Slumpbusting: Overcoming Performance Slumps in Competitive Sports
Performance slumps are one of the most common, yet mysterious, phenomena in sports. Typically viewed as unexplained drops in performances, slumps are a source of concern for athletes and coaches. Despite its visible place in the collective psyche of the athletic community, little is known about the causes or cures for performance slumps. As a consequence, this article will look at how athletes and coaches may prevent, identify, and overcome slumps.
What is a Slump?
Slumps are used to describe a wide variety of performance declines. As a result, there has been no clear definition of what a slump really is. For example, Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (Merriam-Webster, 1974) defines a slump as “a period of poor or losing play by a team or individual” (p. 1095). However, this definition lacks precision. Several factors must be considered in defining slumps. First, ability is important. That is, if the team is always lousy, their poor play would not be a slump. As such, current performance must always be compared to a previous level of play. Second, the length of the decline is relevant. For example, a baseball hitter who goes 0 for 4 may not be in a slump, but if he goes 0 for 25, he probably is. Third, a common aspect of a slump is that there seems to be no apparent explanation for the decline. If there is an obvious reason for the drop in performance, such as an injury, then it would not be a slump. Finally, a slump is subjective, i.e., a slump for one person may not be a slump for another.
In defining a slump, these factors must be taken into consideration. As a result, a slump is presently defined as: An unexplained drop in performance that extends longer than would be expected from normal ups and downs of competition (Taylor, 1988).
Identifying a Slump
An inherent part of sports participation is that performance will vary naturally during the course of a season. In other words, it is rare for athletes to maintain a consistently high level of performance. As a result, most performance declines are simply a typical part of the ups and downs of competition. So, the question is whether a decline is a slump or just a natural drop in the performance cycle?
The first step in determining whether a decline is a slump is to evaluate an athlete’s average level of performance. That is, how does the athlete usually perform? For statistically-oriented sports like baseball and basketball, this can be measured by plotting performance to date on a graph. Then, normal variation can be determined by seeing the ups and downs that commonly occur during the season. Next, recent performance can be compared to the normal variation. If the current decrease is unusually low, it may be a slump. Finally, a superficial look at the causes of the decline should be done. If there is no obvious cause of the drop in performance, it is safe to say that the athlete is in a slump.
Causes of Slumps
The causes of performance slumps can be grouped into four general categories. First, perhaps the most common cause of slumps is a physical problem. These difficulties include fatigue, minor injuries, and lingering illness. Second, slumps may be due to subtle changes in technique that occur during the course of a season. These changes may be in the execution of the skill or in the timing of the movement. Third, slumps may begin with changes in an athlete’s equipment, e.g., loosening of string tension on a tennis racquet or a different weight of a new baseball bat. Particularly in those sports that require elaborate equipment, there is a precise balance between equipment and technique. As a result, a slight change in equipment may alter technique, thereby hurting performance. Fourth, slumps can be caused by psychological factors. Furthermore, the mental contributors may be related to or independent of the athletic involvement. For example, a particularly poor performance may reduce confidence and increase anxiety, which could lead to a prolonged drop in performance. In contract, issues away from competition such as family difficulties, financial problems, and school struggles may distract concentration, increase stress, and decrease motivation, thus resulting in a performance decline.
Recommendations for Preventing Slumps
The best way to deal with slumps is to prevent them from happening. Slumps can be prevented by paying careful attention to the causes of slumps and taking steps to avoid those causes.
Physical. As discussed above, many slumps begin with physical difficulties. More specifically, slumps are often caused by the normal physical wear-and-tear of the competitive season. As a result, performance slumps may be prevented by paying attention to various factors that influence an athlete’s physical state.
One important area that can be addressed is physical condition. Quite simply, athletes who are well-conditioned will be less susceptible to fatigue, injury, and illness. Consequently, a rigorous off-season physical training program and a competitive season physical maintenance program will help minimize slumps due to physical breakdown. Second, a significant part of slump prevention is rest. In other words, physical deterioration can be lessened by actively incorporating rest into athletes’ training and competitive regimens. Adequate rest can be assured in several ways. Days off can be built into the weekly training schedule. For example, in sports with weekend competitions, having mandatory Mondays off is a good way to ensure that athletes are able to recover from the prior week’s training and the stresses of the previous days’ competition.
Third, athletes can reduce the quantity and increase the quality of training as the season progresses. This approach will allow athletes to maintain a high level of health and energy right through the end of the season. This is especially important in sports that have lengthy season such as baseball, tennis, and golf.
Fourth, planning a responsible competition schedule can also prevent slumps. Perhaps the most demanding aspect of sports involvement is the actual competition. Competing in too many events is both physically and mentally draining and may be counterproductive for the athlete. As a result, athletes and coaches need to select the competitions that are most important for the athletes and to avoid scheduling events that serve no specified purpose in the athlete’s seasonal competitive plan.
Fifth, scheduling time off about three weeks before an important competition, particularly when it is towards the end of the season, can help to ensure a high level of performance. This strategy allows athletes to recover from previous competitions, overcome nagging injuries and illness, focus attention on the upcoming competition, and prepare for the final push toward that competition.
