Asking Important Questions
Every decade or so I feel the need to clean out a file drawer, and this morning I did. What caught my eye was the first published magazine column I think I every wrote. It was for a monthly tennis magazine called “Tennis Talk” in Southern California. The copy I found was untitled so I’ve dubbed it “Asking Important Questions”. I found a few others and I will post them later.
From Tennis Talk Magazine June 1980
For sometime now I have been asking questions of athletes i meet at various competitions. The major question I ask is “What do you do get ready for competition?” In a recent meeting with a group of junior players this was their reply:
- X number of hours on court practicing serve, ground strokes, etc.
- X number of hours in competition
- X number of hours running, stretching and weight training to get in shape
This appears to be a good, solid program I said, but aren’t you forgetting something, I asked. They all answered pretty much the same. “We think we are doing what needs to be done.” I then asked what they do for the mental part of the game. At first I got blank stares. “One player said he sometimes tries to psych himself up or psych the other player out, is that what I meant?” I then asked how important was the mental side and they all agreed it was the most important, but that it was what it was.
As a Sport Psychology Consultant, I have run into this set of circumstances constantly. It seems ridiculous to me that athletes neglect the most important part of their game. [though of course I did as well when I was a player] While tennis players spend hours getting in physical shape and improving their strokes, they will not spend an hour and a half a week to improve their mental conditioning.
Reports from the Soviet Union (remember this was written in 1980) have stated that some world-class athletes are spending as much as 75% of their time on mental conditioning. Why? Because it can have a tremendous effect on you game. You can increase your potential by working on some very basic concepts. These Include:
- Relaxation – Knowing how to relax your body
- Attentional Focus – Knowing how to concentrate
- Self-Confidence – To see yourself with a positive self-image
- Avoidance of CHOKE – How to effectively deal with stress
Try working on these areas I urged them. Know that Awareness is the first step in learning how to relax. Learning the skills will help you play at a higher level.
One question they asked right away was what did I mean by attentional focus? Attentional focus is the art of concentration. More precisely, it is the ability to focus your attention from one thing to the next as quickly as possible. In tennis this is the ability to go from knowing where your opponent is to seeing the rotation of the ball to thinking what to do next. If you master this art, you improve your game.
There are many exercises you can use to improve your attentional focus. Here’s one that is fairly simple to do. Close your eyes and get an image / picture of your tennis game. Look at your opponent, then see the ball.Learn to do this as quickly as possible, making sure to see the image as clearly and vividly as you can. Remember if you condition your mind as well as your body, your game will improve rapidly.
It’s hard for me to believe that I wrote that 34 years ago. At the time we called our company Inner Sports. I struggled at the time to write which is why it took another 31 years from when this column was written to write The Athlete within You which by the way for June the Kindle version is now on sale here at Amazon.
Mental Training is not a luxury, it is a necessity!
When I wrote my last post on mental training being The Final Frontier my intention was to close with this statement. “Mental Training is not a luxury, it is a necessity!” Somehow it got lost in my enthusiasm. Or maybe it was in looking for a suitable picture from Star Trek. Either way I left it out.
I was honored this past week by being selected to be Expert in Residence at the Overlake School in Redmond WA. The mission of The Overlake School is to Inspire excellence, Develop intellectual curiosity, Teach responsibility, Embrace diversity and Foster a compassionate community. We live our mission every day and it informs every decision we make. It was a great experience for me to make presentations to the entire school and do training sessions for 22 classes. I got to meet the majority of the students. Overlake has over 80% participation in sports and is nationally known for it’s excellence in education.
My message was pretty clear to all of the students. “Mental Training is not a luxury, it is a necessity!”. These students have tremendous advantages. They have supportive teachers, coaches and families. I took a poll in most of the classes I met with. What do you do to train mentally? How much time do you spend. The best answer I got was from a fencer. We work on strategy. He at least saw or felt like he was doing something positive. A few students took yoga and a few others said they practiced breathing to relax (incorrectly of course). But out of the 500 plus students I met with this week no one did any real mental training. No one said they had even read a book or an article on mental training. I did training sessions on mental toughness, motivation, resiliency, relaxation, imagery & visualization, concentration, stress & anxiety management, confidence and how their thoughts affect their emotions.
