22
Apr
10

Are Games Won or Lost?

Isn’t it interesting that most of the teams rated as the “underdog” won their games in the opening night of the NHL playoffs. How does a team that finished in eighth place in the conference beat a team that finished first overall? Barring injuries to key players, talent usually rises to the top and accounts for how high a team finishes in the standings. So in the playoffs, how does a “lesser” team beat a more talented team? Or stated another way, how does a “better” team lose to a less talented team?

The answer has to do with the expectations the athlete has about playing a “better” or “lesser” team. How he/she assesses their competition seems to determine how they prepare for their game. It has to do with the player’s expectations of themselves, their teammates and their opponent. Based on those expectations, the athlete prepares accordingly. This then begs the question of what goes through the mind of the athlete who is preparing to play a significantly less talented opponent and what goes through the mind of the athlete who is preparing to play a significantly more talented opponent?

Based on human nature, most people exert just the “right amount” of energy necessary to accomplish a task. It is uncommon to work harder or faster than is necessary to complete a task and in some cultures, doing so can create conflict among workers or teammates. People perform according to the “expectations” they hold of the task.

Thus, less talented teams don’t expect their opponents to expend as much energy to beat them as compared to more talented teams. Simply put, the more talented teams don’t seem to prepare as much because they think they don’t have to! They do not take the “lesser” team seriously enough and therefore play down to their opponent’s level.

On the other hand, when faced with playing a more talented team or opponent a different approach to game preparation takes place. There is a strange calmness present as the expectations aren’t as great. It is felt that there is “nothing to lose” and therefore, the pressure is lessened. No one will be disappointed if you lose, because your opponent is a better team and they are supposed to win. Based on these lowered expectations, the preparation to compete against this “better” team is often more relaxed. This more relaxed, just “play your game” attitude, seems to be a more successful strategy.

If this seems confusing or counter-intuitive, it is, since it’s not logical. It is, however, psychological and that is what people are all about. Imagine how an athlete must feel always having to gauge and adjust their preparation to their expectation of how the other team will perform. A more effective way to prepare to play a match or game is to play at the same optimal level regardless of the opponent. In fact, the opponent shouldn’t matter at all, nor should the score, the game conditions or the refereeing. What should matter is playing your game to the best of your ability regardless of what external conditions are presented. Your internal consistency is what you can control, therefore, learn to control it. This consistency of play is at the core of mental toughness. Thinking about how good or how poorly your opponent plays should be kept out of your conscious awareness. Focus instead on playing your game and playing to win. Keep playing at the same high level of intensity until the buzzer sounds, regardless of the score or your opponent level of play. If you do this you will lessen the chances you will lose to a “lesser” team.

Interestingly, most of the “better” teams won the second game of their 7 game series against their “lesser” opponent. They must have prepared differently, i.e. changed their expectations eh?

If you are interested in discussing your “Head” issues with me, you can contact me here or on my website: www.ProFormance-inc.com.

Use your Head to Stay in the Game.

08
Apr
10

Sport psychology: self-development vs. treatment

I often receive calls from parents of young athletes requesting that I talk to their son or daughter. They explain that their child has a “big game” or try-out in the next few days and they want them to be better prepared mentally. Most parents are willing to go to any length possible to help their young aspiring athlete be the best in their sport, and as a parent myself, I appreciate that. However, this type of call, while quite positive in its intent, is often frustrating in that these parents have the expectation that a phone call or a couple of sessions with a sports psychologist will result in a marked improvement in their child’s sport performance. The reality is that in the short time frame, I can at best help the young athlete calm down, focus their energies on the relevant aspects of the next few days and help them put the up & coming “big game” into a more manageable perspective. I may even be successful in having their very interested parents back off a bit in order to give the young athlete some much needed psychological breathing room. Though I believe these interventions and suggestions can be quite helpful in the short-term, any longer lasting mental skill improvement will take a little longer to develop.

When I receive these calls from the parents of young athletes, they are requesting that I help their son or daughter “fix” a problem. While this is an understandable request, it would be far more productive and effective for the young athlete to be learning how to develop the psychological tools necessary to enhance their performance during their on-going practices and training regimen.

So, why isn’t there a sports psychologist teaching these skills at every youth sport program? Why don’t we require every coach working with our youth to take a basic course, such as, Effective Mental Skills for Sport and Life? If the mental side of sports performance is as important as all the sports commentators, sports analysts, coaches, parents and athletes themselves say and believe it is, why is it given such little attention in sports training, particularly in youth sports?

I believe there are two main reasons for this. The first is that sports psychologists themselves have not made a compelling enough case as to why learning these skills would benefit the athlete. Secondly, people still hold on to the notion that to see a psychologist, no matter what kind, means they are deficient or lacking in their make-up in some way and that they are receiving “treatment.” It is thus imperative that the professional organization of sports psychologist do a much better job of educating the public as to what a sports psychologist can do and how people can benefit from their services. In short, a sports psychologist is more often used for “development” rather than “treatment.”

