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Category Archives: Relaxation

Balance is Key

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As I was driving to work one morning, watching the sun gracefully rise, I came upon a thought: our whole lives have a common thread centered around rising and falling. The sun rises in the morning and “falls” in the evening, we arise in the snoceanmorning, and we fall asleep at night. The tides rise and fall with the gravitational pull of the moon. Our bodies are fuelled by homeostasis; a process of balancing out the rise and fall in temperature and aspects of nutrition. Our lives are a series of ups and downs, everyday. In order to be successful we must learn to rise and fall with a steady mind.

John Wooden preached emotional stability to his players. He didn’t want them to get caught up in success or failure. He didn’t believe in highly emotional “pump-up” speeches during pre-game because he wanted his players to stay level headed. He also didn’t allow his players to become emotionally distraught after a mistake. He believed in balance. images-65

This steadiness in the face of success and failure encompasses the meaning of mental toughness. “It is recognizing that you are going to make mistakes, sometimes costly mistakes, but you tough it out and do the best you can anyway”, as Jim Thompson describes in his book Positive Coaching.

In games like baseball and softball mental toughness is crucial. They are games of failure; success in these sports is defined as failing more than you succeed. A highly respected batting average is .400, failing six times out of ten. Most major leaguers who are considered big time hitters only have averages in the .300 range, failing seven out of ten times. The game is slow, which allows you to dwell on the failures. As a defensive player you could experience multiple innings, or even games, after an error before getting the chance to make a successful play again. How would it look if we took these failures to heart? What if we simply gave up every time we swung and missed? What if, as children, we gave up every time we “failed” when learning to walk? We would never improve.

Athletes need to build up their mental toughness to get to the next level. They need to experience success and failure with grace so they can hone their skills and discover their full potentials.

mike-madduxA golden opportunity to challenge a players’ mental toughness is on the mound in a situation where the pitcher is struggling. As a coach you can approach the mound and challenge the pitcher to improve their mental toughness. “This team thinks they have you backed into a corner because you are starting to struggle. Do you think you can work on your mental focus and keep hitting your spots instead of letting them get to you?” Switching the focus to improving mental toughness is a beneficial strategy in helping athletes to develop mental capabilities. It may also improve performance, and allow the athlete to succeed in a tough situation. Sometimes changing an athletes’ perspective or focus allows them to perform more naturally because their mind is distracted from scrutinizing every technical aspect of their performance.

Help your athletes fail and succeed with grace. Help them to ride the waves of sport performance instead of getting washed out with tide by giving them opportunities in challenging situations to improve their mindset.

Quote of the Day:

“You can’t let praise or criticism get to you. It’s a weakness to get caught up in either one” – John Wooden 

A Beautiful Escape

It came to me while I was watching an episode of Greys’ Anatomy. On the episode of Greys, a girl witnessed her grandmother, mom, and father die on her 18th birthday. She then had to take responsibility for her two younger siblings. On this same day, one of the doctors had to operate on an anonymous patient. The surgery isn’t successful, and the doctor loses the patient. Turns out, this patient was her co-workers husband, and she would have to break the news to her. sky dugout

As I was bawling my eyes out watching this episode unfold, I realized something. There are so many terrible, heart-wrenching tragedies that occur in this world on a daily basis, but sports aren’t one of them. What a great carefree way to escape the hardships of our society. We get to go out on the field and hit, pitch, throw, catch, and dive, and the worst thing that could happen to us, is we lose a game. (Except maybe Injury, but in general) That’s it. We just lose, but we get to live and get to play another day.

We all tend to get caught up in the statistics of what team we need to beat, and how many errors the top players make… But if you take a step back and look at the big picture you realize, it’s just a game.prom catcher If you start to look at where softball falls within the demands and events that life can bring, it’s an escape. We get to escape all the stresses, tragedies, and frustrations of the world and just play.

