Your Greatest Ally = Your Mind


In 2003 Heather O’Reilly was set to win a spot on the U.S. women’s World Cup soccer team. But 74 seconds into a match against Italy, she collided with the goalkeeper and fractured her fibula (look it up, it’s in the leg). Her chances for the World Cup vanished and she was left with a long recover. Definitely not anything you want to experience this season, or ever.

Was there anything she might have done to prevent her injury? Could she have seen it coming? And what did she do afterward that enabled her to return and ultimately win an Olympic medal?

Your mind can be your greatest ally or your evil master when it comes to focusing on the field and that ability can prevent many unwanted collisions. The best soccer players are able to concentrate and focus attention on things that matter in competition and practice. Soccer is a fast-paced sport that requires a player to easily and quickly shift attention from the ball (a narrow external focus) to awareness of other players’ positions on the field (broad external focus).

Likewise, when there is so much happening that concentration is lost. A good athlete knows how important it is to re-center, to focus internally, to calm the mind and bring the game under your control again.

Making attentional control a part of practice on the field has an added benefit of working in other areas of life and, if you practice in every day life, performance in soccer improves. Strengthen your ability to concentrate by sticking to one idea or thought process longer in school or doing homework. Practice shifting attention purposely, back and forth when you are watching TV, listening to people in a crowd, walking to class. Practice on the field, in school, anywhere you want but practice as diligently as you practice kicking and heading and blocking.

This must be second nature when you need it in competition. If you are lost in your own thoughts or if you only see the ball, it is easy to miss the runaway train that you are about to collide with and believe me, that will get your attention.

Another important mental skill that can help in both avoiding and recovering from injury is to learn to balance emotions. Note the word balance, not flatten. Being balanced means being alert, energized, and ready. Being too psyched up can actually minimize performance and cause you to miss important plays, create anxiety, and create a perfect environment for injury. Stress narrows attentional focus and it becomes easy to miss what’s happening on the periphery. For example, it is essential to either see or hear another player coming in order to move out of the way.

Some of the stresses you might recognize are situational, focusing on the importance of the game, lack of support from the audience, whether you are playing at home or away, tired, hungry, or just having bad day. Your personality characteristics often determine what you tell yourself, whether you believe you have control or not, whether you are thinking positively or negatively. These factors are just as powerful. It is easy to walk onto the field with your mind somewhere else. You are already distracted, your mind is not on the game, and you are not likely to see what’s coming or to have the best control of your body.

On another matter, although we often hear coaches and supporters say, “give it 110 percent out there” it’s not really how hard you play, but how smart you play. Here is a good example of why 110 percent doesn’t produce the best performers.

In 1995, sport psychologists (Weinberg and Gould) tested the performance of 400-meter runners. They asked them to run a timed trial at 110 percent effort and, a few days later, a second trial at 95 percent effort. Interestingly, the 95 percent effort resulted in quicker times. The reason was that, at 110 percent the athletes experienced “increased muscle tension in attempting to run beyond their capacity. This interfered with necessary coordination of working muscles.”

In other words, they were too tense and psyched up at 110 percent to perform at their best. Go figure. Your mind controls your body so make it work to your best advantage.

Also, certain attitudes predispose us to self-fulfilling prophecies. It’s like we expect something to happen, it happens, and then we say to ourselves, “see, I knew that would happen.” Then we expect it the next time.

Check your attitude before heading out for practice or competition. Are you mentally tough? Can you concentrate on what needs to happen? Can you rebound from a fault or a losing score to play your best game?

This brings us to what happens after an injury. What can you do to return to the game stronger than before? It is challenging to stay positive, patient, and disciplined when you are no longer able to live your life the way you are used to, much less play soccer. And when you do return to the field you may discover your body has a memory of its own, as if it wants to prevent the same situation from happening again. You find yourself hesitating when you used to charge into play, holding back on a kick when other players are coming toward you. What’s going on?

Let me assure you that you can come back stronger mentally and physically after an injury if you learn from it appropriately. During recovery you must learn to be patient, to focus attention on the immediate situation and in a positive way. Of course you aren’t able to do what you did yesterday and tomorrow seems far away. But today is what counts. What can you do to heal and become stronger? That is the question.