We either have to decide that sport is not 70-80% mental or that mental training is important to all athletes. The more I work with athletes and see how much greater their success is when they incorporate mental training into their regular regimen, the more I am convinced that “Mental Training is not a luxury, it is a necessity!”.
I just updated The Mental Game website with a dozen stories about athletes I’ve worked with and what they focused on. You can see them here. I’ve been reticent about posting stories but was convinced by one of my former clients. These are a few examples I’ve picked that were instructive from the past 3 decades. One of the things that struck me as I was preparing this list were two of my current clients. Both very good athletes. Both were just recruited to the colleges they wanted to play for. Both stopped working on their mental game soon after receiving their acceptance letters. Both recently started up again because of slips in their performance.
When they called me to give them to get them a jump started again, as it were, they both acknowledged that they remembered that I had told them they needed to continue mental training as part of their routine. They didn’t stop conditioning, they each get private coaching in their sport in addition to team training, but that it regimented for them. I had set them up with a program, but it was one that they had to maintain. Lifting weights are visible reminders of what you need to do. A spread sheet reminding you to do some mental training I guess is not as sexy. In my next post I’ll talk about what I’m doing with a company to provide a phone app as a reminder to do mental training.
The thing I want you to see is that even with the success that these two athletes achieved (acceptance into an Ivy League School and a full ride to a university in the ACC), the need to think of mental training as a necessity instead of a luxury is critical. Mental training is not something you just read a book about and move on (unless it is The Athlete within You) Joking of course. It is something you put into practice for the rest of your athletic career.
If you understand this, believe it, then do something about it. You can read about sport psychology. There are lots of books out there besides mine, maybe not as good, but tons of great information. Find a book you like and figure out a program for yourself. Find a certified mental trainer/ sport psychology consultant and talk with them. I SKYPE with athletes all over the country and a few out of country My SKYPE name is Mike.Margolies. I do a 20 minute consultation for free to see if our working together works for both you and me. Then implement a program just as you implemented a strength and conditioning program. Follow your program and you will understand how it will help you find the real athlete within you.
Thoughts from the Darkness of Super Bowl 47
Thoughts on what mental lessons did we learn from Super Bowl 47
I would be remiss if I if I didn’t follow last weeks post with some thoughts and observations from Super Bowl 47.
With all the hype one team came out ready to play. You are a team or individual athlete and you have two weeks to prepare for the biggest game of your career and you come out flat. Was it the distractions of the week or just that the other team was better prepared mentally. On paper both teams have great defenses and good offenses. Half time score was 21-6 at half. 11 second into the 2nd half the score was 28-6.
And then the lights went out. We can insert 49ers, gambling, CBS, etc. jokes here about who pulled the plug.
Needless to say a weird thing happened on the way to a beat down by the older brother to his younger sibling. The lights went out in Georgia (er the Super Dome) causing a 35 minute delay. The Ravens had all of the momentum. They were in cruse control. And then the darkness. All of a sudden things changed. The commentary started in about how this may have saved San Francisco. Now they have time to regroup. No team has comeback from more than a 10 point deficit, but now maybe this is a sign. Certainly the coaching staff for the 49ers are telling their players that they can use this to their advantage. This will be the shift in momentum they need. After all its 3rd down and 13 for a first down, but the Ravens won’t be able to stop them now. On the other side, while the Ravens are thinking they still have this game in the bag time is not on their side. They are an older team and it takes time to physically get going after an hour of sitting around. Half time is over twice as long and a normal game. So they cooled down, got ready again and cooled again. Tough for any athlete. They too likely started to wonder if this meant things were not to be.
