Mental Preparation For Optimal Performance
Written by Mary Yori
At Colorado State we dedicate a significant portion of time and effort on the mental and emotional approaches to the game. In conjunction with our sports psychologist, Dr. Richard Suinn, we commit an average of three hours a week to mental and emotional training.
Our focus in our program is on performance enhancement through various techniques, including relaxation, tension and stress management, visualization and focusing skills.
We begin each academic year with a couple “team” sessions each week led by Dr. Suinn, with our coaching staff heavily involved. He covers several relaxation techniques which help our athletes learn how to reduce and eliminate tension and stress, this helps in laying the foundation for our ongoing mental preparation.
The first step we focus on is learning to control one’s breathing through deep breaths and also tightening and relaxing muscle groups so the athlete learns to use the breath and feel the tension leave her body. The breath also helps get oxygen to the brain and helps one think more clearly and be able to concentrate better. It is interesting that such a simple concept like inhaling and exhaling a deep breath can really help an athlete relax and stay focused in the moment. However, so many athletes forget to use this method during pressure situations, thus failing to relax and having a poor performance.
Once an athlete can consistently stay relaxed and tension free, visualization of specific skills is the next step. Visualization or what we call ‘mental rehearsal’ is a proven and effective way to help your athlete feel in control of their performance as they can practice this many times throughout a day or game. Early on, the visualization is geared toward skill development or mechanical improvements in one or more areas such as pitching, hitting or fielding. Once the athlete can “see themselves” or can effectively mentally rehearse a skill, it can be done within seconds of performance. We teach our players to incorporate their visual rehearsal into a “pre-pitch” 3-second routine. Thus, prior to every pitch or play both in practice and games, they work this routine: 1) take a deep breath and relax muscles 2) visualize themselves performing the skill correctly 3) take another deep breath.
Another way we use visualization is for the athlete to choose a prior “success scene” and spend a few minutes “replaying” that in their mind. Most athletes like to close their eyes and “quiet” their body while focusing on the breathing techniques prior to “seeing the success scene”. This is enjoyable way for an athlete to recall a positive experience and also can be a great confidence booster. This technique can be done in a 5-10 minute session once a day and as the athlete gets better at it, she can basically do it anytime, anywhere, such as the dugout prior to an at bat or on the field between pitches.
The other significant visualization we use is what we call a “distraction scene”. This refers to a time when something goes wrong and the athlete has a poor performance. The “distraction” can be anything from uncontrollable outside factors to the athlete’s tension or negative thoughts they are having about a current or prior situation. The technique here is to allow the athlete to listen to her body signals and to analyze what went wrong. Once she has done this, she uses the visualization to go back and replay the play and to correct it, or change it, thus visualizing herself doing it successfully this time.
The other component to mental training we utilize daily in what we call the “re-focus” mechanism. Each player chooses a specific focal point (many players use the word “Easton” on the bat to look at, or a pre-written word on their fielding glove, or a bracelet they may wear in the game and they can touch). This “focal point” is not a routine to be used with each pitch. It is a thing to be used as a reminder that they can “go-to” when they need to get their head back in the game. Once an athlete looses focus or begins to lack confidence based on a poor performance or situation, the athlete physically looks at or touches her specific focal point as a reminder to breathe. That is all the re-focal point should be used for…as a reminder to breathe and get their composure back.
In summary, our softball athletes at Colorado State have found that committing to these techniques and concepts have really helped our them feel more in charge of themselves and has helped with their confidence and performances. You have to make mental training a priority in your program for it to be successful. We have found immeasurable results from persevering in this area.