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.
I have been doing a series called Mental Minutes for Junior Hockey dot com for the last few months. I’ve posted them on The Mental Game website under radio so they may be found easily. I thought what I would like to do is write about them here as well, but perhaps go a little more in depth or add a little something. So here goes.
Mental Minute # 1
The week prior to a game don’t change what you typically do with regard to your normal preparation (warm-up, routines, food, etc.). Yes, my first tip is to be cautious about what tips you add! However, there is one big exception – sleep.
I strongly suggest preparing yourself for games by going to sleep and getting up at approximately the same time for an entire week prior to a game if you can. Trying to play after getting a few less hours than you’re used to, or getting up a few hours earlier than normal, can affect your coordination, emotion control and decision making (ie. your performance!). You’ll have a big advantage over other players.
Added info: NAPS
Something else you can use to help in your recovery. NAPS. If time allows taking a Power Nap will help you get refocused. The science of sleep has been giving us insight into understanding about NAPS. You know many great and creative people have used power naps to allow themselves to do incredible work and athletics is no different. What we have learned however has to do both with duration and timing. 10-20 minute power naps give you the best bang for the buck. Longer naps while regenerative may leave you feeling sluggish for a while. Here is a link to a nap wheel by Sara Mednick. It helps you decide the best time to take a nap based on when you woke up. NAP WHEEL
ANTs will inherit the Earth (if you let them)
ANTs being Automatic Negative Thoughts and how they can ruin your game
So the ANTs will inherit the Earth (if you let them). OK so for a change I’m failing to be witty in my title. No wait, I’m never witty. I’m never humorous. I am the least funny sport psychology consultant aka Certified Mental Trainer® on Earth. Why would I ever attempt humor to get a point across? Even my kids think I lack a complete sense of humor. I might just be the most serious unfunny person on the planet, maybe the Universe.
Perhaps this would be a good place to take a breath. A few deep breaths as a matter of fact from below the diaphragm before I am so self-conscious I throw this post in the recycle bin and click the Empty Recycle Bin button. If I do that, I give up an opportunity perhaps to reach someone who overwhelmed by ANT’s, will miss out on tremendous opportunities. OK I’ll take a chance and keep the title, after all some people do laugh at some of my stories when I am speaking. I’ve had more clients laugh than cry in my office (though there is a certain sport that is more tearful I have found). Even on occasion one or more of my sons have had milk come out their nose because of something I said was funny. Maybe this means I may not claim Mr. Unfunny Person in the Universe Award.
This is an example (totally made up of course) of a CBT- cognitive behavioral technique designed to help someone deal with an ANT. An ANT is an Automatic Negative Thought. We have them all of the time. The most ridiculous things pop into our heads and most of the time we accept them as truths, because there is no one to dispute them. They come from somewhere in our unconscious perhaps. Triggered by some association or another and we buy in. We believe in the thought. After all it’s our own thought. How can it be wrong? Even if it makes us sad, mad, nervous or leaving us with a feeling that things are out of control. Hell, most of the time we don’t even recognize we really had that thought (this is the subject of a different post, but a real good reason to Journal). According to some of the research I’ve read we have more than 60,000 thoughts per day. We really can’t pay all that much attention to every one now can we? Yet we react to them just the same. We form a map if you will of what we can and cannot do. If you are an athlete why would you want an ANT telling you what you can or cannot carry out. Back in my youth I would never learned to dunk a basketball if I bought into ANTs, as back then I didn’t know a lot of six-foot seventeen year old’s from my neighborhood that could. We tell ourselves all sorts of things that we need to fix.
Write down your ANT (Automatic Negative Thought). This is harder than you think because first you need to recognize your feelings. So, if you are sad, mad, nervous or feel like things are out of control, stop a moment and identify what you are thinking. I’d like you to write or type out what you are thinking and feeling. This in itself is very effective as you are clarifying your thoughts and emotions. A good deal of the time you are projecting outcomes based on these thoughts. Some call this Fortune Telling. If I do this, then this will happen to me in the near future. If I write a funny tittle to my post and no one finds it funny, they will not call me for an appointment. If I play the golf course aggressively I will bogey the par 5 and loose the tournament. Or then there is Mind Reading. If I tell a funny story someone in the audience will think I’m stupid for trying to be funny and again not hire me. In this case I am projecting what someone might be thinking.
A golf example of this is where one of my golfers three putted on a green from 12 feet because two college coaches were watching. She thought, if I miss this putt they will think I am terrible and not be interested in me. That was just last week. Yesterday she shot a 70 in her first round, 2 under par. This was her first sub-par round ever. Even with coaches watching. Get rid of ANTs and positive things may happen.
One of the things that happens to us when we are either fortune-telling or mind reading is that we are not in the NOW. We are in the future and we cannot play effectively out of the present. The other thing is that our game or what we want to do is affected by those negative thoughts and emotions to the point where some people just give up.
