INTRODUCTION (These dos and donts apply to all coaches in all sports, not just swimming)
What you say or don't say to your athletes just prior to big meets can either make or break their training and your efforts as a coach. Follow these guidelines to maximize your athletes' potential and to increase your effectiveness as a coach.
BEGIN PREMEET PSYCHING THE FIRST DAY OF THE SEASON
Mental toughness training should not be a crisis intervention thing. Teach your athletes to focus, block out distractions, rebound from mistakes and to handle pressure right from the start.
TEACH THE ATHLETE HOW TO CONCENTRATE
Concentration is the heart of premeet psyching and peak performance. It is the foundation of mental toughness. Concentration is the ability to focus in on what is important and block out everything else. You teach it by teaching 2 mini-skills: Recognize when you are drifting from a proper focus. Catch yourself and quickly, and gently, bring yourself back to that performance focus.
DON'T ACCUSE YOUR ATHLETES OF NOT CONCENTRATING
Every athlete concentrates before performance. The issue is on what? If your athlete chokes or falls apart, then he/she was concentrating, but on the wrong things. Don't tell your athletes, "concentrate" unless you follow that by exactly what you want them to concentrate on.
INTEGRATE CONCENTRATION PRACTICE INTO DAILY WORKOUTS
Get your athletes to regularly practice developing an awareness of when they start to drift from a proper focus, and getting themselves back. Throughout practice routinely call their awareness to this mental skill.
TEACH AN AWARENESS OF THE MIND/BODY CONNECTION
Help your athletes understand that the main difference between their best and worst performances has to do with their preperformance self-talk and thoughts. That what they think goes into their bodies and can tighten their muscles and rot them of their coordination, reflexes and speed.
TEACH THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A "PRACTICE" AND "MEET" MENTALITY
Peak performance is about trusting and letting the performance happen. The athlete is not thinking and is on automatic utilizing effortless effort. Poor performance is about doubting, over-thinking, analyzing, evaluating and trying too hard.
AT MEETS, REMIND THE ATHLETE THAT HE/SHE IS READY, HAS PAID THEIR DUES, AND SHOULD JUST RELAX AND LET THE PERFORMANCE HAPPEN
You accomplish this by giving them one or two specific things to focus on for the event. By narrowing concentration, the athlete has more of a chance to slip into an automatic meet mentality.
BE ALERT TO THE ATHLETE'S "HAVE TO'S", "GOTTA'S" AND "MUST'S"
This kind of self-talk will signal you that the athlete is about to self-destruct into trying too hard.
TEACH THE 2 MAIN CAUSES OF STRESS
Athlete's self-talk about the meet, competition, events, crowd, etc. Focus on the UC's (uncontrollables) (i.e., past events, meets, winning, losing, opponents' skill level, parents, meet conditions, etc.).
TEACH ATHLETE TO FOCUS PREMEET ON THE ONE THING THEY CAN CONTROL
You can always learn to control your reaction to all the other uncontrollables.
TEACH THE "HERE & NOW RULE" FOR PEAK PERFORMANCE
You will better handle stress and avoid psych-outs if you can mentally learn to stay in the "here" and "now" of the performance. Negative past thoughts will bring you down and uncontrollable future thoughts of the outcome will do the same. The athlete only has power, speed and control in the "here and now". What time is it when you compete? The "now". What place is it? The "here".
TEACH THE ATHLETE HOW TO CONTROL THEIR EYES AND EARS
Focus visually only on those things that keep you calm, composed and confident. Listen only to those things that do the same for you. If a focus makes you uptight, deliberately switch to something neutral or calming.
ENCOURAGE PREMEET/PREEVENT RITUALS
Help the athlete develop a ritual that is controllable, easy to repeat and compact. The ritual can then help the athlete both control their eyes and ears and stay in the "here and now" of the performance. Rituals also help athletes bind anxiety because they are familiar and can be done no matter where the athlete competes.
ENCOURAGE THE ATHLETE TO COMPETE AGAINST THEMSELVES
Focusing on having to beat another competitor (an uncontrollable) usually stresses the athlete out. Instead, focus the athlete on competing against themselves, or trying to do better than their best, no one else's.
HELP THE ATHLETE FOCUS ON WHAT THEY WANT TO HAVE HAPPEN
Winners see what they want to have happen before performance, while losers have a tendency to pay attention to what they are afraid will happen. Encourage the athlete to change channels if their stress causes them to worry about the "what-ifs". Have them practice seeing the outcome and performance that they want.