Mental Training in the time of Social Distancing

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If you are like me, social distancing is not coming easy. I do enjoy my downtime, but for the most part, as an athlete and a coach, I thrive on my time spent with others. The time spent training, coaching, being coached, and competing with others is where I thrive, and I imagine most people reading this do too.

But, here we are. And the best thing to do is use this time wisely. It’s a perfect time to work on the mental part of your game. In my experience, most athletes and coaches know the importance of confidence, focus and a strong mindset. They know it’s crucial for high level performance. But dedicating time to mental training often falls down the priority list. Well, now there’s a lot of extra time on most people’s hands. So it’s the perfect time to take a deeper dive into mental training.

The history of sport psychology

Before I go into some ways to mentally train during this shutdown, I’d like to offer a little background about my field.  Sport psychology was “invented” when an Indiana psychologist named Norman Triplett noticed people seemed to cycle faster in groups than when alone. In 1898, he took these ideas into the lab and did studies, and found that in general, people do in fact, perform tasks faster when they are with other people.

In the study’s conclusion he wrote:
“we infer that the bodily presence of another contestant participating simultaneously in the race serves to liberate latent energy not ordinarily available.”

Here is a copy of his research paper. If you are into that type of thing.

“Social Facilitation”

In 1924, another psychologist, Floyd Allport, furthered this research and termed this phenomenon “Social Facilitation.” It basically means that people perform better in the presence of others.*  There’s a reason we workout with friends, with teammates, with coaches. It’s more motivating, more fun, and to quote the research “serves to liberate latent energy not ordinarily available.”

Ok that’s all good, but now what?  What do we do with this info? Because, at the moment, we are only focused on NOT being around other people. While we are social distancing, we can’t get the full benefits of social facilitation. For athletes, I suggest setting up virtual training sessions with friends or teammates.  You can find an online class to have a coach lead you through skills and/or a workout (there are surely hundreds of them out there. Check out this live online Soccer Workout for example).  At the very least, find a teammate to be an accountability partner, to make sure you are staying on task.

For coaches, I suggest that you do everything you can to keep your team connected during this time. Host online meetings through Zoom or Google hangouts.  You can do film study, you could bring in a sport psychology coach to help your players work on the mental game :), or just talk and keep the team together to get the benefits of social facilitation.

Mental Training

But what about all this time on your own? There is less commuting, less hanging out with friends, less going out to dinner.  What will you do with all that extra time? This is where mental training comes in. Just like the skills and physical training you do to be the best at your sport, you can train your mind with mental skills. While it’s great to use the benefits of social facilitation, one of the goals of sport psychology is to build that motivation and gain skills to be able to push yourself without the help of outside factors.

It’s a great time to take stock of your own mental game: your confidence, your mindset, your motivation.  It’s a great time to learn and practice skills like visualization and goal setting. Here are some practical mental training tips.

1 – Take a sports mindset inventory – Take this downtime to reflect who you are as an athlete, especially how it relates to your mindset.  Answer questions like: What are my distractions? What things build and break down my confidence? How do I handle adversity? What can I do to get better?  What things motivate and de-motivate me?

Knowing the answers to these questions are important for the next tip.

2 – Set new Goals – During an unknown time like this, one thing that is known: the goals you had previously are going to change. Maybe not much, but they will change. Setting goals around mental training and improving on your confidence, focus, mindset and motivation can now move into the forefront.

3 – Practice Visualization – Visualization is an amazing, but under-utilzed tool in an athlete’s arsenal. Visualization is basically a controlled daydream in which you imagine yourself performing a task, skill or event. Beyond just vision, it incorporates all 5 senses. Visualization is such a powerful tool, track and field athlete Marylin King came in 2nd in the Olympic trials in her event after being hospitalized from a car accident.

Taking seriously these three action steps can help you mentally train while you can’t train physically. And, of course we don’t know when, but the coronavirus will run its course and we will be back to normal at some point. When we get there, and are back to normal training and competitions, where will you be mentally? 

Mental Training Tools

Would you like more help in your mental training?  AMPlify Sport Psychology offers a variety of tools:

*Interestingly enough, the flip-side of Social Facilitation is “Social Inhibition” which is kind of the opposite: basically, some people tend to mess up when others are watching or competing. This is typically when the person is a novice or not particularly good at a skill.
**While we are on the topic, another tangential topic is “Social Loafing,” which says that in big groups, members can tend to “loaf” or not work as hard because they figure someone else will take care of it.  Not super relevant to the topic we are talking about, but it’s in the same ballpark.

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