Stephany C. Coakley PhD., LPC

Certified Mental Performance Consultant (CMPC)

(866) 277-3401

Mental P-R-A-C-T-I-C-E

I don’t know if I practiced more than anybody, but I sure practiced enough. I still wonder if somebody — somewhere — was practicing more than me ~ Larry Bird

We all know that if you want to be proficient or expert in any skill – you have to practice. Remember when you learned to ride a bike? At first it was hard to  steady yourself when the training wheels came off and for some – it was hard to stay on the bike. But you stuck with it, and sooner or later you were a skilled bike-rider. You practiced and you became good at it – so good that you eventually started to pick up speed – do tricks and stunts. Remember popping wheelies?

K. Anders Ericsson, Psychology professor at Florida State University, studies the benefits of deliberate practice with his theory of the same name. He suggests that in order to become an expert – you need to commit to deliberate or purposeful practice for at least 10,000 hours. When developing physical skills it makes all the sense in the world to us that we need to practice. Practice our putting…practice our jump shot…batting practice…practice safe tackling techniques…practice, practice, practice.
On the other hand, the concept of practicing mental skills is lost on many people. However, the same is true – if you want to be an expert in applying the mental skills that lead to consistently performing at a high level – you have to practice. If you want to be confident in any situation, mentally tough in physically demanding situations, calm and composed in chaotic situations there are techniques that you can practice daily that can help you develop mental strength. In her book You Can Play, Brenda Loube posits that if you want to learn, you will practice; if your practice is deliberate you will improve.

If you want to be mentally tougher than your opponents use the acronym P-R-A-C-T-I-C-E to establish a daily routine for mental strength.  Just as you might have a routine for arm strength or ab strength – develop one for mental strength. The routine will help you to: build and maintain confidence, focus on what is most important, display control and composure, establish a plan for goal achievement, and envision successful out comes.

Preparedness: Requires that you have plan for every situation that you might encounter and especially for the instances where you normally struggle to keep your head in the game. For example, if when competing against an opponent with a higher rank or record you begin doubting your skill, or fitness, or any area of your game – that will interfere with your confidence. The more doubt that you have the less confidence you have. It is important that you have an automatic well-rehearsed response for managing the doubts. The well-rehearsed response will enable you to maintain your confidence. It’s important to have mental skills drills that you practice daily so that when you need to use it – it will be available to you.
Repetition: Repetition builds strength and the more you do something – the more you will do it. If you went to the batting cage once and a while, you are not going to be very successful at bat. With that being said, if you only practice mental skills once in a while, during competition you are leaving your success up to chance. When things go wrong mentally, and they will, you won’t know what to do. Practicing mental skills when practicing physical skills will result in both becoming automatic. Remember: neurons that wire together, fire together.
Attitude: Attitude is everything! Your attitude when you practice will determine the quality of your practice, and will influence the quality of your future performance in competition. Set at least one goal every time to go to the gym, field or wherever you train. An example of this could be: today I will replace negative self-talk with motivational self-talk. Instead of “I can’t do this, it’s too hard” replace that thought with “I can do anything I set my mind to” or “sacrifice today for success tomorrow”, this motivational self-talk will not only enhance your performance but also your enjoyment. Now that’s a win-win!
Confidence: Confidence can be transient – but it doesn’t have to be. You can maintain your confidence regardless of the situation that you face by practicing effective thinking. In essence – confidence is a belief in yourself, a belief in your ability. How do you maintain confidence when you have doubts? You need to have confidence building thoughts ready to be deployed. The mind-body connection tells us that the mind controls the body and you control your mind. If you want to exude confidence in any situation – practice using impact statements to think effectively. For example, if you believe that endurance is a barrier to your performance because you always get tired before the game is over – during endurance training use an impact statement such as “I can run all day and all night”. If you use this impact statement during practice when you feel tired – during competition when you feel tired tell yourself “I can run all day and all night”. This effective thinking will strengthen your confidence in your endurance which will have a positive impact on your performance.
Time:  Practicing mental skills requires time and effort. If you want to be the great performer that you are capable of becoming, it’s imperative that you work at developing or strengthening your mental game. If you want to improve your first serve percentage i.e. 75% first serve points, you have to hit serves over and over and over again, until you achieve your goal. Similarly, if you get distracted and lose your focus at key points in practice or competition after a bad call, it is important that every day during training you practice your re-focusing technique. Use the mental cue SITM or STAY IN THE MOMENT. Each and every time you recognize that you are distracted – cue yourself to the action of being present, STAY IN THE MOMENT.
Imagine: Before you can have successful outcomes you must be able to envision what you want to happen. Research, using MRI’s tells us that when we vividly imagine a sequence of skills, our brain sends a message – to our body – down the spinal cord to the body parts responsible for completing the skills. Imagery is also known as mental rehearsal and when we rehearse something – we usually improve. Spend at least 5 – 10 minutes every day practicing imagery. Only successful performances though! If you are a pitcher – imagine pitching a shut-out. If you play basketball – imagine making all your free throws. If you play tennis imagine that you return your opponents serve regardless of where the ball lands in the service box. Make sure to incorporate all your senses, when you do this the message being relayed from mind to body is stronger, more impactful; your performances will become automatic. You get the picture, right?
Commitment: Your commitment is critical for developing the mental skills to consistently perform at a high level. How will you keep it up? Well, commitment to mental skills training can be accomplished by developing a routine. For example every night before bed you can commit to practicing your imagery and effective thinking. Perhaps you can set a daily reminder on your cell phone to practice mental skills. You can practice these mental skills building techniques to other areas of life as well. Try using your re-focusing techniques in class – when you do this you – it increases your ability to focus on the task at hand in class and in competition. There are tons of ways to ensure your commitment, you have to find which method works for you – then do it!
Excellence: There is a saying that “we are what we repeatedly do, excellence therefore is not an act, but a habit” (Aristole). If you want to be an elite performer, you have to challenge yourself. Challenge yourself to be extraordinary – bring your best to every practice and competition. Challenge yourself to be better – better than you were at the last practice or the last game. Challenge yourself to achieve – achieve the pinnacle of athletic excellence. Challenge yourself to master the mental skills that enable mentally tough performances. This can be done when you incorporate all the dimensions of your game – physical, technical, mental – in training. This triple threat sets the conditions for consistently performing to your full potential.