Most fundamentally, the best way to reduce the likelihood of a slump due to physical causes is for athletes to listen to their bodies. They need to acknowledge fatigue, injury, and illness and when any are evident, they should be dealt with immediately. Simply put, athletes must learn to work hard and rest hard.
Technical. Slumps that are caused by technical changes can also be prevented by taking steps to maintain sound technique which results in strong performance. First, technique is best developed during the off-season when the primary focus is on technical improvement and there is adequate time to fully acquire the skills. As a result, technically-induced performance slumps may be prevented by minimizing technical work done during the competitive season. Working on technique may not only disturb the technique that is producing good performance, it may also hurt performance by reducing confidence and distracting concentration. In addition, maintaining a video library of good technique and performances can be used by athletes and coaches to remind them of proper technique and to compare current with past technique.
Technological. The best way to prevent technologically-related performance slumps is to maintain equipment at its high performance level. For example, tennis racquets should be restrung before their tension changes or if a favorite baseball bat is broken, it should be replaced by another of identical weight and balance.
Psychological. Performance slumps that are caused by psychological factors can be addressed at two levels. First, for those difficulties that arise directly from competition, it is important to have athletes engaged in a regular mental training program. This approach will develop athletes’ mental skills in areas such as self-confidence, anxiety, concentration, and motivation, thereby making them more resilient to the negative psychological effects of periodic poor performance. In addition, following poor performance, it is necessary for athletes to actively combat these negative psychological effects by employing these mental skills. This will prevent them from getting caught in a self-perpetuating vicious cycle of low self-confidence and poor performance.
Second, for those difficulties that occur away from the sport, it is necessary for athletes to work them out quickly and effectively. In addition, the previously-learned mental skills can used to leave these difficulties off the field, so that, at least during competition, athletes are able to maintain their proper focus and intensity, thus preventing a drop in performance.
It is essential that slumps be addressed in an organized and systematic way. Athletes and coaches must look at each cause and determine to best way to alleviate it. In addition, the attitude that athletes and coaches have about getting out of the slump will also be a factor. Typically, athletes and coaches believe that athletes can just jump out of their slump. However, the fact is that it takes time to get into a slump and it takes time to get out of one. As a result, athletes and coaches must be prepared to put in the necessary time and effort for the athletes to return to their previous level of performance.
The first thing that athletes need to do in the SlumpBusting process is take some time away from training and competition that provides a change of scenery and people. This time-out offers several benefits. First, slumps produce strong negative thinking and emotions in athletes, which helps to maintain the slump. The time-out enables athletes to let go of the negative attitudes and feelings and regain a positive attitude for upcoming preparation and competition. In other words, the time-out acts like an emotional vacation and provides them with much-needed perspective with which to look ahead toward better performances.
Second, slumps can be draining physically and emotionally. Consequently, time-out allows athletes to recover and to “recharge their batteries.” This restoration will further assist in the return to competitive form.
Third, the time-out gives athletes the opportunity to devise an organized plan to overcome the slump. The time away from the sport will enhance athletes’ ability to view their slump objectively. They can then use this information to alleviate the slump in the shortest possible time.
A critical part of the SlumpBusting Plan is to develop an organized program aimed at alleviating the slump. This program is based on setting a series of specified goals. As with all goals that are set, these should be specific, realistic, and measurable.
Return-to-form goal. This goal defines the ultimate purpose of the SlumpBusting program. In particular, the return-to-form goal indicates the level of performance to which the athlete wants to return. For example, a baseball hitter in a slump might set his return-to-form goal at his pre-slump batting average.
Causal goals. These goals focus on the level of performance associated with the particular causes of the slump. If there is more than one cause of a slump, it important that a goal be set for each cause. For example, if a slump is caused by an injury and maintained by a loss of self-confidence, then separate goals should be set for rehabilitating the injury and for rebuilding self-confidence.
Daily training goals. Once the causal goals have been established, daily goals must be set in order to achieve the causal goals. The daily training goals specify what athletes must do in their regular training to relieve the causes, thereby alleviating the slump. It is important in determining these goals to understand what is required to overcome the causes of the slump. For example, if a cause involves a technical problem, it is up to the athlete and coach to decide the best way to resolve the technical flaw and, more specifically, what to do in training to work toward the causal goal. Additionally, these goals should ensure that the athletes progress toward their causal and return-to-form goals in an incremental and constructive way.
Daily performance goals. Frequently, athletes are unable to take time off to work on their slump due to their competitive schedule. As a result, it is often necessary to keep performing while trying to relieve the slump. This situation is difficult because it forces athletes to keep performing at a sub-par level. Daily performance goals provide a level of performance to work toward that, though below the return-to-form level, is above the current slump level. These goals act to motivate the athlete and reinforce rather than discourage effort by furnishing realistic levels toward which to aim. They also provide a positive orientation that will help the athlete in resolving the slump.
It is also recommended that, along with the SlumpBusting plan, athletes in severe slumps have individual and group counseling available to them. As mentioned earlier, a significant component of a performance slump is the negative emotional chain that develops. Individual counseling enables athletes to air their thoughts and feelings to an objective observer and allows the counselor to provide effective coping skills that will help the athlete better deal with the anxiety and concerns of being in a slump. Group counseling enables athletes to share their experiences about slumps. These sessions have several functions. First, they provide a structured system of social support for the slumping athletes, thereby relieving the feelings of loneliness and isolation that are often present. Second, these sessions show athletes that their feelings are not unique and are, in fact, natural and expected. Third, they allow athletes to share their ideas about how to get out of a slump.
