Top 3 Mistakes Athletes Make in the Mental Game

A lot of coaches - my self included - write about the theoretical attributes of sports performance.  The "science says" type statements and posts that often lack the real-world connections, that practical application component.  I'm guilty of it.  I'm guilty of it because its far easier to quote science than it is to tell the human story of what happened - the obstacles, the successes and the mistakes, failures, and shortcomings that we all face, but never talk about.

I've worked with Roller Derby for 3 seasons now, and as we wrap up this season and begin to look at making improvements going into season four, a few critical points stood out to me - and most of these points were gaps in the area of psychological performance, not physical performance.

We are strong.  We are powerful. We are fast. We are a highly skilled team.  But one of the biggest disservices I did for my team this year was not challenging their capacity to handle mental stress.

As strength and conditioning professionals, we are always setting up the "optimal" scenario to achieve the desired outcome.  This year we did a phenomenal job of training speed and power - we used an accelerometer in training to measure speed and power metrics, analyzed the data we pulled for performance efficiency for each athlete, optimized load, recovery, and utilized techniques that would better lend themselves to optimal speed and power development ... we did everything "right."  And it showed.  We ARE strong. We ARE powerful performers.

I am 100% proud of what we accomplished in that regard and our ability to create an elite performance setting with less-than-optimal resources and circumstances. (At one point our building was in a fire and we were forced to relocate, going one entire month - one whole training cycle - of literally training in the street.) With all things considered - we accomplished what we wanted to physically.

But I keep hearing this repeated phrase in strength and conditioning - "Optimal".  Optimal performance.  Optimal mobility. Optimal recovery. When in reality athletes are faced with less than optimal circumstances in just about every interaction they have in a competitive setting (and sometimes just life in general).   Really that's the name of the game- managing "less than optimal" circumstances.  If I have a worthy opponent who has been training and is equally skilled, it's the job of my opponent to make my performance setting less than optimal.

Athletes are faced with seemingly impossible scenarios every single game.  But the successful athletes are the ones who realize doing the impossible is the job - it's the job every. single. day.  These athletes embrace adversity, call out and challenge adversity, with a "is that all you got!?" attitude.  Even when they've been beat, they've fallen, and they've been over come.  Getting back up and staring the challenge in the face and asking once again, "Is that all you've got."

This is the piece that is missing from those "Optimal Training" settings.  I should have said, " IDGAF with the accelerometer says - just do it" to them more often.  I should have created inopportune scenarios more often - I should have made them fail more often not because of the physiological impact, or the performance metric, or for any other "science says" metric.  I should have taken them to failure more often and in different environments because that's what their opponent will do.  And only in that dark place of failure can we find how the mind works.  What makes them tick - and what makes them implode.  Failure does that.

Here are my top 3 mental mistakes that emerge when athletes are faced with failure scenarios and how to overcome them.

Mistake #1: Thinking You're Supposed to Feel Good

If you compete at a high level, feeling good is a rarity.  Yes, a lot of emerging research details strategies to mitigate the unwanted side effects of training and fatigue.  And yes, of course, we as coaches should manage these parameters to the best of our ability.  But realistically, there are innumerable life variables to try to control, the odds are you're going to have a game or two ( or three or 10) when you feel less than "optimal".  Feeling like crap is something we need our athletes to both accept and disconnect that feeling from performance.

Some of our worst feeling days end up being our greatest performance.  And as athletes, we need to realize that the feelings and perceptions in our minds eye are actually ego-preserving mechanisms we come up with to justify the possibility of poor performance.  Time doesn't lie. Points don't lie. Stats don't lie (ok, well sometimes stats lie ), weights don't lie. Feelings lie.  Pain is after all a perception, moderated by emotion.

The idea that you have to feel good to play well is the biggest lie your brain will ever tell you.

Watch this TEDx presentation by neuroscientist Lorimer Moseley on 'Why Things Hurt'.  It will blow your mind and leave you with no excuses. Instead you will realize that you must address the actual problem, which is likely one of two things: 1) fear or 2) lack of acceptance for circumstances that are less than optimal.

Watch Now

Mistake #2: Focusing on Why You Failed Instead Of Identifying What You Need to Do to Succeed.

Ok, some of this one is on the coaching feedback.  Sometimes athletes can't see the big picture and therefore can't find the solution.  But the take home on this one is that the athlete needs to be of a problem-solving mindset.

In the weight room and in the practice setting you are trained and have been formed into a body with the attributes to be successful at your position - to have the skills to overcome the challenges you face. They are in there.

