The following are notes from a UCPC 2013 presentation
When preparing for a tournament, we all take extra care and focus our attention on making sure our bodies are in prime condition before taking the field. We train for weeks, months, possibly even years at practice and in the gym. We spend extra time stretching, using foam rollers, and any other technique to gain that extra edge. All that could be wasted if you’re not spending time getting your mind in the right place for tournaments.
Tiina began with semantics, defining mental toughness as the ability to perform under pressure. It’s helpful to mention that pressure is just a product of you being inside your own head; it means you’re thinking, which explained later, is dangerous. The ideal place you want your brain to be in, during a tournament, is “in the zone” or in a state of flow. From Wikipedia:
Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.
If you’ve ever experienced this, ultimate related or not, you know all too well what this feels like. Tiina asked the audience to explain this sensation:
“It’s effortless, you’re not thinking at all and your body just does what its supposed to do, what it’s been trained to do.”
“You won’t feel a nagging injury or realize you’re tired.“
“The game or activity operates in slow motion; there are no worries and no distractions.”
So how do you get there? What should you be doing to make sure that your brain is just a prepared as your body to play at a tournament?
First and foremost, Tiina explained focus: Be in the moment, but don’t think. Practice is where you think; turn skills into second nature so at tournaments it all feels natural. This is where the saying, “He makes it look so easy” comes from. It’s because for him it is easy, he isn’t thinking, he’s focused and just performing.
The most important part of focusing is that you must always come back to being focused as you drift. Tiina has an excellent exercise for this:
Close your eyes and start thinking about the number one. As soon as you starting thinking about what’s for lunch, move to number two. Think about number two until you’ve reminded yourself you have to write a paper for history class. At that time move to number three, so on and so forth. You’re training your brain to return to the task at hand when it starts to wander. That’s the key: Always come back.
According to Tiina, an important aspect of mental toughness is finding the right level of nervousness. Here are her three types: The first is not enough; its onset is typically when an opponent is undervalued and the game feels as if it’s no big deal. If you feel this way, get moving; do some sprints or push-ups to remind yourself this game matters just like every other game. The second type of nervous is too much or bad. It’s when you begin to think too much – something that, at least when playing, shouldn’t be done at all. This is when you need to refocus, perhaps use the exercise up above or recall a personal highlight reel in your mind. The final type of nervous is the good type when the implications of the game are understood, but there is no freak out.
It’s already been stated the thinking is bad, but what is worse is thinking about variables that you can’t control. Tiina appropriately called these “Uncontrollables.” There are a lot of things that fall into this category: Weather, opponent, fatigue, injuries, field conditions, past mistakes, score, experience, fitness, or rules, to name a few.
Here is what you can control: YOU. And your attitude. It’s a cliché, but live in the moment. Play in the moment.
Most of the things that can’t be controlled can be dealt with prior to a tournament. Prepare for the weather, have an injury protocol, use a word or phase to forget prior mishaps, and set a clear policy on the allocation of playing time. Is the game not going to plan? There shouldn’t have been expectations from the start; they only get you in trouble.
One suggestion in ridding a team of expectations lies in the distinction between outcome goals and process goals. An outcome goal is where the team wants to be at the end of the season. Process goals are how to get there. Outcome goals should be set at the preseason meeting. A couple examples are we want to win nationals or qualify for regionals. Set it and forget it. These shouldn’t be talked about ever again. Tiina claims that process goals are what should be focused on during the season. How are you going to become a better thrower? By throwing outside practice for an hour each week.
Her final piece of advice involves the fallacy of “big games.” Every game is a game, every point is a point; at least at that time. Again, play in the moment; if everything is approached with the same mind set success is more plausible. Big practices are the key to performance in big games. Every player should leave practice having been placed in uncomfortable situations, feeling more prepared for games.
Do the team justice this season. Reward the team for slaving away in the gym all summer and spend some time training your mind.