By following these recommendations, it will be possible for athletes to minimize the number of slumps they fall into during the competitive season. In addition, for those slumps that do arise, coaches and athletes will have the knowledge and skills to get out them in the shortest, most effective way.
Taylor, J. (1991, January/February). Slumpbusting: Overcoming performance slumps in competitive sports. Sport Psychology Training Bulletin, 2, 1-6.
THE MENTAL EDGE FOR SPORTS
Column Published in the Aspen Daily News (1997-98)
Aspen is full of highly motivated athletes who participate in many summer sports, particularly endurance sports such as cycling and running. These athletes have a variety of aspirations that may range from running in Boogie=s five-miler on July 4th to riding in the Leadville 100. But being motivated is not enough if you want to be successful this summer. You also need to set goals that will enable you to work toward performing your best. Motivation without goals is like knowing where you want to go without knowing how to get there. So goals can be thought of as a road map to your desired destination.
Goal setting can have value to you in your training and competitive performances. It increases your commitment and motivation to train and compete. Goal setting provides deliberate steps toward your athletic aspirations. It also helps you plan your training so you know what you need to do to perform your best in competition.
Types of Goals
There are five types of goals that you should established to ensure that you maximize your performances. First, you need to set long-term goals, that is, what you want to ultimately accomplish in your sport. For example, your long-term goal might be to complete the Ride the Rockies next year or run a sub-four hour marathon. Second, seasonal goals should be set, that is, what you want achieve this summer. These could include a certain time in a running race or to complete a mountain bike route. Third, competitive goals specify how you want to perform in specific events this summer, for instance, in the weekly Aspen Cycling Club races. Fourth, training goals tell you what you need to do in your training to reach your competitive, short-term, and long-term goals. Finally, lifestyle goals indicate what you need to do in your general lifestyle to reach the above goals. For example, getting adequate rest and eating a healthy diet are important lifestyle goals. Note that each later goal should lead to earlier goals, culminating in attainment of your long-term goals.
The effectiveness of the goals you set depends on certain criteria you follow in your goal setting program. Goals should be challenging, but realistic and attainable. In other words, set goals you can reach with hard work. Goals that are too low will not help you because they will be reached with little effort. Goals that are too high will hurt your motivation because you will not be able to achieve them no matter how hard you try.
Goals should be specific and concrete. Simply saying, “I am going to go faster” is not an effective goal. Goals should be measurable, for example, in terms of time or distance. They should also be time-limited, that is, goals should be set to be accomplished within a certain time frame. For instance, “I want to improve my per-mile time by 15 seconds by the Basalt Half-Marathon in eight weeks” is an ideal goal.
You should focus on the degree rather than absolute attainment of a goal. There is no certain way to set goals. Not all goals will be reached, but there will always be improvement toward a goal. If you are only concerned with reaching a goal, you may see yourself as a failure if you do not attain that goal. However, if you emphasize improvement toward a goal and do not reach a goal, but improve 50% over your previous level, you are more likely to see yourself as a success. Remember, the effort involved in striving for a goal and improvement toward a goal is as important as reaching it.
Making goals explicit seems to improve motivation and performance. It can be helpful to write the goals down so you can see them on a regular basis. Sharing your goals with your family and friends also appears to be a benefit.
One of the true joys in life is setting goals and achieving them. To that end, getting feedback showing progress toward your goals is very helpful. This can be accomplished in several ways. Maintaining a training log that keeps track of distance, time, heart rate, and other performance-related parameters can assist you seeing tangible evidence of your progress. You can also get goal-related feedback from training partners, coaches, and competitors. All of this information reinforces your efforts and motivates you to keep working hard.
Finally, goal setting is a dynamic process that never really ends. Because it is rarely possible to set perfectly accurate goals, you will have to regularly review and adjust your goals as your summer progresses. Some of your goals may turn out to be too difficult, in which case you will need to reduce them to a more realistic level or give yourself more time to reach them. Goals that are more easily reached than expected should immediately be reset to a higher level.
Goal setting offers you benefits throughout the upcoming outdoor season. It will systematically lead you to your athletic objectives. Goal setting will help you follow a safe and healthy path to your best performances. Finally, at the end of the summer, you will be able to look back with great satisfaction at the progress you have made and the outstanding performances you have achieved.
DO YOU HAVE THE MENTAL AND PHYSICAL EDGE?
A difficulty with dealing with mental preparation is that it is not tangible or easily measured. Unlike assessing your physical strength with weight lifting or your speed with a stopwatch, mental skills can not be directly assessed. Mental Edge Profiling helps you identify your psychological attributes to assist you in achieving your best performances.
