~ IMPORTANT Introduction to Mental Training (Seriously, Don't Skip This sh*t)~
Gentlemen, now that I have your undivided attention, I would like to stress that I'm not a qualified sports psychologist, but I do play one on TV - sorta. Regardless, you wouldn't be reading if you didn't think I at least had some semblance of a sane mind left to know what I'm talking about - that, or you have no other choice, or were lured in by the inviting smile of the woman above.
When people think of sport, the obvious stuff comes to mind. Legions of sweaty men following sweaty teams of men on TV from the comfort of their chairs... Balls, equipment, nets. Crazy stadiums packed with enthusiastic supporters. The imagery that the word 'psychology' invokes in a person's mind is just a little different. Old guys with beards and inkblots on pieces of paper... People resting on couches and answering questions about their mother. The average person would not immediately connect the sporting world to the cerebral world of psychology. But perhaps they should...
As athletes become bigger and stronger, the cliché "the opponent is always stronger" comes to the forefront of a competitor's conscience. Also, even the smallest and most remote of places (trust me guys, I live in Newfoundland) are feeling less small and isolated as the 'global village' that Marshall Mcluhan prophesied way back in the 60's (when hippies ruled the earth and the Grateful Dead were less dead) grows, and knowledge begins to be shared and exported across the world. For most sports, studies have been done to roughly gauge how much of a match is mentally oriented or physically oriented. For example, the figure for most combat sports is about 50/50. However, if you were to ask a boxer how much time in his training is totally devoted to mental preparation, he would likely not have a number close to that. Naturally, in order to win, you want to gain whatever advantage you can over your opponents. I am here to help you with this goal. I can and will provide you with steroids. MENTAL steroids. Steroids that are going to make your MIND so HUGE and MASSIVE that it will DWARF SMALL STARS. Don't believe me? Hit up my P.O. Box after you're done reading for testimonials from Newton, Hawking and Stroustrup, all alumnus of the 'Roman Road to Success'. No bulls**t.
What I'm referring to here, is the honing of the mind's infinitely amazing capabilities to improve your performance as an athlete through the usual methods: goal setting, self-talk, visualization, arousal regulation (even MORE kinky than it sounds) and of course, mental imagery. I will discuss all of these things in detail in the guide to follow. But before I do, I need you to swallow the Kool-Aid, and embrace me as your saviour and Ayatollah of all things psychological. Go ahead, it's right there... I'll give you a few minutes. No, it really only does come in cherry.
All done? Alright, wipe your lips and follow me down the rabbit hole as we explore the wonderful world of...
How many people do you know that have made a New Year's Resolution at some point in time? Likely, a few. How many do you know that have stuck with this mantra faithfully until the next New Year? Likely, not many. But why are New Year's Resolutions so hard to keep? Is it because the human mind is frail and flippant? Not really. I like to think of it as a rather stable thing. After all, people build prejudices and pre-conceptions that almost never seem to go away. Is it because the timing of the year is off, and people would rather feast on Christmas leftovers than pump iron at the gym? Perhaps, but we are still missing the big picture. The reason so many average people like yourself don't hold to New Year's Resolutions is that, while attainable, they are often over ambitious, and they only focus on one step of the multi-tiered goal ladder: the outcome. In fact, this is the last step. It seems rather foolish to start at the end, and would be the equivalent of me asking someone with no mechanical training to reverse engineer me a car engine. Sure, it looks fancy and I'd love to give it a try, but there are so many intricate parts... Where to begin? It would've been a lot easier if I had built it starting with a single, small piece of metal. Which is exactly what we're going to do... Start at the beginning.
Step 1: Process Goals
These are the baby goals of the family. But of course, while it WOULD be nice to skip the whole baby stage and progress right on through to our later teens, it simply isn't possible, or wise. Not being able to walk or use the toilet at 18... Fun times. Just like as babies, we can set powerful foundations for ourselves through repetition of small but important tasks, in this case, manifested in very short goals. Sometimes, these things are not goals at all, but rather details that you notice. To use for the first time a football example, we are going to give you, yes you, a goal!
