Guest Post by Schroeder Swim Club Coach Ben Bartell. Coach Bartell has trained youth, collegiate and national level swimmers for over 10 years. He is a former Big 10 200y backstroke champion and an Olympic Trials qualifier in 2000 and 2004. Ben not only has an exceptional knowledge base in swimming, but also specializes in mindset coaching for athletes. Follow him on twitter @Ben_Bartell or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org to converse or set up a consult!
I’m pretty sure that I drove my parents and coaches insane when I was a kid.
I was one of those kids who was amazing in practice and out in the backyard. Why? I had a safety net. Game time on the other hand, was a whole different story. One game I may have played lights out, aggressive, and confident. The next game, I played terribly. It wasn't unusual to see Superman on Monday and a timid, hesitant, and lackluster Poindexter on Saturday. These Shapeshifter performances happened not only between practices and games, but sometimes within the same game itself.
Often times I would struggle to put a great performance together when I wanted it the most.
I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me or put a diagnosis to my up and down performances. I figured I just didn’t have what it takes. I took to the psychiatrists that we may call "mom," "dad" or "coach." They all said the same thing, "Ben, you need more confidence. Just go out and believe in yourself." Unfortunately I found this really difficult. I knew I needed more confidence but wrestled with the how I would gain it?
Years later, it is now clear to me where my issue laid. While I had physically worked hard and practiced my skills all week, I hadn’t practiced my mental skills at all. Moreover, I didn’t know the first thing about mental skills or why developing them was even important.
Today, I want to share a special visualization technique I use every training week while coaching my athletes and clients. An athletes mindset should be nourished or coached daily to create more confidence and ultimately lead to improved competition performances. I specifically find time every Thursday to incorporate positive recollection with my youth, high school, collegiate and professional swimmers to help create a feed forward mechanism for both immediate and long term success. It is my hope that you will think of #THROWBACKTHURSDAY or #TBT differently after this article. Moving forward, I highly recommend athletes and coaches alike add the #TBT technique to their toolbox.
WHAT IS #THROWBACKTHURSDAY?
On social media, #ThrowbackThursday refers to posting or re-posting pictures from the past. You may catch a picture from last week's football game or possibly see a school room pose from ten years ago. While some may use #TBT as an excuse to feed their narcissism on Instagram, many people really enjoy reminiscing the past and basting in the emotions it recreates.
In the mental game, #ThrowbackThursday is a visualization technique that takes advantage of our memory and the experiences already wired into our brain to supercharge the body for performance.
The effect of memory is paramount in this processes and technique.
MEMORY IS MORE THAN JUST DATA RETRIEVAL
Memory is more complex than a simple retrieval of information and facts. Think about all the facets that accompany an experience whether they be good or bad. Imagine the first time you take the field for a playoff game. The sights and sounds of the arena are evident. There’s the roaring of the crowd, and maybe the smell of the green grass. You also are experiencing the emotions, thoughts, and feeling of that very moment as well. All of these different aspects combine together to make up your "experience." When our brain stores these events into memories it is storing multiple facets of that unique experience: visuals, sounds, smells, thoughts, and emotions. Additionally, the more impactful the experience, the more vivid the memory becomes.
When you recall an event from your past -- when you REALLY think about it and reflect -- the circuitry of your brain starts firing aggressively. Your brains network boasts multiple channels seamlessly playing at once. Your visual, sensory, emotional, and cognitive channels all turn on. Recalling a memory isn’t like opening a desk drawer and pulling out a stapler... it’s more like opening a drawer and pulling out a stapler that is attached to a post-it note, a number 2 pencil, a box of paper clips and an old set of keys.
MEMORIES AND EMOTIONS CAN STRIKE LIKE LIGHTNING
We also need to recognize that our brain thinks much faster emotionally than it does cognitively. Scientists have found that the brain experiences emotions in 10-20 milliseconds, while conscious thought occurs roughly 500 milliseconds later. This means that sensory experiences can take us back to old memories before we even realize what is happening.
When you are reminded of a powerful event, you are connecting back to the emotions and feelings you experienced at the time. For that reason we may smile when we think of a loved one, cringe when we see a photo of what we wore in middle school, and finally it is why hearing a song can make us sad or happy. When we have these sensory experiences, our brains get reconnected to the past and we find ourselves feeling the same emotions. Chemical reactions further cement this phenomena as the identical neurotransmitters respond in accordance with our original experience. The more powerful and meaningful the emotional memory, the greater the affect it will have on us physiology.
