Developing Your Mental Game: Your Next Season Starts Now

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For most athletes, the year coming to a close has no real significance if they are truly in the mindset of constantly improving their game. It?s no secret that training is an essential part of success, which includes physical activities such as practicing drills, strength training, and cardio to improve performance. What many give little credence to is that?sports are 90% mental and only 10% physical. All?too often, athletes neglect the development of mental skills as part of their training routines, which can in most cases, catapult them to the next level.

Let?s talk mental toughness. My forever mantra is, ?Start with the mind, and your game will follow.? Here are four ways that athletes can incorporate mental skills into daily training:

Review Past Performance:

It is important to review your past performance to evaluate where you are and where you want to be. Once this information has been gathered and reviewed, improvement can begin. I recommend taking a look at your stats from the past four to six games or competitions. What are your averages (speed, points, etc.)? How did you place? Were you better or worse this time last season? What caused the decline or uptick? After reviewing your stats and answering these types of questions, you are now ready to set some goals.

Goal Setting:

Whether it?s the start of a new season or you?re already in the throes of competition, goal setting is always a great way to set your athletic journey in a new and positive direction. Often athletes have team goals that are given to them by their coaches, but the designation of individual goals are not always the norm. If you currently don?t have individual goals, now would be a good time to set a few with input from your coach and/or trainer.

When playing team sports, being a good teammate means focusing on and perfecting your role within the team. In my sessions with athletes, I often encourage them to think about what they want to achieve, not just for the overall season, but for each game, match, meet, etc. For example, if you are a basketball player, decide how many points, rebounds, assists, blocks, etc. you want to get for every game. While setting these goals, please be realistic. If you don?t typically score 50 points a game or get 20 rebounds, then set goals that are slightly higher than your average with the intent of increasing and improving in every area as the season progresses.

Develop a Mental Pre-game:

When I ask athletes ?What is your pre-game routine?? I most often hear one of three things ? a physical warm-up, listen to music or ?I don?t have one.? Developing a mental pre-game is an excellent way to maintain focus on performance while allowing the athlete to meet his or her goals. On game day, your mental energy should be locked in on goals and positive affirmations.

It?s perfectly fine, and I would recommend giving yourself a mental pep talk. It goes much further than most think. Recite positive affirmations to yourself in the mirror, place sticky notes in your locker, or store them in your phone and schedule them to appear on your screen before each game. Make this a practice that becomes a part of your pre-game prep.

Positive Self-talk:

?I think, therefore, I am.? These are five of the most powerful words athlete can say. To be successful in sports and even in life, a positive outlook is a big requirement. Athletes must strengthen or develop (if needed) the belief in self, and this is not to be mistaken with arrogance or boastfulness. When pressure-filled situations arise during play or a simple mistake on the court happens, some athletes become negative in their thinking. This can affect performance and even create feelings of anger, fear or doubt.

Positive self-talk is a technique that provides athletes the confidence to perform at their best even in the most difficult and high-pressure moments. When you or a teammate have made a mistake, recognize the importance and benefits of speaking positively over a situation with statements like ?I?m not giving up,? ?I put in the work, so now it?s time to perform at my best,? or ?I trust my skills and talent.? In a nutshell, if a negative thought tries to creep in, replace it with positive thinking.

I dare you to try any or all of the tips shared in this article. Developing the skills to be mentally tough takes time, but will ultimately enhance your daily performance and take your game to new heights!


Natalie Graves is a licensed clinical social worker and an expert in the area of mental health and wellness for athletes.

Natalie Graves, AM, LCSW

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