One of my favorite sport psychology stories is about an Olympic hurdle jumper who had a major injury one year before the Olympics. During his recovery he kept a hurdle in his living room and every day imagined himself running and jumping over that hurdle. When he returned to race he found that he was even better than before his injury. His muscles hadn’t forgotten how to perform and his precision had improved.

Even though you can’t see movement, it is a well-known fact that muscles are activated when the mind imagines movement. I use biofeedback in my work with athletes to demonstrate this connection. Try it right now. Just close your eyes and imagine yourself running down the field, kicking the ball or heading it off to another player in a better position for a goal. See if you can imagine your body in play. If you practice mentally during recovery your body will be less likely to hesitate when you return to competition.

You can learn how to stop hesitating, to build confidence and concentration, to return to the game stronger from your experience, not damaged by it. If you practice mental techniques within your soccer practice you will be a stronger opponent and the one less injured and you will make wiser decisions and conserve energy by focusing where it is needed most.

Set Goals To Improve Performance


Everyone begins a new soccer season with high hopes and good intentions: players, coaches, and parents alike. Chances are it will be a fantastic season.

Maybe you’ll win the tournament. Maybe you/one of your players will be voted MVP of the season. Or maybe you’ll be a starter, break your own record for goals, win a scholarship. Chances are that it could happen. But why leave it up to chance? Why not determine your own destiny and learn to become mentally tough at the same time?

U.S. soccer legend Mia Hamm would undoubtedly tell you that having a clear strategy for winning is fundamental and essential in playing your best season. “I am building a fire, and every day I train, I add more fuel,” Hamm said.

“At just the right moment, I light the match.”

The strategy for winning is straightforward and simple.
· Establish both individual and team goals that are specific, measurable, meaningful, and achievable within the time that you have.

· Be open and truthful about your values, priorities, and motivation to commit yourself.

· Make sure everyone is in agreement (players, coaches, parents) about what is important and how to support it.

· Practice positive thinking and concentrate only on what you want.

· Practice the feeling of playing well, without hesitation, and with a huge heart for the game.

Of course, if you have never developed such a strategy, it is possible to feel a little overwhelmed. And it can seem like too much to remember when the pressure of competition begins.

So I suggest starting by asking one question: what do I or we really want to achieve this year? List everything you want and then prioritize until you can see and feel what is most important.

Then brainstorm everything you believe you will need to do to achieve it. Create a timeline to see how much time and what kind of training you will need.

Focus your goals on “personal best” improvements that can be achieved within shorter time deadlines. You will want to measure your progress regularly.

This may sound tedious but take my word for it, you won’t be sorry. Achieving tiny steps can be motivating and build confidence. Especially if it is a goal that means something to you.

Make sure that you follow this same process for establishing team goals. Most likely, you could use a good facilitator for this.

Your coach can do it but you have to make sure that it’s a team goal and not the coach’s goal. A better idea would be to have an outside facilitator to guide players, coaches, and parents in establishing a common goal and collective commitment toward success.

As each goal is achieved, then another and another, it may seem as if you have been creating your own destiny. At this point chance has been taken over by character.

Mistakes Offer Opportunity For Growth


It can be easy to forget how great we are, or can be. Something as simple as losing a point or missing a pass can suck confidence and energy right down the brain drain. A mistake can seem like a catastrophe and then we become so worried about making another mistake that opportunities are missed and bad luck seizes the day.

The interesting catch is that mistakes can be an opportunity to really shine. There is no reason to strive for something better if you are already perfect and mistakes force us to make a choice: either learn from it, move on, and change or repeat it in another way somewhere down the road. Mistakes are not really the issue; it’s the ability to recover, to rise above disaster with determination and courage that truly counts.

Countless articles and books tell us of heroes and heroines who overcame terrible losses and disabilities to inspire us with their accomplishments. What inspires us most, however, is their mental toughness: a disciplined will that refuses to give in; otherwise recognized as determination and courage. Each characteristic alone is admirable, but together they are unbeatable.