If this process goes unabated, the speed at which your emotional brain reacts can sink an athlete. Stress in a game or practice causes the brain to get flooded with cortisol (a stress hormone) and leaves many passive, timid, and weak. Over a continued period we commonly see athletes accumulate self doubt as they lose confidence. Fortunately, this powerful and fast system can also work for us in a positive fashion. Knowing this, we can turn this phenomenon to our advantage.
HOW TO IMPLEMENT THIS TECHNIQUE
When harnessed appropriately, a Personal, Positive, and Powerful memory can have a powerful physiological effect on our body. Our heart rate will begin to rise, breathing will subsequently change, and testosterone will begin to flood our system. As our body releases neurotransmitters, our brain puts us in the same physical state that we previously once were in. We experience a rush of energy and are charged up in preparation for battle. Often, we may also find our selves calmed with laser like focus that better helps us in creating a clear vision towards great performance.
All we have to do is quiet ourselves and recollect back to a great achievement. An old, average memory wont cut it. Remember the three p's when choosing wisely: Personal, Positive, and Powerful! Let the scene play out in your head and really pay attention to all the past nuances. Imagine the sounds, smells, and sights. The greater the connection we make, the more impactful the results.
Last but not least, remember that every great skill needs PRACTICE! Just like hitting it hard and progressing in the weight room, quality reps are needed to improve. Keep at it, make it a habit and if it doesn’t come naturally right away, keep working!
Coach to Athlete
When I am coaching athletes or working with clients, I use this technique when I recognize that they are starting to get nervous and unfocused. I look for simple signs in their body language and mannerisms that tell me their mind is starting to run away and ultimately create ‘doomsday scenarios’. The brain is often hardwired to think pessimistically; it is constantly on the lookout for threats. This instinct served us well in the past as a survival mechanism, but sometimes it can hijack and take control of our brain even when there is no actual threat to our survival.
When we have an emotional investment in something, we often worry about possible failures and our brain goes into a threat assessment mode. We ask ourselves, “What if I lose? What if I can’t make a play? What if I make a mistake?” Unfortunately, once our brain is focused on these scenarios it fills our mind with visions of disaster, and lulls us into being passive. Our survival instinct is just doing it’s job by telling us to abort the job and flee the scene of the threat!
When the warning signs are evident, I need to efficiently and promptly help the athlete refocus. By recalling a past powerful performance, their mental attention turns away from the “what ifs” and re-calibrates towards a vision of success.
During game days I use the law of attraction with my athletes. If we think about past success we will often attract a successful performance ahead. I coach my athletes to incorporate it as part of their warm up or pre-race routine as they stand on the blocks. By practicing this technique consistently, we create competition competence.
Athlete Self Talk
If you're an athlete think of it like playing a mental highlight reel in your mind. Think back to one of your best moments. Picture it precisely. What made it your best moment? Where were you? Now, think about what were you wearing and who was around. What were the sights, sounds, and smells? Next think about what happened and how you reacted to it. Finally and maybe most importantly, think about how you felt. How did you feel physically and mentally after making the big play? Attach to that amazing feeling.
Play the memory in your mind on the ride to the game. Play it while you’re getting dressed or taking the field. Play it during your warm up. The more re-plays you watch the easier it will become for your brain to find it again and again. Every time you play this mental highlight reel, you’re releasing chemicals into your body that will make you more confident, more assertive, and elevate your performance. Think of this as your very own superhero boost that will lead to your best performance.
If you are an overachiever, write this down on paper. The process of putting pen to paper forces our brain to more patiently dwell and reflect on past moments; allowing a more thorough crystallization of these powerful memories.
Parent to Child
If you're a parent you simply need to ask the right questions: “Can you tell me about your best moment? What happened? How did it make you feel?”
Remember, this only works if your child actively pursues their best memory. Realize that your favorite memories may not align. Work together with your child to help find a memory that is personal, positive, and powerful for them. This process will also help educate you in regards toward the what's and why's of your child's competition life.
Ask your kids the right question's, but never fill in the blanks for them. If a child is producing their very own self dialogue than you’re on the right track! If you speak for them, not only will the process be dulled but unfortunately you will damage their sense of ownership as well.
Finally, it is important to always be patient! Kids simply want to do their best and are always seeking parental approval. Often times when they get nervous, it’s because they are scared of letting down their teammates, coaches, peers, and of course "Mom and Dad."
Many other visualization techniques also exist. A former world class swimmer of mine would watch his own highlight reel minutes before competition. The very same benefits are elicited. Experiment, explore, and find out what works best. Keep in mind the main objectives and why this technique works:
Our brain works in milliseconds, and is set up to think pessimistically. Throwback Thursday is simply a tool that can help us take control and ownership of our thoughts and emotions. Personal, Positive, and Powerful memories potentiate peak performances .