As a coach, I want to harness that. I want to create an atmosphere where players can achieve pure happiness and unchained success. Give them a place to learn and succeed; a place where they can escape the stresses of life and experience success. I want to enhance their abilities and give them a role. I want to give them a chance to feel like they are apart of something, a needed piece of the puzzle. I want to give those kids who may have it rough at home, a place to feel truly important, successful, and accepted. cloudsI strive to teach them life lessons through the game of softball. I want to create a setting where I can give them the tools to face the real world, and a place to escape from it; all at the same time.

So coaches when you’re out on the field, and the going gets tough, take a second to breathe. Remember, you are contributing to their lives. Don’t forget that you have the power to give them an outlet for success. You could be the difference in their future.

Quote of the day:

“I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back.” – Maya Angelou 

Improving Concentration

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One of the biggest obstacles for todays athletes to overcome is concentration. It’s not usually that athletes aren’t focused, they just tend to focus on the wrong things. One of the best questions an athlete can ask a coach is, “what should I be concentrating on right now?” This questions allows the coach to really develop that players concentration and potential skill level. By giving this player 3-4 things to focus on, the coach is most likely increasing this athletes use of self-talk. Self-talk is the process of mentally talking to oneself.  This is one of the most common techniques used to improve concentration.  Here are some techniques to make self-talk beneficial:

1)   Keep phrases short and specificfocus-22

2)  Keep them in first person and present tense

3)  Construct positive phrases

4)  Say phrases with meaning and attention

5)  Speak kindly to yourself

6)  Repeat phrases often

Concentration can also be enhanced by implementing “thought-stopping”. Players can cope with negative distractions by stopping the negative thoughts before they harm their performance. It’s common for a lot of athletes to have negative thoughts during competition and practice. Think about all the situations in which negative self-talk has hurt your personal performance. Try and recognize which situations produce negative thoughts and why. Thentry to change those negative thoughts into positive motivational thoughts. For instance, as a pitcher the number four batter gets up and the catcher calls an outside curve ball. The pitcher immediately thinks to herself, don’t miss this spot or you’re going to get drilled in the face. To change this talk, she could instead think, hit the outside corner and let your curve ball break away; no one has a better curve ball than you.

1) Focus on the unwanted thought for a brief moment.

2) Then come up with a trigger word or action to stop the unwanted thought. (Ex. stop or physically snapping your fingers.)

3) Then proceed to focusing on the task you want to fulfill successfully.

Athletes can also reconstruct their thought processes by always using non-judgmental thinking. Judging a performance as good or bad can lead to generalizing behaviors. Instead look at a performance as is, without judgment; focus on what is making the athlete perform the undesired behavior and switch their attention to changing it. For a pitcher who is having a wild day, it’s obvious her control is off. Instead of thinking that she is a bad pitcher, she needs to notices that she is missing high, which means she needs to focus on using more wrist snap, and possibly shortening her stride. This will keep players from being emotionally distracted.

Remember, just like physical skills, mental skills take practice in order to master them.

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Along with mental techniques, there are also physical things athletes can do to help improve their concentration. They can establish routines which can be used before or during an event to focus attention, reduce anxiety, eliminate distractions, and enhance confidence. Pre-performance routines have been proven to help athletes switch their attention from irrelevant cues to task relevant thoughts.

Practicing eye control can enhance focus on the task at hand. Athletes must keep their eyes from wondering into the stands, or looking at the runners on base while up to bat. “Keep your eye on the ball” is harder said than done.Athletes can also try developing competition plans. They can think about the next game and what they are going to do in certain circumstances. Similar to being in the field on defense, and preparing for what to do with the ball on the next play.

Over learning skills of the game to make them automatic, like we discussed above, can help athletes focus on mentally challenging aspects of the game. John Wooden explains it best: When learning to read kids must first learn the letters, and the sounds they make. Then slowly they can put these sounds into words, and soon sentences. However, in these early stages kids are solely focusing on the sounds of the words, not the meaning of the word, definitely not the meaning of the sentence it’s in, and surely not the book. Once they have mastered the skill of making sounds into words, they no longer have to focus on what each word is, they can read for comprehension and expand their minds with the books knowledge. Mastering skills in sports is the same way; once the skills are automatic athletes can open their minds to executing strategy, and outsmarting their opponents

Many athletes believe that focus and concentration are only important during games, when in fact, it is almost more important in practice; the phrase, “practice makes perfect”, explains how important concentration is in practice.