One of those typically lofty goals that people tend to set for themselves. You, yes you my friend, aspire to be the world's greatest footballer! *clapping excitedly is heard* But wait! You can't just skip the intermediary steps and go right to pulling in the ladies and the big checks! *things are hurled at Rome* Nay, you will need to start off small, starting with your process goals. Picture yourself in a game. What kinds of details might be important for you in this scenario? Does it matter the weather? How about where the ball is? Where your teammates/opponents are situated? All these things matter, of course. Let's go a little deeper. You have the ball, and are in a 1 v. 1 situation with a defender, looking to beat him and score the first goal of what is sure to be a storied career. What things might be important? His balance and/or foot position? Your balance and/or foot position? His facial expressions? The warm trickle running down his leg? Again, all vital. You want to make a gauge of these details; with practice, it can almost be done instantaneously. In your spare time, you will recall these, and note whether they correlate to success or not. EX: "He looked a bit heavy on his backheels, so I knew it was time to explode." or "I had my head down and missed his 6"7 buddy lying in wait behind him and got my ass upended." These details (and most importantly, learning from them) are what separate the
men from the boys at times, and can either lead to you working out your flaws quickly, and moving on, or being stuck mired in misery that you can't seem to figure a defender out.
- Make a list of all the important things you can think of that you might need to take notice of in a game, or in your training. Try to keep them as brief and accessible as possible, while being specific but not overly so. (i.e. 'the position of my defender's feet' is a good one, but 'the colour of his lace panties' is not, nor is 'the temperature, in degrees centigrade, of the pitch at varying levels')
- Out of this list, circle five of the most important things, and do your best to notice them! If not in your own games, certainly in matches on TV. I mean, what other useful things are you going to do while watching the weekend's games? Knit? Don't kid yourself.
Step 2: Performance Goals
These are the training bras of goals. Not quite there, but at this stage, something really nice to flaunt to everybody that shows: "Hey, at least I'm getting there." Performance goals should be relatively straightforward. These are more long term goals based on your performance over time. EX: Results of seven soccer matches or two weeks of training. These are the goals where you want to get the most out of yourself, and prove yourself in tangible ways. You can look in the mirror and say "I'm buffer." or the paper's athlete of the week column (soon to include you) and say "I'm better." Your performance goals can also be situation oriented, such as wanting to know instinctively what to do on a fast break, or technique oriented, like getting a rabona down pat. For your own benefit, performance goals should be on psuedo-deadlines - a realistic timeline you follow with an endpoint you try to meet with a result, but don't be too broken up if you're a little off the mark. This will help keep you motivated.
- Keep a diary (or JOURNAL if you prefer) of your performance goals over time. The entries needn't be long, and should include a balance of both positive and negative feedback. If you are feeling kinda slow one day, you should record this. If you are feeling super another day, this needs to be recorded too. You can then look back and say "Okay, I'm in a slump, but why?" or "This week went really good, and then things turned sour. What was working?" It may be your sleep patterns, fitness, mental fitness, or just a bad day that happened pretty much by chance. Yes, they exist for everyone.
Step 3: Outcome Goals
Here at last... But just the beginning of the end. Yes, it's great that you've finally reached your big goal, but you risk complacency and losing your edge if you rest on your laurels. You need to immediately ask yourself: "Now, where do I go from here?" and start the process all over again. Yeah, it might be rough, but just think of it as the Prestige Mode of goals. I know I do.
- Hey, listen buddy, you worked hard enough to get here. Go buy yourself a sundae. Rewards are crucial to keep motivated and should exist at each goal level. While they might come in the form of goals or accolades... Everyone loves sundaes.
Hey, you're a smart guy. I know you are, because you've stuck with me this far, and the Rome Trading Company Ltd. really appreciates loyalty. What do you think "self-talk" is? If you answered anything other than 'talking to yourself', you need to reevaluate career goals. How about basket weaving? Sure, it's a niche market, but...
Self-talk is indeed stuff you say to yourself, either aloud or not. You might think only crazy people talk to themselves, but you are wrong. You talk to yourself almost daily. You can't deny it; there are transcripts, Mr. President!
You leaving the house: sh*t, I forgot my phone!
You, having spotted Jessica Biel walking down the road: DAMNNN.
You, at the grocery store: Hmm, now do I want steak or pizza for supper...?