Think of Mental Edge Profiling as physical testing for the mind. This approach has several benefits. Mental Edge Profiling offers you self-understanding. Without this awareness, you will not know what you need to work on to improve mentally. Mental Edge Profiling also leads to efficient change. Becoming the best athlete you can is a complicated process. You have to plan and organize all of your sports participation, school, work, and social life. It is difficult to find time to do everything. Without self-understanding, your sports participation will have little direction, will be trial-and-error, and will not be very efficient. And your training efforts will not lead to your goals quickly or easily. Mental Edge Profiling shows you what you need to work on so you can be efficient and focused in your sports training and participation.
Athletes need to be able to recognize their strengths and weaknesses in their sports. Clearly identifying your strengths will give you added confidence and show what you should rely on when participating. Unfortunately, athletes often avoid their less developed areas because they don’t like to think that they have weaknesses. This perspective limits your improvement because you never look at and work on your weaknesses. Improvement comes fastest when working on your weaknesses as well as your strengths as a part of your training.
Mental Edge Profiling involves rating yourself on 10 psychological factors that impact sports performance. These factors are: (1) confidence: how much you believe in your ability to perform your best (1-very low; 10-very high); (2) motivation: how committed you are to training and competition (1-very low; 10-very high); (3) intensity: how well you are able reach and maintain your ideal level of intensity during competition (1-not at all; 10-very well); (4) focus: how well you are able to stay focused and avoid distractions (1-not at all; 10-very well); (5) training: the quality of training you typically put in (1-poor quality; 10-high quality); (6) preparation: how mentally and physically prepared you are before competitions (1-not at all prepared; 10-very prepared); (7) emotions: how negative or positive your feelings are before and during competitions (1-very negative; 10-very positive); (8) pressure: how well you are able to handle competitive pressure (1-poorly; 10-well); (9) competitor: how well you perform in competition as compared to training (1-much worse; 10-much better); and (10) mental skills: how much you include mental skills such as positive thinking, relaxation, and mental imagery into your training and competitive preparation (1-not at all; 10-a great deal).
A similar approach can be taken using a Physical Edge profile to identify your physical strengths and weaknesses. In collaboration with Bill Fabrocini, director of The Aspen Club Sports Performance Center, I came up with 12 physical factors that significantly impact athletic performance: (1) strength: amount of force you generate for a specific muscle group (1-low; 10-high); (2) power: ability to combine strength and speed (1-low; 10-high); (3) endurance: ability of muscles to keeping working for a long period of time (1-low; 10-high); (4)cardiovascular: ability to heart and lungs to keep working for a long period of time (1-poor; 10-excellent); (5) flexibility: ability of muscles to lengthen (1-poor; 10-excellent); (6) agility: ability to change direction with quickness and power (1-poor; 10-excellent); (7) balance: ability to maintain center of gravity and equilibrium during an activity (1-poor; 10-excellent); (8) pain tolerance: ability to endure pain and discomfort during training and competition (1-poor; 10-excellent); (9) recovery: ability to recover from intense training periods (1-poor; 10-excellent); (10) health: degree of injury, illness, or fatigue you now have (1-poor; 10-excellent); (11) sleep: how well you are sleeping (1-poor; 10-excellent); (12) diet: how well you eat to get sufficient nutrition (1-poor; 10-excellent).
To complete your Mental and Physical Edge profiles, list the 10 psychological and 12 physical factors on a sheet of paper. Next to each factor, rate yourself on a 1-to-10 scale in terms of how you typically see yourself. For example, if you view yourself as moderately confident, but sometimes experience some negative thinking, you might give yourself a 5 or 6. If you have a generally poor diet, you might rate yourself a 2 or 3.
Having completed your Mental and Physical Edge profiles, you now have a numerical representation of what you perceive to be your mental and physical strengths and areas in need of improvement. It can be helpful to have a coach or training partner who knows you well also complete the profiles for you in order to determine the accuracy of your self-perceptions. If there is consistency in the two profiles, then it is likely that your beliefs about yourself are accurate. If not, you should examine where the differences lie and explore why your perceptions differ so greatly. This comparative process can increase your self-understanding even more. Typically, if you score below a 7 on a factor, it is probably an area you need to work on because it is interfering with your performances.
You can then compare the mental and physical areas you have identified as in need of improvement with your current training. Are you addressing those needs? You should specify those areas that should receive immediate attention, set goals to guide you in developing them, and then incorporate changes into your training to strengthen those areas. You can then complete the Mental and Physical Edge profiles periodically to track your progress in the areas you are working to improve.
STRIVE FOR PRIME NOT PEAK PERFORMANCE
Peak performance is a phrase that is used widely by athletes, coaches, and sport psychologists to describe the level of performance to which athletes should aspire. It is considered to be the best performance an athlete can achieve. When I came out of graduate school that is the goal to which I wanted my athletes to work toward. Yet, as I became more experienced as a psychologist and writer, I began to appreciate the power of words and came to believe that it is important that the words we use must be highly descriptive of what we are trying to communicate.
As time went by, I decided that Peak performance was not, in fact, highly descriptive of what I want the athletes with whom I work to achieve. Consider the word, peak. What it suggests is only a small point at which athletes can perform their best. Also, it is not possible to go any higher once that peak is reached. Lastly, the only way to go from the peak is down and the decline is quite steep.