If you are interested in discussing your “Head” issue with me, you can contact me here or on my website: www.ProFormance-inc.com.

Use your Head to Stay in the Game.

01
Apr
10

Practice Hard…..Play Well

So, what is the difference between practice and play?

Practice is work…hard work. It is designed for you to work on various aspects of your game. This includes your physical stamina, your cardiovascular conditioning and the various sport-specific skills necessary to compete well in your particular sport. During practice, you get input from your coaches regarding what you’re doing well and what you need to work on. You learn various plays and what your role and responsibility is in carrying out those plays. Hopefully, attention is also paid to the mental aspects of your sport development such as keeping unwanted emotions and negative thoughts from interfering with your performance. During practice, your focus should be on how to improve both the physical and mental aspects of your game. Practice is where you work on this.

Playing is different from practice. Playing a game, no matter what the sport, should be play, not work. Having a game or a match should be … TIME to PLAY. The work is over. Practice is done. The focus should not be on the development of your game. It’s time to PLAY. Let it go…..have some fun! Enjoy the fruits of your labor. When you are playing in a game, let the mistakes go. Do not dwell on your mistakes or even work on them. Of course you can review what you did when you missed a shot or muffed a play.  But the less time you think about that mistake and the more time you focus on the current game situation, the better you will play. Making mistakes in a game will always occur and is an expected part of the game. How well you can do this is related to a concept called mental toughness. In large part, mental toughness is determined by how well you let go of mistakes and how well you regain your poise and excel in spite of your mistakes.

So…practice hard….but when it’s game time….play the game. You’ve never heard anyone say, “Hey, let’s go watch the Rangers “work a game.” We say, “let’s go watch the Rangers play a game.” Practice is work, playing is just that….play.  Enjoy it…you’ll play better.

Stay tuned for some more “HeadTalk” from the Doc.

If you are interested in discussing your “Head” issue with Fred, you can contact him here or on his website: www.ProFormance-inc.com.

Using your Head to Stay in the Game.

25
Mar
10

Self-Discipline: In Sport and in Life

On a little more serious note….

In my early years as a team psychologist working with a professional team, I doubted the concept that how hard an athlete practiced had an effect on how well or how poorly he/she played in a game. My thoughts about practice and game performance came about by watching some very talented athletes who practiced poorly and then played well in games. It took some convincing but over time, I came to see that the effort these athletes put into practice did in fact affect their game and more.

The attitude of the talented players was: what is the point in working so hard in practice when I play well enough in games? These athletes did play well but over the long-term, I observed that the overall endurance of these athletes did in fact suffer. Their physical conditioning and stamina suffered and their specific sport skills stagnated while their fellow teammates continued to get better and better. Such poor practice habits also affected the team. These athletes began to lose the respect of their teammates. This occurred because their teammates saw this lackadaisical approach to practice as showing off, being arrogant, and not wanting to be a part of the team…..they were perceived as thinking they were better than the other players who practiced hard. Resentment of these more skilled players began to grow and, if the coach allowed this to continue, the resentment grew bigger and bigger, eventually destroying the cohesiveness of the team.

Everyone has days when we just don’t want to go hard in practice. But if these days are occurring more and more frequently, you might want to think about a few things. One important thing to consider is whether you really are that interested in continuing to play this sport? You may have outgrown your interest and you may want a break or may want to find something else that motivates you more. But if you do enjoy playing your sport, then the question becomes: How good do you really want to be? Are you playing to get some exercise and be around some friends or are you interested in excelling, getting better, becoming the best you can be?

How you answer these questions may lead you to explore a more basic attitude. If you think you are good enough, then practicing hard will probably be hard for you to do. But if you truly want to excel but don’t like to work hard, you might need to think about developing the skill of self-discipline.

Self-discipline is a concept that has to do with doing the things that NEED to be done, instead of just doing those things that we WANT to do. Self-discipline is an attitude that leads to habits that lead to achieving our goals. This requires hard work. It means working hard in the boring classes and not just the ones that really interest you. It means doing the exercises and drills that we find boring and wears us out physically so we can be in the best possible shape or making the right decisions about what we do in our free time so that nothing interferes with what we want to do in life. The importance of practicing self-discipline cannot be underestimated. In life, it’s important to learn to be more organized in our daily routines, to not procrastinate on projects and do more than just get by. It’s important to exercise self-discipline in situations that may do us harm and to use this skill to make the right decisions when we’re with our friends.

Funny how self-discipline can make us not only a better athlete, but also make us better in “real-life.”

Stay tuned for some more “HeadTalk” from the Doc.

If you are interested in discussing your “Head” issue with me, you can contact me here or on my website: www.ProFormance-inc.com.

Use your Head to Stay in the Game.

18
Mar
10

Athletes learning to deal with in-game anxiety.

