Volume 19, Issue 33 | April 28, 2020
Part 3: The 9 Mental Skills of Successful Athletes & COVID-19
These are difficult days for our world as we continue to endure the COVID-19 pandemic. While athletes cannot be with their team for practices, athletes can use this "pause" to work on their mental skills which will improve their physical game when we can safely return to the field of play. This three-part series introduces athletes to Dr. Jack Lesyk’s Performance Pyramid and the 9 Mental Skills of Successful Athletes. Each of these skills can be learned and improved with instruction and practice. Lesyk, a former sports psychologist for the Cleveland Cavaliers, reminds us that when we sharpen these nine skills, we move closer to becoming our personal best as an athlete and a person. If you missed the first two parts of this series, read them here:


Today’s note focuses on the top of the pyramid, Level III Performance Skills:

7) Dealing Effectively with Anxiety Successful athletes accept that anxiety is a normal part of sports and life and that everyone experiences this at some level. They also realize that some degree of anxiety can help them perform well. They take the time to learn specific techniques to reduce their anxiety when it starts to become too strong, so that they don’t lose their intensity or focus.

8) Dealing Effectively with Emotions
Successful athletes accept strong emotions such as excitement, anger, frustration and disappointment as part of the sport experience. They learn how to use these emotions to improve, rather than interfere with high level performance. They also learn that “stuffing” their emotions or inappropriate displays of emotions ultimately hurt them and potentially their team. 

9) Concentration
Successful athletes recognize that it is critically important for them to pay attention during each game or sport situation. They learn how to maintain focus and resist distractions, whether they come from their environment or from within themselves. When they momentarily lose focus during competition, as all athletes do, they take immediate steps to regain their focus. Lastly, they learn how to play in the “here-and-now”, without regard for past or anticipated future events such as mistakes, bad calls, etc.
Deeper Dive into these Mental Skills

Dealing with Anxiety
Ask the average person whether anxiety is a good thing or a bad thing, and you’ll likely have the majority tell you it’s a bad thing. But the correct answer is that anxiety is neither! It’s how you learn to manage or cope with anxiety that can turn out good or bad for you. Anxiety is nothing more than a chemical signal our brain sends to our body when it believes something important and exciting is about to happen. That signal commonly takes the form of butterflies in the stomach, sweaty palms, “nerves” or worrisome thoughts.

Anxiety can help us prepare to perform during those important and exciting times. Successful athletes learn skills and techniques to help them control the anxiety rather than letting the anxiety control the athlete. Successful athletes learn that managing anxiety involves taking care of their bodies as well as their minds. Check out these two videos by Shannon Turley, Stanford Football's Sports Performance Director. The first video recounts the reasons the Cardinal football team uses yoga to help manage anxiety and the second video allows you to practice these moves yourself.

Mindfulness is a skill that will help you manage anxiety. Here’s a video by Peter Kirchmer , director of the mPEAK program at UCSD that teaches "Fire Breathing". mPEAK was originally developed for the U.S. Olympic BMX team. You can also download the free UCLA Mindful app from either Apple's App Store or the Google Play Store . Check out the Awareness of Breath and Body Scan meditations on the app which are most useful for athletes who want to manage anxiety better.
Dealing with Emotions
One aspect of sport that is shared by participants, coaches, parents and fans alike is the emotion that competition brings out. The most successful athletes are emotional athletes; however, they have found ways to harness their emotions and, in some cases, reign them in before they become detrimental to the athlete or the team. The University of Michigan’s Athletes Connected program suggests several skills and strategies athletes can use for dealing with emotions effectively. Their recommendations include breathing, cognitive skills, and behavioral skills .
Improving Focus & Concentration
Dr. Robert Nideffer, one of the founding fathers of sports psychology, suggests that focus and concentration go together, but they’re not the same thing. Athletes need to be able to constantly shift their focus in a matter of milliseconds without losing concentration. Nideffer’s Attentional Model looks at focus from the perspective of direction: focus from internal (inside you) to external (playing environment), along with the width of focus: from narrow (detail) to broad (big picture). Check out this video on the topic.
You have three mental skills assignments to practice and improve these Level III Mental Skills:

1) Pick one of the following: watch the videos on Stanford Football’s yoga practice or Pete Kirchmer on "Fire Breathing" , or download and explore the free UCLA Mindful app. Commit to practice one of these three activities at least three times a week for the next two weeks. Document your thoughts and feelings about the benefits (or lack) of adding these tools for dealing with anxiety that may arise from the COVID-19 pandemic or from the stress of sheltering-in-place.