For several years, I struggled with finding a phrase that I thought was truly descriptive of the level of performance I wanted athletes to reach. Finally, one day was in a supermarket meat section and noticed a piece of beef stamped with Prime Cut. A bell went off in my head! Prime is the best kind of beef you can buy. I thought I was on to something. I returned to my office and looked prime up in the dictionary. It was defined as, “of the highest quality or value.” At that moment, I knew I had it, Prime Performance was highly descriptive of what I wanted athletes to achieve.
I define Prime Performance as being able to perform at a consistently high level under challenging conditions. There are two key words in this definition. First, consistency. I am not interested in athletes having one great performance and a lot of poor ones. I want them to be able to perform at a consistently high level day in and day out. Second, challenging. I don’t care if athletes can perform well under ideal conditions. What makes great athletes great is their ability to perform their best under the worst possible conditions. So Prime Performance means performing well with minimal peaks and valleys, in pressure situations, and when it really counts.
November/December, 2004, p. 20-22
It’s late October and you’re heading into the holiday season with feelings of dread rather than cheer. You may have been pretty good about eating healthily and working out regularly, but you know that November and December are different. You’ll be busy with holiday parties which means eating more. To make matters worse, it’ll be cold and dark when you usually work out, so it’s much harder to get out and exercise. You’re afraid that your efforts to stay fit all year will go for naught. When January 1 comes, you’ll feel like a total blob and be wracked with guilt for allowing yourself to once again fall into the “holiday health blues.” You also know that you’ll be making lame New Year’s resolutions and starting from scratch trying regain your healthy lifestyle.
But don’t despair! This gloomy scenario doesn’t have to happen this year—or ever again. There are steps you can take to avoid this yearly winter trap and enter the new year having enjoyed the holiday season and still remain in fine shape.
Choose Fun Fitness
It’s easy to stay fit during most of the year; it’s sunny, warm, and with long days. You can be outside and enjoy the mountains, beaches, or other natural beauty. Life changes during the winter though. It’s dark when you get up in the morning and it’s dark when you get home at the end of the day. It’s also cold which means you either have to bundle up for outdoor exercise or schlep to the gym from an indoor workout. To make matters worse, the people who you usually work out with may also fall into the winter blahs, so you have no extra incentive to get out there.
Perhaps the biggest problem with winter exercise is that it can be a chore rather than a joy. Without the inherent motivators present to get you to exercise, you have to create your own. The best motivator is to find activities that you enjoy. Weightlifting in a crowded gym or running on slushy sidewalks probably doesn’t bring you joy, so find something that does. Take up cross-country skiing, join an indoor volleyball league, learn to play tennis, squash, or racquetball, take dance lessons or aerobics classes, or join a yoga class. There are many activities that aren’t considered typical exercise, but that offer great cardiovascular, strength, and flexibility benefits and, more importantly, they’re fun!
Find a Training Buddy
It’s 6 am, dark, and cold outside. Your alarm just went off. The night before, you told yourself that you were going to wake up early and run, but your cozy bed in your warm house won’t allow you to get up. So you hit the snooze button and go back to sleep. Or you get home from work or school at the end of the day and you’re tired and hungry. You just can’t get yourself to change and go for a workout.
It’s tough to go it alone, especially when the elements are against you. You need a really good reason to get yourself to exercise and one of the best reasons is other people. Find a training partner to work out with. For many people, the social aspects of exercise are very motivating. Being around other motivated people, having good conversation, and, at the very least, commiserating about how cold and dark it is, can make winter exercise not only tolerable, but often enjoyable.
The commitment you make to a training buddy can also motivate you to get out of bed or off your sofa. When you agree to train with someone, you’re establishing an informal contract that brings with it responsibilities. When you schedule a workout with your training partner, you’re creating an obligation to be there. When you don’t show up for a planned workout, you’re letting your partner down and violating your agreement. You’re no longer just hurting yourself when you don’t exercise, you’re also hurting your training buddy.
Set a Goal
Another great motivator is to have a goal that you want to achieve. You need a darned good reason to work out during the winter and “general health and fitness” is perhaps too nebulous to get you going. But a specific goal may offer you the push that you need. Goals can include gains in strength, weight loss, learning a new sport, improving at an old sport, or preparation for an upcoming competitive event, such as a running race or triathlon. Whatever goals you set, be sure they’re specific and measurable, attainable with effort, and you can chart your progress.
The Hardest Part is Thinking About Exercise
The hardest part about working out is not starting, doing, or finishing the exercise, but rather just thinking about it. Exercise seems more difficult and unpleasant before you begin your workouts. You think about the sweat, fatigue, and pain. But once you begin, it’s rarely that bad. In fact, you’ll probably enjoy being active and vigorous. The really good feelings come at the end. When you finish your work out, you usually feel great; energized and affirmed for the effort you expended.
Schedule Your Workouts
Don’t expect to stay committed to an exercise program if you try to fit it in around the rest of your life. You’ll be too busy, too tired, or too stressed, and you’ll always find an excuse not to work out. Rather than fitting exercise into your life, make it a part of your life by scheduling your workouts. By setting aside time throughout your week to exercise, you ensure that there won’t be time conflicts and you’ll develop the mindset that working out is just another part of your day, like eating and bathing.
