The Power of Prime

The cluttered mind uncluttered

In Sports, Think Now, So You Don’t Have to Think Later

It's important that you think a lot in practice

I just returned from Europe where I spent a week working with a group of highly ranked U.S. athletes during their off-season prep period. After a few days, the feedback I was getting from them was that I was really getting into their heads and causing them to think a lot, in fact, to a few of them, think a bit too much.

This wasn’t a surprise to me as I hear this frequently. Between my mental skills work with athletes during practices, one-on-one sessions, team talks (in which we discussed a relevant sport topic each evening), and daily imagery sessions, the athletes were getting their minds stuffed with the mental side of their sport. I was definitely making them think more than they were accustomed. But that is, in fact, my job: to get the athletes I work with uncomfortable, push them outside of what they are used to, and think about things that will take them to the next level. Yes, admittedly, it can feel a bit overwhelming at first, but after a few days, they got used to it and figured out how to incorporate my approach into their usual training regimen.

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There is a great lesson here for all aspiring athletes and coaches. Far from a bad thing, being inside your head and getting yourself to think during the off-season prep period is exactly what you should do. Whether psychological, physical, technical, tactical, team, or equipment, now is the time for you to think seriously and devote a great deal of mental energy to your preparations for the upcoming competitive season. For coaches, now is the time to really break down your athletes’ performances and then rebuild them so that they will be better.

The off-season is the ideal time to think a lot because there is no pressure to get ready for competitions which involves an entirely different mindset and focus. The off-season is the time when there are no worries or distractions related to competition and results. This time frame is all about improvement. And to make the most progress in any and all areas of your athletic performance, you need to think a lot about your sport.

You want to analyze your strengths and weaknesses in every area that impacts your sports performance. You want to examine carefully your physical conditioning and make changes that will result in greater physical strength, power, agility, stamina, and flexibility when your competitive season arrives. You want to break down your technique and tactics and focus on the changes you need to make to improve. If you play a team sport, you want to explore ways to improve team cohesion, communication, and performance. And, yes, you want to get inside your head and ensure that you are getting mentally stronger as well.

Why so much thinking about your sport now? So when you head out to the field, court, course, or whatever setting you perform in for the first competition of the season, you will have done all of the “heavy lifting” necessary and you can say, “I’m totally prepared to perform my best and achieve my goals.”

Your goal during the off-season is to learn effective skills and habits—physical, technical, tactical, and mental—so completely that when you are in your pre-competitive prep period and when you begin competing, everything is so deeply ingrained that you can go on autopilot and allow your mind and body to do exactly what you have trained it to do, which is to perform the best you can. The outcome of all of that thinking during the off-season will have a big payoff, namely, great preparation, outstanding performances, and the results you want most in the biggest competitions of next season.

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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