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 > Little League Online > Learn More > Newsletters > Coach's Box Newsletter > 2012 > Coach's Box - October > Dr. Burnett Feature

Dr. Burnett Feature

Volume 7, No. 3 - October 2012

A Mental Game Plan for Succeeding at the ‘Elite’ Level

By Darrell J. Burnett, Ph.D., Member of the Little League International Board of Directors

With the increase in club and travel teams in youth sports, athletes are developing advanced physical athletic skills at younger ages. However, just having superb athleticism often is not enough when it comes to moving up to the elite level of competition. If you’re going to succeed at the elite level, you need the mental skills as well.

The six-step Mental Game Plan program described below is presented as a process, not an end product to be achieved in “three easy lessons.” The goal is to try to make the mental game automatic for young athletes as they become young adults. It gives them things to work on as they progress as elite athletes.

Here’s a summary and brief discussion of the six steps.

Youth Sports Mental Game Plan

  1. Perceive mistakes spatially, don’t judge.
  2. Focus on tasks, not trophies.
  3. Notice progress:
    1. Frequency (how often)
    2. Duration (how long)
    3. Intensity (how much energy)
  4. Visualize your wishes, not your fears.
  5. Short memory for mistakes.
    1. Long memory for successes.
  6. Relax and have fun.

Perceive mistakes spatially, don’t judge.

One of the major things separating elite athletes from good athletes who don’t “move up to the next level,” is how they handle mistakes. When players make a mistake, they have two response options. “Perceiving” athletes view a mistake visually, and concentrate on the mechanics necessary to correct the mistake (elbow in, follow through, eye on the ball, controlled breathing, etc.). “Judging” athletes are preoccupied with judgmental statements about their mistakes (“I blew it” … “I let the team down” … “My parents are really going to be disappointed” … “My coach is going to be furious” … “I can’t believe how stupid that was” … “I should have practiced more”… “It’s going to be one of those days,” etc.). “Judgers” tend to lose focus on skill development and are preoccupied with “beating themselves up” about their mistakes. “Perceivers” are focused on honing their skills. Elite athletes tend to be more perceivers than judgers. They prefer spatial replays to verbal and emotional reprimands.

Focus on tasks not trophies.

Research shows that elite athletes tend to concentrate on their skill and task development rather than their win-loss ratio. Elite athletes are able to concentrate on the process of being an athlete rather than concentrating solely on the end product of winning a specific competitive event. Elite athletes concentrate on effort, improvement and competition against themselves, focusing on their "personal best," letting the "trophies" take care of themselves. To an elite athlete, getting better is often more important than winning.

Notice Progress

Positive self-talk can make you more self-confident and focused. Elite athletes find positives in their game. They talk to themselves, viewing their every athletic endeavor (in practice or in competition) in terms of positive progress. They assess their athletic activities in three areas: frequency (how often), duration (how long), and intensity (how much energy). They measure increases in the frequency of positives (a desired skill), or a decrease in the frequency of negatives (mistakes, emotional overreactions, etc.). They measure duration of positives (consecutive successes) and negatives (shorter emotional recovery time after a physical or mental mistake). They measure the amount of energy they expend on positives (workouts, practices, positive self-statements), and try to decrease the energy they expend on negatives (emotional overreactions, negative self-statements). Their ability to see progress keeps them moving toward their goals.

Visualize your wishes, not your fears.

Research verifies the benefits of visualization in sports. By using visual, sound, movement, and mood imagery, athletes can affect their athletic performance. Here’s how it works: The central nervous system does not differentiate between real and imagined events. If you picture yourself sinking a free throw, or kicking a field goal, or blocking a shot, or getting a hit, the central nervous system responds as though it were really happening, “priming” and “pretraining” the body for a particular physical movement. This creates a pathway or connection between mind and body that promotes smoother and more precise physical activity once you actually get to the playing field. Moreover, the more senses you involve in your visualization, the better: hearing the sounds connected with each activity; feeling the body sensations (movement, touch, smell) connected with the activity; and feeling the emotion (joy, pride, happiness) you would feel during that activity. The more you repeatedly imagine something in vivid detail, using all your senses, the easier it is for your body, mind, and emotions to know exactly what to do when you are actually placed in this situation. As someone once said, mental rehearsal allows you to take what you would most like to do, and then turn it into what you will most likely do.

