When asked about top skills required for their sports, many athletes, including Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, say that mental skills are absolutely critical. They separate the great players from the merely good ones. However, most athletes don't even consider practicing mental skills, usually because they simply don't know where to start or whom to ask without feeling weak or crazy.
To begin honing your mind to improve your sports performance, start by changing how you set goals. Goal setting is one of best, but also one of the least understood, mental skills.
Improper Goal Setting
Most athletes focus on outcome goals, such as "Win the game," "Throw strikes" or "Get a scholarship." These are big picture goals, which are important in representing your long-term destination; but in moments of competition, they're too big, vague and distracting to facilitate your best performance.
Thinking about outcome goals can overwhelm you and can lead to "catastrophizing"—for example, "I didn't throw a strike, so I'll never be a good pitcher, and my college dreams are shot." Plus, it takes your focus off the skills and movements that you need to execute in the present. In short, focusing on outcome goals pulls your mind into the future while you are competing in the now.
Let's look at an example: You're standing on the mound thinking, "I need to throw a strike. If I don't get this guy out, I'll get pulled from the game, and that will be embarrassing." Your thoughts are not on how the ball feels in your hand, what path your arm needs to take and how your body needs to move to execute a slider.
Sticking with the baseball example, you have no control over many of the things related to the goal of "throwing a strike" or "getting the guy out." The ump defines the strike zone. The wind may affect the path of the ball. The rubber could come loose as you're making your delivery. The batter might hit a hard ground ball to the shortstop, who could flub the play.
Outcome goals are big picture, long-term and future-focused; they're also involved in the process of imagery, which we'll cover in a future post. So, think of outcome goals as important everywhere except when you're on the field.
Appropriate game-time goals are called "Performance Goals." You focus on performing the movements, actions, skills and motions that you can control.
When a coach or mental trainer says "break it down," they mean analyze and evaluate—breaking your game down into small, measurable steps and evaluating it after the game to see how you did. You can tell right away if you performed a skill correctly; you can then evaluate and move on to the next motion.
A few examples of performance goals are (again, using baseball): "I'm going take a deep breath, and shake out my arms before I step on the rubber on every pitch." And "I'm going to take my grip of the ball when I bring it to the belt."
By themselves, they don't seem too impressive, and perhaps you think they're not super useful. But here's the key. If you can string those smaller goals together and combine them, it will help you reach your Outcome Goal. This is called creating Process Goals. The combination of all your Performance Goals leads to achieving your Outcome Goal.
How to Change Your Goals
Now that you know the type of goals you should have, it's time to change your mindset. If your outcome goal is to "throw strikes," you need to be relaxed. If you're tense, your body won't execute your pitches well. Therefore, you might have a Process Goal to "be relaxed no matter what the situation." To achieve that, you need to take a deep breath on every pitch and shake out your arms to create relaxation.
Process Goals are within your control and easy to evaluate when you're finished. After the game, ask yourself: "Was I relaxed in all situations?"
Now, here's the most important part. All of these goals have to be decided in advance of practice and competition. If you're making them up on the spot, while you're trying to play, you're dead. You'll get overwhelmed, and (if you've made it this far in reading this article) you know where that's headed.
Write your goals out sometime when you're away from the field. Write down your Outcome Goals first and define why those goals are important to you. Then get the process together. The important component is getting to that goal. Then write down the steps that you'll use as measuring sticks during practice or a game.
Below, Ph.D. sport psychology professionals Dr. Rob Bell and Dr. Angus Mugford discuss some of the ways they work with athletes on setting goals and other top mental skills.
A lifelong competitor in cycling, hockey, lacrosse and golf, Bob Kinnison started a sports psychology resource center called Athlete's Audio. The company's goal is to give psychology experts a forum to share their knowledge about mental skills for sports. Visit athletesaudio.com to learn more.
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