Student-Athlete Stuck at Home? Use Mental Skills to Win The Game.

With colleges and universities closing worldwide, if you’re a student-athlete your season is likely over. But while this was initially cause for frustration, disappointment, and dismay (which are all valid reactions), you can now choose to re-frame it as a chance to get better. OK, you might not be able to get on the practice field, court, or track with your teammates, but you can still get better by turning your mindset into your most potent weapon. In this piece, I’ll share some of the proven mental training techniques I honed while working with student-athletes at Arizona State University for a decade. It’s time for you to build a Champion’s Mind.

Look Back to Move Forward

One of the great benefits of reading about historical events is that by knowing what happened, when, and why, we can hopefully find our way to a better future. The same is true for your own mindset. If you don’t know where you’ve been, how can you best determine where you’re heading, if this fits with your long term goals and core values and if you need to correct your course by changing your thinking and/or actions. With the frenetic schedule of college athletics (plus all that’s expected of you in the classroom), it can be easy to crush one day and move right into the next, rarely pausing for thought.

This transitional time that you now find yourself in gives you the chance to downshift from go mode to slow mode. Author Carl Honoré writes, “The great benefit of slowing down is reclaiming the time and tranquility to make meaningful connections--with people, with culture, with work, with nature, with our own bodies and minds.”

I’d like to focus on the last word in this quote. Today, I’d like you to set aside just five minutes to look back on your sport’s season. What did you enjoy most? When did you have your best performance, and how did that feel? What’s a lesson you learned from a coach that you can apply to your life? Then pair reflection with gratitude, and give thanks for the experiences you got to share with your teammates, for your health, and for anything else that comes to mind that’s a net positive. Then commit to doing the same thing tomorrow and the next day. Calendar it if you have too. Soon, you’ll have created a new mindset habit that will serve you well not only during the short term, but also for years to come.

Be Brilliant with the Basics

Some players get cool nicknames, like Michael “Air” Jordan. Others’ monikers are decidedly uncool, like Tim “The Big Fundamental” Duncan. But the latter was called this because he came into the NBA more pro-ready as any draft pick in history, and proved to be a model of consistent excellence as he won five titles, two MVP awards, and 15 All-Star Game appearances during a Hall of Fame career. So often, athletes get mired in complexity that they forget the vital importance of nailing the basics that lead to long-term success. This hiatus from your sport is gifting you the chance to dial in not only your mental fitness, but also your mobility and movement quality, nutrition, and sleep. So seize it with both hands!

Team Up for Support

Keeping the rest of the world at arm’s length is understandable right now, and even desirable if you have certain corona virus symptoms or a condition that compromises your immune system. But the danger is that self-isolating and social distancing might lead to true loneliness, which is never a good thing. To make sure this doesn’t happen to you, make it a priority to reach out to one of your coaches and/or teammates every day. This could be as simple as sending a text to ask, “How are you feeling today?” or “What are you doing for exercise today?” Don’t be hesitant to ask for emotional support, and freely offer it to others.

Win this Season

OK, your current season is over and that’s a bummer. I get it. But you can also consider that a new one is beginning. Now, you need to win the game of life. Mental skills like self-talk, goal setting, and visualization will help you do so. One of the things you might be lacking now that sport and school are on hold is structure. Sure, you might have bemoaned early and late practices during two-a-days or having to prepare for both a tournament and finals simultaneously, but soon the lack of scheduling might start to become an issue.

To preempt this, I suggest following a simple, three step protocol that I’ve shared with hundreds of athletes who’ve pushed through tough times and come out the other side stronger and more resilient:

1)      Talk about your challenges

2)      Get the facts

3)      Develop and execute a plan

This isn’t a one-time deal. Instead, for the entire time that your sport is suspended, you might cycle through these three steps several times. The point is that to get to a worthwhile destination, you need directions and a map to guide you. If you just resolve to fly by the seat of your pants, eventually you will crash. So even if you don’t consider yourself to be an organized person, take a few minutes each evening to plan out the next day. Then stick to this schedule as closely as you can. This way, you will feel purposeful and will accumulate at least one small win each and every day. As part of this strategy, ask yourself in the morning how you’re going to be a champion today, and then in the evening, consider how you were a champion. This way, you’ve established a framework for both intentionality and accountability.

Choose to Be a Champion Every Day

Consider how you will want to reflect on this time in a few years. Do you want to think back and question why you let your mentality and physicality slide? Or would you rather take pride that you did your absolute best to grow, develop, and progress, in spite of the obstacles that were placed in your way? Eventually you will return to your sport, either in college or the next stage of your playing career. The only person who can choose to show up more physically ready and mentally prepared than ever is YOU! Your move.

Need help getting started with mental skills training? Download The Champion's Mind App for Apple or Android now.

Jim Afremow

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