Mental Training (part 3/5 Inside the Mental Game of a State Champion)

Having a built-in expert in sport psychology is rare and is something that not many teams, let alone high school teams, have. But just having access isn’t enough. Coaches traditionally like full control of what goes on with their teams, and have trouble trusting an outside source to teach and implement new skills that they may know little to nothing about. Fortunately for the Franklin HS boys soccer team, Oregon Coach of the Year Ty Kovatch trusted me enough to allow me the time and freedom to implement the mental training plan I have always dreamed of putting into place.
Coach Ty and Brian

As the assistant coach, I did my best to support the vision the coach had for the team. I was a basic assistant coach: supporting practices, running some drills, training small groups, and more. Within each of these, I tried to bring an element of mental training in the area of focus, positive mindset, communication and more. For the pure mental coaching piece, we did regular classroom sessions and various activities throughout the year.

Positive Culture is essential to Mental Training

A strong mental game starts with a strong, positive culture and positive coaching as I wrote about in Part 2. To have a strong culture though is to actively embody it.  We hve to live the traits we espouse. And part of that was having the right mentality. Here are some of the mental training elements that were essential to our run to the state championship.

1) Process over Results

Just about every team’s goal at the start of a season is to win a state championship, but only one gets to achieve that goal. So it’s important to set process and performance goals and not just set the outcome goal. I asked each player during the preseason what their goals for the team were. As I mentioned in Part 1, we knew we had enough talent to go deep into the playoffs, so not surprisingly the most common answers were: State Championship, PIL Championship, beat Cleveland (our rival who has historically pretty much owned the series), and to go 14-0. 

This is a good starting point, but again, most teams have these goals at the beginning. In sport psychology, the outcomes they listed are considered out of your control. What’s in your control is how hard you work, your attitude, your preparation and other things. So, to not to let the goals just sit in outcome mode, my next questions were “How? How are we going to do this? What is the focus day-in-and-day-out that will get us those results? What are the things we need to be and do ‘No Matter What’?”

The photo below shows the process the team decided to follow and the results they hoped to achieve.
sport psychology process goals outcome goals

2) Apex Soccer Journal

Consistency throughout a season is crucial especially the mental game.  Throughout the season players used The Apex Soccer Journal to set personal goals each month and each week. We had them check in on their goals regularly to stay focused and self-motivated. The book served as the perfect tool, and the players were expected to have it with them at all times like any other piece of equipment!

Apex Soccer Journal sport psychology

After each game, the journal guided the players through a self-evaluation and also an evaluation of the opponent they had just faced.   This helps by making sure they learn from as many details as possible throughout the season. Not only that, but we ended up facing three teams in the playoffs that we had seen in the regular season.  Because of this, the players had an extra bit of preparation as they could read over their own notes about that opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. In the regular season we were 1-0-2 vs those teams. In the playoffs we were 3-0.

3) Team Building

We did team building in two ways.  The first thing we introduced was 6am Saturday practices. No teenager wants to get up at 6am on Saturday. It makes them miserable. But nothing brings people closer quite like being miserable together. Several players I spoke with admitted as much: ‘we hated that you made us do that, but we all saw the results’.

The second thing we introduced was road trip challenges. On our bus trips, instead of just allowing the kids free reign, we implemented structure and reserved the first 30 minutes as time without phones or music.  The goal was to get the kids talking and interacting, to ensure cliques didn’t form over the course of the season, and to talk face to face without screens and without distractions. During that time we created collaborative and competitive challenges to complete.  These activities helped the players not only get closer as the season went on, but to stay focused on those long road trips. As a result, we only lost one game on the road all season.

4) Visualization

During the season all the players had access to the Sports Mindset Audio program.  They could listen to these at anytime on their phone. As a team I led various types of visualization exercises throughout the season. Before games we might do skill building visualizations like seeing themselves making a tackle or scoring a goal.  After games we often did recovery visualization to allow dedicated time to process mistakes and dwell on positive things they did in the game. Before training we sometimes did a few short mindset visualizations: to transition from a school mindset to a soccer mindset.  All of this practice culminated in a 10 minute visualization in the locker room at Hillsboro Stadium before the championship game that got everyone calm, confident, and on the same page. There’s no doubt that that final mindset shift helped tie everything together.