The important thing is to visualize positives, not negatives. In research with college golfers, groups were broken into groups and told to visualize. The group that visualized positive putts, seeing the ball go in the hole, improved their putting. The group that visualized negative putts, seeing the ball veer to the left or right of the hole, worsened their putting.

Athletes in slumps often struggle to keep their visualizations positive. If they fall prey to visualizing their fears (what they are afraid will happen: errors, missed shots, strikeouts, etc.), they increase the likelihood of continuing their slump.

Short memory for mistakes. Long memory for successes.

Elite athletes view mistakes as stepping-stones for improvement, not as catastrophic events. Once the mistake has occurred, and the lesson has been learned, they discard it from their memory. Watch the good golfers. After a “bad” shot, they take a practice swing the right way, forget about the bad shot, and move to their next shot. Developing a “spatial, perceptual” approach to a mistake allows the elite athlete to view it unemotionally, and discard it with ease. The judgmental approach to mistakes, mentioned above, makes it difficult to let go of the mistake. The elite basketball athlete who misses a breakaway lay-up, hard off the glass, learns to lay it up softly next time, but doesn’t dwell on it, because he/she is too busy getting back down court on defense. Remembering successes helps elite players to counter any negative thoughts by citing positive memories. A tendency toward negative thoughts following an error is countered by memories of a game-winning catch or a past clutch hit. Memories for successes are helpful in staying positive.

Golfers faced with a 150-yard shot over water recall previous successful 150-yard shots over water.

Relax and have fun.

When athletes have “peak performances,” playing their best, they all seem to report, among other things, a common experience: they’re relaxed and having fun. Elite athletes seem to be able to relax in the midst of the pressures of competition. They find “fun” in honing their skills. Research shows that athletes perform better when they are relaxed and having fun. Relaxation helps them concentrate and focus. Being loose allows for lightning-quick reflexes, perfect timing, and fluid, powerful execution of skills. Elite athletes learn breathing techniques to stay calm in the midst of pressure. They know that tension and anger affects performance, and they learn to reduce muscle tension through deep breathing and other relaxation exercises. They learn to anticipate possible pressure situations (game-winning shot, cheating opponent, ‘bad’ call by an official), and to stay calm and focused during those situations.

Youth Sports Mental Game Plan: A Blueprint, not a Report Card.

Obviously, not all young athletes will become elite athletes. However, recreation and club level athletes should be given the opportunity to develop the mental skills that will help them to be the best athletes they can be. The six aspects of the Mental Game is part of the process of continuing to grow as a young athlete. It is not meant to be a report card. It is meant to be a blueprint, by which young athletes can continue to measure their progress toward becoming the best athletes they can be.

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Dr. Darrell Burnett is a clinical psychologist, a youth sports psychologist, parent, national speaker, author, consultant and volunteer youth league coach. He has been in private practice in southern California for 20+ years. Dr. Burnett was selected as a national Sports Ethics Fellow by the University of Rhode Island’s Institute for International Sport, which also listed him among the “Top 100 Most Influential Sports Educators in America.” His youth sports publications include A Coach with Soul, in Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work; Challenger Baseball, in Chicken Soup for the Unsinkable Soul; Kids and T Ball: What’s a Parent to Do?, in The Official T-Ball USA Family Guide to Tee Ball; Positive Coaching: The Art of Being a Successful Youth League Coach; It’s Just a Game! Youth, Sports, & Self Esteem: A Guide for Parents; “Hey, Mom & Dad, It’s Just a Game!”, and Good Sport! A Sportsmanship Card Game. He was a primary contributor in the Playbook for Kids: A Parent's Guide to Help Kids Get the Most Out of Sports.(The Gatorade Company). He was quoted as an "expert" in the July 24, 2000 issue of Sports Illustrated, in an article about parents who are out of control in youth sports. Contact Dr. Burnett by email:funagain@pacbell.net, or at his website: www.djburnett.com

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