Off-season part 1: Do just 1 thing this off-season

The off-season: a time of renewal, of hope, and (most likely) of change as your seniors leave and underclassmen begin assuming new roles. Excitement ensues as you transition from small group fitness and conditioning exercises into full-on practice sessions. As you begin to review your training regimen, you might have ideas on what technically and tactically needs tweaking, or have resolutions on what you’ll teach this off-season.

Regardless of how your season finished, the score board has been reset and every program gets a fresh start.

But, if you’re like most coaches, it’s difficult to know where to start. With the myriad roles a coach truly has to juggle, sometimes you just want one thing – one key ingredient – to bring to your program that will give you the biggest bang for your buck.

Well, you’re in luck, because Positive Performance knows exactly what that one thing is. It’s a very simple mental training routine you may have heard of before:

Meditation

Why Meditation? I want you to imagine one of your players. Let’s call her Kris.  In this example she is a soccer player but regardless of sport, think of an athlete on your team that has these characteristics.

Kris is a talented, hardworking midfielder, a ‘good kid’, and generally pretty successful. The problem is that she isn’t consistently successful, at least not on the soccer field. She has shining moments of technical proficiency and strong field awareness, but that only makes the inconsistency and underperformance even more difficult for both you and for her.

There seems to be something missing. Though you try and try to help her, Kris keeps getting in her own way, always getting into her own head. Her confidence is all over the place; you never know how she’s going to play. It’s frustrating for both of you.

But you both keep trying because Kris is valuable: she helps your team establish rhythm and tempo in the attack and, even more than that, you know she could be and do more. And she knows it, too. In fact, Kris wants it so badly that a single mistake during a game takes her into the depths of self-loathing. Anything short of perfection is unacceptable, and she beats herself up worse than anyone else ever could.

Unfortunately, Kris is NOT an anomaly.

We see this situation A LOT in our experience working with athletes all over the country. So often athletes who are talented, who have put in loads of physical work and dedication, find themselves unprepared for the rigors and stresses of high-pressure collegiate athletics. In response, they do the only thing they know to do: put in more physical work, more dedication, more hours. Still they struggle and can’t seem to get (or keep) their footing.

Why does this happen?

A great deal of this struggle comes from athletes’ inability to naturally develop a skill that is necessary for peak performance: the skill of letting go.  While there are some challenges to finding the right time to “let go” during a game or scrimmage, soccer provides moments of transition, like when the ball is out of play, that are useful opportunities for your players to show off their resiliency.

But let’s back up and first define what we’re talking about.

At Positive Performance, we work with athletes to develop two main skill sets: hard and soft mental skills.

Hard mental skills can be best understood by looking at the acronym BRICS. Elite athletes need to have:

  • Belief in purpose
  • Resilience
  • Internal motivation
  • Control
  • Self-belief

This cluster of important skills is mastered by successful athletes and is a skillset that all your athletes would benefit from.

Soft mental skills are the focus of this article, mainly because they are ones that are USUALLY MISSING.

We call it The Alpha Zone, and it represents a player’s ability to be relaxed, alert and flowing. In other words, when in The Alpha Zone, a player is relaxed, playing without judgment, allowing instinct to take over, and (typically) enjoying the simple act of playing the game. Out of the thousands of athletes we’ve worked with, this ability is rarely developed through the traditional channels or experiences and, in fact, The Alpha Zone can be counterintuitive for many athletes.

Back to Kris. No doubt she’s found The Alpha Zone before – she wouldn’t be playing a collegiate sport if she hadn’t – so you know she has it in her. But she doesn’t practice it. It only comes around by accident, by luck, and she probably has NO IDEA how to get there intentionally. Because she doesn’t feel like she has control of her Alpha Zone, Kris gets easily thrown – a hard first touch, a bad call, a bad pass, even trash talking by the other team will ruin her stride.

Just like other high performing athletes do, Kris needs to learn to develop her Alpha Zone through a combination of meditation and deep breathing.

“It isn’t what you do, but how you do it.”  -John Wooden

What is Meditation?

Meditation is the #1 skill we recommend to athletes because it can help them quickly deal with whatever challenges they are facing. It involves a combination of focused breathing, visualization, and affirmations. But, while it’s a great tool for any athlete, it’s particularly beneficial for players like Kris who need to get out of their own way, out of their own head, and who need to learn to let themselves let go, so that they can be successful and be the contributor you know they can be. 

Here are 5 ways meditation will help Kris:

  1. It will help her deal with stress and the fear that is inherent in any challenging situation. Currently, she probably gets tight when things aren’t going well or tense while anticipating things that might not go well. No one can perform their best when they are tight. Meditation will allow her to let go of those thoughts and just RELAX and play the game.
  2. She’ll learn to play in the moment. If you asked ‘your’ Kris about her best games, I bet she’d say things like, “It was so easy”, “I wasn’t thinking”, “I was just focused on each play”, “I wasn’t worrying about what was happening”, and “I was just having fun.” Many of these mental states can be achieved when one learns to simply BE – a skill that can be learned through meditation.
  3. It keeps her from thinking. All elite sport have drastic ups and downs, one often following the other in quick succession. That’s the beauty of the game! The soccer field, basketball court, swimming pool, volleyball court, and rowing course are all ever-changing environments that demand anticipation and resiliency. The players who don’t let their mind take over with every thought are the ones who can stay focused on the task at hand: the game. Training the mind this way takes practice because, for driven people like Kris, there is a part of them that wants to have control… and this is often at odds with finding peak performance.
  4. It will help balance her life. Kris sounds like a driven athlete and that probably carries over into all aspects of her life; she probably puts the bar pretty high for herself in both sports and school. It’s a good thing, but too much of a good thing means she easily gets overwhelmed with trying to balance it all. Adding in regular meditation to her routine can make Kris more efficient with her time and less wasteful with her energy.
  5. She’ll sleep better.  We’re hearing more and more these days how athletes are struggling with sleep, struggling to turn their minds off (and maybe their phones). This has HUGE ramifications for performance.  Numerous studies have shown the beneficial effects of increased sleep for athletes (here’s one from Stanford that shows athletes’ performance increasing and fatigue levels decreasing when they slept 10 hours per night).
"If your legs are feeling unduly stiff and sore, rest. If you are at all sluggish, rest. In fact, if in doubt, rest."- Bruce Fodyce, South African marathon and ultra-marathon athlete.

So, if there is one thing you need to add to your program this spring…

Meditation is it.

We make it easy with a FREE and simple 5-minute pre-practice breathing technique called BRAVR (download and print it here).  This is a great routine that your whole program can do together in your huddle, after stretching, or in the locker room. Most coaches report having the best practices they’ve had in years after implementing BRAVR beforehand.

“I would say one thing I’ve really noticed with the BRAVR technique is that the 1st 20 minutes of our practices are better. Our athletes are more focused and ready to get to work right from the beginning.”  -Anthony Levrets, University of Utah Women’s Basketball Head Coach

Additionally, here is that FREE meditation we promised. Pass it on to your athletes for them to utilize individually, or perform the meditations together as a team. Athletes can listen to it at home, on the bus, in the training room or anywhere they choose.

And remember: Our next article focuses on the most neglected branch of your team: THE COACHES! In it we’ll share the training we’ve developed to help coaches and their staff deal with stresses and pressures of their positions. We’ll also discuss the benefits of implementing mental training into coaches’ personal routines, and introduce you to our popular Coaches Meditation Challenge.  

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