The next step is to dispute those thoughts. Think of yourself as a teenager (many of you might still be). If you are like me on rare occasions (OK not so rare) I talked back to them when they said something I didn’t like. My boys of course never talk back to me. (Another attempt at humor) Use that same tone of voice, if you will and dispute what the ANT is telling you. Break it down and show yourself the lie, the un-truths. You have a 12 foot putt for birdie. The coaches just saw me hit a great shot. I can roll this putt in. When we conquer the ANTs, we allow ourselves to not only be present, but we can perform at much higher levels in sport and everything else with positive focus. This plays a major role in our confidence levels, focus and how we deal with stress.
I guess I will keep the tittle as is. Because I know I have produced magic from time to time and milk has mysteriously shot out of all of my sons’ noses one time or another. So perhaps while I may not be Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy or even Lenny Bruce I can produce a smile once in a while. If that is the case, then my original statement to myself cannot be true and if it is not all true and can’t be real.
Here are the steps:
1- Take a deep breath
2- Write down your thoughts
3- Dispute them like you are a teenager
4- Get on with your game because you are free to be you
I guess I can keep the tittle, go for a small smile or laugh. I might even get that ANT off my own back and go out and play a good round of golf. Hold on. Let’s not get delusional here. If you would like to join me on the golf course or in my office please drop in at The Mental Game.
I have a new friend. We met on LinkedIn. He does Meta-analysis in sport. I’ve not really delved into what that means. He was born in the old Soviet Union and now resides in Israel. In one of our first conversations he said he knew many sports psychologists both in his days in the USSR and now in Israel. He said they are all poor. A curious statement to be sure. He felt the major issues revolved around who the Sport Psychology person worked for. If they work for the team, then how does the athlete trust them? The athlete might reveal something which could get them benched, if the SPC told the staff. If they work for the athlete, how does the manager or coach trust that they are getting the correct information about the athlete’s state of mind. Trust on both sides has been an issue as long as I can remember. I’ve talked and written about this for years. My answer was always about integration of mental training into the team. Sport Psychology Consultant is there all of the time. They become part of the scene. My new friend’s statement got me thinking. Maybe the issue is not all a team issue, maybe it’s our issue too.
It is time we shift gears or paradigms, even if it means having to do so with a bit of humility (something I often discuss with athletes). If sport psychology was equal to other sport sciences, then a lot of our issues would go away. This is what I mean. If a football player needs more strength, the exercise physiology team with strength and conditioning people tell the athlete and the coaching staff what the player needs to do to perform at the next level. If the athlete has too much fat, a nutritionist tells the athlete and coaches the player needs to eat differently. If a quarterback has a poor throwing motion a bio-mechanics expert might go to the staff and suggest ways to fix it. Unless of course it’s Tebow, then nothing will help apparently.
When sport psychology notices a flaw in a player’s arsenal, be it stress, confidence or focus, we can only talk with the player behind closed doors. Why? Glad you asked. Because we still think of ourselves as psychologists. We are enamored with our pedigree. We talk about teaching skills, but will not allow that we are sport scientists, teachers and coaches. We teach athletes to have confidence, to get over blocks, to cope with stress and to focus better. Helping athletes and teams develop emotional intelligence is not the same as working with someone who is paranoid (no Jim Harbaugh jokes).
Individual conversations are private. Just as the conversation between sport science staff and athlete are. The public is not invited, but the team maybe. The athletic trainer does not announce that an athlete has a weak hamstring to the world (injury reports aside). The conversations are private, but the discussion is open to the staff. There are no secret. If there are no secrets, there is no shame. If there is no shame, then doing mental training becomes a part of the program.
This is a shift, it’s a big shift. It means we are no longer as special. We are no longer different from the rest of the sports science team (we have a natural insecurity because others think our science is soft). We want to be like the team medical doctor. We want legal confidentiality between doctor and patient. We forget we are teaching mental skills. There is still the bond of trust between us, the athlete and team. We are not going public. We are like everyone on the team.
The bottom line is we teach skills to athletes. We help them discover as all good teachers do, elements that are missing from their skills set, in order to perform at a higher level. When we understand that, then we can share that with athletes, teams and others associated with sport. Since we all don’t get that, we are stuck. Hence the need for a paradigm shift.
Understand, I am not talking about working with depression, eating disorders, drug and alcohol related issues, etc. requiring psychotherapy or other interventions.. I’ve been working with athletes for 35 years and have only referred athletes to psychotherapists three times. Maybe only healthy players seek me out. I don’t care. If there are other issues we can help them in other ways. We teach, consult, counsel athletes on mental skills. When we get that through our head, perhaps everyone else will as well.