So there you have it – a general view inside the mental game of a state championship team. The consistency and attention given to the sport psychology training did not make these soccer players great, but it did allow them to have a certain freedom of mind in the most pressure-filled situations.  The next two parts of the series will focus on adversity and “living up to the cliches.”

Why Does Visualizing Success Help You Attain it?

Why Does Visualizing Success Help You Attain it?

by Jake Sivinski, SPINw intern

In my last blog I talked about how and why we should use visualization. But the question that I am sure ,many of you have is why does imagining yourself doing something help you do it?  Over the last 30 years psychologists have come up with a few different answers to this question. The one that has received the most traction in modern psychology comes from the field of behavioral neuroscience. According to this argument, visualization owes its efficacy to our brain’s mirror neuron system. While this system is incredibly complex, it can can be broken down to the core idea that when we watch somebody do an action our brains mirror the action. Essentially if you were to watch another person drink a cup of coffee the same neural networks that would be active if you were the one drinking the coffee would activate. This process takes place subconsciously due to the fact that several aspects of our brain keep it from reaching the threshold of activity necessary to keep us from actually tasting the coffee and feeling the heat on our tongues. However our mirror neuron systems sub conscious imitations of others’ actions helps to inform us about our world.

One of the major ways in which its does this is through the process of motor referral. Motor referral is the process in which our visual system activates our motor system in response to visual stimuli. A good example of this would be when you see somebody smile, your facial muscles are activated at subthreshold levels to smile. The activation of these muscles helps you know that the other person is smiling and happy. As well it almost always leads to a smile in return. Motor referral plays a large part in how we judge facial expressions. In one study a group of people who had received Botox injections (paralyzing their face) and were less able to differentiate between facial expressions due to the restriction of movement in their own facial muscles!

So how does our mirror neuron and motor referral systems facilitate the benefits of visualization? There is a growing body of evidence that both of these systems can be activated by mental imagery as well as actual observed behaviors. This means that when we think about performing actions or see ourselves doing things we subconsciously rehearse the same actions. So what we do when we think about actions is extremely similar to what we do when we actually perform them. While this explanation is overly simplified it is important to note that everything we do originates in our brain. Therefore, why not practice using it? Of course we need to have some physical experience with an action to know we are practicing the right things. However once that is attained you are free to dream and practice mentally however you choose.  


How to Think About Your Game: get the most out of your daydream

How to Think About Your Game: get the most out of your daydream

by Jake Sivinski, SPINw intern

Here at SPINw one of the our most trusted tools for bettering an athlete’s mental game is the use of positive mental visualization. Visualization is essentially thinking about and going over plays, skills, and the bliss of victory in your head. It is something that most of us do everyday. As an athlete our minds are frequently preoccupied with with thoughts of sport. While some may call this a daydream, we see it as an opportunity to get a competitive edge. Numerous scientific studies have contributed to the understanding that visualization helps people learn new skills and stay motivated. Much of this is due to the fact that as people with real world responsibilities, we do not always have time to physically practice. In these scenarios mental practice through visualization is the best we can do. As well, visualization gives us a chance to explore different aspects of our game we have not discovered yet, or it lets us feel the glory of scoring that goal we have always wanted to.

While visualization is a great tool, there is a lot we need to understand before we can truly unlock its potential. The first thing to learn is that there are two main types of imagery created through visualization. The first is external imagery which places the viewer outside of their body and allows them to see the situation from third person. The second type of imagery is kinesthetic imagery which places the viewer inside their body and is mostly related to how and activity feels rather than what it looks like to an observer. Both of the types have their benefits, however which one is more effective for a particular individual requires some investigation.

