Mental skills training can be very helpful to athletes of all skills levels and abilities. An athletes skill in managing, both cognitive and somatic stress can work for or against them during the pressure of competition. Reducing cognitive and somatic anxiety while improving focus and managing emotional energy are frequent reasons athletes of all skill levels seek out help from sport psychology.
For a moment imagine the nerves in the body as wires that carry electrical signals from the brain through the body. There are two main branches of the nervous system, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for action by speeding up the heart rate. It is often compared to the gas pedal in a car. The parasympathetic nervous system is often compared to the brake pedal in a car because it slows down the heart rate.
As an example, when a tennis player runs for a ball the sympathetic nervous system speeds up the heart rate. In the twenty seconds allowed between points the parasympathetic nervous system slows down the heart rate. Cognitive thoughts such as frustration, anger, and constant worry will cause these signals that are going down the two parts of the autonomic system to get out of synch. This is similar to having one foot on the gas and the other on the brake at the same time, creating a jerky ride. Over time the stress on the body can drain a player’s emotional and physical energy, affect coordination, and the ability to make good decisions quickly.
Two training strategies:
1) Be aware of your thoughts. Expend your energy on positive problem solving. If you are losing a match, or missing your shots, identify the small pieces that are working and continue to build on what you can control. You may not win the match but you have a better chance of turning things around when you continue to problem solve. Jim Loehr, of The Human Performance Institute observes, “The ultimate challenge of handling pressure is the challenge of mentally restructuring the event or situation so that it is seen as a positive self-challenge rather than a threat.”
2) Focus on your breathing. The pattern of your breathing is different when you are relaxed than when you are feeling tense, anxious, threatened. When you are feeling tense and anxious and you notice your breath pattern shift to short, shallow inhalations and exhalations, inbetween points, breathe in fully for a count of four, hold for four seconds and then fully let the air out. Try this two or three times and see if it helps.
A shift to focusing on positive problem-solving, combined with managing your breath can provide a simple and yet effective method of enabling the signals from the nervous system to work in sych. The more in sych your body is the greater your ability to access your athletic talents.
Next week an interview with legendary Stanford men’s tennis coach Dick Gould.