These are just some thoughts to go along with my last few posts. Until then, I will shout at the wind and perhaps others will listen. I am a sport psychology consultant. I am a mental skills trainer. Come work with me and understand that mental skills training is just like everything else we do in sports to reach the next level. Yes it is in your head. Yes it is harder to measure the results. But sure as anything there is in this life, mental skills training is perhaps the most important part of your training routine.
So let’s all of us get out of your own way. Learn about mental toughness. Join the shift. If we do this, more athletes will follow. For athletes and teams, don’t miss out because a bunch of people like me don’t get it. Help us shift. We will help you back. Maybe even Tebow. Remember- Mental training is not a Luxury, it’s a Necessity!
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.
The Final Frontier: Mental Training
I was looking through some old pictures and articles from over twenty-five years ago. I don’t have a lot of the old things due in part to a burst pipe in the basement, but I have a few things. I pulled out this old and not very well written article I did for some magazine. It was called “The Final Frontier Mental Training”. I had written it because I thought sport psychology and mental training were finally becoming “NORMAL” for all athletes. I had been working with a number of athletes preparing them for everything from World Championships and High School. I was seeing 10-15 athletes a week. Life was starting to be good not only for the athletes as their success was almost always improved but for me as well. This was pre-internet days. Social media was word of mouth. Athletes and their coaches were starting to reach out. I assumed mental training was now finally in the mainstream. I used the Final Frontier because of Star Trek. I in fact went looking for the old article because of the new Star Trek movie release and it hit a nerve with me. The Final Frontier. My meaning then was two-fold. We were exploring how to get the most out of an athlete. New techniques and ways of teaching mental skills The second was we were being accepted in mainstream coaching. Sport Psychology Consultants were being hired in pro sports.
25 plus years ago I did believe I was on the cutting edge of sport psychology. I was one of those applied people. Working in the field with athletes rather than a researcher. My interests were in helping athletes run faster, jump higher etc. We were helping athletes at all levels. We were mainstream. Move ahead 25 years.
I’m still explaining what I do to athletes, parents, coaches and people I meet on the street. I was on the phone yesterday with an internet consultant from GoDaddy. He was helping me with a technical issue with my website. When he wondered what it was I did, I thought here’s a geek, a non sports guy. So I explained. Turned out he was a geek that played college DI basketball at a pretty big University. He had no idea about mental training. Never really used visualization or imagery. Had issues with being able to focus and relax. At 6’8″ he might have been able to continue to play. He decided he just wasn’t good enough so he gave up something he loved as a sophomore in college. He has not played ball in seven years. Not even for fun. Such a waste. maybe he will get a pair of shoes and wonder over to the gym now. I hope so.
Performance is mental
I’m fond of misquoting Yogi Berra the Hall of Fame Baseball player and coach. 80 percent of all performance is mental and the other 50 percent is physical. Then why are we still at the edge of the Final Frontier. Why are we not mainstream. I train a football player preparing for his Pro Day. His time to be seen by NFL scouts so he might be drafted. (He understood the importance of mental training and sought me out) He is working with a strength and conditioning coach. He is working with his position coach. He is getting nutritional advice. An he is working on his mental game. That alone makes him unusual. You see while everyone says it is the biggest part of performance, few actually practice what they admit to.
When I am speaking I often ask for a show of hands and ask “What was the reason for your poorest performances. Virtually everyone says the other team or opposition was better physically, technically and strategically says everyone, like NEVER!. It is always some form of I wasn’t mentally there. I couldn’t concentrate I was stressed out. It it so rare that I hear they were just a better team. Do you think that the San Francisco 49ers are saying that the Baltimore Ravens are a better team? (Now John Harbaugh is likely still blaming the refs) but the players will point to a mental let own somewhere. It is as I said the difference maker.
Still on the Edge
Yet here we are still on the edge of the Final Frontier. Pro teams, college teams all have full time strength and conditioning coaches. Some will have a part time Sport Psychology Consultant. An outsider not integrated with the team. Helpful, but not there yet. Individual athletes are the same. I had a conversation today with someone who wants mental training for his team and his own kids. I know he has the money, but a new pair of cleats or a technical camp is a higher priority.
If mental training is your lowest priority then take it off your list. If you are going to fail then it is not because of anxiety, stress, focus, negative thoughts, motivation, fear, discipline, mental toughness, anger, emotions, self-confidence or even team cohesion. You just are not good enough. You are physically inferior to everyone you have ever lost a contest to. The player that beat you last week that you have never lost to before, just got better than you. You might as well either hit the gym or give up because there is little you can do. What’s that? Practicing harder seems to hurt your performance. You can’t seem to find the discipline to stay on track with your training. Don’t worry it is genetic. Nothing you can do about it.
The water in the pool is just fine
OK sarcasm rant is over. Yes I do think Mental Training is the Final Frontier. I know that mental training will help you perform at a higher level. It’s just a mater of are you going to do the work. You are out there working your butt off, lets exercise the mind as well. It will make a difference. Jump on in the waters fine.