positively, you program your focus and mind frame in a more favorable direction.