“Just go out there and relax.”
Most coaches have said that to their team at one point or another, or in some cases before every game. And chances are good that later on you are going to ask those same players to have more intensity.
Do we really want our players to be relaxed during a competition? Or would we rather have them be in control. It might be semantics, and it might seem petty, but words we hear send specific signals to the brain, and athletes are paying attention to which ones we use.
Ask players to describe a time when they are relaxed, and they will tell you about times when they kicked back with friends or hung out somewhere, times when they were basically doing nothing. Ask them what they feel like when they are in control. Confident, motivated, enjoying themselves.
Many professional athletes have pre-game rituals that include relaxation techniques. Among the most popular are deep breathing and using positive imagery. Think about what those rituals accomplish.
Deep breathing, according to Psychology Today, “has several important benefits. It ensures that you get enough oxygen so your body can function well. By getting more oxygen into your body, you will relax, feel better, and it will give you a greater sense of control. This increased comfort will give you more confidence and enable you to more easily combat negative thoughts (which are often the cause of the overintensity). Focusing on your breathing also acts to take your mind off of things that may be interfering causing your overintensity.”
Yes, all of those seem like very important factors in a good performance. And yes it all describes an athlete who is in control of themselves and the situation.
An article by a former professional baseball player Clint McGill on his son’s struggles at the plate is eye-opening.
“The emotion of feeling nervous feels almost exactly like the emotion of being excited. The difference is simply in how the mind labels these feelings. So when a player feels those vibrations in the body, it is not to say that he’s nervous or has the jitters. Rather he is excited. He is ready.
“Changing the words we use will literally change the way our brain signals to the body,” writes McGill. “So instead of trying to perform the task of hitting a baseball with the body thinking ‘Oh no, there’s a problem.’ The body now believes ‘Ok this is great, we’re prepared, and all is perfect. Let’s go.’ Which mindset do you think will allow for more fluid and confident motions?
“‘Feeling these vibrations of excitement are not just normal, they’re required. As Hannah Thurley, mental skills coach for the Philadelphia Phillies told me during the Summit. ‘You don’t want to calm down. That’s not the goal.’”
Okay, so if we no longer use the word relax, what should we say to our players as the prepare to begin a competition? Have Fun is always good, but rarely can someone have fun on demand.
Here’s one: Smile
Smiling actually has documented psychological benefits. According to Psychology Today, “As we grow up, we become conditioned to the positive effects of smiling. We learn that when we smile, it means we’re happy and life is good. There’s been some fascinating research looking at the effects of smiling on our brain chemistry. What this research has found is that when we smile, it releases brain chemicals called endorphins which have an actual physiologically relaxing effect.”
So next time you send your team into a competition, try telling them this: “Smile, have fun be smart and whatever you do, don’t relax.”