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Motivation and Mental Prep Practices for Optimal Performance

Updated: Mar 13, 2023

Every athlete has their own individual personality outside of the field of play and every athlete has a unique individual need as far as what “works” to drive their optimal performance.

There is a fine line between exciting an athlete to hype them up for better performance and over-stimulating them up to the point that it causes stress and anxiety.  Stress can be both good and bad, often it can be motivational, but too much stress will overload and overwhelm an athlete. Learning to read each athlete and find their level of arousal needed for performance is key to getting the most out of their performance.

Researchers have found a theory that rings true for most cases and that gives us a guideline to when athletes require more motivation and arousal and when that actually hinders performance; this is called the inverse-U theory. Several factors to consider include skill and experience level, difficulty of the skill, and introverted versus extroverted personality traits.  Generally speaking, the lower the skill level/experience, more complex skills, and more introverted athletes, require less arousal for optimal performance than their inverses.

Introverted athletes tend to be more intrinsically motivated than the extroverted athletes. When any kind of athlete gets hyper-aroused this can lead to anxiety and hinder performance. When this takes place there are several practices athletes can turn to in order to reset their minds and return to a place where they feel in control. Diaphragmatic breathing, commonly called belly breathing or deep breathing, for example helps return the body to parasympathetic state, calming them down from the fight or flight state they may have been in. This can be as simple as counting the lengths of you breaths and attempting to "Box Breathe" which is to have a 4 count inhale, 4 count hold, 4 count exhale, and 4 count hold before the next inhale.

Additional methods include progressive muscle relaxation or PMR. This practice allows athletes to control the somatic tension they feel with the heightened anxiety by going through a series of tensing and relaxing muscles throughout the body paired with deep breathing. Imagery and visualization is another common method athletes use prior to performance to encourage a greater level of self confidence and self efficacy. Self talk (ie. “you can do this”) can work in a similar way if the athlete is able to focus on positive comments or coaching cues. Young athletes should try these different methods and find one or multiple methods that both instill them with confidence and ignites them internally with a drive to perform. Once athletes learn a method that works for them they can become more capable of coping with the fears and triggers that cause anxiety.

Big games, important tryouts, or even just learning a new skill can be very stressful as they are high pressure situations. At any level athletes can feel these heightened responses of panic, anxiety, and fear that hinder performance. It’s critical that each and every athlete find a method that they feel puts them in control of their mental, emotional, and physical responses.

During my career playing Division I and professional basketball, I often found myself in high pressure situations. Every team has different game day schedules and protocols to adhere to, but it’s important that every athlete find time to do what they need to do to best prepare on these days. My game day mental prep routine always consisted of 10-15 minutes of alone time for visualization, everything from running through specific plays to visualizing the opponents on the scouting reports. By taking this time somewhere between 2-3 hours pre-game, I felt prepared and was filled me with positive images of the game to come. After this I would always give myself a little positive self talk and that was more than enough to feel amped and ready for the game. Being more of an introverted individual, external motivation was typically unnecessary for me, but I had to learn how to see, hear, and feel that without it negatively effecting me. That’s where selective attention plays a very large role. We would often spend just over an hour on the court for warm up every game. This is the time with the greatest chance of heightened anxiety due to anticipation and a loud, crazy atmospheres. Focusing on my teammates, my own physical preparation (stretching, mobility, etc), and simply tuning things out allowed me to use the atmosphere for excitement yet remain under control. Sometimes what you will see in young athletes that don’t quite know the level of arousal needed, is that they will get overly excited and burn out quickly in the beginning of the game. Staying cool, calm, and collected while absorbing the energy is a major key in sustaining the energy needed to push through the entire game. Drowning out everyone that isn't a part of your team and staff yet still feeling the vibrations and electricity is what tuning it out is all about. When the stakes are the highest the focus has to be too, so practicing these methods even at practices and workouts is a good idea.

In college, if we knew we were playing an opponent in a particularly loud arena, we would blast music throughout an entire practice just to get used to the atmosphere. Get used to speaking over the noise, drowning it out, and using it to propel us forward. When controlled just right, environments can be a major asset in sports as we all know, but what is less talked about is just how hard finding that balance for the athlete can be.

The negative side effects of high pressure situations aren't often discussed but they are often times very evident in performance and attitude of the athlete. Just like the best athletes are able to read their opponents and the best coaches are able to read their players. If you think your athletes are struggling to find the right motivation or stress management tactics, introduce them to these methods and encourage them to take the time to explore them each for themselves. When experimenting with these methods, athletes will find what therapists call their "window of tolerance" and learn their own levels of optimal arousal. Physical preparation isn't everything, and you'll be surprised to see just how much more athletes have to give when they are mentally and emotionally prepared to give it their all, with nothing holding them back.

In every journey, in life and in sports, there will be distractions and set backs. Let's give our athletes the tools they need to reach their potential and learn to ignore the noise.

Visit the EBA Resources page for mental health resources and contacts.

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