The quality of an athlete's practices is one of the most critical determinants of optimal performance. But there's been a paucity of material addressing how to maximize practice opportunities via mental skills. Based on research and applied work from the fields of motor learning, pedagogy and sport psychology, four major factors have been developed that encapsulate the most important areas that both athletes and coaches should address: adopting a "quality attitude"; using "quality preparation" prior to training; employing "quality execution" strategies during training; and putting time and effort into "quality control."
Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks coach, makes an important distinction between players who have a professional attitude ("A" game attitude) and those with a mediocre attitude ("C" game attitude). The major difference is how one perceives practice—as an opportunity to play and improve (internally-driven, within one's control), or as something "done to them" (externally driven, out of one's control). This perception characterizes Carroll's two attitudes:
- Mediocre Attitude: Effort in practice fluctuates depending upon their mood, whether they like the activity, and on external motivation. Practice is something that "coach does to them"—"what is coach going to make us do today?" Athletes with this mindset go through the motions; they put in their time, but they just want to complete the drills and get out of the gym.
- Professional Attitude: Practice is viewed as a chance to improve athleticism and refine skills, not as something "forced" on them. They ask, "How can I/we get better today?" and "What will I/we accomplish today?" These athletes set standards of performance for each practice/week of practice, and evaluate themselves in terms of execution, effort and overall quality, while also seeking feedback from coaches and teammates.
"Professional attitude athletes" find ways to prepare well for practice. Having a set routine, with proper eating and rest, and letting go of problems (school, friends, significant others), helps ensure that practice can be dedicated solely toward quality execution. Athletes can prepare better for practice by setting standards of performance (goal-setting) for each week of practice and for each individual session (e.g., "what do I want to accomplish by the first scrimmage?" and "what do I want to accomplish in this shooting drill?")
"Mediocre attitude athletes" often go through the motions at practice, their goal being not to get yelled at or called out. Professional attitude athletes have clear goals, viewing practice as a valuable opportunity to work toward achieving them. They use techniques geared toward quality execution, whereas mediocre attitude athletes basically attempt to survive the session. Quality execution techniques used by professional attitude athletes include evaluating practice performance "on the fly," so they become more aware of what is working and what is not. Mediocre attitude athletes just want to get to the end of practice and hardly ever engage in self-evaluation.
Pro attitude athletes also create competitions with themselves to increase the quality of execution. For example, if a pro attitude athlete is doing sprint work, he or she attempts to chase down a teammate, not just survive the running. During technical work, a pro attitude athlete counts the number of successful attempts made instead of just doing the drill until the coach stops it (again, merely surviving).
Once practice is done, pro attitude athletes ask themselves questions such as: "How was my physical, technical and tactical execution? How was my work rate? What were the strengths of my play? My weaknesses? What will I do differently next practice? What should I do to prepare for next practice? What helped motivate me for practice today? How did I refocus and stay focused? What did the coaches say to me regarding my practice performance?" They evaluate their performance and measure it against their goals. Mediocre players head out and move on to their next activity, with no attempt to measure their performance.
Using standards and goals is very helpful. If players accomplish a particular goal, they should take pride in their accomplishment and press on with higher goals. If goals are not accomplished, players should re-evaluate their performance and start fresh to accomplish the goal tomorrow, or revise the goal.
To obtain a copy of a Quality of Training Survey form to evaluate player/team quality of training attitudes, preparation, execution and control, head over to my website.
Mike Voight, Ph.D., CC-AASP, is a team leadership consultant on player development for the New England Revolution (MLS), as well as for teams from USC, Texas, Georgia Tech and Mississippi State. He is also an assistant professor at Central Connecticut State University. Visit his website at drmikevoight.com for comments and to ask questions.
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