I thought it might be helpful to introduce some of the “secrets” of sports psychology to parents, coaches, educators, and of course, the athletes themselves.
Please bear in mind that the science of sports psychology has really only been around for about 40 years or so. When I was in college back in the 1970s, there was very little research being done in this field, and even less being reported in academic journals.
I know this first hand because being a psych major, I spent literally hours and hours searching the literature in the libraries at Harvard and came up with very little. This was, of course, before the days of the internet and Google search, but even if they had existed back then, I doubt there would have much to report.
But over the years, as sports psychology gradually become more accdepted, I found from my own clinical work in the field working with athletes that some of the more basic concepts in sports psych ran counter to my own experiences. And as I traded notes with the late Harvey Dorfman, perhaps the greatest sports psychologist of our time, I began to realize that basic instruction in this area didn’t always ring true with developing athletes. Harvey agreed.
Let me give you an example. How many times have you encountered a youngster who, right before an upcoming game, says that he or she is so nervous that they’re having a hard time focusing on the event. The general response is to tell the youngster to “just try and relax….just take some deep breaths to calm yourself.”
Or some psychologists will suggest that the athlete think about “going to their safe place” in their mind in order to relax.
But when I tried these approaches when I played, I found they didn’t help much. Instead, I found through clinical trial-and-error that it was better to not try and get rid of the anxiety, but rather to embrace it. That is, I began to recognize that when my physical body wen through those adrenaline rushes, it was my body simply reassuring me that it was ready and prepared to go out and play in a big game. After awhile, I found that I looked forward to those moments of nervousness before games.
The alternative was to NOT have those anxious moments. When that happened – and they happened very rarely – that made me even more nervous, because my body was not responding well. In other words, it made extremely nervous that I wasn’t nervous.
But fortunately, this didn’t happen tor often. As my pre-game jitters would settle in, I knew that I was physically ready to go out and perform at a peak level.
The other psychological part of this preparation was going through a pre-game ritual of visualization. I honestly don’t know who invented this process, but I do recall reading a very popular book in the 1970s called PSYCHOCYBERNETICS by Dr. Maxwell Maltz. The book is still in print today.
In any event, Dr. Maltz, who was a surgeon, would take time everyday before operating to lie down in a quiet dark room, and then see in his mind’s eye how he was going to perform the surgery. He would “see” himself in the OR, going step-by-step in the process, all in color, and all in great detail. He would go through the entire operation, from beginning to end.
When done, he would “wake” from his visualization session, and then be ready to go operate.
This process has become standard operating procedure for many top athletes, as well as other people who perform for a living. Surgeons, musicians, actors, presenters, and so on. The idea is that by preparing your mind to see what will happen, this helps relieve any concerns or worries that you might not perform well. The key is to see yourself performing well, e.g. making pitches on the corner, hitting free throws over and over again, etc.
The combination of visualization along with experiencing those pre-game jitters works well. As you go out to perform, you can live off the adrenaline rush while at the same time, put your mind on auto-pilot as your physical skills just work follow your visualized path to success. Just let your athletic instincts take over.
Of course, it goes without saying that you need to have practiced and perfected your skill over and over again. You can’t just visualize playing the piano flawlessly and then expect to play it in a concert if you have never played the piano before. Practice and more practice allows your muscles to memorize how to behave once you are in a competition.
You might want to introduce the concept of visualization and how to embrace pre-game jitters to your son or daughter aound the age of 12 or 13. Younger than that, they might not understand why. But as they reach middle school age, that’s a good time to start.