For any athlete, success in their chosen sport or activity depends on their ability to develop appropriate physical skills. This requires an extensive practice regimen during which the athlete gradually turns their body into a finely honed tool. The importance of physical development should not come as news to anyone involved with sports, of course, but there is an all-too-common tendency to overlook the other half of athletic training—the mental aspect. Training the mind is also essential. So what can a young athlete do to ensure that their mental game progresses alongside their physical game? Sports psychology has many facets—far too many to explore in detail here—but let’s take a quick look at some useful tips for maximizing mental fitness. Here are some mental-preparation goals that every young athlete should know about.
Creating a Year-Round Performance Schedule
One major part of mastering the mental game is to understand how to schedule properly. Athletes stay busy twelve months of the year, but they do not just complete the same activities every day. Ideally, they follow a “performance cycle” that passes through four distinct stages:
- Preparation stage – The athlete works to improve their skills. The emphasis at this stage is on practicing specific, repeatable physical motions that are vital to the relevant sport. Repetition of routines is key. This is the lengthiest of the four stages.
- Pre-competitive stage – At this stage, preparation shifts to simulate a competitive atmosphere. Training mimics game-day activities, and the athlete fine-tunes mental readiness for the event. This stage usually begins not long before the actual competition—maybe a week or so prior.
- Competitive stage – This is where all that practice is put to use. The big event—the game, the tournament, the race, or what have you—has arrived.
- Active rest stage – Here the athlete evaluates their strengths and weaknesses in the aftermath of the competition, using this recovery period to reflect on their performance, recharge their energies, and develop new goals for the next performance cycle. Many athletes skip this stage in favor of promptly getting back into action, but failing to perform a proper skills evaluation tends to lead to a lot of wasted time and energy.
Adhering to a planned-out performance cycle, rather than merely training in a haphazard fashion, will produce superior results.
Setting the Right Expectations
Going through practice sessions with no real goal in mind is a recipe for stagnation. Athletes set expectations for themselves before they go out on the green. But it is important to understand what is meant when we talk about setting expectations, as it has nothing to do with scorecards. Rather, it is about the importance of setting “effort-based” expectations—that is, ones that the athlete can directly control. Effort-based expectations can take a very wide variety of forms, and they can be quite simple. For instance, the athlete may decide to focus on proper posture during the day’s training, or another specific action. Because this is an effort-based exercise, there is no pressure to “succeed” at attaining a goal—it is only necessary to direct one’s activities in the right way.
Avoiding the Urge to Obsess over Numbers
It is natural for athletes to keep track of statistics relevant to their training program. Certainly it seems like a sound way to chart one’s progress—you can, for example, easily check how many GIRs you had this week relative to previous weeks. This kind of statistical analysis undoubtedly has its place—but it is important not to get carried away with facts and figures. Part of the problem is that numbers can provide a misleading view of one’s progress. Stats may indicate poor performance on a day when the athlete was deliberately pushing themselves past their comfort zone. Or they may fail to record weather conditions that might explain sub-standard achievement. During a performance cycle, there are many variables that statistics cannot capture with precision. This connects to the previous tip—you need to set chiefly effort-based expectations, as opposed to simply achieving statistical excellence.
Learning to Be Proactive
No matter how good you are, it is inevitable that at one time or another you will experience disappointing results in competitive situation. How well an athlete handles disappointment can make or break their entire career. However, far too many competitors give in to negative emotions and destructive self-assessments in the wake of sub-standard performance—they become reactive, rather than proactive. In many cases they manage to avoid lapsing into self-pity, and instead simply try to forget that lousy day as best they can. What is wrong with this? It robs the athlete of the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, as they are too busy reeling from disappointment to assess their performance properly. But that is exactly what the proactive athlete does—they manage their emotions and figure out what must be done to improve their skills.
Avoiding Debilitating Perfectionism
The perfect round of golf—achieving the magic 54—is the dream of many professionals, and it is also a goal that no-one has ever provably attained under proper conditions. Still, many pro golfers dedicate themselves to absolute perfection every single day. You may be wondering what could be so wrong with this approach; after all, is it not better to push yourself to the limit than to go listlessly through the motions? The problem is that this mind-set promotes a results-oriented approach. This in turn often leads to one of two undesirable consequences: either the athlete becomes disenchanted with the constant striving toward an unattainable goal, or he or she becomes bored with the monotony of repeating an activity that allows for no further refinement. How can an athlete avoid this trap? By evading results-oriented thinking. Athletes must seek to push themselves—not to hit an arbitrary number, but to expand the parameters of their physical limitations. Again, the emphasis should be on effort, not hitting a precisely defined goal. In this way, the athlete avoids burnout by making the most of each training session.
Staying positive, setting appropriate goals, remaining proactive rather than reactive, avoiding the results-oriented approach—these are all important elements of mastering the mental game. Make no mistake: Failing to manage the psychological component has ruined many promising young athletes. But, with a reasonable amount of preparation, any athlete can avoid these energy-sapping mental pitfalls. As we say at the IJGA: Embrace the challenge.