The first important thing to take into account is a person’s learning preferences. Essentially are you a visual or kinesthetic learner? The distinction is simple, a visual learner learns by watching, and a kinesthetic learner learns by doing. Recent research shows that this preference in learning style may play a role in deciding which type of imagery is more effective. Visual learners do best with with visual imagery and kinesthetic learners do best with kinesthetic imagery. While this may not come as a surprise, it is an important thing to take into account when one is visualizing their sport.

Another factor that one needs to take into account when thinking about whether to use internal or external imagery is the task at hand research has shown a great deal of differences in the tasks that lend themselves to either of the types of imagery. For example one study has shown that visual imagery is more effective in learning tasks that require representation of size and shape, where kinesthetic imagery is more effective at tasks that require fine motor skills or time limits. Another important aspect which is especially important to the world of athletics is whether or not a skill is open or closed. An open motor skill is one where the environment can have a great impact on the performance of the sport. Open motor skills usually take place in a highly unstable environment in which one cannot choose when to stop or start to the action. These includes sports like soccer or basketball and usually have better outcomes if a person uses kinesthetic imagery in order to try to map out the environment and coordinate actions with others and constraints in the environment . On the other hand, closed motor skills take place in a stationary environment in which one has greater control over when and how to start the action. Sports that use closed motor skills such as swimming or gold usually have better outcomes if a person uses visual imagery due to the necessity of the form required to do each action successfully.

I hope after reading this you have learned a little bit about how to best use visualization as a tool to success in sport. That being said there is is still a lot to learn about how to maximize your visualization potential. In the coming weeks look for more updates for skills and tricks about how to get the most out of your daydreams!

Meet Jake Sivinski – SPINw’s fall intern

jake-spinw-sport-psychology-intern-portland Hello world! My name is Jake Sivinski and I am a new intern here at SPINw! I’m super excited to announce that I will be updating the SPINw blog every week. My background as an athlete lies primarily in the winter sports world. I was a competitive freeskier for  7 years competing internationally all over the continent. My background in athletics and my passion for psychology has led me to SPINw, and for that I am grateful. For my first post I would like to tell the story about how I came to know about the field of Sports Psychology and the profound positive impact it has had on my life. Hope you enjoy!


There’s something pretty weird about skiing in July. Every time I do it I feel like I am cheating nature, like stealing a cookie from winter’s proverbial cookie jar. But when the opportunity to ski in one of country’s national parks pops up, sometimes you just have to take it. The date was July 1, 2009 and I was 15 years old. I was young and excited and coming off one of my best winters to date: a dangerous trio. To make matters even more dangerous I was with a large group of other 15 year olds who felt the exact same way. We had just built a nice big jump and were all attempting to learn new tricks in the soft summer slush on Chinook Pass in Rainier National Park.  The trick of the day was a frontflip and nobody wanted to be the first to try it. Finally, I decided to go first, and well, it didn’t go very well. In fact, it ended in a fracture of both my tibia and fibula and a four-hour ambulance ride down the mountain. To make matters worse, I ended up breaking my L2 and L3 during my recovery, adding about three months to the process.

To say it lightly, thoughts about that day and the injury haunted me for years. Every time I would step up to do something scary and push myself, doubt would always be there. To this day I still have the perfect memory of my feet above my head and the sinking feeling in my stomach that I was not going to complete the rotation. The doubt I inflicted on myself dogged me for three competition seasons. During that time I never performed at the level I knew I could. I remember so much frustration and anger during those years and always feeling that I was letting myself down. Finally my senior year of high school, one of my coaches turned me onto a sports psychologist who had been working with various members of the US Ski Team. The moment I stepped into his office I could feel the doubt start to recede. He coached me through a wide variety of visualization exercises and helped me replace the doubt I had in myself with positive visualization. Almost overnight my skiing changed, and the following season was my best ever. I found it so much easier to push myself and I finally was able to push aside the doubt and focus on making sure I delivered the performance I knew I was capable of.