In scheduling your winter-exercise program, don’t bite off more than you can chew by creating a workout plan that’s too much for you. A program that requires too much time doing activities that aren’t enjoyable will make it easy for you not to exercise. Be realistic about what you can and won’t do as part of your training program. It’s better to do less consistently, than try to do more sporadically or not at all.
Your exercise program should also be convenient. If your gym is a 30-minute drive from home, you’re probably not going to motivate yourself to go when it’s dark and cold. Make working out easy by doing activities that are readily accessible. For example, schedule your workouts on the way to and from somewhere, so it’s easy to stop by and have a workout. And, no matter what happens, go directly to a workout at the end of the day. If you stop at home, you will probably stay at home.
Commit to Moderation
What makes the holiday period so difficult is that socializing and eating are done in excess and exercise is often jettisoned completely. You can enjoy the holidays and still maintain your fitness and not gain much weight if you make a commitment to moderation in your holiday activities. Moderation means either cutting back on your holiday parties so you aren’t too tired to exercise the next day or leaving at a reasonable hour so you can get a good night’s sleep. It also means demonstrating some restraint when faced with open bars, plates of hors d’oeuvres, buffets, and dessert tables. Don’t fall into the more-is-better mentality when it comes to food and drink. You don’t need to try everything (or, at the very least, try smaller amounts of everything). Moderation allows you to enjoy your holidays, but relieves you of the guilt and regret you feel the morning after having eaten to excess.
Accept Little Failures
One of the biggest deterrents to staying committed to an exercise program is falling off the wagon and not getting right back on. When you decide to sleep in rather than getting up to work out, you feel like such a failure and figure that there’s no point in exercising at all if you keep giving up. But one slip doesn’t make you a failure.
You don’t have to be perfect to stay in good shape, just consistent. Accept that you’ll miss some workouts for any number of reasons and that doesn’t make you weak or a bad person, it just makes you human. When you skip a workout, cut yourself some slack, tell yourself that it’s okay, and recommit to working out tomorrow.
When it comes to your diet, don’t beat yourself up if you do indulge yourself and overeat a bit. It’s not the end of the world. Just be sure to get back on the wagon at your next party and show some restraint. You will always feel better after the fact having done a little less than a little more.
Exercise Before and After You Indulge
Perhaps the best strategy for the holidays is to commit to exercise before and after you indulge. By exercising before holiday events, you’ll have earned the right to enjoy yourself. You can eat guilt-free because you’ve already burned off the calories. Knowing that you’ll exercise the next day ensures that you’ll work off your indulgences of the previous evening and relieves you of any guilt you may feel. By working out before and after your holiday events you balance the scales and the whole thing is a wash.
Live a Little
Finally, live a little. The holidays are meant to be enjoyed. As the holiday season approaches, make peace with eating a bit more and exercising a bit less than usual. If you remain committed to consistent exercise and food in moderation, you won’t lose much fitness or gain much weight. Not only will the holidays not hurt you physically or reek emotional havoc on you, but they will actually bring you cheer.
Singing the Winter Blues?
Feeling the winter blues is as common as seeing snow in the mountains in December. Many people experience the winter blues as the clock changes in October and the days become shorter, darker, and colder. The winter blues, in its extreme form, even has a psychiatric designation: Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD affect about 500,000 people each year of which 70% to 80% are women. The syndrome can be debilitating, but most often it is mild and simply uncomfortable. Typical symptoms include sleepiness, lethargy, irritability, weight gain, feelings of melancholy, and cravings for sugary and starchy foods (comfort food). Not surprisingly, the winter blues are more common in the northern latitudes.
Here are a few things you can easily do if you have the winter blues:
1. Spend an hour outside every day (even if it’s overcast).
2. Exercise regularly.
3. Get plenty of rest.
4. Eat a healthy diet (and allow yourself to indulge periodically).
5. Seek out activities that you enjoy.
6. Socialize with upbeat, energetic people.
If the symptoms persist or they significantly affect your daily functioning, seek out professional help for treatment. Thankfully, the winter blues fade away with the early signs of spring and don’t return until the next winter. To learn more about the winter blues and SAD, visit sada.org.uk.
How Mentally Strong are You?
March/April, 2004, p. 30-33
Whenever I ask athletes how important mental preparation is, compared to physical and technical preparation, to achieving their competitive goals, everyone says either as or more important. But when I ask them how much time they devote to their mental preparation, they say, “little or not time.” Athletes in all sports spend many hours each week getting into their best physical condition and perfecting their competitive skills. Yet, despite its importance, the mental side of sports is often neglected, despite the fact that mental training doesn’t take much time and, in fact, much of it can be incorporated directly into your regular training regimen.
One of the biggest obstacles for you is simply not knowing how the mind affects sports performance and what techniques you can use to strengthen your “mental muscles.” To help you better understand, I offer the Prime Performance Pyramid. Prime performance is defined as performing at a consistently high level under the most challenging conditions. The Prime Performance Pyramid is comprised of six essential mental factors that influence athletic performance: motivation, confidence, intensity, focus, emotions, and pain.
Motivation is at the bottom of the pyramid because without the desire to train and compete, all of the other factors would be unnecessary. The challenge is to find the determination to keep working hard in the face of frustration, pain, boredom, and the desire to do other things.
