This past month, Ichiro Suzuki became the third player in baseball history to reach 4,000 hits in any country’s top level of professional baseball. Ichiro’s hitting achievement is split between his years playing in Japan and the American major leagues. Teammates who have trained and played with Ichiro describe his work ethic and preparation as unmatched. Raul Ibanez of the Seattle Mariners stated that, “the mystic element they talk about with Ichiro is just hard work and preparation, better preparation than I’ve ever seen. He has the most consistent approach, pregame and postgame, I’ve ever seen.”
Ichiro is smaller in size and stature than the average baseball player and doesn’t pride himself on how many home runs he hits per season. Instead, Ichiro works hard and adheres to a strict routine that consistently prepares him to achieve success. How do you prepare for and approach your training? Do you spend time outside of practice working to become the best you can be? Like Ichiro, you don’t have to be the biggest or strongest player on your team in order to be great. However, greatness requires dedication and preparation.
One way to help prepare for competition is to create and utilize pre and post performance routines. Routines can help you feel confident in your abilities, control pre-competitive anxiety, and stay focused on task-relevant thoughts and actions. When developing a pre-performance routine, think about what you can do both physically and mentally to be prepared and ready to compete. Start your routine before you leave for training or competition. Include what you need to eat, drink and pack in your bag. On your way to the field or court, you could listen to music that calms you down or pumps you up – whatever works for you. Your routine should also include what you do when you get to the field or court. What stretches will you do to feel physically ready? What will you focus on and what will your self-talk be? No two players are alike, and your teammate’s routine may be completely different than your own. What’s important about your routine is that you stick to it and use it consistently during practice and games. Like Ichiro, take pride in your preparation and work hard to feel ready to perform your best when it counts the most.
Competitive sports can be very emotionally charged. During the highs and lows of a competition, you might find yourself feeling excited, happy, nervous, angry, or scared. Athletes often label certain emotions as positive or negative, but emotions are not inherently positive or negative. Your interpretation of emotions makes them that way. Further, “positive” emotions do not always help performance and “negative” emotions do not always hinder performance; it depends on the athlete. So, rather than ascribing a positive or negative label to the emotions you experience as you play, pay attention to whether your emotions are effective or ineffective for your performance.
Effective emotions help you focus on the present, feel motivated, and stay composed. Ineffective emotions can lead to a loss of focus, decreases in confidence, and reckless or overly aggressive play. For some athletes, feeling excited might be ineffective because too much excitement causes them to make mistakes. For others, feeling nervous might be effective because the nerves motivate them to prepare mentally and physically to perform at their best.
During your next few training sessions, pay attention to the emotions you experience as you play. When you are playing your best, what are you feeling? When you are struggling to perform well, what are you feeling? Be aware of which emotions are effective for you and which are not. Once you recognize your effective emotions, check in with yourself before you play. Develop strategies that help you pump yourself up or calm yourself down, for example, to reach your optimal level of activation. Some strategies include listening to music and visualizing situations when you were playing with effective emotions and performed well. Consistently use these strategies before training and competition.
Earlier this week, Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly announced that Michael Vick would be the starting Quarterback for the upcoming season. Coach Kelly faced tremendous criticism for waiting until the third preseason game to announce his Quarterback. After being named the starter, Vick stated, “I appreciate having to put in the hard work, having all summer to think about what type of mindset I had to come back with. Preparing throughout the summer as if I was fighting for a job. And I was. There’s nothing better than that.”
Although Vick was previously the starting Quarterback for the Eagles, he appears to have embraced the challenge of earning that spot again this season. As stated in his quote, he worked hard to fight for and earn his starting position. As an athlete, when faced with a challenge, it is your choice how to respond. You can choose to back down from the challenge, or to face it head on, step by step. Like Vick, you can choose to put in the work needed to accomplish the challenge. Your efforts should focus on deliberate, quality training. Break the challenge down into smaller, more manageable tasks and set process goals that you can accomplish each day. Before you train, remind yourself of your process goals and focus your effort deliberately on accomplishing those tasks. As you begin to accomplish your objectives, set new, more difficult goals that bring you closer to completing your challenge. Over time, as Vick said, you may find “there’s nothing better than that.”
Being a coachable player requires skills that allow you to learn, grow and achieve your potential. Coachable players are attentive listeners whenever the coach is giving instruction or speaking to the team. They make sure that they understand what the coach expects and work towards meeting those expectations. One of the most important skills that a coachable player possesses is being able to receive feedback.
