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Tips to stay focused and relaxed

Written by Greg Chertok, M.Ed., CC-AASP
Member of ACSM

For most in athletics, hearing the term ‘mental skills’, will conjure troubling images of a bearded gentleman and a long couch. However, in any critical sporting situation, mental skills are required for an athlete to perform at an optimal level. The typical coach will try correcting the situation with the following statements:

“Focus on the play!”  “Let’s go, just relax!”  “Be confident!”  “Stay tough out there!”  Wouldn't’ it be great if our players can genuinely become focused, relaxed, confident and tough simply from a coach’s or parent’s exclamation? If it were that easy, all athletes would be top performers. Nobody would get nervous before or during a competition. The truth is, a child who is having trouble relaxing before the shouting will probably have similar, if not heightened, trouble relaxing afterwards. In fact, it seems silly to assume that loud verbal enforcement will miraculously create Zen-like relaxation skills in a child who has never actually learned how to relax. 

Getting out of a negative, stressful state and back in control is admittedly difficult, especially after making an error or bad play. Below are two simple suggestions for your players that will help strengthen their mental skills and respond effectively to setbacks or mistakes:

 1. Use your thoughts—As an athlete, the biggest anxiety producer is YOU. Stress is caused by how we think and feel about life events like a big game or a big test – it is not the event itself, but our REACTION to it that produces stress. Therefore, the better and more positive your reaction to life events, the less stress you will feel. For instance, one hockey goalie may panic after allowing a goal, causing him to lose focus and tense up on the next shot. In response to the same goal, another goalie may take a deep breath, give himself a few motivating cues and set his sights on the play in front of him (he may even take whatever frustration he’s feeling and transfer it positively into sharpened focus for the next shot). The way your players think is a choice. Encourage them to be in control of their thoughts and attitudes and maintain “positive self-talk”. When the self-talk gets unhelpful, tell them to “TAKE OUT THE TRASH!”.

2. Use your goals – It’s tempting to emphasize winning, but at the youth sports level, goals should always be focused around fun and personal growth (leadership skills, teamwork, sportsmanship, dedication and hard work).  Amid the busyness of a season, coaches tend to lose sight of what their players’ goals are (those are important too, right?). Instead of “being the best” or “winning,” they may want to simply get exercise, or be with friends, or have fun, or learn new skills. So before the start of the season, get on the same page and establish some team goals – clear, specific, challenging objectives mutually agreed upon by you and the players. Together, figure out what needs to be done to achieve them. Make a team pennant, have your players create a ‘Goal Board’ or develop a team slogan – under your direction, allow the players to have a sense of control over the team’s goals. They’ll most likely work harder because of this.

 What do you think? Join the conversation on our Facebook Page and on Twitter.

Greg Chertok, M.Ed., CC-AASP Member of ACSM: Greg Chertok is currently a Sport Psychology Counselor and Fitness Trainer at the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Center. He received his B.A. in Psychology at Tufts University and M.Ed. in Counseling specializing in Sport & Exercise Psychology at Boston University in 2007. 

Note: The views expressed in ACSM Olympics Hot Topics are those of the contributors only, and should not be construed as official statements of the American College of Sports Medicine. 

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