When quarantine began, many athletes found themselves sidelined. Not because of an injury, but because the world hit the pause button. I coach for a beach volleyball club and we had been discussing the roll out of a mental training/mindset/performance program for some of our select athletes. When our sports were put on hold, we decided to fast track the program and use this as an opportunity to fine tune the mental aspect of our game since our physical and competition reps were limited.
A group call each week presented the information and work for the week and an individual call where we talked about their personal goals, dynamics and looked at the specific mindset tools each athlete could use to improve their individual game within a team context. The individual work pushed them to see their limitations, how their mindset is currently helping or hindering their performance and which tools worked best for them and which ones didn’t.
I started to see patterns and similarities between athletes and I want to share my findings here in hopes it can help more athletes, coaches and parents.
PREPARATION IS KEY – Every athlete knows how to prepare themselves physically. If they don’t, they at least know what they should be doing to prepare physically. Nutrition, hydration, sleep, strength/conditioning training, speed work, getting their bag ready with everything they need for a competition and a good warm up were common answers athletes gave when asked them how they prepare to perform at a high level. Though these answers came easy, most of them couldn’t distinguish how to prepare mentally or emotionally for performance.
Mental prep includes things like visualization, performance journaling, gratitude, breath work and the ability to play and make decisions under pressure. Mental prep, however, is tied to both physical and emotional prep – so if you are physically prepped but not emotionally prepped, you’re only halfway there.
The key is having awareness of our emotions, and how they contribute to our performance. There is a time and a place for emotions: relationships, friendships, sharing with teammates and coaches off the court or being with family and friends. A rich emotional life is important to thrive and have a healthy life off the court. But what to do with them when we compete? Some athletes think that if we stuff them, shut them off or harden ourselves, we will perform better. That might work in the short term, but it isn’t sustainable. The answer? Awareness. Being aware of what you are feeling and when can be a quick way to prepare yourself mentally to compete.
Finally, understand your physiological response to stress. Start by figuring out where you feel stress in your body. Do you get butterflies before a big match, do you have to run to the bathroom or feel sick? Do your legs feel like a ton of bricks or do you get light headed or tunnel-vision? Your body gives you clues about your stress. Become aware of where you feel stress in your body, clear a path or use that stress to perform.
Physical Prep + Emotional Prep = Mental Prep
GOAL SETTING IS ABOUT SYSTEMS – We all know how to have goals or how to dream big, but for many athletes, it stops there. Cultural signals like “grind never stops,” “outwork the competition” or “character over talent” while motivating for some athletes, can be confusing to others and have you chasing the wrong things. In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear says “You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.” Create good systems around the goals you are trying to achieve. You can desire a big, crazy goal (I encourage all athletes to write these down), but if you don’t have the habits or support to get there, your desire may lose out to discouragement, frustration, failure or many other obstacles in your way. You need something to keep you pursuing your goal in the face of adversity – environment, daily routine, friends you surround yourself with, what you spend your time on, what you watch, listen to or read all contribute to your system.
One more note about goal setting: Comparing your individual progress or your individual learning to another athlete will stop you in your tracks. Celebrate others, but keep your eyes on your own progress, you have your own goals.
COMMUNICATION WITH SELF/OTHERS – When asked about what they do to communicate, the most common answer athletes gave centered around strategy. What is the game plan, who do we need to watch, what did the scouting report say, what are a players tendencies, etc? While this type of communication is vital, team and individual communication are as important. It doesn’t have to be complex, but have a strategy for communication too. What hypes you up, what hypes up your teammates? Who needs to say more, who needs to say less? Who communicates strategic things? Encouraging things? Who challenges self and others when the game is tight? Anything works, the idea here is to talk about talking. One of the first things to go when a team is struggling is communication and it’s an easy skill to fix.
When asked about self-communication, the most common things athletes wanted to work on were “I want to be more positive,” “less negative” or “stop getting down on myself.” In order to have healthy self-communication, you have to practice it. Positivity isn’t free and you cannot reverse think yourself into being more positive. In fact, positivity may be the wrong rabbit to chase altogether. What most athletes are really looking for is confidence. Confidence can be built with positive self-talk and mantras (both mindset skills), but it is most commonly formed by trying, failing, learning and then trying again. Funny thing is when we gain confidence this way, we actually become more positive on the court.
Failing + Learning + Trying Again = Confidence –> Positivity
One more note on communication: Athletes who struggle with negative or toxic self-talk need lots of good learning reps without judgment of performance and a safe place to risk failure.
TAKING RESPONSIBILITY – When I am coaching a group who knows why they are there, it’s clear that work is going to happen. When you know why you train, why you show up, why you put in all the work you do to improve and be your best, you are taking responsibility of the outcome. While I love process and learning science, at the end of the day, sports is also about results. There’s a score and win/loss column and people depending on you to show up ready and prepared to compete. You don’t have to be obsessed with the outcome, but it needs to be on the radar – the previous three things lead to ownership and responsibility of your time:
- preparation – physical, mental and emotional
- goal setting/systems
- communication with self/others
One last note on responsibility: Like any physical skill development, mindset is developed with practice and over time. Find what tools work for you and practice them. You might not see overnight results, but create a system and habits to practice them daily. When is a good time to journal or visualize without distraction? Will breath work help me in sports and before a big test/presentation? What friends or environments are a distraction to my progression?
Coaching sports and mindset are a great way to see what our kids and the next generation of athletes is about. I don’t have the luxury of saying “kids these days,” I need to be growing and learning along with them. Hearing them work through these big subjects and communicate openly and clearly to me has been an amazing way to spend quarantine. And, I’m thankful to be back on the sand coaching too.
Priscilla Tallman is a freelance writer in Phoenix, AZ. She has an undergraduate degree in Psychology and graduate degree in Clinical Psychology. She has written for FloVolleyball, Volleyball Magazine, The Art of Coaching Volleyball, Sweat RX, Gorgo Fitness Magazine, CrossFit Fury, The CrossFit Games and OPEX Fitness. She written two performance journals
She is an 2x All-America volleyball player from the University of Georgia, SEC Freshman and Player of the year and was inducted into UGA’s prestigious Circle of Honor in 2006. She has played on the US National Team and enjoyed a bit of professional ball in Europe and on the beach. She has coached at the youth, high school, club and collegiate level. She is married with two children and currently coaches performance and mindset journaling to youth and college athletes and coaches.