In part 3 of this 6-part series, Brent Steepe, personal trainer of 22 years, discusses mental fitness for athletes and provides insight on a few of the brain’s amazing capabilities for gameplay.
Preparing and conditioning your mind is very similar to the task of preparing your body for action, with one huge difference: the mind never sleeps. Whether conscious or subconscious, the brain is in a constant state of signal analysis, harnessing information and executing neural commands to allow the body to perform at its very best. Think about it for a moment: you have structured your lifestyle in preparation for the fields ahead. Countless workouts, tons of water, and an understanding of nutrition improved by our previous article.
You sleep, you heal, and you run. Your practice is purposeful, your skills honed. Road trip, cramped hotel room, ah yes, the ultimate lifestyle. The sun comes up and you find yourself on the line. The disc is in the air, and suddenly it all falls apart. Your limbs no longer resemble those of a fine-tuned athlete, but rather those of a newborn calf. Your cuts are sloppy, your arms feel foreign. Why does this happen? Should we credit this to good ol’ adrenaline misfire? Maybe we are just having a bad day? Actually, no. Poor mental preparation may be the culprit.
Give the Mind MORE
The body can only execute to its full potential when the transmissions from the mind are clear. I have developed methodologies through active participation with athletes, not just reading and subscribing to the school of common thought. While the mind is a tricky thing to master, we can get on the right track and give the mind MORE:
- Memory: The skills and motions that you have rehearsed for hours on end. “One million throws” or “10 thousand hours” are suggested as what it takes to become a master handler. Your arms and legs know what to do when you achieve an elite state of performance, as naturally as your lungs know how to breathe. This is neurologically programmed information to your subconscious.
- Observation: The ability to see and evaluate what is happening in a live situation or contest. This process of reading the environment extends from conditions of the field, wind, sun, and external surroundings to the understanding of which teammates you take the field with, their positions, capabilities, and limitations. Overlay information about the opposition, identifying their strengths and weaknesses, and you create the basis from which you can begin the recognition stage.
- Recognition: The ability to connect to something that you have seen before. This could be a cut or a fake that will assist you in marking on defense or gaining an advantage on offense. In other words, identifying how players are likely to behave based on previous experience (live gameplay) or observed experience (game tape review).
- Execution: The ability to act in a manner that reliably produces a desired outcome. That well-positioned huck or the feeling of confidently catching a pass thrown right into your waiting hands. It is critical to note that execution is NOT a reflex. Rather, it is a planned outcome that begins with a cognitive design and has a definitive natural conclusion.
It takes mere moments, and for the elite only fractions of a second, for the MORE process to take place in a healthy athlete. When you are on the field, where are you looking? What do you see? After your vision collects data, you must maintain your focus and initiate movements appropriate to each situation. This has been dubbed the “quiet eye”, and it’s a critical piece of the mental development of athletes. Your vision and focus, directed by visualization, creates a set of objectives and maintains focus during your movement patterns. Research has shown that only the highest level athletes even recognize this phenomenon as a part of their skill set, and only the elite of the elite know how to utilize, control, and train for this vital skill.
Different Strokes, Different Folks
Why is it, then, that you can have athletes go through similar training, demonstrate similar skills in practice, but have completely different outcomes on the field? Simply put, it’s because our nervous system and the mindset that controls it are just as unique as each athlete, and can be disrupted by a variety of conditions. For too long, a disappointing performance on the field after months of preparation has been chalked up to nerves. Instead, we should recognize that it is our response to a series of stresses and conditions that may lower the threshold of the nervous system, creating improper signaling and false feedback.
Examples of mindset-killers include environmental stresses caused by other people, dehydration, muscular fatigue, working through pain, or feeling pressure (e.g. being the star of the team). All of these conditions can create neurological responses which decrease the effectiveness of your ability to control the natural outcome of the game being played.
So how do you work through, or even avoid altogether, these stresses? A pregame ritual, such as listening to a certain song, prepares the mind and body for that next level of performance. It helps athletes to step outside of themselves before the contest about to begin, calming their nervous systems. We all know players who, under pressure, seem as if they are carefree in both their decision-making and execution. You will find that the most gifted athletes create and duplicate a unique method for themselves to put on their “game face”. When assisting any professional athlete, one of the most sacred times is the pregame ritual, which can include prayer, visualization, and even the occasional chant or dance. Possibly odd to watch, but often effective. When those athletes take the field, they are able to bring their functional, emotional, and logical best.
Adrenaline Without the Animal
When preparing for sports competitions, many coaches and instructors advise putting on a “game face”. You’ve probably heard the old saw, “Winning isn’t everything–it’s the only thing.” This quote, originally from the legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, has been embedded in athletes for decades. For ultimate culture this is less true, but for mainstream sports it is unfortunately a common mentality.
Many athletes are so consumed by thoughts of obliterating their opponents that they lose sight of achieving their personal best, elevating the state of play for their team, and being an honorable opponent. Locker room and sideline observations include disparaging teams as inferior, belittling their on-field abilities, and creating a state of mental overconfidence. In ultimate, we have a unique opportunity to develop our skill and showcase our talents while maintaining our humanity, and simultaneously elevating the level of play of our opponents, leading to an even greater performance. So, as you mentally prepare, think about the ways in which you can deliver the most positive impact on the field, both athletically and emotionally. Don’t go for hulk-green, go for bullet-time.
How can a routine work for you? Well, first you have to create one. Be open to trying things outside of your wheelhouse. Music, guided visualization, meditation, chants, and prayer are all good places to start. Begin to visualize the outcomes you desire, and track your achievements through each attempt when able. Match these items with your physical preparation, shake thoroughly, and drink the success you have just prepared for yourself. Want a sweeter taste? Keep refining the recipe until you have the perfect brain boost for you!