Even players such as French star Zinedine Zidane have comeback stories under their belt. In 2002, Zidane was injured in a warm-up game and wasn’t able to return to play until the final three games of the season. Two years later he returned and ultimately earned titles, trophies, and a possible position in the Soccer Hall of Fame. His hard-earned legacy, however, was tarnished in one moment of lost self-control in the World Cup final this year.

Mia Hamm, another soccer heroine who took the U.S. team to Olympic gold in 1998, has written a children’s book entitled “Winners Never Quit.” In the book, a young soccer player named Mia quits after things are not going well and she gets discouraged. In the end she realizes that it isn’t as much about winning as it is about just being in the game.

Soccer is no different that any other sport in the sense that practice, learning from mistakes, and more practice is the only way to stay in the game. If you can’t recover from mistakes you will never improve performance, develop character or truly experience the joy of playing. Developing mental toughness is both the practice and the goal whether it is recovering from a mistake or from an injury. Mental toughness is all about a winning attitude.

In order to be mentally tough it is important to develop a strong positive sense of self. Can you accept responsibility for your choices without judging yourself harshly? Can you avoid making choices out of fear? Do you accept failure too easily? When you do fail, are you courageous about it?

Bill Beswick of Focused On Soccer talks about an “outstanding basketball player” who missed two foul shots as the clock ran out, resulting in a lost national championship. He had no trouble taking responsibility without blaming anyone else: “Sometimes in sport you are a hero, sometimes a bum,” he said.

“Today, I am a bum, tomorrow I will be a hero.”

Motivation is both external and internal. Recognition, trophies, and money are exciting external rewards but the mentally tough player is rewarded by something within. You are involved in the game because you want to be there, because you love the game, and because you are proud of your character as a result of playing.

Practice must reflect the same physical and mental intensity as competition. When you feel like giving up, give yourself 10 more minutes, pump up the energy and focus. If you work out harder you will have more endurance in competition. Plus you will avoid injuries by not having to play when you are tired. You are capable of more than you think.

Stay positive in the face of disaster. Steel yourself to focus on your goals, not your losses. Relax when you are nervous and energize when you need it. When you are angry, show your strength of character by refocusing energy on your role as a player. Ask yourself why you have committed to the challenges of soccer. Ask why you need to accept criticism, and how you will deal with failure. If you know these things, and remember them, you will know yourself better. No one can hurt you with opinions and comments unless you believe it, even just a teensy little bit. Smile, it will drive your opponent nuts.

Yes, mental toughness is something that we admire in our heroes. It is something that seems almost superhuman at times. Understanding and practice leads to a higher level of understanding and practice until you find yourself a master. I think you will find you are tougher than you think, it just takes a mistake to prove you can rise above it. Failure is success if you learn from it.

Control Of Aggression Starts At Home


What is acceptable aggression in football? A bone crushing tackle might be seen as violent or heroic, depending on your point of view or whose side you’re on.

Actually, we expect to see aggression on the field in football don’t we? And sometimes the fans are worse than the players, making spectacles of themselves screaming at the ref and even fighting in the stands.

There is a great deal of pressure for players to be aggressive without really defining what it is, what is effective, acceptable, and inspiring and what isn’t. Sure penalties dictate what happens when people are watching. But where is the line really drawn?

First of all, aggression isn’t some uncontrollable urge that rises up and has to be released from some dark cave of our emotions. Aggressive behavior is shaped by what we learn and from our experiences. In addition, females are as capable of aggression in sports as males. In other words, no one can really use the excuse of uncontrollable instinct or boys will be boys to explain aggression.

Although hormones and emotions (anger, fear, despair) increase the likelihood of hostile aggression, aggressive behavior is learned by observing others, reinforcement (rewards) of toughness, and repeated experiences.

However, there are clear signs that hostility is no longer tolerated or overlooked in football. Due to instant replay on TV, illegal fouls can no longer be ignored. The NFL even goes back over film and fines players for fouls that weren’t call during the game if they seem intentional.

In football and soccer players expect a lot of physical contact in their game. Injuries that result from excessive force are so common that everybody believes that unless you hit harder you’re going to get annihilated, i.e., if you are not ready to get hurt, go play another sport. Because violent aggression seems natural it becomes part of the game strategy, especially when you can get away with it.

