I had shared a synopsis of a symposium I had attended at a sport psychology conference on mental preparation for military readiness. The theme was about the mental strategies to help soldiers “keep their brain in the game” – that is, the mental techniques that help combatants use their thinking brain to analyze situations clearly, adjust effectively to unpredictable demands, and stay balanced emotionally, rather than the defensive brain which is responsible for intense emotions and impulsiveness.
The mental training done to achieve this is surprisingly similar to the type of training an elite athlete would do in order to excel on their field of play. Here are the 5 techniques addressed:
1) Deliberate breathing
2) Pre-plan thinking
5) Attentional control
Let’s cultivate our second tool, pre-plan thinking.
Seemingly unrelated is remarkable research from nearly two decades ago, conducted by psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper. The description is taken from a Harvard Business Review article by Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, in whose book this study came to prominence:
On one day, shoppers at an upscale food market saw a display table with 24 varieties of gourmet jam. Those who sampled the spreads received a coupon for $1 off any jam. On another day, shoppers saw a similar table, except that only six varieties of the jam were on display. The large display attracted more interest than the small one. But when the time came to purchase, people who saw the large display were one-tenth as likely to buy as people who saw the small display.
Other studies have repeated this result, that more isn’t always better. And when it comes to pre-plan thinking– that is, identifying game plans and strategies in our sport – athletes often fall into one of two categories: first, they may do as Schwartz writes about, which is over-plan. They identify lots of game plans, with the good intentions of juggling them all simultaneously while playing. Realistically, this is difficult – and not all that helpful – to do, and so the result is usually lots of complicated thinking and abandonment of all game plans early on in the competition.
The other common problem athletes make is not planning at all. So as to avoid the trap of overthinking – and perhaps also to appear casual and calm to outsiders as well as themselves – players will go the opposite extreme and not plan at all: not think of how to play against a particular opponent, nor think about her own game and how best to play with what she’s got.
An effective game plan is simple – it’s never complicated, but it’s also never non-existent. A solid game plan should be able to answer two key questions:
- How do I want to play today? (e.g.,aggressive, with good footwork, pushing the pace, calm and relaxed, consistently sharp focus)
- How can I prepare for some problems that might arise, problems that typically throw me off my game? (e.g., playing poorly, getting cheated, off-field distractions)
This second idea is particularly difficult. Many of us, in our preparations for competition, will simply hope to avoid problematic moments – “I hope my opponent doesn’t cheat me today”; “I hope I don’t play poorly to start the game.” If there might exist some scenarios that throw us off our game emotionally, why not plan and prepare for it ahead of time? This way, if disaster does strike, we feel like we’ve handled it before, if only in our minds. It may help minimize anxiety and will certainly improve our sense of readiness.
Before competing is the time to think about, and even mentally rehearse, these key ideas: (a) how we want to play and (b) our perfect “reactions” to the things that usually hurt our confidence, or shatter our focus, or make us want to quit and leave as quickly as possible. While we’re dynamically warming up our bodies, or listening to music waiting for the action, surely we should be mentally practicing our game plans as well.