It’s wet, cold and windy and your hands feel like small icicles. A turn on universe point means all eyes are on you while you walk to pick up the disc. One perfect throw into the endzone, that’s all it will take to win this game and advance to the finals. Do you think you have it in you?
Learning to keep your cool in high-pressure situations is a valuable skill both on and off the sports field. Fortunately, there is substantial research into what it takes mentally prepare for successful performance. Most of the strategies are actually fairly simple, but like most things in life worth doing, they take time to perfect. Get ready to put in some mental practice, because we’ve put together a top 5 list of ways to put you in the right frame of mind to win your game.
1. Develop a growth mindset
“Growth mindset,” a strategy first described by Stanford psychology expert Carol Dweck, has been proven to contribute to success both in sports and in life. Its premise is that any of your basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work, regardless of initial intelligence or aptitude level. Put simply, you can succeed by cultivating the belief that incremental improvement is possible.
Start to develop a growth mindset by listening in on your internal dialogue. While this may seem a little woo woo, just take a second and try it. I guarantee that for better or worse, there’s a little voice inside of you that critiques many of your actions. When you match up with the superstar on the opposing team, your inner critic might scream, “You’re not fast or talented enough to guard them.” It’s important to note here that, though this voice may never go away, recognizing when and where it pops up is in itself a powerful tool for strengthening your mental game.
How we think (that inner voice in your head) shapes how we act. Develop your growth mindset language by first weeding “can’t,” “never,” and “enough” out of your vocabulary. Those words are part of something called a “fixed mindset”—the belief that you don’t have the power to change your situation. In the fixed mindset your inner critic might think, “Are you sure you can do it? Maybe you don’t have the talent.” The reframed growth mindset version might be, “I’m not sure I can do it now, but I think I can learn to with time and effort.” If in doubt, add a “yet” to the end of your sentence. As in, “I’m not fast enough, yet.”
2. Run a mental highlight reel
Studies have shown that visualization can be as effective in skills improvement as physical practice. When we visualize an action, the same regions of the brain are stimulated as when we perform it and the same neural networks are created. Luckily, it’s easy to create your own highlight reel that will build efficient neural pathways to success. First, imagine a few of the best plays, performances or practices you've ever had. Choose a couple of highlights in the 10 to 20 second range. When you are first building your reel it helps to write each memory down. This reel should also utilize all five senses, so write down every detail you can remember for each moment. What was the wind like that day? What did the field feel like? Were there spectators? What emotions did you have? Now choose a mental camera angle, (the first-person perspective is best, but not required).
Put it all together and practice visualizing the reel for a few minutes each day. The goal here is to be able to pull up your mental reel at any time and run through the whole thing flawlessly at game speed—it can take quite a bit of practice so don’t worry if you sometimes find yourself restarting mid-memory.
3. Practice a mantra
Many top athletes have short mantras they recite to help center them during high-pressure situations. This could be a short song lyric, a few words that remind them of a goal, or any short pump-up sentence. Another related strategy is to combine this mantra with a small, uncommon physical movement or gesture, like pinching your thumb and pointer finger together. This connects the mind and body in a tangible way and helps get you back in the headspace you need. Much like the longer highlight reel, it helps to both attach a positive emotion or feeling to this mantra and to practice it often.
4. Pick tangible in-game goals
Setting bite-sized, tangible, attainable goals before a game or practice can help you deal with anxiety and stress. Are you a defensive specialist? Aim for shutting down your defender deep, or really owning the cup. Don’t try to goal set for too many things—there will be plenty of games in your future. The aim here is to be able to focus on one or two for the entire length of play.
5. Lift someone else up
Sometimes the easiest way to overcome a stressful situation is to stop focusing on yourself and to bring someone else up. It can be really easy to drop into a funk or mentally berate yourself after making an on-field mistake. Instead of isolating yourself on the sidelines, turn that mistake into an opportunity to look around and see who else on your team needs help. Choose someone in the game and make yourself their number one fan. Yell encouragement, fill their water bottle, bring them snacks—basically make them feel like they can do no wrong. It’s surprising how quickly caring for a teammate can make you, in turn, feel valued.
This short list highlights just some of the many mental strategies out there. To begin a deeper dive into the world of mental training, check out 10-Minute Toughness, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance or With Winning in Mind. And whether it’s developing your growth-mindset language, tangible goal-setting, or your own personal highlight reel, pick one or two strategies that might work for you and add them to your daily routine. As Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can't, you're right.”
There you have it! For more great captains tips and tricks throughout the season, click here to subscribe to the Captain's Resources blog!
OVER TO YOU
How do you stay focused and primed to play your best? Share your best wisdom in the comments below!