Actually, aggression in the form of hostility and violence actually penalizes the team and the player. One too many fouls and/or penalties can get a player kicked off the field and out of the game. In a worse-case scenario, misplaced aggression can take a player out for the season or longer with a broken leg, arm, back, neck, you name it.

I often hear from team members that one player is the identified loose cannon, unable to control anger and frustration, losing yardage and advantage for the entire team. One can go from bonecrusher to bonehead in minutes.

Aggression instrumental to the game focuses on performance, discharging energy only where it is most productive, the goal of getting the ball to the goal and preventing it from going in the opposite direction. Aggression focused on doing harm actually limits the team’s potential for winning. Energy that could be focused on strategy has suddenly narrowed the goal to seeking revenge. This focus works sometimes but it isn’t consistent in championship games.

Control of aggression that is not productive starts at home. Coaches, parents and players should expect and deliver penalties for hostile aggression. The only real reward is a game well played that everyone can be proud of, as a team.

The lack of hostility in aggression does not mean being a doormat. It simply means players refuse to let emotions take over. The focus should be on teamwork, strategy and undying determination. Parents can help by seeing the game as a way to practice excellence rather than fighting an enemy. Make it a family affair to support the player.

The result of changing the focus from rage to the brilliance of teamwork in football can change your life. The real result is you will be more in control, the team will be a united force, and football becomes fun again. The icing on the cake is winning the game. If aggression is a challenge, you and/or your team can learn how to control it, rather than have it control you.

Mental Toughness


Two rival soccer teams are meeting for a match that will decide who will move ahead to the bid for state title. Obviously, it is an important match and the pressure is on.

One team, the dreaded Dixie Cups, arrived late last night from their hometown, a bit bedraggled but you could plainly see the team spirit as they ran onto the field, smiling and giving each other thumbs-up. The home team, the Barbarians, strutted onto the field before the cheering crowd, staring straight ahead, alone in their thoughts, ignoring the accolades from the stands.

Before the game the Dixie Cups’ coach talked about team strategy and wished each other the best of plays.

“Each of you knows what is most important. If you remember that you will be winners today. Now go out there and have fun.”

The Barbarians’ coach focused on a few key players to handle the game, warning the team to come back with the ticket to the title or else.

“Today is the day so don’t screw up out there. This is your big chance.”

Depending on your personal history you might predict the more aggressive, rested, and individually focused team might win — the Barbarians.

After all, soccer is an aggressive sport right? Research would predict differently, however. What is most important in team sport competition is a collective spirit of cooperation. We have so often been surprised to see the underdog rise to the top simply because everyone on the team brought it home for the winning goal.

Everybody knows competition is the event that decides who wins, who is the best, which team takes home the trophy in the end. But when each player is centered only on his or her own performance the most essential aspect of getting the ball to the goal is lost: how the team works together.In addition, your mental state can be both exciting and terrifying as the big match draws near.

Depending on the importance of the game, who is watching, and how confident you are feeling can either enhance performance or literally make a team fall apart, especially if teamwork isn’t strong.

For some people, competition is what it’s all about, the reason to play, a chance to shine. For others it is a relief only when it is over: it’s not about winning but avoiding the shame of failure.

Competitive behavior is not always on the field either. We have all witnessed the unsightly behavior of parents, coaches, and fans who are caught up in ridiculous displays of competitive fever.

How distracting and embarrassing is that? It’s not that competition is bad. In fact it is a hallmark of our American culture, from grades and scholarships to career choices and making money. Those who win seem to have more, do more, and even win more.

Sports offer the chance to practice competition in healthy ways, in the field of fair play.

But often it is competition that creates an attitude of fear and failure rather than strategy and support.

There is nothing like the feeling of doom on the night before facing an opponent that has a better track record and a tough reputation: and everyone will be there to see the annihilation. It is enough to make the biggest and the best throw up.

What can be done to prepare you to go out and face Goliath with confidence and a positive attitude?