So we've established that self-talk is, in fact, healthy. Or it can be. If you know the right way to go about it. But hey, that's what I'm here for! One condition is that the self-talk must be exclusively positive. Negativity throws you off your game, and can only serve to lead you further away from your goals, and success by gaining a mental edge. Don't implant negativity in your own mind; there are plenty of others who want to do that for you. By doing so, you've done their job or them, and essentially handed your brain over, rendering your skills and all your practice useless. Negative self-talk is the equivalent of you pulling over to the side of the road and asking me "Hey, Rome, I really liked your guide. Which way to your house so I can drop off these cookies I baked?" and I say "Well, you go down this road, and there's a side road - but don't go there - and there's a McDonald's on your left - but don't go there - and a hidden turnoff behind some bushes - but that's not it..." Eventually you will become frustrated and yell at me "But that's useless! I don't care about all the places I shouldn't go - where's your house?!"You, reading this: Hey, I only say some of those things!
Much like goals, there are different types of self-talk - two to be precise. These are instructional and motivational. Let's talk about each in turn:
Instructional self-talk is you telling yourself what to do. It's as if you were your own coach watching yourself perform, and giving feedback to yourself on action you should take. Let me be clear of a few things: 1) This talk should not be too 'in-depth'. You don't want to psychoanalyze everything, as you are wasting your time and sabotaging your focus. Rather, you focus on one thing at a time, and make sure that thing is important. If a defender keeps tackling you, you have to focus on that, and the ways not to be tackled. 2) The talk should be positive. Again, don't tell yourself to do negative things. You don't wanna hurt your opponent or tell yourself to do some crazy trick you can hardly even picture in your head. 3) Be practical. In the vein of that last sentence, you want to tell yourself to do things you actually CAN do. By this, I mean they must both be current, and within your realm of skills. Stop telling yourself to just go out there and score a goal; your body knows this can't be achieved right away. You need to focus on our good ol' friends Process and Performance before you can meet Outcome. Also, of course, don't tell yourself to do a 360 air roulette unless you really CAN do this move, and have hit it more than once or twice in practice. Keep it as simple as possible.
If properly used, instructional self-talk is a powerful tool. They say the easiest way to spot flaws in your own game is to critique someone else. In essence, in your mind, you are replaying events with the greatest detail that is possible and practical for the situation (to be discussed later), and trying to figure out what works and what doesn't, taking mental notes and coaching yourself along the way.
If you're the on the ball guy I know you are, you have already guessed that motivational self-talk is supposed to motivate you. This is the stuff that makes you aspire to greatness, and get out of bed in the morning, even when you don't want to. It makes you complete your studies when they're a drag. No, not parents. But parents are a good example of the type of support one wants to be surrounded with when they are trying to motivate themselves. If you are hampered with negative influences, it becomes quite hard to break free of that aura of negativity, and convince yourself and your body that you are good at something. Examples of persons who might give you positive support, and who you need to try to build strong relationships with:
- Your parents
- Your friends
- Your pets (getting a lick from your dog is always a great stress reliever; he loves you almost unconditionally. Hell, you can even talk to your fish.)
- Your significant other/BF/GF
- Your teammates
- Your coaches
- Your educators
The most important thing, though, is to know how to motivate yourself, and to recognize when your motivation is lacking. Everyone has their own unique ways of motivating themselves. You might feed off the energy of the crowd, put on a "game face", or what have you. But to know when you need a boost takes practice, and self-awareness; one of the key things you need to have to be mentally fit.
Okay, now we're on to the best stuff of all. Tying in with that last little bit about recognizing when you need a boost, you also need to know when it's time to calm the eff down and focus on the task at hand with a clear mind. If you want to get better at golf, you hire a swing coach. If you want to get better at Halo, you hire some pasty white teen to walk you through the fine points of grenade hopping. Likewise, if you want to get better at techniques for increasing and decreasing your mental arousal, you're going to need some help. Luckily, I can provide. Let's start with a few techniques for decreasing arousal.
You've just stepped on the field at Anfield, take a deep breath of the cold fall air, and look around. At this point, your mind is going "OHSHI-". There are screaming fans everywhere, and not all of them are YOUR fans. In fact, hardly any of them are. You've just stepped into one of the most demanding position of your life, and every fan, home and away alike, are going to scrutinize you. Everyone you've ever known is probably watching at home, expecting the best out of you. You look over, and see your childhood idols staring you down, smirking. They've been here before, and can't wait to drive the ball right at you and see you screw it up. It can be a lot to handle. Your heart is beating like crazy, and you're thinking there's no way you can concentrate on playing football.
The Solution: Decrease your Arousal Levels!
