“Tough times never last. But tough people do.” Robert Shuller, Jr.
In these crazy, difficult times, we have all been challenged to be mentally tougher. Every aspect of our life has been in turmoil, even school and our sports opportunities. We can take some valuable “lessons learned” from this adversity. One takeaway is that our self-talk and our thoughts matter. They drive what we do. Keeping ourself positive, confident, optimistic, and uplifting helps us rise above our current living situations during a pandemic and being a high performer in the classroom and on the playing field. When we are negative and pessimistic, we will not rise above but fall victim to our circumstance instead.
Since knowledge is power, let’s learn from and steer clear of these negative talk-thoughts and instead use the performance routine tip:
Common Types of Negative Talk-Thinking + Performance Routine Tip:
Worrying About Future Events: When thoughts are focused too much on the future the present play will suffer greatly. Attentional capacities are limited. Worrying about future events will leave little attentional capacity for present performance. Tip: Focus on W.I.N = what’s important now = if you gave the ball away, what’s important now is to hustle back on defense!
Fretting Over Mistakes: Fretting over mistakes means that you are playing in the past. Players cannot go back and change what has happened, no matter how much they would like. Tip: You can only learn from the past and move on to the next play right in front of you. Since attentional capacities are limited, it is important to solely play in the present. Using a refocusing routine after making a mistake (W.I.N, or deep breath, or picture you making a solid pass on the next possession) will help you stay in the present.
Worrying About the Uncontrollables: Almost everyone worries about things out of their control, such as weather and traffic. Players do the same thing in worrying about not making mistakes, the opponent’s play, what coaches are thinking, and outcome. Even an athlete’s play during games is mostly an uncontrollable, since you have no control over how the opponent will play. Tip: All players can make it as difficult as possible for opponents to play to their fullest potential. Helping players identify what they do and do not have control over is a good place to start.
Fretting Over Weaknesses During a Game: While competing, players should be on “automatic” and simply read and react to the ever-changing game situations. This state tends to be the signature of most top players—they play better when they just play. Yet, many players struggle with “freeing the mind” and just playing. Tip: If players need to have a couple of thoughts or statements in their heads, ensure that they are productive. This could include technical or strategic cues that help players play better, such as “I can do this” or “what a challenge this is for me to defend this All-American –or even motivational talk, such as “Let that one go and get ready for the next play.” If players are thinking and evaluating about how poorly they are playing, they will only play worse. Maintaining either a clear mind or using productive cues is not easy. It takes practice.
Focusing Too Much on Winning: Even though most players compete to win, when it becomes the sole reason for playing, they set themselves up for failure. Players and coaches must understand that winning is a process, and that if players don’t work on the process of playing well, winning will not happen unless the team gets lucky or plays against a lesser opponent. Tip: Nick Saban, Alabama Crimson Tide Head Coach, continues to preach process which he states has led to his program’s unprecedent success. The main takeaway here is that players should be thinking of ways to play better and help the team rather than just focusing on winning the game. Also, opponents have a lot to do with whether teams win or not, so winning is somewhat uncontrollable. Coaches can begin to change this mindset by stressing game execution (“How are we going to win?”) rather than simply beating the opponent.
Fretting Over Being Perfect: Another uncontrollable is trying to be perfect. No one is that good, and so much is beyond players’ control. TIP: Striving to be perfect is a sign of a true competitor, but expecting to be perfect is a sign of inappropriate and irrational thinking that sets an athlete up for failure daily. This type of thinking can also erode motivation and confidence.
Techniques to Develop Tough Thinking and Talking
Being a tough thinker and talker takes practice. This practice starts by players becoming more aware of what works for them versus what does not work. Players who know what they are thinking and saying before, during, and after play can change their mindset to productive thoughts rather than negative ones. Thinking productively is easy when a player is playing well but it is a different story when things are not going so well. They call it mental toughness for a reason. It is tough to think this way consistently, especially in tougher times, when things are not going the athlete’s way.
Once players have identified the most common negative thoughts and self-statements they say to themselves before and during games and replace them with productive thoughts and self-statements, the next step entails believing in the productive statements and not the negative ones. Players do this by “building a case” for why these productive thoughts and self-statements are true.
- Example 1: “I am a good player because I made this top team and I play a lot.”
- Example 2: “I want to be the player with the ball in my hands in the final minutes. I have done so in the past and won the game with a big play.”
- Example 3: “My coach and teammates will still respect me even if I make mistakes.”
- Example 4: “I don’t have to worry about making mistakes, because everyone makes mistakes and they are necessary to become the best player I can be.”
Now that the players have some feel-good, productive, and motivating self-coaching statements, what do they do with them? Players should find creative ways to use them as often as possible. Consider the following examples of how players can make the most of the statements that work best for them. You can suggest that players:
- Choose one or two statements each day to repeat over and over, especially before playing.
- Write the statement on paper many times throughout the day, with the idea that the more they tell themselves these statements, the more they will believe them.
- Post these statements in a folder to read over when they have a few spare moments.
- Post them somewhere in their room so that they see them many times throughout the day.
- Write them down and put them in their sport bags to review them before and after practices or games as they put on their equipment and uniforms.
- Record the statements on their phones, along with some of their favorite music, and play them whenever they can, especially before practice and games.
- Visualize highlights from past successful performances or mentally picture future match play.
To be tough in tough times entails keeping ourself positive, confident, optimistic, and uplifting. This toughness is contagious! Stay tough and stay safe in these difficult times all.
Mike Voight, Ph.D. Portions of this article comes from Dr. Voight’s mental toughness books (Coaches Choice) and the United Soccer Coaches Soccer Journal, THE MENTAL article series. His website: https://drvleads.com/