“RELAXATION & CONCENTRATION – The heart and soul of mental toughness”
Let’s start with some real basics here: If you want to become a champion and take your game to the highest level possible then you have to be sure that you train like a champion. What does this mean? The most obvious part of this is that you have to pay your physical dues. You have to bust your butt on a consistent basis and do everything possible physically to help you reach your goal. There is absolutely no substitute for hard work when it comes to being successful. The less obvious part of your training in becoming a champion has to do with making sure that you also train the mental dimension. The best conditioned, highest skilled athlete will consistently fall apart at crunch time if he/she doesn’t have his/her head on straight. That is, you can’t become a champion and take your game as far as possible without developing the mind of a champion. What’s this “mind of a champion?”
Having the mind of a champion, in very simple terms, means that you are mentally tough. Mental toughness is a cliché that coaches, athletes, sports fans and the media constantly throw around. Everyone talks about the importance of “being mentally tough” but few can tell you exactly what “mental toughness” really means or how you should go about developing it.
I look at “mental toughness” as an umbrella term that covers a number of different, sometimes interrelated mental skills. When you combine all of these mental skills together into one person, the end result is an athlete who is mentally tough. What are all of the component skills of mental toughness?
#1) Staying calm under pressure = maintaining a physical looseness and emotional/mental relaxation when the game is on the line.
#2) Concentrating on what’s important and being able to either block out and/or let go of distractions.
#3) Rebounding quickly from mistakes, bad breaks and bad calls during the run of the game.
#4) Avoiding psych-outs and intimidation.
#5) Mastering physical and emotional adversity/pain/discomfort.
#6) Effectively handling last minute negative thinking and self-doubts.
#7) Maintaining control of your emotions.
#8) Believing in yourself NO MATTER WHAT.
#9) Being self-motivated.
#10) Having winning self-confidence
These are the basic building blocks of mental toughness. There is a very small percentage of athletes who seem to naturally have a lot of these mini-skills as part of their personality. They’re born with a good head on their shoulders, so-to-speak. They’re laid back, rarely get freaked out under pressure and have no problem focusing on what’s important. Mistakes don’t seem to faze them and their confidence level remains steady, even when they fail or run into obstacles. These mentally gifted athletes are the exception to the rule.
The vast majority of athletes struggle with one or more of these mental skills. Some, in fact, struggle to the degree where they may have earned themselves the reputation of “head case.” These athletes tend to get too nervous right before big competitions or overwhelmed with worries about how they’ll perform. When they make mistakes, they may be inclined to hang onto them for long periods of time and to use these miscues to fuel their self-directed anger and frustration. These mentally-challenged athletes may get too caught up with their opponents’ size, strengths and skills and, as a result, frequently end up psyched out or intimidated. When these athletes lose or fail, they tend to beat themselves up for the failure and use it as evidence that they simply aren’t good enough.
If this description seems to fit you, NOT TO WORRY! The good news about mental toughness is that with a little work, even YOU can learn to systematically develop the mind of a champion. It doesn’t matter if right now you see yourself as a “98 lb mental weakling” who is always being bullied around by mentally tougher athletes and consistently stealing defeat from the closing jaws of victory. With regular training you too can strengthen your mental muscles so that this part of your game becomes a huge asset rather than a liability.
Of all the mental skills that make up the mental toughness umbrella, by far the two most critical ones are RELAXATION: the ability to stay calm and composed under pressure, and CONCENTRATION: the ability to focus in on what’s important and let go of everything else. Without these two critical mental skills, you will be completely lost as an athlete. Difficulties in one or both of these two skill areas always play out as repetitive sports performance problems like choking, slumps, blocks, etc. For example, show me an athlete who consistently chokes under pressure, does better in practice than competition, loses control of his/her emotions during a competition or who consistently underachieves and I will show you an athlete who does not know how to control his/her focus of concentration or stay calm when the heat of competition is turned up high. Relaxation and concentration are the heart and soul of mental toughness. Without them, there can be no mental toughness and your head will continue to sabotage your body and performances.
Relaxation and concentration are interacting mental skills in that each enhances the other. For example, when you focus on the right things you will be far more likely to remain calm and composed. Similarly, when you’re relaxed and loose, you will be much better able to focus on what’s important and let go of distractions. In this way relaxation enhances concentration and concentration deepens relaxation. Of course, the reverse of this is also true. When you focus on the wrong things right before and during a competition, your stress level and anxiety will go sky-high. When you’re overly nervous in this way, it will then be virtually impossible for you to get control of your concentration and focus on the right things.