In order to benefit from the advice and feedback you receive from your coach, be willing and ready to hear what your coach is telling you. You will gain the most from the advice when you are actively listening with an open mind. Active listening requires you to focus on what is being said by your coach, rather than thinking about what you want to say in response. Try to avoid getting defensive, and remember that your coach is offering you feedback to help make you a better player. If you do not understand the information or instructions being communicated, do not be afraid to ask questions to clarify what you are being told.
Being attentive to your coaches’ direction and taking the time to listen and understand feedback may help you develop into a better performer. For a coachable player, the next step after receiving feedback is putting it into action. Coachable players know how to apply feedback to set goals and decide what to focus on in training in order to improve their performance on the field. When you work towards becoming a more coachable player, it can inspire your teammates and create an environment that promotes communication and growth.
Self-confidence is the belief that you can successfully perform a desired behavior.
Whether taking a corner kick in soccer, recovering from an injury, or shooting a three-pointer in basketball, confident players believe that they will be successful and achieve a desired outcome. They believe in their ability to learn and develop the necessary skills and competencies to reach their full potential. Players who lack confidence doubt their capabilities and question whether or not they have what it takes to succeed.
High levels of self-confidence can help players feel motivated to set challenging goals, create an effective competition strategy, put in the effort needed to succeed, and stay focused during difficult situations. Confidence can also help players feel lower levels of anxiety or stress when performing because they trust that they will perform well. Whether you feel like you have high or low levels of confidence, remember that confidence is a mental skill that can be developed through hard work, practice, and planning.
To build your self-confidence, you have to recognize what your sources of confidence are. Then, in tough situations, use these sources to help boost your confidence. Sources of confidence may include thinking about the time and effort you put into training to master your skill, past success you have had during competitions, and the times when your parents, coaches, or teammates told you that you played a great game or worked really hard during a training session. It is also important to remind yourself that self-confidence, like any technical ability, is a skill that you can continually work on to grow into a better player. Before your next training session or game, think of one or two sources of confidence that can help you feel more confident and prepared to play your best.
Empathy, the ability to understand and share another’s feelings, can often be found in sports. When a player gets injured, faces in the crowd look distressed. When a teammate scores a goal, you share in the joyous moment and thrive off of the collective energy. If your shot misses the goal by inches and you hang your head, your teammates likely share that feeling of disappointment. Like empathy, compassion involves awareness of another’s emotional experience and the ability to understand another’s feelings. However, compassion also entails a desire to respond to another’s experience. Thus, compassionate players not only understand a teammate’s feelings, they actively works to ease their teammates suffering or share in their joy.
Compassion can truly unite a team. It can motivate individual members of the team to work hard and persevere, despite experiencing setbacks and obstacles both on and off the athletic field. By showing compassion for your teammates during moments of emotional expression (i.e. joy, grief, disappointment), you can create an environment in which players feel a sense of belonging. An individual’s sense of belonging is vital to team cohesion and may ultimately affect a team’s ability to play together and succeed.
To build team cohesion, it is important that all members of a team feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and feelings. Team building demands a climate of openness, where expressing matters of concern is not only accepted, but also encouraged. Players should communicate with one another about team-related issues as well as personal experiences. As communication and compassion increase both on and off the athletic field, cohesiveness develops and teams perform with a sense of pride and collective identity.
The sound of the crowd, a bad call by the referee, and nerves are all examples of distractions that may arise during competition. There are two types of distractions, external and internal. An external distraction is anything from the outside world that disrupts your focus (i.e. weather, crowd, other players). Internal distractions are thoughts, bodily sensations, or feelings that may interfere with your ability to focus. If an athlete is highly distracted during competition, his/her performance will most likely suffer. However, the ability to focus on the task at hand will help your performance.
Developing routines is an effective strategy to help improve your focus. Pre-performance routines help a player focus on task-relevant thoughts and actions, and reduce the likelihood of being influenced by internal or external distractions. When thinking of a routine for a game, you should ask yourself how you want to feel and what you want to do in different scenarios. For instance, think about what you need to do before you leave for the game, when you get to the field, during your warm-ups, at half-time, and during the game, to be physically and mentally ready for competition.
The use of cue words during competition is an excellent strategy to help maintain or regain your focus. Cue words are short words or phrases that help you get back on track in situations where you may have experienced a setback, lost your cool, or gotten upset over a questionable call by the referee. Examples of cue words include, “stay on my toes” and “focus.”
In order to effectively utilize these mental skills in the heat of competition to improve your focus, it takes time and practice. Similar to the training that is required to develop your physical skills, you have to work hard and practice to improve your mental skills. Training sessions are an ideal time to practice and try out different mental skills to find out what works best for you. So, in order to maximize your athletic potential, take the time to create, practice, and integrate mental skill development into your training program.