Hello again to all,

I hope everyone is drying out from the massive rain storm which hit New England last weekend. Sunny, warm days are ahead.

It’s one thing to have the “jitters” before a game. But it’s another thing if these feelings occur during a game or a match to the extent that they interfere with your performance. Typically, these anxious feelings go away once you serve up a big hit, work up a sweat or just “get into the game.” But for many, that’s not the case. And it’s very frustrating because you know you can play better but the anxiety is in the way and you cannot shake it.  If those “jitters” do not go away after getting going, then you may need to help them along.

There is much written about managing anxiety in sports. That’s because it’s a huge factor in competition and it’s one that can really affect an athlete’s performance and confidence. The most important thing for an athlete to do is to get the anxiety down to a manageable level and do this quickly. You want to learn how to manage it as soon as possible because once anxiety begins or you’ve experienced it during a game a few times, it can feed on itself so that the mere thinking that it might occur can actually trigger the anxiety. This is because the mind can actually produce a physical reaction. You may have heard it before and it’s true – the mind can and does “control” the body. It’s also referred to as the mind/body connection. Because they go hand in hand, you have to focus on the mind and body as a team.

So, the approach to reduce anxiety has to involve the mind. Remember, being able to manage the anxiety quickly depends on how well you can train yourself to recognize the anxiety level and how well you can apply the necessary techniques that you have learned. Practicing this is no different than refining your slap-shot in hockey or your bunker shot in golf….practice, practice, practice.

So, what to do? Following the steps below can help you manage the anxiety that interferes with your performance.

  • Keep a log:  In all performance situations, pay attention to when your anxiety goes up to the point where it interferes with you game. Rate how high the anxiety or “jitters” are on a scale of 1-10. Write that number down in your log. Keep the log for a week or two depending on how many games you play.
  • Next: Pay attention to what you are thinking during the time or moments before the anxiety kicks in.  Feelings of anxiety may be experienced as your muscles tightening up, adrenalin levels rising too high or your breathing becoming shallow.  You usually know it. When the anxiety rises, you might not think that thoughts are going through your mind, but they are and it’s important to become aware of these thoughts. Write these down in a log as well as soon as you can. Keep track. You might think you will remember your thoughts, but it’s more accurate and useful to write them down as soon as possible.
  • After a couple of weeks or so (the more data the better), look for some patterns in the data, such as when it occurs.  Does the anxiety occur when you are actually playing and/or does it occur during non-playing times, i.e. sitting on the bench, in the dug-out, between shots, etc.  Then look for patterns in what you are thinking. How would you characterize your thinking?  For example, are you thinking about making a wrong move or a bad play, afraid of screwing up, or fear losing, etc.?
  • Now begin the process of re-thinking these thoughts. Allow yourself to think differently about what you’re saying to yourself.  For example, replace a negative thought with a neutral or positive thought.  Say to yourself something like, “ I will hit my best shot” instead of “I better not hit a bad shot like I did before”.  In response to these different thoughts, your body wlll respond differently. The signals going from the brain to your body are now different so you will feel the difference. Your racing heart will slow down and you’ll be better able to focus and play your game. This may sound simplistic or “too good to be true”, but science and reality prove this to be true.

Engaging in this exercise will eventually pay off. By changing the way you think results in changing how your body responds and ultimately, how you perform in your sport.

Stay tuned for some more “HeadTalk” from the Doc.

If you are interested in discussing your “Head” issue with me, you can contact me here or on my website: www.ProFormance-inc.com.

Use your Head to Stay in the Game.

12
Mar
10

HEADTALK with the DOC

Hi there…my name is Dr. Frederick Neff. I am a sports psychologist. I have worked with athletes for over 25 years teaching them how to use their heads to perform better. I worked with the Boston Bruins for many of those 25 years teaching some of hockey’s greatest players, including Ray Bourque, how to have his head work for him in competition rather than against him. I will be appearing from time to time on this site to talk to you about how you too can improve your “mental game” just like the pros do.

Like your physical conditioning and your hockey skills, the mental skills take time to develop and this takes practice. I know, more practice, ugh… but you practice your slap shot, your puck passing, and your footwork. You lift weights, work on your cardio, and do skating drills until you are wasted. Why not spend some time learning how to:

  • Stay focused even when you’re struggling,
  • Maintain your energy level throughout the game,
  • Practice your wristers using mental pictures, or
  • How to keep the butterflies to a useful level?

These are some of the outcomes of learning and applying mental skills training. By the way, some of these skills can be very useful in your life away from hockey as well. Think about it!

It is most reassuring to know that when you are in the “big game” or when the try-outs are approaching, or the college scout is in the stands, or for that matter Dad is at your game, that you know that you can and will play your game your way with the confidence, purpose and fun of playing pond hockey.

Stay tuned for some more “HeadTalk” from the Doc.

If you are interested in discussing your “Head” issue with me, you can contact me here or on my website: www.ProFormance-inc.com.

Use your Head to Stay in the Game.




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