Deep, rhythmic breaths can do a lot for calming your body down. Take it slow, and do your best to keep time to a '1, 2, 3' count in your head. By providing lots of oxygen to your body, you are also relaxing the muscles, making the blood flow easier, and prepping yourself for action.
This is something I do before big games all the time. Stand in a spot, and continue your breathing exercises that we have already discussed. Starting with your toes, and working your way up to your neck, tense every muscle in your body as hard as you can for about five seconds. Then release. You are allowing your body to become less tense by releasing pent up energy in a progressive way. By the time you reach your upper muscles, your heart rate will have decreased, and your head will feel clearer.
This is the most involved of the decreasing arousal techniques, and it takes years to truly perfect, especially if you're trying to do it in an environment such as a packed stadium. It takes a lot of mental steel to block out all that noise. As you're just starting out, I recommend trying this in an environment that's already pretty comfortable, such as in a warm bath, or lying in bed at night. You are to close your eyes, and picture yourself in a comfortable situation. Good scenarios to try to create include lying on the beach in the summer, or floating on a bed of marshmallows. What we are striving for here is detail, and as much detail as you can muster that involves as many senses as possible. Just trying to focus on a sun will do little for you. You want to feel the sand, hear the lap of the waves on the shore, and smell the soothing sea breeze. It might help to have someone talk to you gently as you do this, being descriptive about your surroundings. Continue to build on your 'happy place' and you'll find, the more you recall it, the easier it becomes to get there from anywhere. When you're satisfied, and believe yourself to be calm again, open your eyes. Involving music can work as well, but it is preferable that it have no lyrics whatsoever. Classical is good, but I also occasionally listen to some Bonobo, and other trance like stuff.
Now that we've been through how you can calm yourself, let's discuss ways in which you might go the other direction... If for some reason, you're feeling bored, or just not that into it, say, after a fight with a parent, then we can help you over this hump.
Increase Your Arousal!
Once again, breathing shows up. If deep, rhythmic breaths help you calm down, how do you suppose you get your blood moving and get excited? Short, dynamic breaths is the answer! Like a bull snarling. Be careful not to hyper-ventilate, though. You only want to do this for a very short period of time, as it WILL raise your blood pressure significantly.
Often over looked for fear of injury or fatigue before the game. Nothing could be further from the truth. Stretching will normally get the job done, but I recommend skipping. It's the perfect exercise, because it can be done quickly, gets your heart rate up while using almost all of the important muscles in your body, and it's portable. Light jogs or other exercises you deem fit can also work.
Either some self-talk you give to yourself, or a famous 'Coach Carter' speech from another person, these can really do a lot to get you in the competitive mindset and ready to play. Reading quotes from athletes such as Muhammad Ali and Ray Lewis, or watching vignettes for Nike commercials or the like can also be a big boost. In particular, that's what the vignettes are designed for; to get you pumped and excited for sport. If all else fails, I suggest paying a visit to our Mentality forum and, in particular, BB's Inspirational Quotes/Songs thread for extra assistance.
Our final discussion for the day involves the idea of imagery - specifically, mental mapping. Familiarity breeds comfort; there is no question. After traveling for some time, when you arrive home, and smell certain things like the sea breeze, or your mother's cooking, you are reminded that you are home, and a special feeling tugs at your heart. We are looking to replicate this familiarity through techniques similar to what we used in our autogenic training. You want as much detail as you can. For example, how the grass on the pitch feels, where the home stands are located, the weather, the smells, etc. Tuck as much of this away in your mind. Again, keeping a journal would not be a bad idea. This method also works for skills. After you are shown a couple times how to do a specific skill, practice it, but do not let it leave your mind once practice is over. Continue to picture yourself doing the skill many times, and record subtleties you notice that the pros do that help them pull it off. Before too long, your fantasy will become a reality, if you combine practice with good mental visualization. There is no substitute for real experience, but it is not as hard as you think to convince your body and mind that you are an old hand at this, and not to worry. After all, games at Old Trafford are not really any different from games on the street in principle - 22 guys after the same ball.
There you have it. I hope you appreciated my attempt at providing you guys with a resource that you can use to help hone your mental skills to get them on par with your physical skills, as I find too often that that aspect is left out in training programs. If you have any questions or concerns, you know how to contact me. I'll still likely be touching this up with thoughts throughout the week. And I would totally love some cookies, just saying.
~A Roman Production~