San Dieguito Academy

Get Your Head in the Game: The Mental Component in Sports

Before every high school soccer game, San Dieguito Academy senior Nadia Haghani would take 10 minutes to visualize the way she wanted to play. With earbuds in, hype-up music playing and a few minutes to spare, she focused on her first touch to prepare herself physically and mentally for a great performance. It was time to play like a champion.

The mental side of sports is often overlooked, but when integrated into the daily grind of athletes as Haghani does, it can have a game-changing effect on individual and team performance. Mental toughness is an athlete’s ability to maintain a strong state of mind when undergoing challenging athletic circumstances. It is a habitual process and can be developed through varying techniques and mechanisms revolved around rooting focus, positivity and self-confidence.

To break it down for athletes, Corrie Samaniego, owner and co-founder of Mindset Sports suggests that athletes focus on what they can do before the game, during the game and after the game.

“Figure out what it is that you want to do to be successful for that training or for that game,” she said. “During the game, you can work on items like mistake recovery or how to be more positive with your self-talk. After the game, which I think a lot of athletes forget, [you can work on] visualizing and again looking at things that you did well but then looking at your mistakes, figuring out what you can do to recover from those mistakes, and then transferring it to the next training or the next game.”

There are many factors that combine to create a strong mindset, especially when athletes are constantly faced with new challenges such as distractions, fatigue, or negative thoughts. To deal with these issues Samaniego suggests that athletes give themselves something they can say or do to snap themselves out of it and remind them to stay focused.

“For example, the US Women’s Soccer Team used to wear rubber bands around [their wrist],” Samaniego said. “If they made a mistake or they just weren’t feeling like they were on their game they would snap it. It’s kind of was a figurative way of snapping them back into focus and I think having something physical to keep you on [your game is important].”

“It helps me,” San Dieguito sophomore Morgan Busick said. She uses the rubber bracelet technique to maintain a positive mentality.

“Whenever I have a negative thought, I pull [my rubber bracelet] back and slap myself on the wrist. People are like ‘why do you do that? That’s a negative aspect’ but I feel it’s not because it helps me to realize I have a negative thought and then reminds me to change it to a positive one,” Busick said. 

Staying in the moment is another key attribute to maintaining focus and producing optimum results. According to mental toughness expert Chad Busick, Morgan Busick’s father, athletes tend to be fixated on the outcome and distracted from the present situation.

“They want to make sure they score enough runs, score enough points, or whatever the case may be,” Chad Busick said. “But the moment that they’re in is the only moment that matters. One of the sayings I like to say is focusing on the past whether good or bad takes you away from the present and by taking you away from the present it affects negatively the future.”

Along staying focused, many believe that self-confidence is at the core of being mentally strong.

“From personal experiences, I know that when you are mentally prepared and confident before you perform, you’ll do a lot better than when you’re stressed out or your head’s not in the game,” junior Christina Tarangelo said.

Samaniego agrees that a positive mindset is rooted in self-confidence. Samaniego spoke with Anson Dorrance, head coach of the women’s soccer team at the University of North Carolina and the holder of one of the most successful coaching records in the history of athletics. According to Dorrance, the biggest thing missing from female collegiate athletes is self-confidence.

Lack of confidence can often hinder an athlete’s playing ability, pushing them into a negative mindset. This, Busick explained, is when it is most important to enforce positive self-talk.

“When things tend to fall South and aren’t going our way we tend to beat ourselves up when what we really need is to stay positive and stay focused on the moment and turn that around as quickly as possible…Positive self-talk is key,” Busick said.

There are a variety of methods and techniques that contribute to developing a champion mindset. However, these aspects are commonly overlooked, despite having the potential to significantly enhance an athlete’s performance.

When speaking with athletes from a variety of sports, Busick found that the majority of players feel that 50 to 90 percent of the game is mental. However, when he asked these athletes how much time they actually spend on the mental side of the game, no one could respond with anything near that percentage.

“First and foremost, I think what athletes need to understand is that [mental toughness] is definitely something that they need to put into the preparation of their sport,” Samaniego said. “A lot of people don’t focus in on that area. They tend to focus in on the technical and tactical part of it and the physiological part, but we all seem to forget about that whole mental side of it. It is definitely something that has to be a learned skill, something that has become a habit and once it becomes a habit it’s a powerful tool that you have to help yourself be a better athlete and a well-rounded individual.”

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