Improve Your Mental Game Just By Watching Sports

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Watching Football

Have you ever watched a football game with a former offensive lineman? If so, then you know he's tracking the intricacies of blocking. An athletic trainer watching athletes walk or run on TV often diagnoses their "gait" patterns. View a movie with a director, and she'll be looking at different camera angles. Drive around a housing development with a builder, and he'll be analyzing the layout of the brick or stone on the houses.

Experts of a chosen profession view their passions through a different "lens" than almost everyone else. For instance, seeing Tom Brady orchestrate a game-winning drive or Tiger Woods make a clutch putt creates specific feelings in us merely by watching. So, by creating a specific "lens" through which to watch sports, we can actually improve our own game.

Luke Hochevar, drafted number one in the 2006 MLB Draft by the Kansas City Royals, told me that while he was at The University of Tennessee, he came up with a way to improve his game. He watched MLB games on television and put himself in the shoes of the pitcher. He would simulate the focus, body language, confidence and pitch sequence of the athlete as if he were actually performing on the mound.

Most of us get nervous just watching a pressure-packed moment in sports: a last possession, game-deciding kick or two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Taking Hochevar's example, use these moments to improve your own game by following the steps below:

  1. Pick a Player: Imagine becoming a player on the field of play, and try to key in only on his or her play. Actually become this player. This is applicable for any sport. Just don't pick your favorite player—you'll be too invested in his play!
  2. Focus: Focusing on the correct things while playing is an important skill that can be enhanced. When under pressure, your mind can drift away from the play to the possible result. However, since you are now this player, are you focused on the next play or what could go wrong? What's your attitude? How aggressive are you playing? What types of thoughts, game plans and strategies are you implementing?
  3. Breathe: Watching athletes under pressure is a powerful time to work on your breathing. During pressure moments, your breathing becomes short and quick, which prevents enough oxygen from getting to your muscles. Breathing should become part of your routine—take a breath before every play. When your athlete's game is on the line, can you keep taking normal breaths, just watching it unfold?
  4. Feel It: What do you want to feel at the end of the game? Can you tap into the feelings that your athlete is experiencing? Under pressure, we experience feelings of nervousness or excitement. Again, watching sports is the perfect time to simulate how we want to feel at the end of the game.

Improving our game through creating a mental "lens" is basically no different from when we were kids and we "became" our favorite player—except this technique has a purpose. Through this simulation, you'll begin to notice the types of thoughts you have, your breathing patterns and feelings of excitement and/or nervousness when under pressure. These are times to improve your own game.

Dr. Rob Bell is an assistant professor at Ball State University and a certified sport psychology consultant with The Association of Applied Sport Psychology. He also works as a caddy on professional golf tours. His first book, Mental Toughness Training for Golf, was published in 2010. A prolific writer, Dr. Bell has been published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, Journal of Athletic Insight, Journal of Sport Behavior and Encyclopedia of Sports. He writes extensively on the mental game—for, among others, Runner's World, The New York Times and STACK magazine—and he has been a presenter for numerous teams, schools and organizations. Dr. Bell earned his B.A. in psychology from Shepherd University; his M.Ed. in kinesiology, with a specialty in sport psychology, from Temple University; and his Ph.D. in sport psychology from the University of Tennessee.

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: SPORTS