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Cheat Sheet

Sports Psychology For Dummies

From Sports Psychology For Dummies by Leif H. Smith, Todd M. Kays

Being a successful athlete is about more than just physical strength and agility — your mind plays a key part in your winning performance. You can use sports psychology techniques to build confidence and improve your focus. Sports psychology isn’t limited to athletes — as a coach, you can use sports psychology to help your athletes achieve their goals.

Improving Your Focus with Sports Psychology

Focus is one of the most powerful tools in sports psychology. Whatever sport you compete in, the ability to focus is essential to success. When you’re in the middle of a practice or competition, does your mind ever wander? If so, your performance is taking a hit, because you aren’t completely focused on the task at hand. You can improve your focus by following these tips:

  • Know what you need to focus on. The clearer you are about what you want to focus on, the more likely you’ll be to stay focused on the factors that contribute to your success.

  • Focus on what you can control. You have control over yourself and your own actions and attitudes — nothing more. Keep your focus here. If you focus on outcomes (things you have no control over), you’re creating unnecessary anxiety. Focus on the process and you increase the likelihood of positive results happening.

  • Stay relaxed under pressure. When you’re stressed and anxious, your focus drops. Find ways to stay calm in high-pressure situations, such as taking deep breaths, stretching muscles to loosen them, engaging in effective routines to keep your focus where it needs to be, or listening to music that keeps you centered.

  • Use cue words. Cue words are simple words and phrases that remind you of your focus points. Repeating words and phrases such as relax, play hard, or quick feet will remind you to focus on what you need to do. If your mind is focused on your cue words, your body will follow.

  • Develop effective routines. A routine is like a funnel — it channels your focus and gets you ready to compete. Your routines help you maintain your focus on the right things and prevent many potential distractions from entering your mind. For example, listen to three or four songs on your iPod before games to get yourself ready, or eat a certain meal, arrive at the playing field in enough time to get prepared, or go through a specific type of warm-up.

  • Use mental imagery. Practice seeing yourself perform exactly as you want to perform, focusing exactly as you want to focus. The more your train your mind to focus on the right things, the more it will respond.

    Mental imagery is simply seeing yourself perform as you desire long before you even step on the field of play. Imagery prepares you to see how you’ll perform, trains you to think about what’s most important in great performance, and allows you to relax by being focused on things within your control and that matter to great performance.

  • Rate your focus daily. Keep a journal in which you rate your level of focus before and after each practice or competition. Simple daily evaluations are critical to improving your focus. By consistently being consciously aware of improving and evaluating your focus, you’ll automatically do so. This type of daily “mental muscle” work will gradually improve your focus in practice and games.

Building Confidence in Sports

Sports psychology can help athletes looking to improve their confidence. You may be the strongest, tallest, most powerful athlete on the field, court, or track, but if you aren’t confident in your abilities, you’ll have trouble reaching your goals. Work on improving your confidence just as you work on developing your sport-specific skills, and your performance will soar.

  • Realize that confidence fluctuates. Confidence for all athletes — even at the highest level — ebbs and flows. Confidence is not all-or-nothing. It’s a state of mind that fluctuates, so don’t beat yourself up when your confidence is lower. Just focus on improving, and your confidence will follow suit.

  • Focus on yourself, not on others. Instead of thinking about how well your teammates or opponents are doing, think about your own performance and how you can improve. This is your athletic career, so you need to focus on what you need to do to improve as an athlete. And when you improve as an athlete, your confidence will increase.

  • Focus on day-to-day success. When you have success every day in training — even the smallest of successes — your confidence rises. If your confidence rises a small amount each day, just think where you’ll be in one month, six months, or a year!

  • Concentrate on the process, not outcomes. When you focus on improving your performance — the process of improving — you become more confident because you’re focusing on something you have control over. You can’t control outcomes — you may play your best game ever and still lose. If you’re focused on process, sure, you’ll be disappointed when you lose, but your confidence will remain high, because you’ll know you performed your best.

  • Focus on what you’re doing right. Learning from your mistakes is important, but you don’t want to linger on them. If you spend too much time thinking about your mistakes, your confidence will wane. When you focus on what you’re doing right and correct your errors, your confidence will rise.

Using Sports Psychology as a Coach

As a coach, you can run drills with your athletes day and night, but if you ignore your athletes’ minds, you’ll only tap into a fraction of what they can do. Here are some ways you can use sports psychology to help your athletes reach their goals:

  • Implement sports psychology in practice. Simple techniques used during practice can help your athletes focus better, handle pressure, play as a team, communicate more, and maximize mental toughness. For example, have your athletes write in their performance journals for five minutes before practice to get focused. During warm up, remind them to use mental imagery to see themselves accomplishing their goals for that day.

    Remind your athletes to create their own cue words for the mental state they want to be in throughout practice. Pressure your athletes to “win” certain drills in practice so that they get used to performing under pressure. At the end of practice, have your athletes journal about the progress they made that day, as well as decide what they need to work on in the next practice.

  • Use mental imagery. Make sure your athletes engage in some form of mental imagery — visualization techniques, journaling, or discussion. They’ll become more focused in practice, which will lead to improvement, greater confidence, and more success.

  • Build a “we” mentality, not a “me” mentality. Simple, daily exercises can take a team of average athletes working together to accomplish the success of a championship-caliber team. For example, engage in social activities, such as team dinners, video-game tournaments, or bowling, as a way for your athletes to get to know each other off the field.

    Create athletic drills where teamwork is critical for success. Show famous movies that involve sports and teamwork as a way to keep the importance of teamwork in the forefront of your athletes’ minds. Seek out a good sports psychologist to come out and help to create numerous team-building activities that help emphasize the “we” mentality.

  • Motivate your athletes. One of the best ways to motivate your athletes is to get to know them personally and show that you care about them, not just for their sport skills. If you notice a drop in motivation, ask them about it. Share stories of famous athletes who fought through hard times when motivation was low.

    Bring in guest speakers, such as elite athletes or former alumni, to inspire your athletes to be the best they can be. Keep them focused on getting better every day. Set short-term goals and help them accomplish them. Help them connect to the reason they’re playing the sport in the first place.

  • Working well with parents. Make sure to meet with parents before each season and educate them about how you work as a coach and what they can expect from you. Keep in touch with parents through e-mail or a team Web site. Tell them about your coaching philosophy (for example, everyone will play in every game or only the most skilled and motivated athletes will play).

    Remind parents to have a good time because when they have fun and keep sports in perspective, their kids can relax and perform better. Tell them that life skills are the most important ways they can help their kids — being prepared for practice, working hard, establishing good habits, eating well and getting enough rest, having integrity, displaying teamwork, and bouncing back after a mistake. These concepts will help parents assist you in teaching their kids and your athletes good habits.

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