When athletes deal with slumps, most tend analyze (over-analyze?), tinker, and constantly adjust all the details to their swing, shot, or whatever athletic movement(s) they are trying to improve. Athletes often obsess over trying to “fix things,” sometimes to the point where their thoughts actually become an even bigger problem than the technical mechanics they first tried to fix. In fact, I have worked with athletes who have gotten so lost in their thinking that they have squandered huge chunks of seasons — or even careers — simply because they couldn’t get out of their own way.
Get back to basics – turn off the noise
When athletes experience adversity one of the first knee-jerk instincts is to “do more,” or constantly tinker with things until they happen upon an answer that will help break their slump. In some instances this approach helps, and before too long the athlete is again playing at a high level. Unfortunately, not all athletes experience success hunting and pecking around desperately searching for answers, and sometimes the exact opposite occurs — the stress involved in trying to quickly fix a problem only leads to more self-scrutiny, self-criticism, self-loathing, and sometimes even poor off-field coping (i.e. drinking) as a means to “turn off the noise” and slow things down to the basics.
While there is not a single approach to offer when it comes to helping an athlete break through slumps, there are a few important tips to consider.
- Rely on muscle memory. If you’re an athlete playing at the high school level or above, there’s a good chance the movements you need to excel in your sport are already deeply ingrained in your muscle memory. The problem, however, is that your own distorted thinking and frustration disrupts muscle memory, leaving you to play “choppy” and without much rhythm. The good news is that muscle memory quickly returns (spontaneous recovery), and does so at a proportionate rate with controlled, confident thinking — a big reason why turning off the noise in our thinking is vitally important to athletic success.
- Use a bigger sample size. In some instances athletes use a remarkably small sample size to establish they are in a “slump,” and once that label is affixed they then end up doing all sorts of things to fix a situation that many would argue didn’t need fixing (essentially a self-fulfilling prophecy develops). Before diving in to fix big problems, make sure that there really are problems to fix.
- Review journal notes and feedback. Athletes who discipline themselves to keep a running journal that details their daily accomplishments, challenges, and future goals allow for easy retrieval when looking for important patterns and ideas that worked when the athlete previously played well.
- Develop pre-game and pre-play routines. One great way to ward off negative thinking and self-talk is to develop specific pre-game and pre-play mental routines. Our minds cannot think of two different things at the same exact time, which means that athletes with a plan don’t expose themselves to thinking about uncontrollable, irrelevant variables that only lead to stress.
- Most importantly, break things down to the basics. So many times athletes have told me that when they think of their sport in basic terms, it allows them to turn off the noise and just do what they do best. I call this the “see the ball, hit the ball” mentality, and I believe it’s a very effective way to maximizing athletic abilities.
While it is important and worthwhile to regularly examine athletic training approaches, thinking too much about things can lead to new problems, including divided and distorted focus, increased levels of stress, and negative anxiety. The key, therefore, is to balance ongoing evaluations against the reality that everyone has bad days, and that a bad game or two doesn’t mean that the athlete is experiencing a “slump.”
Most athletes maximize their abilities by simply playing, meaning that they turn off the noise in their head and allow their muscle memory (conditioned responses) take over. Not only does this approach allow for peak play on the field, it also allows athletes to enjoy the process of playing sports rather than stressing out over every tiny aspect.