The sport experience is full of ups and downs, but it is in the times of difficulty where athletes must battle back mentally in order to play their best. When athletes compete below their previously established achievement levels over a period of time the poor play can sometimes be referred to as a sports slump. The challenges athletes face is two-fold — first, playing consistently well enough to avoid slumps, and second developing the resiliency and skills needed to quickly break slumps as they occur.
When it is — and isn’t — a sports slump
Before discussing ways to break sports slumps, it’s important to understand how to appropriately frame what is and isn’t a sports slump. The easiest way to think about sports slumps is to begin by identifying the 3 general ways to label athletic performance. Simply put, at any given time we are performing at an average, below-average, or above-average level.
While it’s obvious that playing above-average wouldn’t be considered a slump, I find that many athletes (and coaches) falsely label average play as a slump, and this cognitive distortion can lead to increased anxiety, poor focus, and overall loss of confidence. Getting your labeling here really makes a difference because when athletes begin to perceive they are in a slump, they often develop negative symptoms as a result of their thinking, not because they are truly experiencing a sports slump.
The important point to remember is it is not a sports slump if you are failing to live up to a future goal of playing at a higher level. In this example, since you have never reached the higher level of play before, you are simply challenged to improve performance, but not seeing a decline if previously established benchmarks. A slump, on the other hand, specifically refers to a decline in performance based on previous averages that have been met — the challenge here (the slump), is trying to figure out why you are not playing to the level you are accustomed to based on previous play.
Again, it cannot be stressed enough — properly framing the situation is key as it dictates how mental energy is allocated and used — ideally your energy directs toward playing with confidence and the zone rather than feeling pressure to live up to standards that might be too lofty at this given moment.
Can slumps be measured?
In sports where statistics are kept it becomes much easier to examine objective data to determine current level of play. For example, in baseball a hitter who has a career average of .275 might actually refer to a .225 average over the course of half a season as a slump. Two distinct factors make this appraisal realistic — the average is considerably down, and it has been down over a substantial period of time.
But what about sports where performance is much more difficult to objectively gauge? For example, a defender in soccer might be more challenged to determine whether a slump is occurring since measurement variables are more difficult to come by. In some cases athletes have told me they simply don’t feel like they are playing well, but this judgement is based entirely on feeling, not measurement data. In cases like this it is very possible that a slump is identified, but in reality there isn’t much to base this on in a fair and objective way.
5 ways to quickly break sports slumps
Assuming you really are playing through a slump (or funk, as some athletes like to say), the following tips can help you immediately change course and get back on your game.
- Use healthy labels. Even if you truly are playing through a slump, it’s important o describe the situation in positive and healthy ways. This does not mean to be in denial, but frame the situation as a challenge, and remind yourself that sports are fluid and change in a moments notice. By doing this, your mind and body will play in synchrony, confidence increase, and positive momentum quickly develops as a result.
- Examine rule-outs. Are you experiencing an injury that is causing the slump? What about a personal situation off the field that is interfering with your play? Before feeling pressure to change the ways in which you train and compete, it is important to take care of other extenuating circumstances that might be the easy answer for the slump.
- Do your homework. Try not to get caught up in the hype and instead rely on facts. Have you watched video to see what you are doing wrong? What about talking to coaches to get their feedback? A little extra work during tough times can often be the difference between a short decline in performance versus a longer, chronic condition.
- One day at a time. Since you can’t change what has already happened, it’s important to re-frame the situation and begin each day with a comfortable pre-game routine. Try to incorporate patterns and rituals that allow you to feel comfortable and focused on the future, including the foods you eat, music you listen to, and stretching routines that relax your body.
- Learn anxiety-reducing techniques. Deep breathing, imagery, positive self-talk, and progressive muscle relaxation are a few examples of scientifically proven ways to both increase confidence and decrease anxiety.
Slumps are no fun, but they are a part of competition. The question is not will I experience a tough patch in my athletic career, but when? Remember, all great athletes have gone through similar situations, and they have achieved their greatness by learning the skills needed to quickly get back to better play. Rather than trying to play perfectly, realize that there will be bad days in life and it is what we do in those times that makes all the difference.