Mental-Game “warm-up”

From the competitive youth levels up to professional athletes we now use what is known as dynamic warm-up/stretching prior to practice or competition. A dynamic warm-up is a series of sport specific movements that are designed to prepare the muscles for performance and are performed in a safe and controlled fashion. However, many of us that are coaches today can remember the days that a pre-game “warm-up” meant to break a little sweat and do some static stretching. This sports science progression in how we prepare athletes for the stressors put on their bodies during training or competing makes all the sense in the world, and is a very effective use of focus and time pre-performance (training or competing). Essentially, this type of pre-performance warm-up improves body function and helps to prevent injury.

At the youth level this warm-up is coach led, and at the collegiate and professional levels a strength and conditioning coach typically will lead this process. Regardless, of who is leading this process the fact that a coach has scheduled this time for the activity, explained the purpose, and is monitoring it sends the message to the athletes that it is important that they follow this routine in order to maximize performance.

However, it often strikes me that our pre-game mental warm-up has not evolved in any significant way to keep up with what we know about how the psychology of performance is impacted by mindset. I often work with athletes on how to create and implement a pre-performance mindset that allows them to get rid of any negative or unhelpful self-talk, and specifically creates a “best-self” mindset for competing. Most of these athletes never thought about how to get into an effective mindset pre-performance. Further, some not only didn’t know how, but actually had very detrimental thoughts going on just before competitions.

I equate the need for this pre-performance mindset routine to that of the pre-shot routine you’ll see all basketball players do before a foul shot; golfers before their drive; tennis players before their serve; kickers before a field goal; baseball players as they get into the batters box; or sprinters as they get set in the blocks. We use these routines to key our athletes into specific technical fundamentals, to create a sense of calm within our physical systems (breathing, muscles, and heart rate), and to create ease in repetition of the skill that follows. You may have other ways that using these routines help you.

I help many of the athletes that I work with to create a pre-performance routine in order to get into the mindset that allows them to perform at their best, and prevents them from getting in their own way. I call this the “best-self” mindset and it will include about 3-5 keywords or short phrases that cue the athlete into a specific vision of the “process behaviors” that they perform, feel, experience, and exhibit when they are at their best. These keywords guide them through every performance.  Even (or maybe especially) those performances where things are not working out for them or their team.

Note: “process behaviors” represent the habits and characteristics that the athlete has control over and can perform regardless of how the competition is going. Words like aggressive, attack, head-high, focus on the field/court, having fun, communicating, being positive with teammates, are examples of “process behaviors” as the athlete can stay committed to these habits and characteristics at all times during performance, and are not only possible to perform when getting the results they want.

However, only the athlete that may be working with a sports psychologist already, or those that have potentially learned a similar system through another resource implements this process. It is often not enough to just put on some head-phones and listen to your favorite “pump-up” music in order to get into the right mindset.  Further, athletes can often feel rushed before practice or competition and may not utilize this strategy if the coaches don’t actively make time for this to happen.

Instead, what I recommend is that this process becomes a coach led pre-game routine. Coaches first begin by utilizing the expertise of a sports psychologist to help his or her team members to create their specific individualized “best-self” mindset, as every athlete is unique and will have their own needs in terms of mindset. The next step is to take a few minutes to make sure that their team has a carved out, focused moment to allow them to get into this pre-performance mindset routine before each practice or game. The coach sets the expectation that the athletes get their mind prepared during this “warm-up” time. The more often the athletes complete this process the more easily and effectively they will be able to utilize the mindset.

We’ve made great progress in terms of how we warm-up our bodies for competing, why not take the next logical step to create mental game warm-up time as well?

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