First, it is important for you to understand that competition is different for every individual. Each player walks onto the field with a different set of personal traits that determine how you see your own ability as a player, whether you feel you have control over your performance, and even the way you regard your opponent.

On top of that your immediate state of mind (your relationship with teammates, support from your family, inspiration from the coach and whether you feel supported as part of a solid team) can determine whether you feel doomed or have positive feelings of self-worth. Your attitude can override even the most challenging inner fears.

Second, how you respond during the game will determine whether you have the necessary focus to win. If you quickly refocus after fouling a play you can rally the will to play your best game and move on. The body and mind react together to concentrate energy or to lose power and your response can be felt and seen immediately. Your internal motivation and confidence are the internal factors that can change quickly during competition.

Third, the consequences that occur following competition can determine whether you see things as a success or as a failure. In other words, if you missed the goal three times in a row, you will experience it differently if your teammates, your coaches and parents support it as an opportunity to learn something new or if it is a source of blame, ridicule, and jokes at your expense.

These kinds of consequences also serve to determine how you will approach competition in your next big game.

Finally, it seems we are compelled in many ways to compete, both in sports and in other areas of life. We compete against ourselves, against a clock or record book, and against the elements. Research has shown time and again we are faster when we race against someone else than when we race against the clock.

It can be a healthy motivator and a great way to prepare for the adult world of business and global peace. The way to do this is to learn about yourself in the process.

Competition typically fosters the idea that success for one player or team automatically means failure for the opponent.

However, it is possible to lose a game and still come out winning. Outcome goals aren’t everything.

Performance goals are an essential part of every elite athlete’s training and mindset so that if the game is played well it is more important than the score. Coaches and parents can help a lot in this regard by identifying and supporting a performance goal for each game.

Teams, soccer in particular, never achieve consistent success on the field without the collective achievement of players working together.

Players who reflect their own personal goals over team support quickly become the source of interrupted plays, confusion and conflict among players on the same team, and ultimately a breakdown in the strategy needed to win the game.

The reward of playing well must be shared equally among all participants. Group success depends on collective achievement. There may be some stars on the field but it is because of a team effort that individuals are given the opportunity to shine.

Finally, boys and girls compete differently. Boys are more aggressive in their physical contact. Girls may have more little cliques of competition within their own teams. Aggressiveness is more productive when it is focused on competitive strategy than a heightened emotional state.

This attitude must be modeled by coaches and all players to be effective. Competitive attitudes and isolating members within a team does nothing for the feeling unity that is vital on the field.

By the way, the Dixie Cups were the real winners.

Teamwork In Sports


When I ask soccer teams what their goal for the season will be, the most common response is teamwork. Yet, I am not sure that players (of any age) really know what that means.

Does it mean, for instance, that one player should give up a chance for a winning shot if someone else is in a better position and has a better chance? Does it mean players should show restraint after being incorrectly flagged to avoid penalties for the team? Or does it mean that frustration and disappointment should be put aside to cheer teammates to victory when sitting on the bench?

Teamwork is so much more than playing well when everything is going great. It is really about rising above adversity, both personally and collectively, to become a powerful and unified force that seems impossible to beat. Think about it. When you witness an unbeatable team you are witnessing unity of purpose, a collective passion for playing a good game, and unwavering support for each other. It is as if the team has forgotten that there is an audience at all.

Each team is unique, in soccer and in any sport. The principles of developing a solid sense of teamwork must be understood and applied to each group and situation with regard to challenges and potential. To transform a group of players to a real team, consider these strategies…

Goal setting: Everyone must understand the importance and connection between keeping promises and making goals. To agree to goals without commitment is a losing proposition. The consequence is the same as a broken promise. Trust is diminished and ultimately people stop believing that the team will really work hard enough to achieve goals that are set. Team goals should be reached through consensus, so that even those who are not yet sure are agreeing to fully support the team goal as a promise. And, as an important side-note, individual goals should be secondary to team goals.

Respectful interpersonal relations with team members: It is essential for coaches and parents to help players to understand how personal and team values affect team cohesion (and to reflect it themselves). Obvious efforts should be made to develop ways to improve mutual respect and communication among team members. It is definitely worth spending time in group meetings toward this goal. Coaches should help teammates to learn how to manage stress, communicate effectively, solve team problems, and resolve conflicts.