One example would be a player saying she keeps getting forced to the edge and pushed out.  "If I go to the edge, they keep pushing me out.” (Yes. That’s what they’re supposed to do. They are doing their job very well actually. ) For some reason though, the athlete’s mind immediately goes to the thought process "avoid the edge”  In thinking this way that only leaves the athlete to go up the middle and again get stopped. At this point it should be clear the athlete is playing right into the opponent’s strategy. Instead of thinking, “I failed at the edge, avoid the edge” we need to be thinking “I failed at the edge, how can I succeed if I have to go to the edge.”

Failure doesn't mean avoid. It means be faster. Be more agile. Be smarter. It means pull 5 tools from the box instead of just one. It means fuck with them a little bit. It means everything except avoid. In fact, like anything in life, those points of failure are usually the barriers worthy of great success. It’s not supposed to be easy, remember? It’s not supposed to feel good either.

Failure is a worthy opponent. Do not avoid failure. Instead, prove it wrong.

Mistake #3: Not a Free Thinker on the Field

Again, before coaches rip me a new one - of course the athlete should listen to the play call, and should work together with their teammates. But sometimes plays fall apart. Sometimes coaches make bad calls (yeah, I said it.) Sometimes teammates make bad reads. Sometimes the shit just doesn't work. When it’s all gone to shit - players need to be willing to freestyle a bit.

One mistake that is common is being so bound to the play structure that the player cannot make plays without it. Players need to follow plays AND be willing to think outside of them too. This comes both from a greater understanding of the game (meaning study your craft) AND willingness to problem solve in real-time.

I used the term willingness because again, we are talking about a less-than-optimal setting. Being willing to find a solution amongst failure, rather than choosing to be frustrated or emotionally driven.

Let me give you an example to put this into context (roller derby context for those of you who are not familiar, this may be a poor example, sorry)…

Watching AZRD in playoffs our defense did phenomenal job holding it down and minimizing the point spread. But often times that meant all four blockers were assisting on defense, leaving jammers with no O to help.

Yes, this makes the jammer’s job harder. Yes it is a hell of a lot easier with an offensive blocker, but sometimes you don’t have one. Jammers still have to find a way to do the job, to score points.

Here’s another example for non-derby people.

I had a Muay Thai kickboxing fight this past February against a very experienced fighter. She was good. I was…Ok.

The game plan was to throw kicks. I had a mean kick. I could land a scary head kick. But right off the bat in round one she swept me - twice. After the second sweep, I was very upset with my self (if you’ve ever been knocked to the ground - you know it’s very draining physically and emotionally). So instead of stepping off my kick (creating better angles), throwing a cut kick, or throwing a faster kick in the first place, I opted to not kick at all because I was pissed that I kept getting swept. She threw a wrench in the game plan, and I didn’t know what to do without it. And  I’m not saying I wasn’t prepared - my coaches taught me everything I needed to do. This was on me, mentally.  In that moment, my thought process was a bad one, and I was so reliant on my “plan” that I didn’t use ANY of the other tools I had to kick her ass.

By the end of round two I started thinking again. (You get hit a few times and realize you better figure something out!) In round 3 I went south paw. I was told pre-fight not to. But I saw an opening in her game, so I switched. She didn’t expect it (I didn't expect it LOL!)  She didn’t know what to do with it. I landed more punches, more knees and dominated the 3rd round because I was thinking freely and allowing my self to see and react rather than play inside of a box.

Do the unexpected. Play outside of your traditional role a little bit - do not be afraid as an athlete to think objectively and freely. After all, it’s all gone to shit already - what do you have to lose? Be a playmaker.

As a strength coach, I respect and appreciate the “optimal” setting and what it can do for the development of desired attributes. But with that comes the understanding that we also have to test the intangibles - the thought process and help guide our athletes by creating failure scenarios more frequently and helping retrain any negative thought processes we may identify in those settings. We as strength and conditioning coaches also need to embrace the less-than-optimal situations as times for retraining the brain.

Kate, MS, CSCS

BECAUSE THE WINS ARE EARNED, NOT GIVEN. #ENGPERFORMANCE Since 2008, Engard Athletics has provided quality, evidence-based training to hundreds of clients and athletes in the Valley. Now, utilizing advanced training techniques and challenging the fitness industry, I’m providing this elite level experience to you online. Our training programs include movement prep, periodized strength training, recovery therapy, performance nutrition plans and motivational strategies that optimize performance outcomes.

All author posts