Quote of the day:

“Confidence, focus, composure” 

Sports Psychology in the Classroom

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I am currently working as an aid in a special education elementary school classroom. The children I work with are between 8-12 years old and have behavioral issues or learning difficulties. Today I was working one on one with a little boy who really struggles with math.Math-problems-dyscalculia He gets frantic and starts to guess at the numbers, function signs, and eventually answers. Numbers just come chaotically flying out of his mouth with no real reasoning behind them. For example, when asked what 6 minus 5 equals, his first instinct is to shout out “7”, then “2”. And so on.  Everything he does is a guess. He never takes a moment to allow his brain to process the numbers and give a well thought out answer. I quickly noticed this, and my sports psychology training instantly kicked in.

I took a moment, told him to take a deep breath and really look at the numbers we were dealing with. After a few deep breathes, he blurted out, “I can’t.” “I don’t know.” I then made him practice some positive self-talk. Out loud I had him say, “I can do this.” “I know my numbers.” After repeating these mantras a few times, and deeply breathing, he began to read the problem images-42out loud correctly. He slowly read the numbers and grabbed his counting chart. He correctly identified the numbers in the problem, and which way to move on his chart for subtraction.  He looked up after he counted, and said, “1?”. I then said, “Do you think you did the problem correctly?”. He said, “yes”. I said, “So tell me confidently you know the answer is 1.” He then proudly said, “1!”.

We then went on to do 15 minutes of solid relaxed math and he began to learn rather than guess. It’s a moment that will forever resonate with me, and further my belief in the power of Sports Psychology.

Quote of the day:

“Just Breathe”

Concentrating on Focus

Focus, what is focus?! Athletes have been harped on to focus since the beginning of competition. It’s one of the most common phrases we hear in sports. But, what is it? When yellingasking your athletes to focus, what are you actually asking them to do? Can you write out 5 simple steps to achieve the focus you’re asking them to possess?

At first I was perplexed by this question, how can I paint vivid guidelines for my players to follow in order to attain the focus I’m asking them to have? I found my answer within the definition of concentration. The definition of concentration in a sport or an exercise setting involves four parts; Selective attention, maintaining attention focus, situational awareness, and shifting attention focus.

Selective awareness is the act of focusing on relevant environmental cues. It’s the physical process of eliminating irrelevant cues from your realm of attention and only selecting the relevant cues to concentrate on. Once an athlete has mastered a skill, they no longer have to consciously think about it while they are performing it. For instance, younger athletes are taught to drop step as a first step to any fly ball. With more practice and experience, that first step becomes second nature, done without thought. Having these second nature habits allows athletes to pay attention to other parts of the game.

Maintaining attention focus is the ability to maintain concentration throughout the entire game. This is tough because studies show the average time thoughts stay on target is about 5 seconds. Some of the greatest athletes earned their reputation not on pure talent, but the ability to stay focused in competition. Tennis player Chris Evert never had the best physical ability, but she never let a bad line call, missing an easy shot, or crowd noise, affect her. Concentration was the key factor that made her a champion.

Maintaining situational awareness is an athlete’s ability to understand what is going on around them. It’s the peripheral vision of concentration. This ability allows players to size up game situations, opponents, and competitions to make the right decisions in play.

Shifting attention focus is the ability to be flexible with attention; being able to switch one’s focus depending on what the situation calls for.

Think of Concentration as a personal spotlight. Athletes have to know where to point their 133spotlight, how narrow or broad to make the beam of light, and be able to switch it from place to place quickly, in order to focus on the correct things.

Researchers have found that when studying elite athletes in their most exceptional performances, three of the eight key components of their performance were related to concentration.

1) Being absorbed in the present and having no thoughts about the past or future.

