When I first started private coaching, I concentrated very much on the technical aspects of the game. But, a few months in, I realised I was missing a trick. That is the trick of sport psychology.
Here are a few common problems that lots of athletes have problems with and how to combat them during your individual and small group training sessions.
Out of all of the psychological problems an athlete may face, confidence probably has the biggest effect on an individual’s sporting performance.
Confidence is what I most commonly get asked to work on with my athletes. If you’ve ever played sport (or with anything actually), you’ll know that when you’re full of confidence, you feel pretty unstoppable!
I’m a very positive coach. The old saying from my teaching days is that there should be 7 positive statements for every one constructive criticism. Obviously you need to address and make corrections as you see them, but overall, make your sessions super positive and really big your athlete up.
Make them feel special through genuine and timely praise. Most importantly, get them enjoying their sport again and playing without fear. This is probably the biggest obstacle an athlete has.
Create an environment where it is expected and accepted to make mistakes. You want them to make mistakes. Making mistakes is a positive thing. This is where they learn the most. I have one athlete that gets so annoyed at himself if he makes a mistake. He expects perfection all the time. Getting them to relax through positive talk and creating this environment is huge.
Once you work out their fears and they become free of their fears, their confidence will soar.
I have a couple of athletes that get so anxious, they will literally shake themselves down with their arms and legs to reduce their feelings of anxiety before they perform a skill. A lot of anxiety comes from over-thinking and thinking of the worst that will happen once they strike that ball.
I use a term with my athletes called ‘resetting’, which has great results. After they have performed a skill, whether it was good or bad, I ask them to forget whatever just happened and concentrate on the future. They reset and clean their mind.
When they think of the future, they must think about it with positive mental visualisation. I use this a lot with shooting in soccer. I will roll the ball out to them (around the penalty area or 18 yard box) and their job is to smash the ball as hard into the net as they possibly can. I will also refine their technique, but the biggest thing with drill is for them to ‘let go’ and ‘risk it’.
‘Risk it’ is one of my favourite ever terms in sports psychology. A very simple saying but the implications behind it are huge.
It implies a number of things:
- The athlete has to go for it and give it everything they’ve got.
- There is nothing bad that is going to happen if they mess up.
- It helps them free themselves of all their anxiety.
What happens is usually this: They balloon the first few over the bar or wide. Then they realise that if they make a mistake in the environment that has been created, there is no negative consequence. Because they know they’re in this safe, positive environment and mistakes don’t matter, they really start to go for it. Their body loosens up, they start hitting a couple into the top corner. They start enjoying it. Their confidence improves, they go for it more, they score more, they lose their anxiety.
After each shot, I ask them to ‘reset’. As I mentioned, this means clearing their mind of the past and only thinking positively about the future. Some close their eyes, they take a deep breath out and they’re ready to smash it again!
I love this drill! It is so effective! It covers confidence, anxiety, positive self talk and visualisation and is a great way to finish a session. Parents also love it because it doesn’t just refer to soccer. It really teaches applicable life skills.
If these athletes can brush their shoulders off once they make a mistake and start again with a positive mindset or visualisation, this has huge implications for their personal life too.
This is also very common and can have a very negative effect on an athlete.
There is a very fine balance between analysing your actions so that you don’t keep making the same mistakes, but playing with the freedom of a mind that allows the athlete to do things naturally and with instinct.
Instinct is one of the most powerful attributes when playing sport. What you think of doing first is 95% of the time the right thing to do. And if you don’t do it, you’ve probably hesitated too much and some one is coming in to get the ball from you anyway!
However, a big part of playing sports without thought is to have the correct muscle memory. If a player has a bad habit or technique, then you must absolutely address this and create the correct muscle memory in their technique. But once you have this, then encouraging the player to play on instinct rather than thought can be extremely powerful.
I use a lot of encouragement for this. The terms I mentioned earlier like ‘Risk it’ and ‘Go for it’ are also applicable to over-thinking.
I used to be a huge culprit of over-thinking when I was young and I always played best when I didn’t think at all and had a free mind. One of the most powerful techniques to combatting over-thinking for athletes, is the mere realisation that over-thinking is going on.
When I was young, I didn’t even know I was over-thinking – I just thought everyone had that same thought process. But once I was aware of it, I was able to combat it head on and play more naturally.
Be a Counsellor
In summary, through conversations and questioning, being able to get into the mind of your athlete is a huge benefit to drawing the very best out of them and having the biggest impact as possible.
Your job as a coach is also that of a counsellor. Get to know them, ask questions that will really resonate with them. If you can get them to open up, you will really turn the key, find out what is going on in their head and unlock their potential.