There was a time when I was able to work directly with a high school varsity team for a full season. With the consent of the athletic director, the coaches, the players and their parents, I met with the team for group sessions that focused on mental skills development and team cohesion. I also observed the team during practice and competition, and I made myself available to meet with athletes one on one, on a voluntary basis.
As a mental skills coach, the experience was invaluable because it helped me to gain better insight and understanding of team communication, team goals and expectations, and I was able to help the athletes identify characteristics that define peak performance versus poor performance.
Note to the reader: the athlete’s name and sport have been changed to preserve anonymity.
Several games into the season, a lacrosse player approached me and wanted to discuss problems he was having with controlling his anger and frustration during competition. The athlete stated that during the past three games, he had lost his cool during each game, which resulted in him getting numerous unsportsmanlike conduct fouls for unnecessary roughness and shouting profanity (mainly the F-word). He felt that if he continued to perform like this, he would continue to draw penalties, let his team down, and would most likely lose his starting position.
Mitch Abrams and Bruce Hale, professors in the field of sport psychology, describe anger in the following manner:
Anger is an emotion. It is a normal emotion that requires no judgment be made of it. It is neither good nor bad to be angry; it is as normal as being happy. Anger in itself, is not observable to others. If you are furious at this moment, people would only be aware of it if you behave in a way that displays your emotions, such as gritting your teeth or yelling. The emotion itself, however, is the feeling that you have. Many other emotions, like hate, fear, frustration, and disappointment, can lead to anger. Your body responds to anger in much the same way as it responds to anxiety; the major difference between the two is in their associated thoughts. Anger may be associated with thoughts of confrontation, while anxiety-related thoughts often involve avoidance. (Murphy, 2005, p.96)
Identifying the Problem
Over the course of several individual sessions with Steven (the defensive player on the lacrosse team), he was able to recognize that his anger and frustration would follow a certain pattern or progression:
a) If an opponent he was defending beat him one on one and scored a goal. His reaction to this would be to get mad at himself for playing poor defense. He also recognized that he would start whispering the F-word or as he referred to it as â€œdropping an F-bombâ€ to himself and he would start swatting his stick at the ground.
b) As the game progressed and if he was beaten one on one several times, he was likely to start playing more aggressively against his opponent, which would often lead to a penalty, or getting beat to the goal. He realized that if he was beat by an opponent or if he drew a foul, he would do one of three things, kick the dirt, hit himself in the chest, and/or growl; and finish it off by dropping an emphatic â€œF-bomb.â€
c) Once he becomes so overwhelmed with anger and frustration, he would just start running around the field chasing after any opponent that had the ball. He knew at this point he was no longer in control of his emotions because he was not guarding his assigned opponent on the other team, he was no longer playing team defense, and he was trying to take his anger and frustration out on anyone that had the ball.
Steven recognized that to play to his ability, he needed to keep his emotions under control. To play to his potential, Steve needed to develop a plan to stay focused on the game and keep his emotions in check. The plan was as follows:
Whenever he felt like he made a mistake or played poorly, he would say the word â€œFitsâ€.
It served as his replacement word for swearing.
Second, it was his cue to take a deep breath to calm down and to assess what just happened. Third, it was his reminder that what just happened was not a big deal and he didnâ€™t need to dwell on it.
Lastly, he would tap his gloves together to let himself know he had moved on and was ready to play.
Steven took the time to practice his mental skills during training sessions and games that lacrosse season. His time and dedication to his mental skills training paid off. He was able to learn to keep his emotions in check, which resulted in fewer penalties and better focus during competition.
Overall, each athlete is different and acquires new skills in a unique manner. Therefore, it is important to remember that an athlete needs to take the time to develop his or her own mental skills plan. Results just donâ€™t happen overnight, you need to practice, practice, practice, to get better.