2) Being mentally relaxed and having a high degree of concentration and control.

3) Being in a state of extraordinary awareness of both their own bodies and the external environment.

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It has been proven that expert athletes, compared to novice athletes, have a different focus in game situations. Exp

ert players are able to disregard irrelevant stimuli and focus on task-oriented things, rather than the outcome of the task. This is proven by the study of eye movements in experts and novice athletes. A perfect example is the basketball player Magic Johnson who was known for his no look passes. He used advanced cues to know what his teammate’s future moves would be.

Focusing on the wrong cues, is one of the biggest problems for athletes. It’s not that they lack the ability to focus, but their focus is concentrated in the wrong area. Sometimesathletes get caught up in focusing on internal worries and concerns, past experiences, future events, the pressure of the game, and body mechanics.

Jim Thompson, the author of “Positive Coaching” brings up a great perspective in concentration. Most athletes are consumed with trying to avoid looking dumb. They are focused on not making a mistake, which is actually causing them to focus solely on making mistakes.

 

Quote of the day:

“When I’m training I’m focused… by focusing all the time on what you’re doing when you’re training, focusing in a race becomes a by-product.” -Orlick and Parintons landmark study of Canadian Olympic athletes   

Imagery! It’s Powerful Stuff!

“Imagery is a form of stimulation, it is similar to a real sensory experience, but the entire experience occurs in the mind.” (Coaching for the Inner Edge) Using Imagery you can re-create previous positive experiences or picture new events to prepare yourself mentally for performance. It can be used to build confidence and concentration.

Imagery has been said to help athletes enhance their performance of motor skills. In your mind, visualizing the task you want to accomplish, like the hitting the ball, can actually help you produce the results you want. This entire entry is all about how you can use imagery before a performance to increase your chances of success.

Using imagery

Imagery is a form of simulation that happens in your mind. You can re-create or create an experience in your mind that is similar to a real life sensory experience. Keeping these simulations positive is the key to success when using imagery. Imagery should encompass as many senses as possible, using more than one sense helps to create more vivid images in the mind. Use your visual sense (sight), your auditory sense (hearing), tactile sense (touch), olfactory sense (smell), and your kinesthetic sense. Your kinesthetic sense is the sense that detects bodily movement, weight shift or movement of the muscles and tendons.  Here is an example of how you can prepare yourself before an at bat by using imagery; this can be done in warm ups while doing dry swings, or in the on deck circle, or in even in the car before the game begins.  

Hitting

Visual– See the pitcher and the team on the field behind her. Now shift your focus to only her, see her wind up, every little movement.  Then start focusing on watching the ball as the pitcher releases it  from her hip. Watch as the ball comes toward the plate. Focus on the ball, see the color, the seams, and the rotation. See the ball as it contacts the bat and sails into left center for a base hit.

Kinesthetic sense– Feel the bend in your knees and the position of your stance. Know where your bat is in relation to your shoulder and how tightly your fingers are wrapped around it. Know and feel when to transfer your weight at the proper time to maximize power. Feel the position of your body when you hit the ball, your power position, and your follow through.

Auditory sense– Hear the sounds of the dugouts and the stands cheering.  Let those sounds slowly fade out and hear the slap of the glove on the pitchers thigh, and hear her grunt as she releases. Once you swing, hear the sound of the bat on the ball, and the cheers from your team mates and coaches.

Tactile sense– Feel the sun beating down on your shoulders, feel the sweat glistening off your body. Feel the grip of the bat in your hands.

Olfactory sense– Smell the fresh air, the cut grass, or the freshly watered dirt. 

Emotion: do you feel nervous walking up to the plate? Anxious? Excited? Confident? frustrated?

Remember to always attach emotion and thoughts to your imagery; are you happy, angry, in pain? Are you confident, nervous, concentrated, or distracted? Putting these emotions into your imagery can help you control them; within your images you can practicing changing your anxiety to excitement, or fear to confidence.

