The Balls Coming to You - Are You Ready?
It’s almost the end of the game or match, it’s highly stressful time and your coach calls a timeout and calls your number. You’re getting the ball to score the final point of the game or match. How will your perform?
A Real Athletes' Experience
Two weeks ago at a volleyball power hitting clinic, I asked the clinic participants to close their eyes and play this scenario in their heads and then tell me what they saw themselves do in the actual situation.
The first athlete told me she saw herself hit the ball down on the court and score the point; match over. Great! Unexpectedly, the second athlete said she hit the ball into the net and lost the point. Wow!
What’s the reason why both of these highly competitive athletes had such dramatically different outcomes? They both train a lot physically on the court at practice and in the weight room doing their conditioning training. If you said “it’s all in their heads”; I would agree with you, it is!
Add Mental Training to Physical Training
Coaches & athletes spend a lot of time training physically - working on strength, power & explosiveness to hit with greater power, so when their number is called, they’re ready. But in my experience, not a lot of athletes work on the mental side of their performance, which leaves them unprepared to perform in the stress of the game or match when they need to step up and make it happen.
While the physical skills and conditioning exercises are important, without practicing the mental practice, athletes are not truly prepared to perform at their highest level. Mental training is all about training the brain which provides the instructions for the body’s movements!
Simple Brain Structure & Function
Basically, the brain has two sides, the left & right sides.
The left brain is the highly analytical side that likes breaking things down and thinking in numbers.
At the end of the match, when you need to hit the ball down with power, the last thing the athlete needs to be doing is firing up the left brain and thinking about mechanics or how they are going to use their body to hit the ball.
Also, the left side can create negative self-talk such as “I can’t do this”, “I’m not good enough”, or a host of other performance destroying thoughts. In the middle of competition, we want to avoid a lot of the left brain activity.
The right side of the brain likes images, pictures and videos.
Experienced athletes, with years of playing experience, will have stored thousands of game and point repetitions (images or videos) in their right brain. Assuming the athlete has placed good images in their head, they will see and remember themselves hitting the ball down and scoring the point.
In a match we want to focus on more right brain activity, especially if the athlete has trained this side of the brain correctly.
Athletes need to use the right side of their brain to automatically make the body do what it needs to, to score the point. But this has to be trained. The correct images and videos need to be placed in this side of the brain, so when it’s crunch time they can perform appropriately and score the point.
If athletes take the time to place “good” images and/or videos inside their right brain, numerous benefits will come from this. Most importantly, they will be able to pull from these images at the end of the match when they need to “automatically” perform physical movements without having to think about them. This is what is commonly referred to, incorrectly, as “muscle memory”.
The muscles do not actually have any memory. They just do what the brain tells the muscles to do to move the body in precise ways.
The brain, provides the instructions for movements to the muscles, by way of the nerves that run from the brain to the muscles. The nerves carry tiny little electrical messages, from the brain to the muscles, telling the muscles how to work to coordinate the desired sports movements.
Both the left and right brains will feed thoughts, good (hitting the ball down and scoring the point) or bad (hitting the ball into the net), into the subconscious parts of the brain where all of the automatic movement instructions for the body are stored.
Then in the match, these instructions, good or bad, are retrieved or activated from the subconscious part of the brain and these instructions are sent through the nerves to the muscles to automatically perform the necessary body movements.
Visualization training is mental or brain training practice to train the brain to be prepared to tell the body how to move in response to events that happen within the game or match. In simple terms, it’s really just the act of placing the correct instructions, through pictures and/or video thoughts, for the desired movements the athlete wants to perform, in the subconscious part of the brain.
How to Do Visualization Training?
- Find a quiet place with no distractions.
- Learn to quiet the mind and relax the body by breathing with your main muscles of breathing (the diaphragm).
- Close your eyes.
- See yourself performing as you want to in the match. Be really specific in the images or video of what you see yourself doing. ONLY place positive images in the brain as the brain doesn't know the difference between good and bad images, but it will remember all of them if you place them in your brain.
- Repeat the sequence of body movements as you visualize the point being played out, 5-20 times.
- Stay focused and if you start to lose your focus, then stop the practice.
- Repeat frequently throughout the day and week.
Visualization Training Improves Athletic Performance
There are many benefits from visualization training. Athletes can learn new sports skill movements faster they can build strength in the muscles and it can really help them take their performance to the highest level. So make sure you are doing both the physical training and then the mental training, so you’re ready to play at your highest level!