So let’s take a technique-like look at both of these key components to mental toughness. Exactly what can you do to strengthen your ability to stay calm under pressure and focus on the correct things?
One of the biggest secrets to peak performance in every sport and at every level that sport is played on is relaxation. That is, in order for you to do your best, you must stay loose and relaxed both before and during your performances. Every great athlete I’ve ever talked to or worked with has always said then same thing: Staying calm and relaxed is THE biggest and most basic SECRET to performing to your potential.
Keep in mind that staying relaxed doesn’t mean that you won’t feel some butterflies in your gut at performance time. You have to be excited in order for you to do your best. In other words, you have to be “amped up” a little to get yourself to play at your best. If you’re totally relaxed when it’s performance time then you’ll end up being flat. Remember, pre-performance jitters and excitement, or what I call “good nervous” can go hand in hand with being loose and relaxed.
Staying cool, calm and collected under pressure is a learnable skill. Even if you’re an anxious person in other areas of your life outside of sports, you can still learn to master this crucial mental skill. Like any skill, the more time that you invest in practice, the faster you’ll learn it and the more ability you’ll develop with it. However, if you have a pre-performance nervousness problem and you never spend any time practicing how to stay calm, then you’ll continue to have a pre-performance nervousness problem!
I’m going to briefly outline the steps that I typically take athletes through when I’m teaching them how to stay calm under pressure. By necessity, some of these steps have been abbreviated. This is because learning how to relax under pressure is an extensive topic and one that is best hand-tailored to meet the specific needs of each individual athlete.
STEP #1 – READING YOURSELF
The very first step in developing the ability to stay cool and calm in the clutch is AWARENESS. That is, you have to learn to “read yourself” pre-performance in relation to how nervous/excited you are. What does this mean? Every athlete experiences stressors in the competitive environment differently. That is, what makes one athlete totally fall apart performance-wise might help another athlete perform to his/her potential. The trick is to know yourself well enough so that you understand the difference between your “good” and “bad” levels of nervousness. Let me explain.
How well you perform is always directly related to your pre-performance level of nervousness or physiological arousal. If you are too aroused or too nervous/excited before the start of your competition, then your body will respond by physically tightening up and then shutting down. When you are in this over-aroused state or what’s called “bad nervous,” you are most likely to “choke” in your performance. No one, regardless of skill level or experience can perform to their potential when in “bad nervous.” If you go into the competition in “good nervous” or at the optimal level of excitement/physiological arousal, your timing and focus will be heightened, your muscles will stay loose and ready to respond as trained, and you will perform to your potential. On the other hand, if you go into a competition in what’s called “not enough nervous” or not up for it, then you won’t be physiologically ready to perform to your potential. Being in “not enough nervous” is what happens to athletes and teams when they are over-confident or don’t really care about the performance.
Most athletes who struggle with performance problems do so because they suffer from “bad nervous” and they haven’t yet learned how to calm themselves down pre-performance. It’s very rare that an athlete consistently struggles because he/she is always in “not enough nervous” before the competition starts. Because of this, I will direct my remarks to the problem of “bad nervous.”
The task for you as an athlete is to develop enough awareness pre-performance so that you can identify the differences within yourself between “good” and “bad nervous.” For example, if you know what your own personal signs are of “bad nervous” and you begin to recognize some of these occurring an hour before you’re about to compete, then there are some specific things that you can do to calm yourself down. However, if you don’t know how to “read yourself” and can’t identify the impending signs of “bad nervous,” then you will end up going into the contest too tight and, as a consequence, perform badly.
Just how do you learn to “read” yourself? You experience nervousness or physiological arousal in three different ways: You experience it physically in your body. For example, shallow and faster breathing, increased heart rate, tighter muscles, yawning, dry mouth, increased sweating, butterflies in your stomach, etc; You experience it mentally. That is, what you think, where you put your focus of concentration and what you believe are all different depending upon whether you’re in good or bad nervous; You experience physiological arousal behaviorally or by how you act pre-performance. That is, some athletes sit quietly by themselves before a performance while others frenetically bounce around and are quite talkative.
Whether these physical, mental and behavioral signs reflect good or bad nervous directly depends upon YOU as an athlete and your performance history. That is, if you think back to several past great performances and how you felt, thought and acted right before them, then you will get a good idea of what your signs are of “good nervous.” Similarly, if you think back to several really disappointing outings and how you felt, thought and acted before them, then you should get a good idea of some of your signs of “bad nervous.” For example, you may discover that before your great performances you only focused on yourself and had no thoughts at all about the opponent or the outcome of the game, match or race. These kinds of mental signs indicate “good nervous.” You may also notice that when you look at games you choked or played poorly, your pre-game focus in these competitive situations was on how good your opponents were, how important it was for you to play well and your worries about failing. These would then be considered to your mental signs of “bad nervous.”
