This past weekend (and this coming weekend for that matter), I had the privilege of seeing high school athletes get back to playing basketball. This is something they have waited to do since the beginning of March if they were lucky enough to make it far in the state playoffs. For most, it has been even longer since they have been able to play their beloved sport with their peers.
In this day and age where Coronavirus seems to dominate the regulations that we see and the news that we watch, this particular basketball tournament definitely looked different than others. Anyone who was a spectator was asked to wear a mask the entire time they were in the building. The players and coaches were allowed to play and coach without a mask, but as soon as the game was over they were asked to mask up again. When you could usually hang out in the gym with your team in between your games, the tournament organizers asked that players, coaches, and spectators all vacated the building in between games instead of hanging out.
Overall, I think this tournament was a well run event that held up their end of the safety regulations that they were asked to do as well as created a safe place for high school athletes to compete against one another in hopes of getting a scholarship to play in college somewhere. While some people may disagree with allowing them to play, I think this is a great example of how we can safely get back to a “new normal.”
It was incredibly refreshing to be back in the gym as a spectator seeing kids live out their dreams. With the exception of looking around seeing everyone wearing their masks, it seemed like just for a little bit we could feel some kind of normal. To hear the coaches yelling directions to their players, to hear the whistles blowing from the referees, to hear the players talking to one another about where the screen is coming from, to hear all of these things come together in a big arena gave me a sense of relief.
No matter what was going on outside those doors, these players were able to focus on the task at hand: to play basketball, to help their team win, and to obtain a scholarship to play at the collegiate level. These players were able to perform even without the usual training that they have had in years past.
It got me thinking about the mental skills that players may have been using during this time, especially when it comes to stress management and handling expectations. In a way, I think some players may have felt a little less pressure to perform at their optimal level knowing that they have not been able to practice as they have been before. There is certainly some kind of relief when you can remove some of that pressure from yourself about how you are going to perform which then helps you perform even better than what you had seen before.
Unfortunately, this feeling of pressure on ourselves can be found on a spectrum. Some athletes may be feeling more pressure on themselves with the understanding that the future tournaments they had planned are not guaranteed. This means that they may ultimately have less chances to show their capabilities on the court beyond what their highlight videos depict. In each of these scenarios, some of the following tips are helpful when trying to manage your expectations and pressure:
1. Focus on what you can control:
When you are feeling more pressure, many times it is coming from things that you cannot control. For example, you cannot control what that college scout is thinking or what position that school is looking for the season after you graduate. What you can control, though, is how you carry yourself on the court. Many times when scouts come to watch you play in person, they are looking for your actions outside of the highlight reel like how you are as a teammate, how coachable you are, how you manage your emotions in the moment. These are all things that are in your control.
2. R - E - L - A - X:
As said by Aaron Rodgers, relax. This word may seem so simple, but it can be very beneficial for players feeling a lot of pressure on themselves. Take some deep breaths before you step on the court for your game. Remember, your breathing is something you can control. Taking deep breaths can manage your anxiety, decrease your heart rate, and clear your mind before you begin to compete. Doing some progressive muscle relaxation is also simple. To put PMR in simpler terms, you move through your body tensing and relaxing different muscle groups. For example, tense and relax your toes. Then, move up to your calves, then your thighs, and so on. This exercise helps you relax each muscle group of your body, but it also shows you how you have control over your body’s ability to relax these different muscle groups. Choose to relax your body and control your anxiety about the pressure that you may be feeling.
3. Use mental imagery:
Mental imagery is a great tool many athletes use where they picture themselves achieving their goals. Imagine yourself scoring 20 points, driving to the basket against any defenders, successfully completing a crossover to create space for your jump shot, etc. What is it that you are trying to achieve in this next game? Bring that image to life in your mind before you play. Close your eyes, take some deep breaths, and picture yourself achieving that goal successfully. Once you step on the court, it will feel like you have already accomplished that goal and have made it that much “easier” for yourself. It is best to focus on one thing at a time that you are hoping to accomplish, so choose one aspect of your game that you would like to see yourself accomplish in the next competition. Even if it may seem like something small, it can go a long way to achieving all of your goals!
Best of luck to all of you athletes getting back into competitions!