Building a great team is a powerful endeavor, especially when the team mission or philosophy takes the experience beyond the individual athlete, coach, or season. Identifying and assessing team strengths, challenges, and breakthroughs help to sustain the potential for growth and goals become more deeply internal than external. Each player can begin taking steps toward achieving collective goals that have been determined together with clear action plans, targeting specific behaviors and timelines. Systematic assessment of team performance helps to maintain the attention and motivation that supports the philosophy of teamwork.

It is true that definitions of teamwork can seem fuzzy or even confusing on the surface. But teamwork in action isn’t fuzzy at all. It’s as clear as the nose on your face when everyone knows what it means in terms of collective goals, respect and support for each other and when it all comes together on the field, it is pure magic.

Dr. Virginia Savage is a sport psychology consultant offering services locally and nationally in a wide variety of sports.

Avoiding Burnout


Now that you have goals set for this season, let’s talk about a plan that will help you to stay motivated, avoid injury and burnout, and increase your skill level so much that your opponents will run away when you are on the field.

A good action plan begins with knowing where you are now. Ask yourself (and ask your coach) this question: what are your strengths and what are your weaknesses? (I prefer to call them challenges). If you know what your strengths are you can enhance those too, and it’s good to know where to begin.

Target the skills you need to play your best season: physical (fitness), technical (training), tactical (competition), and psychological (mental toughness). Pick one element from each area to begin with and work on it for the first two months. At the end of that time you can determine where you want to make changes to fit your needs.

Plan to work on each target area on a weekly basis. I am going to familiarize you now with what is known as Periodized Training. This kind of training progressively makes you work harder, learn more, challenge yourself more and gives you a systematic (and vital) period of recovery, after which you begin the next cycle all over again at a higher level. Here’s how it goes:

Week 1: Start with your base level (where you are now) on each target area.

Physical: Measure your basic level of endurance, strength, and flexibility.

Technical: List the skills training that your coaches put you through and where you stand on each one.

Tactical: Identify what you need to work on in competitive situations.

Mental: Recognize and address your mental strengths and challenges. Ask for some feedback from your coach.

Week 2: Increase your effort in each area by at least 10 percent, record your time and reflect on your performance. Keep a journal so you won’t forget and can plan better.

Week 3: Challenge yourself at your peak level. Increase your work effort in each area by another 10 to 20 percent. Again, record your performance, your challenges, your strengths.

Week 4: This week is about recovery. This doesn’t mean you become a couch potato and watch TV during practice time. This means that you simply go back to Week 1 and perform/practice at that level. There are very good reasons for this kind of recovery and here they are:

You can measure improvement (how much easier it feels since the beginning, how much you have improved).

Your body and your mind will be able to rebuild and regenerate.

Motivation is greatly increased.

Burnout is avoided.

Injuries are avoided because your body and mind are rested and strengthened.

The next cycle (month) begins at the level of Week 2 and the same kind of increase and recovery are repeated again each and every month. The more serious you are about improving your game, the more it all makes sense to plan well and improve steadily until you are at the top of your game.

Goal Setting Builds Confidence


If you want to know about developing confidence, please ask yourself a couple of important questions:

● When you make a promise to a friend, do you try your best to keep that promise? I expect that is true because you want to honor your word.

● When a friend makes a promise to you, what happens when they don’t keep it? More important than not getting what you expected, if that little shift happens, especially repeatedly, you stop believing that you can trust their word.

● Now, the next question is really important so think about it carefully. What happens when you set a goal for yourself (making a promise) and fail to follow through, just let it slide, find all sorts of reasons for not sticking with it? How many times has that already happened, such as New Year’s resolutions? This is a very important question for anyone, any age, any situation.

You may say, “It’s not as important because it is only about me, no one else knows, and I’m not accountable to anyone else.”

But think about the consequences of this line of thinking. If you fail to keep promises to yourself, you stop trusting that you will keep those promises, accomplish those goals.

