FOUR-PHASED APPROACH/ PHASE ONE
For any event, we break down the application of mental toughness tools into four time periods: Before, Right Before, During, and After. In Phase One (Before), athletes and coaches develop a clear vison of what they want to achieve and how they want to achieve it with mental imagery and goal setting. In this beginning phase, athletes should clarify exactly what they hope to achieve, develop a detailed plan for achieving that gbal, and create a clear vision of success in their heads. For example, if the task is a tumbling pass, what success means in terms of execu-tion (e.g. tight body, good extension in the back handspring, good height on the back-tuck) should be clearly defined, a plan for the learning and development of the pass (e.g. number of days/hours spent working the skills) should be put in place, and visualization should be used to mentally rehearse the skill, seeing perfection over and over in the mind.
The key to Phase Two (Right Before) is regulating attention and energy levels to create an ideal mental and physical performance state. This is the phase when nervousness, anxiety, and negative thoughts can hijack a performance before the athlete even gets on the apparatus. The idea here is to keep thoughts positive and task-focused, develop and maintain energy levels ideal for the individual athletes, and to keep the body loose and prepared for action. During this time, pre performance routines, mental imagery, and positive self-talk can help guide mental and physical preparation by focusing athletes’ attention on task-relevant, confidence-enhancing factors. For example, 10 minutes prior to competition athletes start moving around, begin mentally going through their routines, and telling themselves things like, “I’ve got this,” I’m totally ready,” or “lime to have fun.” Five minutes before, athletes begin to either amp up or calm down depending on their own needs. This can be accomplished using breathing exercises, music, physicality (e.g. jumping up and down), and in many other ways. The point is that the athletes achieve levels of energy, focus, and physical preparedness ideal for peak performance. Finally, right before walking onto the floor for the competition, a final phrase (“Let’s go!”) along with a last-minute energy and physicality check and adjustment should take place.
Phase Three (During) involves the actual performance where maintaining focus, regulating energy levels, and regaining both focus and confidence when mistakes occur are the keys to success. Cue words can help focus athletes’ attention on the aspects of performance most relevant in a given moment, as well as guide energy regulation and bolster confidence. For example, building in the cue word “breathe” into various places in the choreography can be extremely helpful by reminding athletes to do just that: breathe. Also, cue words, like “tight,” “push,” and “le can help athletes remember to execute important elements of skills or pieces of the choreography. Also, since there is no way to completely eliminate mistakes and distractions, developing a plan for minimizing their effects on later performance is essential. We’ve all seen athletes whose one mistake results in a cascade athletes to do just that: breathe. Also, cue words, like “tight,” “push,” and “le can help athletes remember to execute important elements of skills or pieces of the choreography. Also, since there is no way to completely eliminate mistakes and distractions, developing a plan for minimizing their effects on later performance is essential. We’ve all seen athletes whose one mistake results in a cascade of mistakes that negatively impact not only the individual athlete, but also the entire team. The key to dealing effectively with mistakes and distractions is staying in the moment. Following a mistake, attention moves away from what is relevant for performance, energy levels often spike, and confidence waivers, as negative thoughts flood the mind. While these effects cannot be completely avoided, they con certainly be minimized. Developing and practicing refocus techniques that incorporate a breath, a confidence-enhancing and task-relevant thought (“No problem,” “Moving on,” “I’ve got this,”) and a physical check-in can help dramatically reduce the amount of time it takes athletes to recover from the mistakes and set backs that are inevitable in athletic performance.
Once the task has been completed, athletes move into Phase Four (After), the recovery and evaluation phase. Athletes should take time immediately following a performance to engage in breathing and muscle relaxation exercises to help them mentally and physically recover from the task just performed. Recovery is always important, but it is especially important when the task will be repeated multiple times (e.g. routines during practice, competing more than once in a single day). This is also the time to lake stock of what went well and what didn’t. Use visualization to mentally recreate the previous performance in as vivid detail as possible and identify strengths and weaknesses of the performance. Athletes can continue to use mental imagery both to reinforce the aspects of the performance that went well and to incorporate corrections for the things that didn’t.
This four-phased approach to mental toughness can be used for any task in any situation that takes place over shorter (e.g. a tumbling pass) or longer (e.g. an entire competition season) periods of time. Regardless of the chosen task, it will have Before, Right Before, During, and After stages, and the process and tools discussed in this article can help guide athletes toward their ideal mental and physical performance states. This approach is also easily implemented with larger groups of people. Traditionally, sport psychologists have utilized a one-on-one approach when delivering services; however, with teams this approach is not always cost or time effective. The four-phased approach discussed here creates a structure and vocabulary that is the same for all team members. Yet, athletes have the ability to personalize their plans by creating cue words and phrases, positive self-talk, mental imagery scenarios, refocus techniques, and recovery plans that target performance aspects and challenges specific to them.
Whether your athletes’ focus more often resembles that of the Dalai Lama or a puppy in a yard full of squirrels, this structured approach can help ensure that they go into every performance environment confident, positive, motivated, focused, and, ultimately, mentally tough.