Keep in mind that without an awareness of where you are in relation to “good” and “bad nervous” pre-performance, you will never be able to consistently maintain control of how well you perform. If you know what your personal signs are of “bad nervous,” you will then be in a position to use the other following steps in calming yourself down.
STEP #2 – SWITCH YOUR CONCENTRATION AWAY FROM THE UC’S
One of the main causes of “bad nervous” or physiological over-arousal is allowing your focus of concentration to go to things that you can’t control. Choking is most often triggered by the athlete focusing on the UC’s or what I call the “uncontrollables.” An uncontrollable is anything before or during the performance that you have no direct control over. The key word here is “direct.” When you focus on these UC’s you will get yourself nervous, undercut your confidence and insure that your performance will go down the tubes. If you want to calm yourself down right before an important performance then you have to do two things: First, you must know what the uncontrollables are in this upcoming competition. Second, you must keep your focus away from them. If you think back to any times that you’ve choked in the past, then I can guarantee you that either before or during that performance you were focusing on one or more of these UC’s. Therefore, when you go into your next performance and you want to stay out of “bad nervous,” you must be sure that you keep your focus of concentration away from these uncontrollables.
What are the uncontrollables? The outcome of the performance as in winning or losing; anything in the future like your goals in this game, how many points you want to score, hits you want to get, your worries about messing up, etc.; Your opponent and everything about him/her. i.e. size, strength, speed, talent level, reputation, attitude, style of play; Anything in the past like a mistake or error, the last time you played on this field, how the warm-up went, what happened last year in this same competition, etc.; The officiating; How important the competition is; The crowd, how big it is, who’s in it watching, etc.; Other people’s expectations of you and what they may think or say about you; The coaches (everything about them – attitude, behaviors, comments, policy on playing time; how they handle your mistakes, whether they yell or not); The weather and field/playing/competing conditions; How you feel that day as in physical health, injury status, fatigue level, etc.; How well your teammates play; Luck – in every sport there is some form of good/bad luck that determines scoring and can contribute to the outcome; Things going on in your personal/academic life outside of your sport.
STEP #3 – RELAXATION TECHNIQUES
There are a wide variety of relaxation strategies that you can use when you notice yourself heading into “bad nervous.” If you practice these enough on your own when you’re not under pressure, then you will find that the skills that you develop hold up for you when the heat of competition is turned up high. However, if you never practice these skills or any relaxation techniques, you will continue to get too nervous under pressure.
Distract yourself from the contest – Typically when an athlete has a lot of time to think about an upcoming performance he/she will begin to stress out. You can avoid this and keep yourself in “good nervous” by deliberately distracting yourself from thinking about what’s to come. Talk with friends/teammates about something fun and relaxing that has absolutely nothing to do with the game/match or race. Read a book, keep busy, watch a movie. Do whatever you can to fill any and all empty time leading up to the competition so that you don’t spend it working yourself into a stressed-out basket case.
Listen to music – A lot of athletes like to use music pre-performance to both distract and calm themselves down. If music tends to work for you, make it a habitual part of your pre-performance routine.
Develop and consistently use a set pre-game/performance ritual – This could involve stretching in a certain way, listening to specific music, talking to your coach and going over the upcoming contest, repeating certain, very familiar movements that you use to warm yourself up. Rituals are always calming because they are familiar. Get in the habit of developing one today.
Stretch with awareness – Stretching is a wonderful way for you to physically and mentally calm yourself down as long as you stretch correctly. What is correct stretching? When you keep your concentration on the stretching while you do it. All too often athletes will do their pre-game stretching but as they do so, their mind will be on the upcoming game, the opponent or any number of things that might freak them out. When you stretch in this way you do not derive any benefit from the stretching. Instead you want to stretch with awareness. That is, while you are stretching one particular muscle group, you want to focus all of your concentration on the feeling of that stretch. In fact, you want to breathe into each stretch as you focus on the feeling. Sometimes it helps to keep your eyes closed as you do this to help block distractions out and to amplify the feeling of the stretch.
