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.
Learn from a Jackass (donkey that is)
Learn from a Jackass is an old motivational, (scratch that) inspirational story. It has been repeated many times. I use it occasionally to make a few points about Mental Training. I’ve no idea where I first heard it; though I know it was years ago. I realized today that it is one of those stories I’ve not used here. So indulge me and learn a lesson from a Jackass.
One day a farmer’s donkey (officially recognized as a Jackass by Webster’s) fell down into a well. The animal brayed (Heehawed) for hours as the farmer tried to figure out what to do. Finally, he decided the animal was old, and the well needed to be covered up anyway; it just wasn’t worth it to rescue the jackass.
He invited all his neighbors to come over and help him. They all grabbed a shovel and began to shovel dirt into the well. At first, the donkey realized what was happening and cried horribly.
Then, to everyone’s amazement he quieted down. (more…)
The Water Tower Motivation Analogy
If we look at a metaphorical generalized model of what motivation might look like it might be a large water tank. I am not in any way removing my supposition that we need to think about motivation as a triangle. This is just another way of generalizing about motivation to help athletes understand more about the simplicity of motivation overall and some of the complexities.
So if we use a picture of a large water tank I think it will help with the explanation. There is no top to the tank and so for many of us motivation, drive, enthusiasm, or the Fury just over flow the tank. The tank is filled mostly and best by a hose that is inside the tank. Sometimes it is filled by other people. Oddly they make us offerings of speeches, carrots and sometimes they use fear which can be a motivator as well. All of these hoses are smaller and are far less effective at filling the tank.
Sometimes our tank develops hoses in it. Normally when we are fully focused out internal hose keeps up with the out flow. Sometimes it is difficult to keep our internal hose on all the time and the leaks sap us of some of our essence. Holes develop for lots of reasons like a lack of confidence, stress, poor team cohesion, outside distractions, etc.
If the hoses cannot keep up with the leak, we see less of the motivation we usually have and performance generally diminishes. We can patch holes of course. Generally what happens when things are leaking is that we lose ourselves and take our hand off our internal hose regulator. If we can’t keep up for the inside it is very difficult for all of the outside hoses to keep up. It becomes a situation as in Hans Christian Anderson’s story of the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike. Eventually you can’t keep up with the leaks and having stopped filling from the inside you end up being no longer motivated, even though it is something you wanted very much to do.
Eventually many people at that point just stop trying to keep the valve open and have to shift. Shifting is one way of closing those holes. The problem is after the shift things are never really the same until the person finds something that re-ignites their passion.
I hope that this makes some sense to you. To simplify it I can have you think of it this way:
- Internal Motivation = Big Hose (but you do have to keep a hand on the valve)
- External Motivation = Smaller hoses controlled by other people. It takes a lot of these hoses to top of the tank.
- Leaks = Stress, anxiety, loss of confidence, fear and many others. You can keep the leaks small or patched by using mental skills like relaxation, imagery and other cognitive behavioral techniques.
I think a huge secret in all of this is understanding your Big Why. If you understand your own triangle you will have a far easier time keeping your hand on the valve or perhaps even think of it as pedal to the metal which ever works best for you. Finding and knowing your why will always help you keep the water near the top. It will allow you to rely far less on all those small hoses. It gives you ultimate control because the big hose you control so when you need to back off, even when your coach is overly enthusiastic, it is in your hands. Same goes for when you develop leaks. Adding a little extra water in will allow you to use your mental game skill sets to seal up the holes, ultimately with a patch that neither requires attention or the little Dutch boy’s finger.
Why mental training?
I was asked the other day and not for the first time why do mental training? I have been a proponent for three decades now that everyone should do mental training and working with someone like myself can help give every athlete a new set of tools or even one tool that will help them get to a new level of performance. I have worked with beginners to world champions and everyone finds something that is useful to them. But the question is still often asked so I thought I would address it here today.
The usual questions start with how does mental training or sport psychology help athlete’s perform at a higher level. Generally before I can answer that question the person will ask; will it help me deal with ___________________? There is a long list usually dealing with fear or anxiety. The answer is yes it will help and in so many other areas as well. Usually people will ask about a certain area.
In general I usually work with athletes on some form of the things I have listed below. If you are astute the thing you will notice is that I have listed a combination of training techniques and issues. I’ve done this because over the years I have found that people tend to think about sport psychology in both terms issues and techniques. An example is relaxation training. Athletes may want to learn how to deal with stress and the easiest way for them to talk about it is they want to learn to relax. Whatever way you want to think about is OK. What I want you to understand is that regardless of how you think about sport psychology and mental training it must be in your arsenal as a hockey player. It doesn’t matter how much talent you have, and I have worked with world champions, this is an area that you can improve and help yourself get to the next level. (more…)
Journal of a Sport Psychology Consultant
This is a journal of a sport psychology consultant. A week with the Cheyenne Stampede working with them on the mental game. Pre season Mental training with them. I thought I would take a brief moment to talk about the process. It is a process I have used many times, but it is always different in the sense that flexibility is critical. I had worked out a rough schedule with the GM prior to my flying in. He and the head coach had worked it into a posted schedule on the website so the players were aware of what we were going to be doing. I flew into Denver and drove up to Cheyenne where I met the GM at the Holiday Inn (a team sponsor).
Working with the Cheyenne Stampede, Jr A Hockey Team
Our first session was at 5PM, but our first stop was practice. I met briefly with Coach Quarters as the players hit the ice. Right after practice we headed to Smart Sports which is where they do strength and conditioning. It’s a great facility with its own medical facility. I met the facility owner and head physician Dr. Skip Ross and the personal trainers and physical therapist. There were a few players getting PT while Ro the personal trainer was killing it with the team doing core and strength work.
Headed to the Arena for my first session with the team
Ceremonial Puck Drop prior to Stampede vs Weber State
Talked a little more with Coach Quarters about my plan and then met the team officially. I was introduced to the team by GM and owner Mark Lantz. GM & coach sat in on introductory session. This is important to establish that what we are doing is important to the team’s success. I’ve often been asked to work with teams and the team coaches and front office more or less go play golf. This hurts the programs credibility as players see it as there is no buy in from staff. (more…)