A common sport psychology problem athletes experience is trying to figure out how much time to divide between physical, technical, and mental toughness development in order to improve on-field athletic success. Take for example a football quarterback – part of his development might be strength training in the weight room, other time might be devoted to specific passing drills, and still other time might be devoted to developing a cognitive pre-play routine to help with mental toughness, focus, and concentration. Needless to say all three areas of training are important to athletic success, but did you know the amount of time and attention given to all three actually varies depending on level of sport expertise and training?
For young, inexperienced athletes much of the time training should be developed with skill acquisition in mind. What this means is that it is important for young athletes to first learn how to do the skill — like accurately throw a football. Depending on age, strength training might also be introduced, as well as mental training (at least the basics of goal setting).
In order to teach young athletes about how to master sport skills it is important to use shaping techniques based on specific stimulus-response positive reinforcement behaviors. For example, as the young quarterback more regularly makes his passes, he is praised and encouraged to continue with his efforts. While physical and mental development are important, technical development is paramount for young athletes needing to learn sport skills.
Interestingly, as athletes become more proficient in their sport the technical side of sport development often hits a fill point, so to speak. For example, when a baseball pitcher learns how to throw a curve ball as a teenager, rarely does he ever need to completely “re-learn” how to grip and throw the pitch (meaning he has already learned these things). This is not to say athletes ever stop learning the technical aspects of their sport, but is instead meant to point out that once the skills are learned, it is almost always the mental part of athletic development from that point on that helps the athlete succeed (or fail).
The problem, however, is that far too many athletes revert back to the technical part of their sport when they experience slumps. A baseball hitter, for example, might continue to “work on his swing” (golfers do this a lot, too), when in reality his swing is perfectly fine — but it is his confidence that is holding him back. Delving deeper here, when confidence subsides and anxiety takes over, all fine and gross motor skills are negatively impacted — and in this case the batter fouls off what on another day might have been a hit.
Trust Your Stuff
Elite-level athletes often have all kinds of people in their ear, especially when they are struggling. What often happens in these situations is that the athlete goes back and pressures him- or herself to “practice more” and obsessively work on the mechanics of throwing/hitting/pitching/driving, etc. Again, in the vast majority of cases this is not the problem! How can I be so confident in saying this? Primarily because there is no perfect mechanical way to do anything! You want proof? Watch some baseball games this week and notice how every pitcher and batter have different windups, batting stances, pitch deliveries, and swings. If there were a “perfect” way to pitch or hit, everyone would look the same. Mechanics do sometimes get messed up, but the reason for this has everything to do with lacking confidence and high anxiety, and not because the athlete all of a sudden forgotten how to grip a ball or swing a bat.
The real answer for athletes is to “trust your stuff,” meaning the more you work on confidence development and focus, the more your body will relax, and the more likely your mind and body will work in perfect synchrony. Great athletes almost always have their own way of doing things, and are often unique with their approach. The “technical” aspect of what they are doing is oftentimes less important than the great confidence they have in doing what they do. In basketball, have you ever seen Shawn Marion or Joakim Noah shoot free throws?? Both have horrible mechanics but both also shoot quite well — and you better believe they have a lot of confidence to shoot like that!
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anxiety, choking, Coaching, confidence, mental, peak, performance, psychology, slumps, sport, Stress, toughness