Deliberately slow and deepen your breathing – When you breathe slow and low in your belly, you will physiologically calm yourself down. Anxiety speeds up your breathing, forcing it up high in your chest and throat. By deliberately slowing your breathing down and making sure you breathe from your diaphragm, you will be able to calm yourself down. At night before bed, practice taking three minutes of these slow, deep breaths.
Tighten and relax – If you notice that you are feeling tense right before a performance, isolate the specific muscles that feel tight and deliberately tighten them. Hold the tension in them for a slow count of ten, and then release them. Repeat this procedure. By tightening already tight muscles, holding the tension for ten seconds and then releasing, you will notice that your nervousness begins to diminish.
“Make friends” with your nervousness – Too many athletes begin to panic when they notice that they are feeling nervous right before a big performance. By fighting with your nervousness in this way you will only make it worse. Instead, accept that you’re feeling nervous and even allow yourself to experience it. Don’t label it as “bad” or try to wish it away. In a funny twist, when you accept that you’re nervous, your acceptance of it will actually calm you down!
Develop a “safe place” to go to pre-performance – Some athletes calm themselves down pre-performance by mentally “leaving” where they’re at and “going” to a safe, relaxing place in their mind. This mental place could be a favorite beach, lying on a dock by a lake, hiking in the woods, or simply hanging out alone in your room. By mentally leaving the stressful environment, you can calm yourself down. The key to this strategy is practice. Right before bed, practice “leaving” and going to this mental place. See, hear and feel yourself there and “hang out” for a few minutes before sleep. By regularly going to this safe place, you will find it available to you when the heat of competition is turned way up high.
The second master skill of mental toughness is concentration. Like relaxation, by regularly practicing this skill of focusing you will fine tune your ability to concentrate on the right things at the right time. If you do not have the ability to control your concentration, then you will notice that your performances are consistently inconsistent. By mastering concentration, you will also increase your self-confidence and improve your ability to stay calm under pressure. In my experience as a Sports Performance Consultant, the vast majority of performance problems like slumps, blocks, choking, out of control emotions and performance inhibiting fears are almost always fueled by faulty concentration. That is, focus on the wrong things both before and during your competitions and you can be guaranteed a sub-par performance.
What is concentration? Concentration isn’t good or bad. It’s just where you place your focus of concentration. Think about it as a flashlight shining in a dark room. The athlete who chokes under pressure and the athlete who rises to the top with a clutch performance both do an equally good job of “shining their flashlight” or focusing. The only important difference is WHAT THEY CONCENTRATE ON! In your worst performances you are doing a great job “shining your flashlight” on all of the wrong things. In your best outings, you are focusing that flashlight in on all of the right things. Simply put, you’re always concentrating both before and during your performances. The important question here is, “on what?”
Let’s briefly go back to my story about the Cleveland Indians’ pitcher Jake Westbrook during the ALCS deciding game 7. Under extreme pressure he kept his “flashlight” shining on what was important in his situation, the catcher’s mitt, his target and what was in front of him at that moment. He didn’t allow his focus to scatter to the “what if’s,” (what if they blow it open here? What if I give up a grand slam? What if I blow it for my team and we get eliminated because of me?) or to the hits that he had already given up to load the bases.
A good definition of winning concentration is “the ability to focus on what’s important and let go of everything else.” Your job then is to go into any competitive situation and find what’s important while simultaneously letting go, concentration-wise of everything else. The very first step in learning to do this is to develop an awareness of when your focus is on all the wrong things. The wrong things to focus on in any competitive situation are usually: anything outcome related like winning, losing, making a mistake, qualifying for the next round, etc.; things in the past like mistakes, previous bad performances, a frustrating or tough week of practice, what happened the last time you played this team, etc.; the size of the crowd and who’s in it; the officiating and whether you think it’s fair or not; the coaches and decisions that they make regarding your playing time; the playing conditions and weather; etc.
You’ll notice that almost all of the things that you don’t want to focus on, that you instead want to let go of are what I called “uncontrollables.” Since you can’t do anything about these uncontrollable factors, you don’t want to waste your energy paying attention to them. Instead you want to discipline yourself to only pay attention to those things that you have direct control over. Of course, this is far easier said than done. Before we discuss exactly how to do this, let’s spend a little more time defining what’s important for you to concentrate on.
When I talk about focusing on what’s important and letting everything else go, what’s important has two basic dimensions: TIME and PLACE. The “time” dimension of your concentration has to do with the “past”, the “present” or now and the “future.” Whenever you concentrate, whether you’re aware of it or not, your focus is always in one of these three mental times. Over the course of a competition, your focus may very well “time travel” back and forth between these three times. When you’re in the past, you are concentrating on mistakes just made, previous losses, perhaps the last time you competed in this tournament, how your training went the last week or two, or how you felt in warm-up. As far as your performance goes, mentally hanging out in the “past” will get you into hot water. When your head’s in the past you are no longer paying attention to the important cues going on in the now. This means that your timing and execution will always be off.