Every time you give up, you are creating a pattern of failure. Every time you fail to accomplish what you set out to do, especially if you fail to really try, you reinforce a belief that you never reach goals you set for yourself.

The long-range consequences of this pattern are a huge lack of confidence in your ability to achieve goals, anxiety (also related to confidence), and loss of passion for pursuing your dreams. Please consider how important this is.

Let me give you a foolproof method for changing this pattern, some essential keys to setting goals that are achievable. Listen carefully and well.

1. Choose two goals for this soccer season. One can be an outcome goal, (goals, assists, starts) whatever is meaningful, challenging, and achievable. The other goal should be task oriented: the process of improving your game, some aspect of physical, technical, mental, or emotional skill training. This goal is the one that will make you a better player and ultimately help you to achieve the outcome goal.

2. Now that you have a couple of goals in mind, make sure that they are specific. If your goal is so broad that you can’t measure progress (i.e., you want to be a better athlete) you will not really know when you have achieved it. Specific task-oriented goals are ones that you can measure, such as:

● I will increase my endurance by increasing effort by 10 percent each practice.

● I will completely recover mentally from mistakes in five seconds.

● I will practice positive affirmations before and during every practice and/or game.

When your goals are meaningful, reasonable, specific and measurable your chances of achieving them will increase by leaps and bounds. Achieving even small goals sets a motivational climate that leads to confidence, passion, and success.

So begin this season by setting some goals that will not only make you proud, they will make you mentally and physically stronger. It is the best gift you can give yourself.

Mixed Gender On Youth Sports Teams


Although Little League baseball’s rules do not set limitations on gender, it has been widely accepted that at around age 7, boys begin to play baseball while girls opt for softball.
But, not everyone buys into that tradition. And, every year there are girls who insist they want to play baseball, even if it means being the only girl on the team.
Sport psychology consultant, Dr. Virginia Savage, feels that integrating Little League baseball is a great way to build the concept that everybody’s equal while offering girls who are motivated a more challenging venue to develop their skills.
“Research shows that girls on all-girl teams are not as prone to push themselves as much,” says Dr. Savage.
When they are on the field, the players take on their coach’s attitude.
Joe LeBlanc, the District 22 administrator who oversees all the Little League teams in North Brevard and whose daughter Katherine played on all-boy teams for four years, agrees that the best intentioned coaches still apply a double standard on the field.
“Coaches tend to be tougher with the boys while they lag back with what they expect from the girls,” Joe LeBlanc said. “They’re gentler with the girls.”
Katherine LeBlanc, who has grown up playing with Indian River City Little League with her two older brothers, said she feels that playing with the boys improved her game and gave her an extra boost of confidence.
“I actually liked it when they pushed me because it actually made me want to try harder,” Katherine, who made the All-Star team in the Majors in 2006, said. It was the same year she hit the ball over the fence in a county tournament game.
According to Dr. Savage, the best response a parent can have when their daughter asks to play on a boys’ team is to listen and keep those lines of communication open.
From there, parents should talk to coaches and attend a game or two, observing how they interact with the players. While some coaches only focus on outward appearance, others see underlying talent and build on that potential.
Even though girls don’t develop the body mass that boys do as they get older, “girls might make up for power with speed or they might be more accurate,” Dr. Savage, who advocates a positive attitude as the main ingredient for success, said. “You just find that talent and hone it.”
Joe LeBlanc said he recalls how coaches treated his daughter differently — until they realized she could hold her own with the boys.
“Initially, all the coaches treated her like a girl,” says LeBlanc. “But, eventually they saw that what she could do and pushed her just as hard.”
How hard to push depends on the girl and how motivated she is, but always encourage your children and evoke a can-do attitude.
Too often, instead of saying ‘you can do it,’ we say ‘don’t fail,’” Dr. Savage said. “But, children don’t hear ‘DON’T’ … just ‘FAIL.’”

