From the Coache's Corner: The Mental Side of Sports Feb 1, 2013

Tom CurryOriginally published in EP Magazine, February 2013.

It really begins with seeing opportunities where others do not.

By Tom Curry

You have paid for the pitching lessons, the tennis lessons, and golf lessons and attended every travel team game. Your son or daughter does well in these lesson sessions and sometimes in the games. But something is missing. He or she struggles with putting the skills they learn to use during games or contests. What's the reason?

The mental side of sports is often the most difficult to learn, to coach and to understand as a parent. "I've spent all this money on lessons. Why isn't my son or daughter doing well? That other kid on the team never has taken a lesson in his or her life and they just go out there and seem to play well and rise to the occasion when necessary. What are we doing wrong?"

As most sports fans know, there is much more to playing and achieving than just better physical skills. How and when you apply the mental skills necessary is really the biggest challenge to overcome for any athlete. How do you teach or train the mind of an athlete to play without fear, always be at their best and overcome most of the obstacles that are in front of them?

Let's look at the mind of an athlete and see how we can help our children achieve a little more when they are out there competing against other kids, either as an individual or as part of a team.

The first part of training the mind is to recognize what skills your child does possess. A kid that is strong and quick may just be a better running back than a slow kid who plods along. Making your child understand what skills they have, and how best to use them, is much more realistic and beneficial than trying to force him or her into a position because it is what he or she and the parent wants. Not everyone can pitch, just as not everyone gets the lead in the school play...

Your child must accept coaching, especially from experienced coaches. Your ego and that of your child must be put aside for the benefit of both parent and child. Ara Parseghian, legendary football coach at Notre Dame once said, "A great coach will always help his players see what they can become, rather then what they are." How true! Once the season starts sit back and watch. As hard as it might be, don't interfere or become a "dinnertime coach or critic." My theme at the beginning of each year at practice was to tell our players to drop their ego at the door and adopt a team ego. We were fortunate enough to have most kids on the teams to adopt our team first philosophy. It always made for a better team situation. Our parents were told the same thing. "It's about US" has always been the theme.

Plan and prepare! Many young athletes go along without a plan for success. This plan should include lesson and practice time, game time, rest and relaxation time and more than enough time for academics. I see many young people who shoot baskets in our gym. They just take shot after shot without thinking about where they are shooting from, self challenges and other things that would make their shooting time more valuable. I doubt that any PGA touring pro steps on the practice tee without a plan or something he wants to work on during that practice session. It's hard to be successful at anything without a plan and, as Coach Bob Knight once said, "Everyone wants to win, but few want to prepare to win." Have a plan and be totally committed to the plan. Imagine a surgeon who wasn't totally committed to being the best. Would you want him or her to operate on you?

A successful athlete banishes negative thoughts from his or her mind. Larry Bird used to walk into the NBA All Star three-point contest and ask who was going to finish second. His confidence was based on the years and years of practice and his ability to clear negative thoughts. He once laughed when he missed a crucial free throw because he never saw himself ever missing one. I happen to like Eli Manning of the Giants because his thought process is always positive and his demeanor never changes, win or lose.

The mental part of sports achievement really begins with seeing opportunities where others do not. Where others see nothing, the mentally prepared athlete sees opportunities and works hard to seize those opportunities where others might quit or be easily discouraged. The real work starts when everyone else goes home. Many years ago, I read the first book of former Senator Bill Bradley, who had just graduated Princeton. Something he wrote in his book titled "A Sense of Where You Are" has stayed with me all of these years. He told of why he practiced so hard and so often. "When I am not practicing, my opponent is, and if we meet, he will win. I cannot let that happen!"
Lastly, your child must have enthusiasm for the sport and mastering the skills and mental characteristics it takes to excel. You can't fake it. You have to love to practice, play the game and compete. You cannot be afraid of competition. In fact, you have to relish it. All the athlete can do is his or her best. Getting the most out of one's physical skills and mental preparation, more often than not, usually brings fantastic results!
About the Author:
Tom Curry has been an Athletic Director in Bergen County, New Jersey, as well as an adjunct professor in the Wellness and Exercise Science Department at Bergen Community College for 24 years. He has coached high school basketball and golf and was voted Bergen County Basketball Coach of the Year in 2002. He has spoken at the New Jersey Medical Society Sports Symposium and to parent groups on various issues pertaining to youth sports. He was inducted into the NJ Coaches Hall of Fame in 2012.

This article originally published in EP Magazine, February 2013.

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