Sports Performance Slumps, Fears and Blocks: What Can You Do?
Dr. Alan Golberg, Competitive Advantage
It happens to the best of us, the elite and professional athletes as well as all of us amateur and recreational performers. Your “normal,” consistently decent level of performance is suddenly hijacked by a slump, fear or block. For no apparent reason, you can’t seem to buy a hit, make a shot, go backwards on beam or move the way that you used to and know you’re fully capable of. As your athletic performance does a nose dive, so too does your level of self-confidence. You’re flooded with self-doubts and find yourself over-thinking everything! While slumps, fears and blocks are a regular and common part of ALL sports, there are some things that you can do as an athlete, coach or parent to help lessen their negative effect!
What can YOU do as an ATHLETE? Probably one of the biggest and most common mental mistakes made by athletes which fuel their slumps and blocks is to lose control of their focus of concentration. If I have had several bad performances in a row, then I am most likely going to find my concentration “TIME TRAVELING” as I go into this next performance. That is, I am likely to think about how badly I’ve been doing, the past, and then I’m going to worry, “what if IT happens again?”, the future.
When my thoughts and focus take a trip down memory lane and revisit past poor performances, I will quickly undercut my self-confidence and increase my anxiety level as I approach the next performance. When my focus jumps ahead to the future and I start worrying about another bad outcome, I’m going to make myself even more anxious. This anxiety translates into tight muscles, faster and shallower breathing and even lower self-confidence. It will also insure that when the action does start, my concentration will be distracted from the task at hand in the moment by moment flow of the competition, guaranteeing another sub-par, frustrating performance!
You correct this as an athlete by learning to keep your focus of concentration and your thoughts in the “NOW.” You have to discipline yourself to quickly let go of your past poor outings and to stay away from the outcome, and instead concentrate on what is in front of you, RIGHT NOW! Controlling your focus in this way is much easier said than done and you will find your concentration continually wandering. This is NORMAL! When this does happen, try to stay relaxed and quickly return your focus to the NOW, over and over again, as many times as you drift away.
The slump-busting skill of concentration involves immediately becoming aware whenever your focus “time travels” back to the past or ahead to the future and then just as quickly returning your focus to the NOW. What will always hurt you as an athlete and what will maintain your performance slump or block is allowing your focus to drift and NOT returning it quickly to the proper focus. It’s the break in concentration that we don’t catch that ultimately hurts us and prolongs our performance problems!
What can YOU do as a COACH? If your team or athlete is slumping or struggling with any repetitive performance problem, your immediate response as a coach will determine if the problems get worse or better! Coaches who get visibly frustrated with and angry at their athletes for failing, who publicly call them out for their mistakes, losses and poor performances, who use humiliation and demeaning behavior, keep the performance problems going! This kind of coaching behavior creates an unsafe environment for the athlete. It gets players overly focused on and worried about making mistakes and failing, and your reaction. It causes athletes to over-think everything and play cautiously. This does not foster slump-busting or peak performance.
Instead you want want to stay calm and supportive in the face of your athletes’ struggles and losses. They need your support more than ever when they’re struggling. You need to make them feel emotionally safe by treating them with respect and building them up. You need to help them feel that you as the coach genuinely care about them as individuals! You need to help them keep their concentration in the moment, focused on this game and their role in the game, NOT on what’s happened so far in the season or what may happen if they fail again in this upcoming performance. Keeping athletes in the NOW helps them stay calm and in control!
As a coach it is critical that you remain positive through their performance problems. Help them understand that these problems are normal and can and will be worked through. Help them understand what they’re doing wrong and specifically what they need to do to correct their mistakes. Make it very safe for them to make mistakes and fail. This is how you produce winners. You build a safe training environment where athletes are not afraid to take risks and fail.
Finally, keep your ego out of the equation. Your team’s won/loss record does NOT define you as a coach or person. Winning doesn’t make you a great coach anymore than losing makes you a bad one! Keep the game in perspective. There’s a lot more at stake here than the won-loss outcome of one game or season. You have young, impressionable, developing future adults in your hands and your job is to sensitively teach them important life lessons and how to become good human beings!
What can YOU do as a PARENT? When our kids fail and struggle performance-wise, what they most need from us as parents is our unconditional love and support! They do NOT need you to “fix” the problem or “coach” them as to what they’re doing wrong and what they need to improve or work on! They do NOT need your criticism! They certainly do NOT need your frustration, disappointment and anger! They need your love and support, PLAIN and SIMPLE!
Parents who “love” their kids more when they’re performing well and then withdraw that love whenever the child struggles or fails, create the most powerful form of performance anxiety there is! If you get frustrated and are visibly unhappy with me when I lose, then the next time I go to compete, there will be a lot on the line for me. I will be performing for your love and happiness! If my lovability in your eyes is at stake every time I step into the batter’s box or get up on beam, then I am going to overwhelmed by what’s at stake and, as a consequence, struggle BIG TIME!
When your kid fails or falls into a slump, be there for them emotionally. Be kind and gentle. Be empathic. Step into their shoes and allow yourself to feel what they’re feeling. Don’t judge them! Hug them! Help them keep things in perspective. Encourage them to keep believing in themselves and working hard. Help them understand that these tough times are part of the journey! And genuinely let them know in your words, but more in your behaviors that you will always be right there beside them for the journey and that they can count on you for loving support!
Probably one of the biggest and most common mental mistakes made by athletes which fuel their slumps and blocks is to lose control of their focus of concentration.
Congratulations to Jason “J-Mac” McElwain on accomplishing your goal. Jason has battled through Autism his entire life and at his last high school basketball game he managed to score 20 points in less than 4 minutes! Way to never give up Jason!
In Another’s Words…
“If your mind can believe it, you can achieve it.”
– Ronnie Lott