Mental Focus For Triathletes


Like many athletes attempting triathlon proficiency, Deb Johansen thought the swim portion would derail her goal.
“When I’d get in the water I’d ask myself if I was trying to be something that I’m not,” said the 46-year-old competitive runner who lives in Indian Harbour Beach. “I’d wonder if I just should stick with running and duathlons and leave triathlon alone.”
It certainly wasn’t a lack of training that left Johansen doubting her abilities. The chief operations administrator for MIMA had diligently logged miles of yardage in the pool improving her technique, building endurance and increasing her speed. The preparation also included frequent sessions in the ocean or river, even on days that were windblown and cold.
In spite of her increasing physical prowess, however, Johansen continued to be greeted by an overwhelming sense of anxiety and frustration as she lined up at the sandy starting lines of multiple races.
“I just couldn’t get past all the bodies,” she said of the frenetic and often crowded wave starts.
On the advice of her coach, Johansen attended a mental training lecture given by sports psychologist Dr. Virginia Savage to the participants of Running Zone’s marathon training camp.
And four days later, after applying some of Savage’s principles, Johansen returned home from the Key Biscayne Triathlon with a second-place age group award and a newfound sense of confidence and belonging.
“The night before the race, I wrote down some positive things based on Dr. Savage’s recommendations,” Johansen said. “I felt real relaxed the next morning.”
Johansen’s focused calm allowed her to approach her challenges with a different perception and attitude.
“In the water, instead of looking for the bodies, I started focusing on the spaces between the bodies — I was looking at the flipside,” she said. “I told my husband after the race that the different way of thinking reminded me of those old black and white trick photos where you can either see an old hag or a beautiful woman in the same picture, depending on your perception.”
And for many people perception is reality.
“People don’t focus their mind in a way that benefits their performance,” said Savage, whose focus helped her to excel at sports despite childhood polio and later, a body severely injured after falling off the mountain face she was climbing. “Generally, people’s thoughts are focused on what they are doing wrong, beating themselves up or on something else that is negative.”
Although the six Ironman World Championship titles won by both Mark Allen and Natasha Badman are widely attributed to mental discipline, most amateur athletes devote little or no time in the pursuit of increased cerebral capability.
“I really don’t think that people know where to start,” said Savage. “They don’t have the same kind of tools or as many that are available for physical training.”
Among those tools, Savage said, are:

Observe and change the language: “It is important to begin to observe the language of what you think and say and it is most apparent when you’re talking with someone. Ask your friends and family to help point out when you are being negative,” she said. “It helps to substitute the word ‘but’ for ‘and’. Instead of saying ‘I’d like to do this race but,’ say ‘I’d like to do this race and,’ Then substitute something positive about what or how you’ll do it.”
Set clear outcome and mastery goals: “You have to be clear in your mind about what you want — this is the outcome goal. It is important to identify what is distracting you from achieving it and then you know where to begin to resolve those challenges.”
“Resolving those challenges become the mastery goals and, in addition to providing us a path to meet the outcome goal, achieving them keeps us moving forward and positive about our progress.
“It also helps to write the goal down and to speak about it. As you do so, you begin to clarify and understand why you want it and how you are going to accomplish it. Once you have a plan, it is not so easy to become distracted.”
Imagine or visualize excellence: “Tap into a performance where everything clicked for you and practice feeling how you felt at that time. Was it strong, confident, fluid, powerful, calm? As you are visualizing, do something physical that you can also do during the race, such as tapping two fingers together. When you tap those fingers during the race, you’ll trigger the same sense of ease or power that you’ve practiced and generate energy you didn’t think you had.
Practice mental training: “It is really important to have a strategy to train your mind and then do so consistently. It doesn’t have to be a long period of time, but it needs to be done every day. Just like you can’t learn everything about triathlon at one time, mental training takes practice.”
Make positive choices: “It is important to recognize and acknowledge that everything we do is our choice and the choice comes from within us. When someone says ‘I can’t do this or that’, they are making their decision. Henry Ford said ‘whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.’ ”
* Patti Sponsler has lived in Brevard county for more than four decades and has been a runner and triathlete for 20-plus years. She is passionate about bringing to life those sports and their athletes. With undergrad and graduate degrees in business, Sponsler is a self-described ‘business geek’. She is also a certified USA Triathlon level I coach and enjoys surfing and goofing off in Cocoa Beach with her husband and her dogs.