Set goals. There are few things more rewarding and motivating than setting a goal, putting effort toward the goal, and achieving the goal. The sense of accomplishment and validation of the effort motivates you to strive higher. You should set clear goals of what you want to accomplish in your sport and how you will achieve those goals.
Focus on your long-term goals. To be your best, you have to put a lot of time and effort into your sport. But training often goes well beyond the point that it is enjoyable. During those times, focus on your long-term goals. Remind yourself why you’re working so hard. Imagine exactly what you want to accomplish and tell yourself that the only way you’ll be able to reach your goals is to go through the Grind.
Have a training partner. It’s difficult to be highly motivated all of the time on your own. There are going to be some days when you don’t feel like getting out there. A training partner is someone who can push you through those motivational lows. The chances are that, on any given day, one of you will be motivated. Even if you’re not very psyched to train on a particular day, you’ll still put in the time and effort because your partner is counting on you.
Daily questions. Every day, you should ask yourself two questions. When you get up in the morning, ask, “What can I do today to become the best athlete I can be?” and before you go to sleep, ask, “Did I do everything possible today to become the best athlete I can be?”
The heart of motivation. Motivation is not something that can be given to you. Motivation must ultimately come from within. You must simply want to train and compete. There are two things that should motivate you to compete. You should compete because you have a great passion for it. You should compete because you just love to get out there and do it.
Confidence may be the single most important mental factor because you may have all of the ability to be successful, but if you don’t believe you have that ability, you won’t use it to perform your best. Confidence is about believing you can be successful when it gets tough, perform your best when it counts, and achieve your competitive goals.
Preparation breeds confidence. Preparation is the foundation of confidence. If you believe that you have done everything you can to perform your best, you will have confidence in your ability to achieve your goals. This preparation includes the physical, technical, tactical, and mental parts of your sport.
Adversity ingrains confidence. Your biggest challenge is to maintain your belief in yourself when you’re faced with adversity. To more deeply ingrain confidence, you should expose yourself to all experiences that take you out of your comfort zone, for example, bad weather and poor training conditions.
Success validates confidence. When most athletes think of success, they think about having great results and reaching their competitive goals. But every day you train, you’re scoring little victories. With each of these small “wins,” your confidence steadily increases until you have the confidence to achieve a big “win.” After every training session, be sure to acknowledge the small victory—give yourself a pat on the back for your effort and remind yourself of the goal you are working toward—and allow them to accumulate.
All of the previous steps in building confidence would go for naught if you did not then experience competitive success. Success validates the confidence you have developed in your ability. It demonstrates that your belief in your ability is well-founded. Success further strengthens your confidence, making it more resilient in the face of adversity and poor performances. Success also rewards your efforts to build confidence, encouraging you to continue to work hard and continue in your sport.
Positive self-talk. Perhaps the most powerful mental tool for building confidence is positive self-talk. The first step is to become aware of how positive or negative your self-talk is. Often, athletes say things like, “I stink” or “There’s no way I can do this” without even realizing it. The problem is that your negativity will become ingrained and will come out in competition. Positive self-talk is a skill that develops with practice. Identify the negative things you often say to yourself and figure out something positive you can say in its place. Then, be aware of when you’re negative and immediately replace it with something positive.
When you’re in a big competition, it’s natural for your intensity to go up and for you to feel nervous. You have to take active steps to get your intensity back to a level that allows your body to perform its best. There are several simple techniques you can use to help you get your intensity under control.
Deep breathing. The most basic way to lower their intensity is to take control of their breathing by focusing on slow, deep breaths. Deep breathing ensures that you get enough oxygen so your body can function well; you will relax, feel better, and have a greater sense of control. This increased comfort will increase your confidence, calm you, and improve your focus. Deep breathing should be a big part of your pre-competitive preparations. If you take a few deep breaths, you ensure that your body is relaxed and comfortable, and you’re focused on something that will help your perform your best.
Slow pace of pre-competitive preparation. A common side effect of overintensity is that you tend to do everything faster. You can rush before the start of the competition as if you want to get the race over with as soon as possible. So, to lower your intensity, give yourself more time before your start and slow your pace as you get ready.
Music. Music is one of the most common tools athletes use to control their intensity before competitions. We all know that music has a profound physical and emotional impact on us. Music has the ability to make us happy, sad, inspired, and motivated. Music can also excite or relax us. Many world-class racers can be seen listening to music before they compete. Calming music relaxes you and makes you feel good physically and mentally.
Smile. The last technique is one of the strangest and most effective I’ve ever come across: Smile! As we grow up, we become conditioned to the positive effects of smiling. In other words, we learn that when we smile, it means we’re happy and life is good. Second, brain research has found is that when we smile, it releases brain chemicals called endorphins which have an actual physiologically relaxing effect. When you begin to feel nervous, simply smile and I promise you will feel more relaxed immediately.
The ability to stay focused is essential for you to perform your best consistently. Keywords in training and competitions can help keep you focused and avoid distractions. Come up with one or two key words that you need to focus on to perform well. For example, key words can remind you of proper technique (e.g., reach, straight body), staying relaxed (calm, breathe), good tactics (e.g., attack, patience), or staying motivated (e.g., be tough, hang in there). Key words are particularly useful when a competition gets difficult because they give you something you can grab onto and say to yourself, enabling you to remain focused when it really counts. Mental imagery—closing your eyes and seeing and feeling yourself performing the way you want—is another powerful focusing tool. You can use mental imagery before training sessions or competitions to block out distractions, focus on key aspects of your performance, and imagine yourself being successful.