While I may not ski competitively anymore (homework is something that nobody can make disappear)  I still feel the positive effects of visiting my sports psychologist. And the great part about it is those effects are not just limited to skiing. The techniques I learned are applicable to so many different things and anytime I may have a flicker of self doubt I can use them to calm myself down and think more rationally. Now that I am in college, I have made it my goal to learn the skills necessary to help other young athletes perform to the best of their ability and improve their mental game. That’s why I am so grateful to get to work the premier sports psychology practice in the city of Portland! I look forward to sharing more information and stories with you all over the next few months! Thanks you all so much for reading.


Is there a ‘sixth sense’ in sports?

No, not a sixth sense of being able to see dead people like in the movie…

but more like this definition:

sixth sense – noun
a power of perception beyond the five senses; intuition:
“His sixth sense warned him to be cautious.

As an athlete or a coach, do you ever have a feeling that you know what’s going to happen next?  Or after something has happened, thinking “I knew that was going to happen!”  Do you ever make decisions based on a “gut feeling?”  That’s the kind of sixth sense I am talking about. It’s more about seeing things before they happen.

Here’s another way to look at “sense.”  If something “makes sense,” we are talking about this definition:

a sane and realistic attitude to situations and problems; a reasonable or comprehensible rationale.

But sometimes sports makes no sense. How else to explain upsets, chokes, and record-breaking performances?  Those “wow!” moments like Kirk Gibson’s homerun, David Tyree’s “helmet catch,” or Tim Tebow winning an NFL playoff game (kidding, I’m a big Gator fan, so I can go there)?

So what exactly is the sixth sense of sports?  Belief, Confidence, Anticipation, Intuition, Trust, Faith? A combination of these?  And can it be developed?

We think so.

Let’s take a look at some other “Senses” – Sense of humor, sense of balance, sense of fairness

Like these, the sixth sense in sports, well, makes no “sense.”  Sense of humor is just that – a sense of what’s funny. It’s not all the same for all people and there is definitely no formula to it.  Jerry Seinfeld has a certain sense of humor, and so does Adam Carolla.  Both are very funny, but in different senses. But these senses can be developed – timing, observation, studying, practicing, and of course, experience can all help.

Sport psychology techniques to help grow your “Sixth Sense of Sports”

1) Circle Breathing – part of sensing what’s coming next is being fully present in the moment. Circle breathing is a slow, deep, controlled breath, in through the nose, out through the mouth.  It is used to relax, calm, and re-focus.  Try it now, take 3 circle breaths………   What were you thinking about? For most people, the answer is “nothing.” It clears your mind to be more in-tune with the present moment.  As a professor I had, Betty Wenz, once said, “It’s impossible to simultaneously focus on breathing and worry.”


2) Positive Self-Talk – being an optimist, and controlling your self-talk is big time to develop a sixth sense.  For things to go your way, you need to have a mindset that is open to any possibility. When your mind is open, you are more likely to take opportunities that present themselves, no matter how unlikely.
Positive Mindset - SMG quote

3) Visualization – Using this sport psychology technique helps to build what I refer to as “emotional memory.”  We all know muscle memory – when you practice at a skill so much that your muscles remember the movements.  Emotional memory is when you have practiced, re-lived or felt the experience of success so much that you remember what it feels like.

When most people think of visualization, they think of, well, vision – seeing plays in your mind’s eye.  But it’s a little more than that: proper visualization uses all 5 sesnse: sight, hearing, feeling, smelling, and tasting. The sum of all these senses creates not only a full experience mentally, but can bring up all the emotions mentioned previously: belief, trust, anticipation, calmness, and more.  It becomes more than the sum of the 5 senses to help create and strengthen your “sixth sense.”


Overcoming Fear

Are you wondering how the Winter Olympic athletes overcome their fears when attempting extreme flips and somersaults, or after crashing? Basically, those who are successful quickly rewrite any fears or setbacks into a positive and successful visualization of the skill. Read more