2) Take some time to think about the emotions you have the most difficulty managing in your athletic endeavors. If you can’t identify any that are a struggle for you, contact one of your coaches for suggestions. Are the emotions you typically struggle with the same as the ones you struggle with during this pandemic or the shelter-in-place? Go to the Athletes Connected link referenced above and check out the skills and techniques they recommend; try a few out and make note of the impact of your efforts.
3) Review Nideffer’s Attentional Model. The graphic to the right identifies the four types of focus that result from the intersection of width and direction of focus. Thinking about your current situation, under what circumstances can applying Broad/External focus be helpful? Under what circumstances can Broad/Internal be helpful? Narrow/External? Narrow/Internal? Then thinking about your sport performance in general answer the following questions:

  1. Broad External focus is required when I…
  2. Broad Internal focus is required when I…,
  3. Narrow External focus is required when I…,
  4. Narrow Internal focus is required when I…

Make a few notes about your answers to these questions. A handout describing eight techniques for improving focus and concentration is available by clicking here .

This is the third and final note in this three-part series. The assignments you have been given may seem like a lot of work, but it’s not just busy work. If there is an unintended positive consequence of the sheltering-in place orders many of us are under at the moment, it’s that you have a lot of time to work on the mental aspects of your sport. This will pay off when you can once again get back to competition. In the meantime, developing these nine mental skills of successful athletes will also help you cope with the stresses we’re currently experiencing with shelter-at-home. 
"If you're trying to achieve, there will be roadblocks. I've had them; everybody has had them. But obstacles don't have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don't turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it." ~ Michael Jordan
Attend to your Whole Health: Physical and Mental

Athletes, it is essential that engage in vigorous exercise every day to maintain your athletic skills and endurance. This physical movement is good for your body, mind and soul.

It's also important that you recognize the impact of this crisis on your mental health. All of us are experiencing terrific loss, including the loss of our sport season loss and our usual freedom as we shelter in place. It is normal to feel upset, sad, angry, anxious and fearful. This excellent summary by the NCAA provides helpful recommendations and can help athletes establish the following daily strategies:

  • Space: a dedicated space for yourself.
  • Routine: maintain a schedule.
  • Activity: exercise regularly.
  • Time: be careful to not "over" or "under" work.
  • Accesibility: make yourself available to others.
  • Connectivity: daily connect with your friends/teammates.
  • Resources: use a variety of tools to stay healthy.
  • Support: know when to seek professional help.

It is certainly tempting to use screen time as a solution to keep yourself occupied, but this can be detrimental to your mood and energy when used for a prolonged period of time. Let’s all make a commitment to continue to Move and Grow "Like a Champion" Today... and Everyday.
Team Competition to Improve Mental Focus
Concentration grids are a simple, but powerful (and FUN!) tool individuals can use to help improve mental focus. You can do a concentration grid online , or download a concentration grid PDF and print it out. 

Practice completing the concentration grid a couple times a week. As you complete these exercises week after week, you will see dramatic improvements in your mental focus! For the greatest improvements, experts recommend that you do 1-2 grids every day.

For added fun and benefit, engage your team in a friendly social-distancing competition. Challenge teammates to time how long it takes them to find all the numbers starting from 00 up to 99. Have them screen shot their results. What teammate records the fastest time? Do this competition daily and weekly to challenge teammates to practice and improve mental focus.
Attention High School Athletes: We Need Your Help!
Play Like a Champion is creating Virtual Summer Sport Camps for young athletes. We are asking high school partners to assist us by creating a lesson plan that teaches younger kids some aspect of your sport or helps to build character skills in younger athletes, such as how to be a good teammate. This is a great opportunity for a team service project and a way to use your skills to help others during the current crisis. Send us these ideas through either video or in writing. We will compile ideas so that during the summer, kids will have something to engage them everyday. You and your team can make a BIG difference through this project! Email us at information@playlikeachampion.org .
Play Like a Champion Today Educational Series
PO Box 72, Notre Dame, IN 46556 | information@playlikeachampion.org