Mental Prep for tryouts
Fall and Winter season sports (e.g. Basketball, Football, etc.) are fast approaching. Many will be having their tryouts for the upcoming season and, unfortunately, every year many athletes fail to perform to their potential. As parents, we feel for our children in their disappointment and want to help. As coaches this could make forming our teams that much more difficult and increase the likelihood of dealing with upset parents because they “know” their athlete is better than one that made the team. Just like the physical skills athletes practice in hopes of making the team adding in mental skills training will reduce the impact from anxiety on their performance. Follow this simple 3-step process to reduce the tryout “jitters”:
The first step is Information Gathering. During this step the athlete (possible with the help of a parent or coach) will learn about the tryout process. Asking questions like: Is the team taking the best players regardless of position, or will the decisions be made by position? Is there any special equipment needed? What will the weather be like that day (if outside)? Will the coaches be conducting the evaluations, or will it be a service from a company outside of the organization? Will the format be drills, games, or some combination? Having as much information as possible will reduce anxiety caused by the fear of the unknown and reduce athletes’ tendency to make up stories in their head because of unknown information.
Next, using the information gathered in the first step is to Visualize the tryout. Visualization is like a movie taking place in the athlete’s mind. The more information that is gathered and the more senses that can be involved, the more real the “movie” will be to the athlete. Depending on the athlete’s skill at visualization, they can introduce potential difficulties and work through them with positive outcomes. In addition to working through difficulties the athlete will be able to practice and improve their physical skills required to compete in their sport. Visualization works because the body does not know the difference between real and imagined experiences and will still fire all the same nerves and activate all the same muscles (although to a far lesser extent than real movement) as if the body was completing the same actions. For example, an athlete can practice their free throws while quietly sitting on the couch with eyes closed and relaxed deep breathing: they step up to the line get their feet set, take a breath, receive the ball from the official, noticing the feel of the ball, sounds from the crowd, other players on the blocks, bending the knees, put the balling into position, extending the knees while following through with the arms towards the basket ending with the wrist snapping and the feel of the ball off the hand, seeing the proper rotation of the ball as it goes through the hoop for a swish.
Lastly, having the athlete develop Coping Strategies or pre-planned responses for when they feel their anxiety rise or are in a situation that they know increases their anxiety. The most effective strategy will vary among athletes. Some of the more popular strategies include Thought Stopping, Breathing, and Pre-Planned responses.
Thought Stopping is where the athlete will stop their negative inner dialogue and replace the negative with a planned out inner response to a bad play, shot, at bat, or throw.
Breathing is done in an intentional way to allow the athlete to think through and make a better choice. Additionally, when exhaling the athlete can imagine all the stress leaving their body. Keep in mind that once trained athletes can use breath work to either increase or decrease activation levels.
If the Athlete knows that when they hear yelling, either positive or negative, they start to tighten up they can have an alternative planned response that is helpful to their level of arousal. So, in our example the athlete hears yelling and starts to worry they did something wrong, they use a trigger word like go to view the yelling as supportive cheers and to increase their efforts.
Having a plan in place like outlined above is a great start and should be practiced regularly. At first many of the above routines might fail to regulate the anxiety but with time any athlete can master and use the rest of their lives.