The brothers who are always interesting to watch were an interesting study. If you asked me who would be the most irrational about something during the game I would have said it would be 49er head coach Jim. He is not known in the media as Mr Congeniality. He made up for it later, but I’ll save that. Brother John can have his moments, but is perceived differently. During the Darkness, as I will refer to it, the camera caught John going off on the referees and NFL official over something. He looked as if he were losing it. He had been told they could not use headsets because the 49ers side were down. The Ravens send in plays from the coaches box so that would put them at a disadvantage. They were going to take an extra 15 minutes to allow the coaches to come down. I think it was also the delay and could he get his team back where he needed them mentally and physically after the lay off.
San Francisco takes control
Just like the movie script that includes a conspiracy theory on who pulled the plug, San Francisco came out of the Darkness on Que and came back and took the lead. The Ravens responded showing that they had not died and pulled ahead. In the end it came down to a goal line stance with SF having the ball in the Red Zone. They needed a touchdown as time was running out. Baltimore dug in and held them figuratively and perhaps actually. A non call on a hold / passing interference on 4th and the trophy, sent Jim into a rage. Not sure he’s stopped complaining yet. The Ravens get the ball on downs. Three runs later and there is still time on the clock. Ravens have to punt or perhaps opt for a safety to take time off the clock and give them room to prevent a blocked kick. Most everyone knew it was what they would do. The interesting thing was that the offense became like the defense. The held and tacked the defense players allowing the punter to take more time off before taking the safety. Holding /tackling the other team was penalty. The refs made no call. Now in truth the it made no difference. It was an anomaly. I remember having the same thing happen to me coaching youth football 36 years ago. I’ve seen some people say it is not within the spirit of the game. That may be but it is within the rules. Call or don’t call the penalty. Either way it was the endgame.
End of an Era
Ray Lewis is retiring. He won’t be gone as I am sure he will be on TV forever. I’m not a big RL fan. He paid (sort of for his crime) but still makes questionable life choices. He’s made some good ones as well and I have friends in the Baltimore area that talk about how much he does for the community. I think that is great. Community starts at home as well and he needs I think take care of his kids and ex girlfriends too. But Ray and Ed (a real good dude) are gone. I’m happy for Baltimore and their fans. There are some good stories, inspiring stories as well. Former All Pro O.J. Brigance being around fighting ALS.
Mental aspects of the Darkness
Mental toughness is about being resilient, about persevering and about persistence.
The biggest things to look at I think are these. Be prepared for competition, mentally, emotionally and physically. (Ravens)
Be prepared for coping when things go terribly wrong like the Darkness (49ers)
Fight back when you lose momentum. (Ravens)
Don’t lose it emotionally (both coaches)
And finally be mentally strong enough to be gracious in both victory and defeat.
Olympic Conversation and More
Whenever the Olympics roll around I love to listen in on the commentary. A great deal is always about the psychological aspects of competition. So this is about Olympic conversation and more. Yesterday they talked about how the most celebrated beach volleyball players in the world added psychological training to what they do. There are always mentions of athletes cracking under pressure and those that excel with it. The one’s that excel often mention that they work with a sport psychology consultant. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with 14 or so that have gone on to the World Championships and the Olympics. Some have won and some not. It is a competition after all. All of them said their performance was the best that they had to give, win or lose. Isn’t that what everyone wants to come away saying? I’m putting together some examples and I will post them later in the Olympics. It is a great place to observe how athletes cope with being on such a huge stage. Do they lose focus? Does a normally fluid performer look stiff with tension? Are there lots of unforced errors? What were the effects of being successful and coming back for more and what were those implications? All Great Stuff.
Olympic Conversation and More, here’s the more
I so rarely post pictures of myself with clients. I do so only with their consent. This is a picture of me and DeAndre Yedlin. He plays for Sounders FC U23’s and the University of Akron.
