Below is another piece in a series of original articles written by Dr. Ken Ransom exclusively for the Buckeye Prep Report all designed to help educate parents, coaches and players about their child/player’s physical, mental and emotional development. Enjoy!
“90 Percent of the Game is Half Mental.” Yogi Berra
The Nationals are over, showcasing great young basketball talent from all over the country. There were many great performances but undoubtedly, some players had disappointing games and felt that they could have played better. What makes a player consistently perform at the top of his game? It can’t be skill level; physical abilities are not going to change from day to day. It is often “mental toughness” that determines how well an athlete performs in competition. So what is mental toughness and how do you get it? Some players naturally have a “no fear” attitude and will play hard at all times, with or without good skills. There are however, many players that may demonstrate tremendous skills and physical ability but don’t always bring it to the game. Mental toughness can be developed just like physical skills through training and practice.
Developing strong mental toughness starts long before game day. It begins with the player’s state of mind. He must have a positive attitude about the sport and confidence in how well he is able to perform:
Positive attitude comes from a strong feeling of relatedness to other people and to the game. A young athlete needs positive feedback and support from friends, family, team mates and coaches. He needs to have a strong self-image as a basketball player and passion for the game. Psychologists claim that these concepts are especially important to teenagers which are also the best years to foster motivation and mental focus necessary to become an elite athlete.
Confidence comes with competence in playing the sport. This takes commitment to practice and preparation. Neuroscience researchers have identified actual physiologic pathways that develop in the brain with repetitive physical tasking (shooting free throws, three point shots, etc., etc.). We call it muscle memory, but it is really brain memory. To become a true expert in anything, including an elite athlete, much time needs to be spent on practice and mastering the fundamental skills. A player that plays fundamentally strong will be competent and have confidence in his game. His play becomes automatic allowing his body to go on autopilot.
Almost all elite players have experienced the joy of “being in the groove” or “going with the flow” and wonder why they can’t play like that every game. It’s impossible to play great all of the time, even the Pro’s have bad games. There are many distractions that can prevent the brain and body from achieving that ultimate level of performance and focus.
Firstly, it is important for the player to spent time before the game to relax and clear his mind of external distractions like girlfriends, school, home, etc. There are different ways to mentally prepare for a game such as self-talk and self-imaging. Some players like music, others meditate. The mind needs to be at ease and focused only on basketball when the whistle blows.
Finally, the player has to deal with all of the demons that can distract him while actually playing the game. Stress and emotion are part of any competitive sport and must be controlled. Comments from other players, missed shots or mistakes, upset coaches, unruly fans must all be kept in check. The body must stay on auto pilot so the mind is free to focus on the game. This is especially true in a sport as fast and intense as basketball where there is no time to overthink or tense up. Phrases like “let the game come to you” and “see the game, not watch the game” describe this mental state. Mental toughness requires the player to have a positive attitude, confidence in his skills and a clear mind in order to let his body do the work and his mind focus on playing the game.