You can also use imagery to control anger after a bad call, or after a teammate makes an error. See yourself reacting in a positive way to keep your team up and focused around you. You can say cue words to yourself, like to stick the ball, to remind yourself to stay focused on the upcoming game, not on your error or the umpires bad call. In your off time, between games you can visualize an error you made in a prior game, then go through the visualization process of staying up and positive, do it with detail like the example above. In the next game after an error, instead of going through this whole process again, you can just say your cue word, like stay up, which will help you remember your visualization and react accordingly.

Don’t think it works?

I have evidence!

A study done at the United States Olympic training center indicated that 100% of sport psychology consultants, and 94% of the coaches of the Olympic athletes used imagery during their training sessions, with 20% using it at every practice session. (Coaching for the Inner Edge) If you want more, I got it!

Where can imagery be used?

It can be used in practice and in games, or before and after each.  Most athletes use imagery in pre-competition, but it can be useful to practice imagery at practice, so you can effectively transfer it over to a game situation. 

When can imagery be used?

Imagery can be used at anytime you want to work on your game. But it is said to be most effective after practice and after games because images of your performance are fresh in your mind.  Imagery can be especially helpful with injury, even though an injured player may not be able to physically practice, they can still mentally practice. Studies have shown a faster recovery rate for injured athletes who have used imagery.

Before and after practice– you can take ten minutes before practice to visualize routines and skills you are expected to perform. After practice, you can review what you worked on in practice and really feel the movements.

Before and after games– imagery can happen right before the game, before warm-ups, or in the car. After the game review things you did successfully, focus on the positive parts of your performance.

During breaks in action – it can be used between pitches or innings. Imagery can be used to build focus and self-confidence.

When injured– imagery can be used to relax and let go of the anxiety that comes with being hurt. Positive images of healing and full recovery have shown results in enhanced recovery.

Why do athletes use imagery?

They use imagery to enhance both cognitive and motivational behavior. Motivation- visual goals, goal oriented (outcome-oriented beating your opponents) and task oriented (improving your personal best). Visualize yourself winning and being congratulated, or being happy with the performance you gave on the field.  Cognitive- getting the “feel of the movement”. Research has shown that doing this type of mental imagery has enhanced performance above and beyond the level achieved merely through physical practice.

How does imagery work?

I know what you’re thinking; how does visualizing myself hitting the ball or fielding a ball actually change the way I play? Our minds can generate information from memory that is essentially the same as an actual experience; consequently, imaging events can have an effect on our nervous system similar to that of an actual experience. 

Imagery can be used to build confidence, control emotional responses, acquiring and practicing sport skills and strategies, and coping with pain or injury.

Improve concentration– it helps you focus on what you want to do, how you want to do it, and keeps your mind from wondering. You can imagine yourself in a situation where you would usually lose your concentration, after making an error or swinging at a bad pitch, and then visualize yourself staying composed and focused on the next pitch or play.

Enhance motivation– A study in an aerobic class showed that when using imagery to visualize themselves getting healthier and improving physical appearance they had more endurance while exercising.

Build confidence– Use positive imagery. See yourself throwing a perfect curveball that the batter swings and misses at, or grabbing a hard shot out of the air. But be careful, imagery can also work against you; if you imagine negative things it can lower your self confidence.

Control emotional responses– imagery can be used to psyche yourself up for a game or relax yourself before a game if you tend to play tense.

Solve problems-if you are in a slump or not performing like you want to be, you can visualize what you are doing now and compare it to what you did when you were playing at your best. Then you can decide what needs to change.

Practice or aquire a sport skill– you can practice that perfect swing or pitch in your mind which will help with execution, or enhance the learning process.

Sometimes athletes have trouble controlling their images, they can see themselves repeating their mistakes; i.e. striking out. The key is practice!

Remember, the same skills used in sports can also be used in everyday life. Use imagery before taking a big test or a giving a speech. Picture yourself doing well, and achieving your goals.