Sounders FC U23 Player DeAndre Yedlin with Mike Margolies
That is Soccer of course. The PDL League is perhaps the same as Minor League Baseball A Ball and or other semi pro leagues.. Combination of college and X college players working towards playing professionally. Today he was named to the All PDL National Team. I’m very happy for him. Great work ethic, great attitude and of course a great mental game.
The common theme today is simple. Olympians using sport psychology. One of the best College players in North America using sport psychology. So the question is, as always, Are You?
And I’m not asking everyone to call me. (It would be nice however, as I would love to hear from you). I am saying that you should gather information and incorporate it into your training program.
If you are interested in learning more just go to www.themental-game.com
Remember the Coin
It’s called remember the coin. it’s an exercise I would like you to try. Take a ruler or tape measure. Grab a piece of paper and something to write with. On the paper measure seven (7) inches and draw a line (Shown in red). Mark it in one inch increments (shown in green) like I have more or less drawn below.
Now you are just about ready for one of the toughest exercises you will ever be asked to complete as part of your mental game training. The only thing you need now is a quarter or some marker like say a poker chip.
Place the paper somewhere in a room. Now I’m going to ask you not to cheat on this. Please don’t put it right in front of your computer, by the remote control for the TV or your Xbox. This is sort of the opposite of the instructions I would give you if this were a goal setting exercise. In goal setting I want you to be able to see your goals easily and more or less run into them all of the time. With this exercise I would like you to put the paper somewhere less in your path. You don’t necessarily need to hide it in a drawer or behind a moat infested with alligators (well that would make it interesting), but just not where you see it casually.
The next step is to place your coin, marker or poker chip on the first mark. Only if you are neurotic does it matter if you start on the right or left (top or bottom). What I want you to do is each day after the first is to flip the coin over so it sits on the next line. You may only flip the marker once each day. If (or when, I should say) you forget to move the coin you need to start over. It might be a good idea to mark the first line with the day you start.
Generally 80 percent of you will fail the first time. Another 10 percent will lie and say they did it correctly even though they forgot a day or two. Around ten percent will get it right. Remember, one turn only once per day. If you forget a day you restart.
Have fun with this, teach it to some friends. In around ten days I will post the purpose of this valuable exercise. You’ll love it even when you fail. Remember the Coin is a good way to start your mental training.
Learn about sports performance from Albert Einstein
As a sport psychology consultant teaching athletes about the mental game I’ve always thought of myself as very eclectic (choosing what is best or preferred from a variety of sources or styles) to help my clients. There are things like cognitive behavioral therapy, Neurol-Linguistic Programming, Hypnosis, Freudian Psychoanalysis etc. I have often said I am willing to steal (borrow techniques from anywhere to help athletes find their dream). So why not borrow from the greatest mind of the Twentieth Century. Learn about sports performance from Albert Einstein.
I’ve made it no secret that one of my major role models in life has been Albert Einstein. I wrote about this last month in Role Models and Imagination. I was thinking about him again today after quoting him to one of my clients, a college soccer player who also plays on an MLS u23 team. I told him about the imagination quote on my wall while helping him with visualization (imagery rehearsal). It got me thinking about other quotes and what he teaches even those of us who grew up as jocks and not physicists and mathematicians. So here are 10 Things to learn from Einstein that translate into sports performance. It’s not the Universe and it’s easier to understand than E=mc2. Einstein did love to sail. Though it has been reported that the man that opened up the Universe was directionally challenged.
Thing 1: Nurture a Curious Mind (athletes lacking curiosity do not succeed)
“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” Do not hold back curiosity. It has a reason for its existence. Keep a questioning mind.
Thing 2: Worth of Perseverance is immeasurable (A major component of Mental Toughness)
“It’s not that I’m so smart; it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” The price of perseverance is beyond the corporeal things. It cannot be measured. It cannot be sold. It has no price.
Thing 3: Pay Attention to One Thing at a Time (focus of attention or concentration is key to athletic success)
“Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.” Do not do several tasks at once. It is in doing one task at a time that excellence is achieved. (more…)