Similarly, having your focus in the future on the “what if’s” (“What if I mess up?” What if I lose?” What if I choke?”, etc.) or something coming up later in your performance will generate excessive anxiety and muscle tension, and shut you right down. In fact, “choking” in sports is a direct result of the athlete leaving the “now” and “time traveling” into the future.
To play to your potential you must discipline yourself to stay in the NOW of the performance. This means that you have to keep your concentration on what is going on in this moment, moment by moment, play by play. This is an absurdly simple concept to understand, yet exceedingly difficult to consistently do. I will discuss HOW you do this shortly.
The second dimension of concentration is one of PLACE. That is, when you focus, you can have your concentration in the right mental place or any number of wrong places. The right place is on YOU and what you are doing in the moment. The wrong place is on other people around you like teammates, opponents, refs, the crowd or the coaches. To perform to your potential you must learn to stay centered and the heart of staying centered is keeping your focus just on you and your job. Athletes always tend to get psyched out or easily intimidated when they allow their focus to drift away from themselves to how talented, strong or fast an opponent may be. If you get a bad call from the ref and you’re upset about it, then your focus is not on you, but the ref. if you’re worried that the coach may bench you, then your focus is on the coach, not on you. If an opponent is talking smack at you or playing physically rough and you get emotional about it, then your focus is on them and not on you. To play the way you’ve been trained, you must develop the ability to keep your concentration on YOU!
To sum then, focusing on what’s important means to keep your concentration on what YOU are doing in the NOW. How do you do this? You must develop the two-part mental skill of concentration. First you must become awareness of the instant that your focus drifts from what’s important; Second, you must quickly return your focus to what’s important. Concentration is a very simple “recognize and return” skill. You must recognize when you’ve lost your focus and immediately bring it back to the task at hand.
As an athlete it’s important to understand that a break in concentration will never hurt you. Losing your focus is NOT the problem. What will hurt you is a break in focus that you don’t catch. For example, you make a mistake and three to four minutes after the mistake, you’re still thinking about it. Losing your focus is a very normal occurrence and one that you shouldn’t fret about. In fact, on a typical day you may lose your focus quite a bit. Your drifting in these situations will never sabotage your play as long as you’re on top of the drifting and you return your focus as quickly as possible.
Try this simple exercise to strengthen your concentration muscles. Take a ball, puck, or some other object from your sport and place it 4 – 5 feet away from you. Pick a spot on the object for you to comfortably rest your eyes. Sit with your feet flat on the floor, focus on your spot and put the rest of your concentration on your breathing. Keeping your breath normal, concentrate on the feeling of the air coming in as you inhale and exhale. As you get distracted from either the object or your breathing, catch yourself and quickly return your focus to the object and your breath. Remember, it doesn’t matter how many times that you drift. It only matters that you quickly return your focus each time. Do this exercise in your room with no distractions for 2 minutes. Next, take your object and place it on top of a TV set with your spot facing outwards. Sit far enough back from the TV so that in order for you to see your spot, you must also see the entire screen. Turn the TV on low volume and tune it to a station that you would never watch. Do the same exercise, focusing on your spot and breathing, remembering to catch your focus and bring yourself back every time that you get distracted by either the sound or the pictures. Do this part of the exercise for 1.5 minutes.
When practiced regularly for short periods, this very simple exercise will help you systematically develop and strengthen your concentration muscles. Soon you will discover that you begin to more quickly catch yourself when you lose focus in your sport and have the ability to return your focus to where it belongs.
Remember that both the heart and soul of mental toughness are well within your grasp. You must learn to stay loose and relaxed under pressure. You must develop championship concentration, i.e. focusing on YOU and the NOW. They are your mental toughness one – two punch. Make a commitment today to begin to work on these two mental skill areas and soon you will discover that your performance level rises. Mental toughness should not be something that you wish you had. It should not just be something that you recognize in other athletes. Mental toughness is well within your grasp if you begin to systematically work on it. Start today by training yourself to stay calm and focused in practice. It will pay off tomorrow when you compete!
Dr. Alan Goldberg, Competitive Advantage. Retrieved from URL: https://www.competitivedge.com/heart-and-soul-mental-toughness-staying-relaxed-under-pressure-and-concentration