As a coach, parent or player, the last words you want to hear after a crushing defeat are, “They lost the game on the bus.” Yet how many times have you seen a team that’s trained hard and had the technical and tactical ability to win a game – but lost because they psyched themselves out before they even got to the match? Losing to a highly skilled team you can maybe justify, but choking on game day? Unacceptable. So let’s talk about what you can do make sure this never happens to you.
Create a mental game plan. The most successful elite-level athletes know that mental preparation is just as important as physical training to create optimal performance. Long before you step onto the pitch for that big game, you should write down your preparation plan and practice using it to mentally ready yourself for competition. On game day your plan will help you feel a sense of control and familiarity. The result: you'll remain calm and focused from the time you warm up until the game is over.
Embrace the pressure. Nerves are a normal part of competition and can be a healthy, motivating force if you learn to use them to your advantage. Your brain is highly adaptable, so try giving it a new way to think about competitive stress. The next time you’re preparing for a game, rather than letting your anxiety undermine your self-confidence, follow the example of the world-class New Zealand All Blacks. Simply acknowledge that anxiety is a normal part of high-pressure situations and then use that adrenaline as fuel for a great performance.
Relax your body. A relaxation routine can offer many benefits to athletes. In addition to calming your mind, being physically relaxed allows your muscles to react quickly and easily – so when your brain gives the signal to move, your body is primed to respond. For athletes, progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) can be a powerful tool to enhance performance, reduce anxiety and prevent injury. But don’t wait until game day to start practicing relaxation. Like all mental skills, if you make PMR a part of your regular training you’ll be able to reap the benefits on game day.
Stay positive. Learning how to stay positive and focused on doing your job – despite adrenaline and nerves – is critical to your success. Make a mental commitment to remain positive no matter what’s going on around you. When the pressure is on, focus on why you can accomplish your goals, not why you can’t. Focus on opportunities rather than obstacles. Focus on being a positive example for your teammates instead of adding your voice to negative conversations. Remember, it’s easy to be optimistic when everything is going well. Your challenge is to step up when times are tough and show your team – and yourself – what you’re really made of.
While there may be situations when you’re outperformed on the field, mental preparation can often trump physical skill in high-level competition. Translation: it’s not always the biggest or fastest team that wins. Athletes with mental strength and a positive attitude give their best performance no matter what the competition brings to the field. Remember that you’re 100% in control of your mindset, focus and commitment to excellence. If you follow the strategies above you’re sure to develop a stronger mental game.
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Eva Bart-Williams is a mental performance coach with a private practice helping individuals and teams achieve big goals. Eva is also CBW Soccer Elite’s head of operations, where she helps athletes embrace the challenges of high-level competition and advises families on the college soccer recruitment process. You can reach her at email@example.com.
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