By Tim Bradbury, Director of Coaching Instruction, Eastern New York Youth Soccer Association
Over the last 10 years, I have become increasingly concerned about both the level of motivation of many players I have seen and the apparent lack of key mental characteristics they display. What people often call mental strength I prefer to breakdown into key characteristics like focus, resilience and courage. I've had many conversations with coaches from all over the country and indeed the world who have voiced similar concerns. Identifying the problem has been the easy part.
This identification has led me to spend a good deal of time learning more about sports psychology and discovering new opportunities and ways in which to learn. As part of this journey, I have come across many good pieces of research in terms of articles and books and some great podcasts. I admit that despite considering myself an active life long learner, I reflect on missed years of learning opportunities with some great podcasts.
Three that I highly recommend coaches try and find time to subscribe and listen to the three noted below.
In listening to these podcasts, I have listened to material from Dan Abrahams plus others that has led me to offer the suggestions below to help coaches create good training environments with an emphasis upon the psycho-social realm.
The three areas below
Positive Self Talk
Can all be used to help players create the right mindset for a good practice.
Positive Self Talk
Dr. Christopher M. Carr explored the relationship between focus and optimal performance in his study, “Sport Psychology: Psychologic Issues and Applications (Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation Clinics of North America, 2006).”
Carr identified positive self-talk as one technique that can enhance competitive focus.
He defines self-talk is the conscious and subconscious dialog that occurs in your mind before, during and after competition.
Self-talk affects your confidence and emotions which impact your performance.
CARR: “If athletes are engaging in negative self-talk, their affective experience may be one of frustration, anger, or extreme anxiety. These emotional states challenge breathing, increase muscle tension, and create a loss of concentration and focus, resulting in lower performance. If an athlete’s self-talk is positive and relevant, however, the resulting emotional experience is one of relaxation, calmness, and feeling centered; as a result, the chances of good performance increase dramatically.”
For me the positive self-talk issue is focused around belief and a growth mindset summed up with the phrase that with my best effort I will master all the technical and tactical issues that each practice throws at me. I think it takes great care and focus for youth players to always replace self-doubt with positive self-talk.
For me, this is one of the most powerful and under used tools that youth players practice and use. I remember as a young player spending endless hours trying to create my own internal video clips that my mind had in a loop of me playing a great pass, making a match winning tackle or heading one powerfully into the top corner. If only I knew then what I have learned since. The tips below taken from an article by Jim Taylor may help some young players out there.
Imagery perspective refers to where the “imagery camera” is when you do imagery. The internal perspective involves seeing yourself from inside your body looking out, as if you were performing your sport. The external perspective involves seeing yourself from outside your body like on video. Research indicates that one perspective is not better than the other. Most people have a dominant perspective with which they’re most comfortable. Use the perspective that’s most natural for you and then experiment with the other perspective to see if it helps you in a different way.
Have you ever been doing imagery and you keep making mistakes, for example, a basketball point guard sees the ball stick to the court while dribbling or a golfer sees her ball pop out of the cup? This problem relates to imagery control, which is how well you’re able to imagine what you want to imagine. It’s not uncommon for athletes to perform poorly in their imagery and it often reflects a fundamental lack of confidence in their ability to perform successfully (when I started using imagery as a youth, I couldn't go three gates in a ski race course in my head without falling!).
Good imagery is more than just visual, that's why I don't like to call it visualization. The best imagery involves the multi-sensory reproduction of the actual sport experience. You should duplicate the sights, sounds, physical sensations, thoughts and emotions that you would experience in an actual competition. Visual imagery involves how clearly you see yourself performing. If sounds, such as the quarterback calling the play at the line of scrimmage, are important, you would want to generate them in your imagery. If you get nervous before an actual competition, you should get nervous in your imagery (and then take steps to relax).
The most powerful part of mental imagery is feeling it in your body. That’s how you really ingrain new technical and mental skills and habits. A useful way to increase the feeling in your mental imagery is to combine imagined and real sensations. Imagine yourself performing and move your body along with the imagery. You see world-class athletes doing this before competitions.
The ability to adjust the speed of your imagery will enable you to use imagery to improve different aspects of your sports performance. Slow motion is effective for focusing on technique. When you first start to work on technique in your imagery, slow the imagery video down, frame by frame if necessary, to see yourself executing the skill correctly. Then, as you see and feel yourself performing well in slow motion, increase the speed of your imagery until you can perform well at “real-time” speed.
I get to talk about goal setting quite a lot on numerous USSF courses and United Coaches diplomas. I see it used in sports in what can be an unhealthy way where goals that are set are beyond the athlete’s ability to control and ultimately are just about win-loss records. I believe that in the right hands and as part of a conversation between coach and player, it can be a very active ingredient in player development. The first one I discuss with all my players is that of a commitment to excellence. Simply put I ask them to commit to doing their very best with the tools they have at any given moment in any practice or game. A simple yet powerful goal that they can all strive to achieve.
There is a good deal of talk regarding the lack of development in many youth players that is centered around their lack of ability to read the game. Enormous numbers of players are reactive and not proactive, react slowly to the changing moments of the game. At the same time there is a storing and loud voice within educational circles, much of which is based on sound educational theory that coaches must start to put the software first. In a game where players must make so many split-second decisions, it is easy to understand the argument.