Many athletes are making final preparations for an eagerly awaited/dreaded preseason. They will soon find out if a summer spent on the track/road, repeating in drills, lifting in the gym, and training on the field will pay off. One common mental mistake made by athletes, as well as anyone looking to change (dieting, exercising, reading more, managing problematic emotions) comes from unrealistic goals, an unsupportive environment, dwindling motivation, and limited repetition. The book “Fully Present” by Smalley and Winston addresses these needs in order to make change a reality.
1. Make steps simple
Athletes often set goals of a championship. One problem with this goal is we cannot see the results until the end of the season, or at least until a team is eliminated from the playoffs. I do however feel this can be a helpful goal as long as small goals are included, such as making steady progress by increasing the team’s goals per game average in the first three games of the season. Another example involves dieting. A goal of losing 15 pounds in the next six weeks sets up failure because the first slip up often causes someone to give up because 15 pounds and 6 weeks now can seem impossible. Instead, Smalley and Winston offer the following suggestions for keeping diet steps simple: putting your fork down with each bite, taking breaks during a meal, and eating fruit for dessert. In the end, a series of mini-successes allow for a person to move toward a goal, work through the inevitable failures, and enjoy the journey.
2. Being in a supportive environment
Team sports provide an unusual backdrop for the conflict between competition and support. On one hand, you are forced to compete with teammates to make the team and earn a starting position. On the other hand, successful teams tend to be very supportive of each other. No other player feels the tension of this conflict more than the rookies. They have to compete and perform at the level of established players, but they also want to fit in. It’s quite a challenge to upstage upperclassmen and gain their support as well. The burden of managing this challenge falls on the coach and trickles down to the team leaders.
As athletes step on the field, approach the starting block, or walk on the court for the first time in preseason, motivation is usually at an all time. They have thought about this moment while training in the off season and if they are lucky, the have the right balance of excitement, anxiety, curiosity, and confidence to be their best. However the grueling season is the perfect stage for the rollercoaster that is motivation. In a college season, motivation tends to proceed in the following direction: Motivation will drop toward the end of preseason, pick up before the first regular season game, then pick up before the first conference game, steadily decline as academic rigors increase, hit a low around midterms, pick up a little if playoffs are on the horizon, and finally it is a motivation crap shoot when the playoffs begin. It becomes crucial for each athlete to determine what they find both intrinsically and extrinsically motivating so they can call upon these incentives when needed. One suggestion is positive self talk. It is common and very easy to say negative things to yourself when motivation drops, which causes motivation to spiral downward.
Smalley and Winston say creating a new habit requires repetition. You must have the determination, persistence, grit, and vision to see any form of behavioral change through. Some behaviors are easier to change than others. It is going to be much more difficult to stick with a diet if you’ve never maintained a healthy diet. It is going to be more difficult to become a team leader if you have never been a leader before. Repetition is closely tied to motivation. Repetition becomes stale, boring, and monotonous even with things you love. If goals are realistic and attainable, if you surround yourself with support, and if you use strategies to remain motivated, then repetition is bearable and change will eventually take place.
Good luck in preseason. Remember to take a moment to enjoy the experience, because the season is short and there will be a time when you miss it all, even the worst parts of the experience.