Mental Toughness through Visualization
Today, we have 1800 high school cross country runners competing for the All-Ontario (OFSAA) championship on our campus. My office is literally 50 feet from the finish line. The weather is terrific for early November and I am sure it will be a great day. Someone has mentioned that today’s race is the 5th largest regional cross country meet in North America after state championships in New York, Florida, Texas and California and the list of past champions includes many Canadian Olympians.
Although I didn’t qualify for the Ontario championship in my one year of cross country in high school, I did learn a very important lesson about focus and preparation. I was running the junior division race in our “house” cross country race at my school. Everyone had to participate and it was a pretty prestigious thing to win the race. I figured my division was going to be between a guy named Richard Browne and me. (Richard went on to be a celebrity on the international triathlon circuit after university.) We were both middle distance runners on the track team and the way I figured it, if I could stay on his shoulder for all but the last 100 meters of the 5KM race, then I could out-sprint him to the finish line (he was more of a 1500M and 3000M guy to my 400M and 800M).
In my visualization of the race, I was dogged in staying right on his right shoulder the entire race. I saw myself starting right behind him at the start line, running the entire course in my head – right behind him, and then pulling out on the final turn on the old cinder track that was the course for the last 300M of the race. In my mind, I won the race many times and as I lined up on the start line – right behind Richard, and we got off to the quick start I had expected. Everything was going as I had planned in my head.
We were about 3KM into the race. No one was near us any more as we had pulled away from the pack. I remember how quiet it was out on the course, I could hear Richard’s breathing and our feet pounding on the dry earth. On the back stretch of the course we had to cross the school’s driveway. It was about the only place that was paved and since we had small spikes on we had to be careful for about three steps. I was careful but Richard caught a spike on the far curb and fell to the ground – leaving me in front of the race by about 20 meters.
So here was my fatal mistake. I had never mentally prepared for any scenario where I wasn’t on Richard’s shoulder until the final 100M. Nowhere had I visualized anything else happening but what I had expected to transpire through the race. So, I panicked. My initial, and only reaction to his fall was to let him catch up and continue to stay on his right shoulder. I slowed. He was fierce competitor and sprinted to catch up. And the momentum, his strong mine weaker, carried him past me and I never kept up – finishing 2nd a good 150 meters behind him.
A large part of the pre-competition preparation comes down to your athletes being focused. Being able to mentally prepare for a game is critical to creating a confident attitude. Visualization can be a terrific way to focus and increase game readiness in an athlete’s pre-competition ritual.
Typically, athletes need to have been somewhere in their mind before they can actually get there. But, unlike my cross country experience, players need to also visualize through tough experiences. For example:
• A golfer in the sand trap. It’s much less stressful to be in a bunker if you have already been there in your mind. These things happen and athletes need to mentally prepare for a worst case scenario by mentally rehearsing what it will be like if the ball is in the sand trap. What will it feel like?
• A team down 10 points. Another bad scenario but how an athlete or team reacts to it depends on how much they have prepared for it. Coaches can help their players prepare for bad situations by showing them how to come out of the situation successfully in their minds.
• Winning a close game in the last minute. Athletes can ready themselves for that stressful time by putting themselves there in their minds before it actually happens.
As coaches, we can help these visualizations by also putting them in these tough situations in practice. Scrimmage as if the game is on the line with a minute to go AND a man in the penalty box. Give your players scenarios to work through in their minds that may come up in a game. Talk them through what the bench is going to feel like when the game is on the line.
Keeping the focus can also be helped by coaches not over-communicating at competitions as well. More coaching needs to be done at practice and away from competition and less at the actual competition. It astounds me how many times I have heard a coach talk to a team and give them literally ten instructions before they go out on the field for a game. In my experience, players stop listening around the third instruction - they are too pre-occupied with getting going. My rule - only three things at any time while addressing the team.
Metaphorically, I want my players to all have the “Hit the ball to me!” mentality. That is when the game is on the line, the team needs one more out, and every player wants the batter to hit the ball to them for the out. More to the point, you don’t want athletes who are hoping the ball is hit to someone else. Develop in your athletes that “I want the ball” mentality. If they want the ball then they are confident players.
Scotty Bowman, legendary coach of the Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings, says “it’s so important for a coach to get the team focused and in the zone. So much can distract from your concentration’. Helping to focus my players also means not getting distracted by the opposition and the referees. I have a “no talking” rule that has players never talk to anyone but their teammates and coaches. This is coupled with positive communication on the bench with regards to the officials and the opposition. As a coach, getting upset about things you can’t control ends up taking away the focus of your players.
Preach focus, preparation, positivity and visualization to your athletes and good things will happen.