Your sport season is quickly approaching. Many athletes will be participating in tryouts for the upcoming season and some, unfortunately, will fail to perform to their potential. As parents, we feel for our children in their disappointment and want to help. As coaches, this could make forming our teams more difficult and increase the likelihood of dealing with upset parents that believe their athlete deserves a spot. Adding mental skills into an athlete's tryout preparation can help to decrease performance anxiety when the time comes. Follow this simple 3-step process to reduce the tryout “jitters”:
The first step is Information Gathering. During this step, the athlete (with the help of a parent or coach) learns about the tryout process. It is important to ask questions like:
- Is the team taking the best players regardless of position, or will the decisions be made by position?
- Is there any special equipment needed?
- What will the weather be like that day (if outside)?
- Will the coaches conduct the evaluations, or will it be a service from a company outside of the organization?
- Will the format be drills, games, or some combination?
Having as much information as possible will reduce anxiety caused by the fear of the unknown. If an athlete knows the structure, elements, and evaluation process of their tryout, they will be less likely to feel unprepared.
Once an athlete has an idea of what the tryout will be like, the next step is to visualize. Visualization is like a movie that takes place in the athlete’s mind. The more information that is gathered and the more senses that can be involved, the more real the “movie” will be to the athlete. Depending on the athlete’s ability to visualize, they can introduce potential difficulties and work through them with positive outcomes.
In addition to working through difficulties, the athlete will be able to practice and improve the physical skills required to perform in their sport. Visualization works because the body does not know the difference between real and imagined experiences and will still fire all the same nerves and activate all the same muscles (although to a far lesser extent than real movement).
For example, an athlete can practice each element of a free throw while quietly sitting on the couch just with visualization and muscle repetition: they can mentally step up to the line, get their feet set, take a breath, receive the ball from the official, notice the feel of the ball, the sound from the crowd, other players on the blocks, bend the knees, put the ball into position, extend the knees, follow through with the arms, and snap the wrist for a swish. When the athlete does eventually step onto the court for a free throw, they will be that much more prepared having visualized the same moment.
Lastly, having the athlete develop coping strategies or pre-planned responses for when they feel their anxiety rise is hugely beneficial. The most effective strategy will vary among athletes. Some of the more popular strategies include thought-stopping, breathing, and pre-planned responses.
Thought-stopping occurs when an athlete stops their negative inner dialogue and replaces those thoughts with a positive, prepared line of thinking for a given situation.
Breathing is done in an intentional way to allow the athlete to calm down, relax, and therefore take more time to think through their choices in order to make the best one. When exhaling, the athlete can also imagine all the stress leaving their body. Keep in mind that once properly trained in this style of breathing, athletes can use breathwork to either increase or decrease activation levels.
Having a plan in place like the one outlined above is a great start to mentally train for tryouts and should be practiced regularly. With time any athlete can master these skills and routines and use them for the rest of their life.