Marv, I coach girls softball in summer and boys hockey in winter and I always seem to have one or two athletes who practice very well but when it comes game time they seem to freeze or tighten up so much it affects their play. I see goalies in hockey who practice great but seem to be too tense to move in games and girls who knock the cover off the ball in practice but swing the bat like they swinging a 20 lb. weight in the games. How can I get these athletes to relax so they can play at the top of their game? Thank you for your time...
Lex Langston (Brandon, Manitoba, Canada)
Excellent question. I would start with their parents. Often times, parents put so much pressure on their children to perform, that when it comes to game time, the kids tighten up and the opposite effect results. (This behavior pattern and the young athlete's "beliefs" are often deep-rooted and could go back many years to when they first entered sports.) And by the way, parents who put this type of pressure on their own children often have a low sense of self-worth and are eager to build their own self-esteem through the success of their children.
There are a couple of ways to approach this issue. One is to encourage the athlete to look at his/her beliefs regarding performance during a game vs. practice. Have him/her write down on paper (for his/her eyes only) exactly what beliefs they have and how these "self-limiting beliefs" evolved. After they've written their response on paper, they should then deposit that paper in their top drawer at home and show it to no one. Writing it down will provide them with the opportunity to be completely honest with themselves (somewhat like a diary). It's amazing what will surface when they begin digging deep within themselves.
Another way to deal with this type of issue is to create a team support group and you, as coach-facilitator, can be sure their issues come up for discussion so that other team members can provide them with valuable feedback. I highly recommend this approach; however, sometimes the issue may have a great deal to do with you, as coach, and if you sense that is true, you should excuse yourself from the session and allow team members to talk among themselves. This is a bit risky because I always recommend that there be a counselor or facilitator on hand to lead the group. Sometimes, if you have a player on the team who is a leader, someone who all other team members respect, that person can become the leader of the session as well.
One last suggestion: You might introduce them to techniques of meditation where they develop a mantra for themselves and just prior to game time, they would see the mantra in their mind's eye and use it to relax. (I have some information on this and would be happy to send it to you if you are interested.) This technique can also be achieved by listening to a specific piece of music that has special meaning to the athlete. For example, Barbara Streisand's recording of "Somewhere."
This does not sound like it's a self-esteem issue, but it could be. I would have to know more about the athletes and their backgrounds. Good luck.