Many of the athletes I work with find themselves in a fairly predictable conundrum when it comes to improving their athletic abilities: Search for “the answer” by constantly being coached and tinkering skills looking for the perfect approach; or instead rely on their self-confidence and muscle-memory to help them break slumps and excel. While this might seem like a relatively small issue, it’s actually quite a big deal when you break it down. Athletes who obsess and search for perfect answers sometimes create even more anxiety when they learn that there never is one perfect answer or approach to fixing problems. Conversely, developing (and maintaining) self-confidence often allows for hiccups in performance, and re-directs focus and attention to constantly getting better.
The technical aspects of sport
How many times can you re-work a golf swing, pitchers delivery, or approach to shooting a basketball? Is there really a perfect, textbook way of doing these things, or does it make more sense to work within the unique approach of each individual athlete? Before you answer that, consider the fact that most athletes vary dramatically in the ways they swing a golf club, deliver a pitch, or shoot a basketball — facts that lend more credibility to the importance of individual mastery and ongoing confidence development over obsessing for the perfect way to execute sport skills.
There is no arguing that it is important to learn the basics to sport skills, and the idea of sport performance improvement should always include attention toward the “mechanics” of sports. The distinction I am trying to make is that while technical skills are important, I have seen too many athletes rely on developing these skills exclusively, and often at the expense of learning how to instead develop their self-confidence, focus, and resiliency. In practical terms, this means holding off on looking for the Holy Grail answers, and instead working hard to develop the confidence and muscle-memory needed to maximize your approach to doing specific sport skills.
Have conviction with your approach
When we watch certain talented players in sports, we quickly see the various quirks and nuances that separate them from textbook approaches kids are regularly taught. In baseball, Luis Tiant, Fernando Valenzuela, and even Clayton Kershaw today quickly show us that there are indeed many different ways to effectively get guys out in baseball. It’s highly unlikely any of these pitchers were taught to throw in the manners in which they became famous, but all three apparently found ways in which their bodies best respond to being instructed how to pitch effectively.
Pitchers aren’t the only players in baseball with unorthodox approaches, as countless hitters have used atypical stances as well. Jeff Bagwell, Craig Counsell, and Julio Franco are just a few quick examples of hitters that had major league success, but very strange batting stances. When it comes to sport mechanics, often what seems to be the most important variable linked to success is the belief in a player’s approach, not one specific perfect way of doing things. In fact, in some ways you might think of this akin to how the placebo effect works in medicine — if a person truly believes in something, often good things occur as a result.
A place for both technique & confidence?
Just so my main point is clear, I do agree that the technical aspects of sport skill development are important, and that young athletes especially should be taught the basics of how their bodies act and react in sports. I also think that it’s important for more advanced athletes to monitor their actions so that they don’t develop poor habits over time. Where I differ, however, is the degree and extent some athletes (and coaches) go in obsessing over a specific, magical place where perfection is achieved. I have found that in many cases the opposite occurs in these situations — athletes end up stressing even more chasing a perfect answer to their concerns.
My advice is to continue learning how you can tweak techniques to a certain point, but not at the expense of developing self-confidence in knowing that when you play with confidence, you almost always find success. Knowing that your muscle-memory already has great sport skills ingrained in your reflexes (and at an early age in many instances) should carry most athletes through otherwise potentially long slumps if they stop for a moment and allow this process to occur.
As athletes learn effective ways to perform their sport, it’s important to develop confidence and conviction knowing they can play at a high level using what they know. Muscle memory, or the automatic movements conditioned from previous training, is often the answer to sport success — but muscle memory is also the first thing overlooked and ignored by a struggling answer looking for a quick fix. Make sure you aren’t throwing out what you already know in search of a perfect answer that likely doesn’t exist – you might be surprised at the results.