Who didn't play "red light-green light" as a kid? As a camp coach from my high school days on, one of my favorite games to play with the youngsters was "soccer red light-green light." The ability to close the gap with a bit of guile and speed while getting a jump on the "green light" call was gold. Many years later, I find myself using this vernacular in my work as a mental performance consultant.
I cannot take credit for this, however. My friend and mentor, Ken Ravizza, taught me how to apply "red light-green light" in the pursuit of improving an athlete's awareness of what works for them as well as what does not.
Ken's traffic light analogy exemplifies the connection between the mind and body (psychophysiological activation).
For example, on green, the mind and body work together to provide comfort, confidence, physical readiness, and energy, an ideal performance state, especially to start a match.
Yet on yellow, things have changed, like the opponent scoring a soft goal or getting beat off the dribble, again. Due to the adversity, real or perceived, the mind and body's activation level gets so ramped up for some players, causing a stress response. Commonly referred to as the fight or flight response, resulting in a less-than-ideal performance state due to the muscle tension, rapid breathing rate, and negative self-talk/thoughts. If something is not done to cease this ever-increasing activation, like a reset routine, productive self-talk, or deep relaxing breath, most players will proceed to read.
At this stage, players are so tense that their minds are racing so fast that they lose control of their psychology, physiology, and games. In his words:
"It's green when your body is calm and the mind focused. It turns yellow when your heart rate and blood pressure start rising and you begin having trouble focusing. It flashes red when you start believing your self-doubts. Your muscles tighten and you lose control."
Since every person is different, this process varies across competitors. Still, at some point, the majority of athletes cannot function effectively if their psychophysiological activation gets too high and too out of hand (or feet in this case). I have added an extra element to Ken's model, extending the analogy to include a "high road, low road" mentality based on self-talk, or as I refer to it, as self-coaching. Once players start attending to believing in their self-doubts (red light), it's game over. The following blends together the importance of being aware of your physiology and what you are telling yourself before and during play. Note-these are actual case notes from an elite performer.
Greenlight = High Road Mentality
Twenty-four hours before a competition, your "good is good enough." You have spent the practice week fine-tuning things, so now you are ready. No doubts, just confidence. While on green, you do not judge your play as either "good" or "bad" – only as productive. When your play is productive, you are making plays and contributing to your teammates/team via your strengths. The ideal for many is to play free and be productive with your thinking by not judging your play as good or bad. While on green, you never allow yourself to get too high (arrogant), so you stay "real" and ride the "feel good" wave as long as you have it (a good run of play). The key is to ensure you never allow yourself to go low road. The red light, characterized by self-defeating thoughts and negative judgments, like "my play is terrible." The good times are fleeting as yellow/grind is where most of the match is played. Enjoy green while in it!
Coaching Tip: Have players list their strengths and how specifically they contribute to the team's play both on and off the field.
Yellow light = Grind
Just keep playing since your opponent has some say in how successful you will be today on the pitch. You must prepare to be tested throughout the match. Keep in mind you organized during the training week for all that could go right and all that could be challenging. It is in this space, "how you will be tested and challenged," that most of your performance lies. Most of the time, players have to problem solve, make adjustments, and keep moving since it is the opponent's job to make things as uncomfortable as possible.
Sometimes the Grind is simply having to weather the opponent's best efforts then make the most of the next opportunity we have in their defensive third. Just getting the ball out of our half of the field is all it takes sometimes. Making the opponent have to track back and run can be the most important thing a team can do in the Grind. Embracing the little victories helps give energy and confidence, thus enabling the team to get closer to green.
Coaching Tip: Ask players how they stay productive while in the Grind (down by a goal or two) and how they help teammates to fight back to green. Have players list what they do and say to keep grinding while continuously contributing to the team's efforts to get the ball in their end in the hopes of scoring a needed goal.
Red light = Low Road Mentality
Your "on-ramp" to this low road is you judging your play as "terrible" instead of viewing your play as different levels of productivity. I hope you know you can STOP this type of thinking.
- It takes a conscious effort w/ some reminders (like green & yellow dot on your boot), which gives you the confidence and control to change this
- If there is a part of your game that is not as productive, like your attacking play, give yourself credit for the job you're doing on defense, and the boost in confidence will give the mind and body a boost, thus changing things which allows you to move to yellow, the grind mentality.
Once heard, you can do the simple things to improve your attacking game.
Coaching Tip: Ask players to answer these questions: What is your "on-ramp" to red-What usually happens to get you to read? What is red like for you? How have you brought yourself back to yellow once on red?
Keeping your mind and body in the yellow and green mindsets entails conscious control of how you think and how you move on from mistakes. It's called mental toughness for a reason – it is tough to be consistent with your mental game. Reading this article and applying its lessons will be a great first step to a more consistent mental game Green Light!
This article is a tribute to my friend and mentor, Ken Ravizza, who passed away last year. He taught me and so many others the importance of being in the moment and being real about who we are and how best to stay present and in control. His lessons will continue to guide the many.
Portions of this article are adapted from Dr. V's 2nd edition of Mental Toughness Training for Football (2020, Coaches Choice Publishing), and from his writings that have appeared in the United Soccer Coaches Association's Soccer Journal.
- Ravizza, Ken & Hanson, Tom. (2016). Heads-Up Baseball 2.0: 5 Skills for Competing One Pitch at a Time. Hanson House.
- Ravizza, Ken & Hanson, Tom. (1998). Heads up baseball: Playing the game one pitch at-a-time. McGraw-Hill Education.
- Shellenbarger, Sue. (2018, June 11). What you can learn from MLB's mental game coaches.
- What You Can Learn From MLB's Mental-Skills Coaches
- Small, Frank. How to Develop Mentally Tough Young Athletes: Developing winning attitudes toward competition.