The emotions that you experience before competitions often determine how you perform. If you’re excited and happy, you will likely do well. If you’re fearful, frustrated, or feeling despair, you will probably not achieve your goals. There are no specific mental training techniques to improve emotions, but you can develop emotional mastery by learning to recognize what emotions you are feeling, what is causing the emotions, and then look for solutions to resolve the cause of the emotions. You should use opportunities in which you’re feeling bad to figure out how to change your emotions so they can feel good and perform better.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle you will face in achieving your athletic goals is the pain you experience in training and competition, particularly if you compete in endurance sports. Pain is your body’s message telling your mind that it is threatened and wants to stop. Pain has such a powerful influence because, not only does it hold your body back, but it also affects how you think and the emotions you experience. Unless the pain indicates an injury, if your mind listens to your body, you will ease up and you will not perform your best.
Research has shown that when you connect performance pain with negative thoughts (e.g., “I hate hurting this much!”) or negative emotions (e.g., frustration, anger, despair), you actually feel more pain. There are several mental techniques you can use to limit the pain you feel.
First, accept that pain is a normal part of sports training and competition—“no pain, no gain,” as the saying goes. The reality is that if sports weren’t difficult, they wouldn’t be very satisfying and you probably wouldn’t do them. Second, stay emotionally detached from the pain and use it as information to help you perform your best, for example, adjust your technique, pace, or body position. Third, realize that everyone else is probably hurting too, so if you’re the one who handles the pain best, you’re more likely to be successful.
Fourth, when you feel pain, your body braces to protect itself. Unfortunately, this actually causes more pain. You can counteract this tension by actively relaxing muscle groups and using deep breathing. Fifth, by connecting positive self-talk (e.g., “The pain means I’m working hard to reach my goals”) and emotions (e.g., pride, inspiration, excitement) with your pain, you’ll increase your motivation and confidence and trigger pain-killing endorphins so you’ll feel less pain. Finally, perhaps the greatest lesson I have learned as both a sport psychologist and an athlete is this: The physical pain you feel in training and competition in no way compares to the emotional pain you will feel if you don’t achieve your goals because you let the pain beat you.
Sidebar: How Strong is Your Mental Muscle?
One of the most difficult things about dealing with the mental side of sports is that its not tangible. Unlike physical testing which allows you to measure precisely your strength, speed, or endurance, your mental muscles aren’t as easy to assess. The following test will help you determine how strong you are mentally. By having a better understanding of yourself mentally, you can focus on the areas that need the most work. I have identified 12 mental and competitive factors that are important to athletic success. Rate yourself on a 1-to-5 scale based on how you usually feel before and during an important competition. Then follow the instructions at the end to determine how mentally strong you are and what you need to do. Rate yourself
Motivation – How determined you are to achieve your competitive goals: not motivated 1 2 3 4 5 very motivated
Confidence – How positive or negative your self-talk is in competition:
very negative 1 2 3 4 5 very positive
Intensity – Whether your physical intensity helps (relaxed and energized) or hurts (get too nervous) your competitive performances:
hurts/nervous 1 2 3 4 5 helps/relaxed
Focus – How well you’re able to stay focused on performing your best and avoid distractions:
distracted 1 2 3 4 5 focused
Emotions – How well you’re able to control your emotions in competition:
lose control 1 2 3 4 5 maintain control
Pain – How well you’re able to handle pain in competition:
not well 1 2 3 4 5 well
Consistency – How well you’re able to maintain a high level of performance in competition and throughout the season:
very inconsistent 1 2 3 4 5 very consistent
Routines – How much you use routines in your competitive preparations:
never 1 2 3 4 5 always
Adversity – How you respond to difficulties you’re faced with in competition, for example, bad weather or tough conditions:
poorly 1 2 3 4 5 well
Pressure – How you perform in important competitions when it really counts:
poorly 1 2 3 4 5 well
Ally – Whether you’re your best ally or your worst enemy in competition:
enemy 1 2 3 4 5 ally
Prime Performance – How often you achieve and maintain your highest level of performance:
never 1 2 3 4 5 often
Scoring: Add up your scores for the 12 factors above. Use the evaluations below to determine how strong your mental muscles are:
45-60: Mentally tough as hell! Your mind helps you perform at your best consistently. Use the techniques in this article to maintain your mental strength.
30-44: Mentally solid, but vulnerable. Your mind generally helps you perform well, but you may break down in important competitions or when things get difficult. Pick a few techniques and work hard to strengthen your weakest mental muscles.
15-29: You never know who’s going to show up. You may have your good moments in competition, but mostly your mind lets you down and keeps you from achieving your goals. You should develop an organized mental training program using the techniques above to systematically improve your overall mental strength.
0-14: Call the sport shrink!: Your mind is your worst enemy in competition. It fails you at the worst possible times and you’re often frustrated because your head is such a mess. Find a good sport psychologist to work with.