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Dealing with distractions.

Even when you can't prevent them from happening, you can learn to respond to them

Athletes of all ages and abilities are constantly being forced to cope with all kinds of distractions. Unless they learn to deal with them, they are going to experience a frustrating drop-off in performance.

EXTERNAL DISTRACTIONS

External distractions may include bad weather, poor officiating, antagonistic spectators, coaches' tirades, and trash talk by the opponents.

In the 1995 World Series, several of the Cleveland Indians turned their tongues loose on the Atlanta Braves with the obvious intent of distracting them. They implied that the Braves were "choke artists" who were going to blow their third World Series of the '90s.

The Braves, clearly upset, had to call a team meeting before Game 6 to discuss the matter. Their star pitcher, Tom Glavine, admitted: "Instead of going out and winning the Series, we were worrying about what they were saying about us."

In a paper on training strategies for the enhancement of concentration, Schmid and Peper (1993) offered similar instances of athletes who allowed external distractions to affect their composure and focus.

"One 16-year-old U.S. rhythmic gymnast," they wrote, "lost her poise and concentration when a foul-mouthed teenager yelled a lewd remark at her as she walked toward the mat in an international meet. It shook up the gymnast and caused her to perform poorly."

In the fifth game of a critical international volleyball match, the visiting team completely lost its composure when the home crowd began stamping their feet and clapping in unison whenever the visitors served the ball. A closely contested game turned into an 8-15 rout for the home team.

INTERNAL DISTRACTIONS

Internal distractions can cause worry, fear, self-doubt, and physiological symptoms such as sweaty palms, weak knees, or "butterflies" in the stomach.

An international distance runner recently discussed his problem before a big race. Though clearly an elite athlete, with a long string of major meets behind him, he indicated that he still had inexplicable moments of doubt before a race. He didn't know where they came from, but they happened.

A field-goal kicker who routinely converted his kicks in practice apparently lost all his poise (choked) whenever he had to kick in the closing seconds with the game on the line.

We all know that a 20-yard kick from the middle of the field remains exactly that in either practice or a game. The difference lies in the kicker's psychological response to the perceived stress.

STAYING FOCUSED

A popular bumper sticker of a few years back crudely stated," - happens!" In short, that terrible things can happen to anyone.

Athletes have to understand that while nobody can prevent such distractions from happening, you can control your response to them.

The trash talk, the lewd remarks, the clapping and foot stomping by a hostile crowd, the distance runner's self-doubt, the fear of missing the short field goal in a crucial game ... all of these distractions, external or internal, can be responded to. The question in each case is: "What can be done to ensure a positive and relevant response?"

A time-tested approach to external distractions is simulating the competitive situation in practice - exposing the athlete to the distractions they can expect to encounter during the game. The more realistic, the better - the less effect they will have in the game.

Probably the simplest example of a simulated situation is scheduling practice to coincide with the actual starting time of the game, especially if it falls at an odd hour.

Perhaps the most elaborate kind of preparation is that practiced by major football and basketball coaches the week before visiting one of those "snakepits" where they will be exposed to torrents of sound - yelling, foot-stomping, whistling, clapping, cacophonic bugle calls, drumming, etc.

Probably the only way to prepare for such nightmares is to simulate them in practice - bring in your own student body and band and cheerleaders to simulate the nightmare and to condition your players for the worst. (Not an uplifting spectacle, but as coaches are fond of saying, "You do what you have to do to give your team a fair shot.")

In addition to the simulation of the anticipated distraction, athletes should be encouraged to practice imaging themselves in specific competitive situations. For example, a basketball player might image himself or herself in a one-on-one situation late in the game - imaging the signal, sound, and feel of the moment.

The athlete could set up at the foul line, just before being handed the ball, and imagine hearing the opponents call a time-out. She could then imagine her response - move to the sideline, return a minute and a half later, receive the ball, then sink it smoothly and easily.

Athletes may image other potentially distracting situations in the same fashion.

Internal distractions can be dealt with by developing relevant focus cues, practicing positive self-talk, and devising performance routines. When a sudden unexplained negative thought strikes an athlete, she must have a response to it.

For example, a tennis player should know the most important focus for different situations, such as "Look for the seams" when preparing to receive a serve.

By developing a list of such cues and regularly practicing them, the athletes will be able to respond positively to sudden surges of self-doubt.

If it occurs during serve receive, the response could be "Look for seam!"

Positive self-talk - statements to counter negative thoughts. Again, the athlete must draw up a list of the common negative thoughts and the positive response to each.

For example, the runner who thinks "I had a lousy warm-up and there's no way I'll perform well today" could counter with the positive thought that "I've had a lot of poor warm-ups that ended with a good performance."

Performance routines also offer excellent ways of dealing with distractions. They allow athletes to prepare themselves physically and mentally for practice and competition.

A former teammate of Jerry Rice, football's premier wide receiver, reveals that Rice puts his equipment on in exactly the same order before every game, and while doing this he imagines himself running each of the patterns he is going to use in that game.

In each case, he sees and feels himself catching the pass against the defensive back covering him.

Distraction-control does not come automatically. As a coach, you have to help your athletes identify the external and internal factors that could disrupt the players' concentration and then help them develop the appropriate responses for each.

The athlete's reward for such diligence and commitment should be the satisfaction that comes with knowing that he or she faced the distraction head on and responded to it in the most appropriate manner.

Just ask Tom Glavine!

REFERENCE:

A. Schmid & E. Peper: "Training Strategies for Concentration." From J.M. Williams (Ed.), Applied Sport Psychology: Personal Growth to Peak Performance. Mountain View, CA: Mayview. 1993.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Scholastic, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:coaching tips
Author:Dale, Gregory A.
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Date:Apr 1, 1997
Words:1146
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