As a sports psychology consultant, Dr. Alan Goldberg works with track and field athletes at every level from Olympians to junior competitors. A popular presenter at the Olympic Training Center, coaches’ clinics, high schools and colleges around the US, Dr. G specializes in helping individual athletes overcome blocks and perform to their potential. He is the author of the revolutionary new book, “This Is Your Brain On Sports,” “Using Your Head For Championship Performance In Track & Field,” “Sports Slump Busting” – 10 Steps to Mental Toughness and Peak Performance, The Sports Mind and 14 Steps To Mental Toughness, his newest 7-CD mental toughness training program for all sports.
The freshman hammer thrower was potentially one of the best her college coach had ever seen. He couldn’t believe his good fortune when she ended the suspense and committed early to his program. Her hammer and discus practices had been everything that he had expected. She was a coach’s dream: a hard worker, extremely coachable, a quick study and always looking for ways to improve. As a bonus her attitude was outstanding. She was a “team player” despite the fact that her two field events traditionally isolated her from the rest of the team’s practices. She had had a great freshman year until it happened, placing high in the hammer throw in every meet she entered, even winning two competitions! With conference and NCAA championships approaching there couldn’t have been a worse time for something like this to happen. Suddenly she wasn’t the same athlete in the circle when the heat of competition was turned up high. While her practices throws still had the looseness, strength and distance, in meets she was losing 10-15 feet! Furthermore she looked tight and tentative. And the coach could very clearly trace the problem right back to its’ source. He even vividly remembered when it happened because he happened to be watching her from a distance and caught the whole thing!
So why would an athlete consistently perform better in practice than in competition? As a track and field competitor, your strength, speed, conditioning and technique are critical to your ultimate success. You know you can’t possibly reach your potential without enough work in these training areas. However, far too many athletes stop there. They train physically and leave the mental part of their performance to chance. Without adequate training in sports psychology skills you won’t be able to go as far as possible in your event. You need sports psychology and mental toughness training to complete your overall training.
It happened in a relatively insignificant dual meet. There weren’t even many spectators watching. She was right in the middle of her wind-up for the first throw when she lost her footing and her momentum slammed her to the ground. She landed face-first and although she badly scraped her chin and nose, she wasn’t seriously injured. However, the shock and embarrassment of the incident really got to her. Ever since that meet her throws in competition always came up significantly shorter than her practice ones. Your mental toughness is directly related to your ability to control the sports psychology master skill of concentration. Your ability to focus on what’s important and block out everything else is the key to performance excellence. When you focus on the wrong things before and during your events, your ability to stay loose, handle pressure and remain confident are seriously compromised. Choking and other performance problems can almost always be traced back to a faulty focus.
This was the case with our hammer thrower. By the time she was referred to me by her coach, she had lost her confidence and was unknowingly concentrating on all the wrong things. Do you know what the UC’s are? You should! These are the mental traps that are lying in wait for you. They are the “uncontrollables”, or very simply all the things in your sport that are directly out of your control. Examples of UC’s are the weather conditions, temperature, size & reputation of the competition, the officiating, your coach, the crowd, etc. If you focus on these UC’s you’ll get yourself uptight, kill your confidence and send your performance down the proverbial tubes.
Two key UC’s are the outcome of a competition or anything in the future and the past. For this hammer thrower, her primary focus in competition was on the accident, a past event. Want the competitive edge over your competition? Would you like the key to avoiding psych-outs and intimidation? Know what the UC’s are and keep your focus away from them! It’s only when you let the UC’s play in your head that they get you into trouble. Remembering her fall and worrying that it might happen again made this athlete nervous and tentative. You know that you can’t be at your best unless you’re loose and willing to really go for it.
So what can sports psychology and mental toughness teach you? Well, it taught her how to stay relaxed under pressure. To recognize when she was leaving “good nervous”, entering “bad nervous” and how to quickly get her physiological arousal back in control. She also learned how to erase the past so that you don’t go into a performance carrying any negative baggage. In addition, she learned how to better control her focus of concentration, avoid the “UC’s” and stay in the “now” of the performance. In a short amount of time her competition throws began to lengthen out and soon she was back to her old aggressive self. What kind of mental toughness skills to do you possess? Can you readily handle big meet pressure? Are you able to keep yourself focused on your own performance without getting distracted by a talented opponent? How about failures, setbacks and bad meets? Do you know how to constructively handle them? If your head is getting in the way of your sport, get smarter about your sports psychology training. You can’t reach your athletic dreams without working on the mental part of your events. Make sports psychology a training partner. Develop the competitive advantage.