By: Michelle Cleere Ph.D.
If your student-athletes are not performing to the best of their abilities, there is a chance the problem is not physical but mental. I once met with a player who struggled on the court and rated her self-confidence as a three on a scale of one-to-ten. In her mind, she needed to train her body harder, but no progress came from her attempts. Her troubles were not related to her physical training, but her lack of mental training — a common issue among many student-athletes.
Because this is such a common struggle, it is important that coaches incorporate mental training into camps, practices and games by addressing nerves, intimidation and reflection. This life skill is not only important on the court but for the student-athletes future.
Embrace your nerves
Train student-athletes to replace negative thinking and overanalyzing with mantras such as I am excited to be here. Excitement and adrenal are normal, but they can also limit performance. Teach players to reinterpret butterflies as a positive and accept that nerves are a normal part of competition.
Forget about intimidation
Many student-athletes enter a game with the expectation from others to be better than their opponent, and, depending on who they are performing against, it can be very intimidating. Simply, instead of focusing on their own skills and strengths, they try to outplay their opponent. Coaches must help student-athletes understand that they can only control their own performance. One way to do this is to allow them to set their own specific performance goals. This will change their mentality to be aligned with what they need to achieve instead of how they compare against their opponent. This also grants student-athletes the opportunity to take ownership in their results — working toward their expectations and not those of others.
Reflection is important
When it is all over — win or lose —it is important for student-athletes to have time for personal reflection. Carve out 15 minutes after every game and practice when each player has time to revisit their performance. Ask them to consider, what went well, what was challenging, and what do they need to work on for the next game or practice? Student-athletes must realize that they are forever evolving, so instill in them the concept that every time they step onto the court is not only about competing but also it is an opportunity for growth.
Developing an athlete’s responses to stress and challenging circumstances is key and can be heavily influenced by proper mental training. Your challenge as a coach is to teach them to respond positively and develop resilience to use in both their athletic career and throughout their life.