Behold the power of pre-game rituals, a staple of fans and athletes alike. They can be anything from eating the same food, wearing specific clothing items (often unwashed), having icons like Jake Peavey's cigar store Indian nearby, or growing playoff beards. These rituals all serve the purpose of allowing the fan or athlete to feel as if they can sway or control the outcome of the game.
Unfortunately, this illusion of control usually falls apart as soon as the first whistle blows and the plans of both teams merge on the field. As Colin Powell has said, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” But what if the enemy we meet is ourselves? Athletes and teams can beat themselves by allowing nerves, jitters and exhaustion to result in game losing mistakes like fumbled snaps or unnecessary penalties. What if the athlete had some tangible activities that could be pulled into the game to help them react and respond to what is happening in real-time?
Offering youth athletes specific tools to reach for under pressure can help them stick to the plan that their teams and coaches have been working on for weeks or even months. Following are four practices to incorporate into team training that can be deployed before and during the game:
Pre-Game Asana: Using yoga asana sequences for a dynamic, sport- specific stretching routine can effectively warm up athletes before the game. Many youth athletes travel on long bus or car rides just a few hours before important games. One high school coach marched her team onto the field and had them line up in rows before doing a 10-minute yoga warm up that was designed specifically for them. Not only did it warm up their muscles, it just might have had the psychological benefit of making the other team wonder if they were missing out on the benefits of yoga.
Mantra: The power of repetitive positive thinking was recently proven to be effective in increasing athletic endurance in a study by researchers at the University of Kent. The study found that participants who repeated a positive mantra frequently during exercise were able to more effectively fight off fatigue. Introducing athletes to the use of mantra during their training and practice efforts can provide them with another tool to reach for when the going gets tough. Even if endurance is not a critical part of the skill set needed in the moment, the benefits of repeating phrases such as “I feel good,” “I feel fast” or “I feel strong” could serve to block out negative thoughts which might start to permeate members of a team that is trailing on the scoreboard.
Visualization: Visualization can also be a tool to supplement practice efforts. Coaches can incorporate 5-10 minutes of quiet time at the end of practices to provide an environment for the athlete to visualize themselves performing on the field or court. Perhaps they review a new play they just learned or see themselves repeating a specific skill linked to their role on the team. Visualizing every movement that leads to a perfect snap at center, a saved goal or a completed foul shot could help imprint this learning and bolster confidence in their skills.
Breath: Learning breathing techniques before the game is critical to effectively using breath to focus effort and calm nerves. Teach breathing techniques in advance so that in the heat of the moment the athlete will know how to calm themselves and regain control. One option is Nadi Shodhana Pranayama or alternate nostril breathing. I’ve seen stressed or dejected players sit and slump on the sideline bench, letting their frustration and negative thoughts take hold. Rather than sit and seethe, it would be more helpful for them to sit and do a few rounds of this breath before heading back out to play.
The key here is to be prepared for the stress, fatigue and pressure of a game. Coaches can focus on developing their players’ proficiency in these techniques before the big day. There is no need to cancel that special breakfast or shave the beard but make sure there are some other tangible tools to draw on when it really counts.