I’m not saying that everyone should use imagery, it may not work for everyone, but my job is to give you all the information I have, in hopes of helping you to be the best players you can be. Your job is to take it all in and try it. Use it accordingly, and if you don’t try it, it’s only your loss, and will only keep you from being the best you can be!

Quote of the day:

“Before every shot I go to the movies inside my head. Here is what I see. First, I see the ball where I want it to finish, nice and white and sitting up high on the bright green grass. Then I see the ball going there; its path and trajectory and even its behavior on landing.  The next scene shows me making the kind of swing that will turn the pervious image into reality. These home movies are key to my concentration and to my positive approach to every shot.” – Jack Nicklaus (Golfer)

 

Breathe, Look, Talk. B.L.T.

This past summer, I realized a lot of my players were performing in a very tense state on the field. Most of them looked like they were over exerting themselves, extremely anxious, and nervous. This is a strategy I created and presented to my players to aid them in remaining relaxed while competing.

There are three simple things an athlete can do to improve their focus and performance almost instantly. B.L.T. – Breathe, Look, Talk. In order to perform at our highest potential, we must be able to break the game down into simple moments that occur one after the other, rather than trying to take on the entire game at once. Doing these three things every pitch of every game will help to narrow your focus and keep your mind concentrated on positive key points.  This will assist you in performing without distractions, and achieve a successful performance.

Breathe.

In order for our muscles to work efficiently, one muscle must relax (lengthen) while its counterpart tightens (flexes). For instance: raise your hand to shoulder, while keeping your elbow close to your side.  Feel how your bicep flexes and your triceps lengthens. In competition, athletes tend to get anxious or over excited; in response all their muscles tighten up. This makes it hard for the lengthening muscle to do its job. Their bodies start to react like a rubber band that has been stretched too tightly; they snap. You may have felt this effect during a crucial at bat with two strikes. When that next pitch comes in, sometimes we panic, or “snap”, and just swing, even it it’s a bad pitch…strike three. In order to keep yourself in control, and your muscles working correctly, we must keep our bodies relaxed. We do this simply by deep breathing. Breathe in for 5 seconds, hold it in for two seconds, and then exhale slowly for 6 seconds. As you repeat this you should be able to feel your heart rate slow, and your muscles physically relax.

Look.

The mind is more powerful than you could ever imagine; it has been argued that it has more of an affect on your performance as an athlete than your physical ability.  Our brain is the control center to our body; it controls what our bodies do. Our body follows what our mind thinks. If we keep worrying about making errors, or striking out, chances are, our bodies are going to make the images we have in our mind a reality. This however, can work in our favor. If we look (think) in the direction we want to go, rather than in the direction we want to avoid, our bodies will positively respond. Picture the outcome you want. In your mind create an image of yourself having success; see yourself hitting a line drive into the gap, catching a fly ball, or throwing a breaking ball that causes the batter to swing and miss. By rehearsing the outcomes we want in our minds, we create a track for our muscles to follow. It’s like practicing, only it takes place in our minds. Don’t look where you don’t want to go.

Talk.

After taking a few deep breathes, and looking into the direction we want to go, we must pick a simple focus to say to ourselves. It should be something simple, direct, and positive. Make sure there is no emotion attached to the way you talk to yourself. For instance at the plate, one could repeat, “up the middle, on the ground”, or in a bunt situation one could repeat, “top half, ball down”. One or two things that create the outcome you want. A pitcher could say “lock, and lift” before throwing a change up. A fielder could say, “Charge and follow through”. Make sure in this statement you don’t include the word “don’t”. Our brains only see the big the picture, and tend to not pick up on the word don’t. For example if you say, “don’t drop your hands”, your brain only hears, “drop your hands”. Instead try flipping to, “keep your hands high”. This also follows the rule of don’t look where you don’t want to go, we don’t want to drop our hands, so we don’t want to think about it either. We want to think about what we want to do, keeping our hands high. It’s a simple point for your brain to focus on, keeping you in the game, and undistracted by pressure.

Before every pitch, breathe. Look. Talk. B.L.T.

Quote of the day

“Quality thoughts lead to quality actions”

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