Concentration

BY DR. VIRGINIA SAVAGE FOR FLORIDA TODAY

Pay Attention! How many times have we heard those words? We think harder, stare longer, and even make ourselves more nervous by trying hard to concentrate. The problem is, the older you get, the more there is to pay attention to: schoolwork; household chores; a job; schedules; cell phones; and soccer practice. Having so much to pay attention to is like plugging too many lights into one outlet. Even if a fuse isn’t blown, the lights are blinking and not very bright.

Concentrating on what is important is easy with no distractions and a high level of confidence. But, attention at its best is focusing under pressure, when we can still focus on what is most important. The good news is that attention/concentration is a skill that can be developed, practiced, and sustained.

Anyone, even you, can learn to focus on a single point and quickly adapt and refocus when information is changing in situations of great pressure. It is possible to control thoughts and even eliminate thought entirely when action, movement and coordination should be the primary focus.

Unlike other sports, like archery (little movement) or swimming (repetitive movement), soccer is a sport involving constant change, multiple distractions, and a highly stimulated internal environment (active body & active mind). Anxiety affects attention like a horse wearing eye guards, the focus narrows and only limited information is available. Anxiety also paralyzes clear thinking and distractions become gigantic in our minds. Paying attention no longer seems possible for the intended purpose of playing the game well, it has become entirely focused on avoiding failure.

So, now that we are facing the challenge of concentration, what can be done to learn and practice this skill that is an art form to those elite athletes who make playing soccer (or any other sport) look effortless? Here are just a few suggestions.

Give yourself short (then progressively longer) periods of time in which you sit quietly and practice being “awake” and aware. Focus on your breathing, one single sound or word, or even on not thinking. It’s not as easy as it sounds but it is definitely worth the effort, you are finally training those mental muscles.
Strive to be in “the Zone”, where your skills match the challenge & are sometimes even enhanced by it. Boredom and anxiety are both mind killers so stay tuned by embracing the challenges before you.
Practice shifting attention from one object or external stimulus to another (ie, from watching TV to a sound in the room to your pen writing on paper, etc., then back to the beginning). Apply that same practice on the soccer field. Know where everyone is on the field and then shift your focus to only the ball, then back to the team, etc.
Practice pre-game focusing rituals (listen to music, tie your shoes, relaxed breathing, etc.)By focusing inward first you will be able to shift attention to the tasks ahead.
Practicing attention is a lot like a blooming flower, the more it is fed and watered, the bigger the blossom. Start practicing today and you will soon be noticing, and paying attention to, the power of your mind.

Imagery

BY DR. VIRGINIA SAVAGE FOR FLORIDA TODAY

It is impossible to know what you are capable of doing, or being, until you can imagine the possibilities. Before Roger Bannister ran a 4-minute mile in 1954, it is widely believed that everyone thought it impossible. Yet, only 46 days after his accomplishment, his rival John Landy, broke that record by two seconds. Once these two men demonstrated the possibility, people BELIEVED it was possible and the image took shape for many to follow.

This is true for everyone, including YOU. You must first imagine what you want and then believe that it is possible. Once the seed of desire has been planted, the image is created in your mind. All that is needed is to allow it to grow in detail and complexity.

As a soccer player you must SEE yourself heading the ball and FEEL the impact of a solid hit in the right direction. You SEE a teammate receive the pass and you FEEL yourself racing to position yourself for a goal kick. You run and re-run each scene as if you are both observer and participant in your own movie. You are fully engaged in the imagination of your senses. You smell the grass and feel the sweat of your jersey clinging to you. The crowd roars encouragement and you feel charged with confidence. You sense the growing power and speed within you, as you surpass all expectations to achieve all that you have imagined is possible.

The process of imagery is one of the most powerful mental tools at our disposal, yet it is the one least practiced or utilized. Imagery is more often “wishful thinking” than an intentional practice of a skill. Distractions and thoughts of failure can disrupt and undermine the image. Improper training makes athletes lose faith that it can really work.

Yet, when imagery is taught well and practiced consistently, the muscles act as if they have already been designed for perfect play. The brain has been wired to send the right signals and the body responds.

Aristotle once said, “The soul never thinks without a mental picture.” Let your soul do its work now. Practice the skill of creating the image you want. SEE yourself playing the game as you wish to play. FEEL yourself achieving all of your goals in mastering the game. Delight in recovering from mistakes of the past. And celebrate your successes as you have never done before. Stop worrying and start using your imagination. BE the player you want to be. Just imagine.

Mixed Gender On Youth Sports Teams

BY DR. VIRGINIA SAVAGE FOR FLORIDA TODAY

Although Little League baseball’s rules do not set limitations on gender, it has been widely accepted that at around age 7, boys begin to play baseball while girls opt for softball.
But, not everyone buys into that tradition. And, every year there are girls who insist they want to play baseball, even if it means being the only girl on the team.
Sport psychology consultant, Dr. Virginia Savage, feels that integrating Little League baseball is a great way to build the concept that everybody’s equal while offering girls who are motivated a more challenging venue to develop their skills.
“Research shows that girls on all-girl teams are not as prone to push themselves as much,” says Dr. Savage.
When they are on the field, the players take on their coach’s attitude.
Joe LeBlanc, the District 22 administrator who oversees all the Little League teams in North Brevard and whose daughter Katherine played on all-boy teams for four years, agrees that the best intentioned coaches still apply a double standard on the field.
“Coaches tend to be tougher with the boys while they lag back with what they expect from the girls,” Joe LeBlanc said. “They’re gentler with the girls.”
Katherine LeBlanc, who has grown up playing with Indian River City Little League with her two older brothers, said she feels that playing with the boys improved her game and gave her an extra boost of confidence.
“I actually liked it when they pushed me because it actually made me want to try harder,” Katherine, who made the All-Star team in the Majors in 2006, said. It was the same year she hit the ball over the fence in a county tournament game.
According to Dr. Savage, the best response a parent can have when their daughter asks to play on a boys’ team is to listen and keep those lines of communication open.
From there, parents should talk to coaches and attend a game or two, observing how they interact with the players. While some coaches only focus on outward appearance, others see underlying talent and build on that potential.
Even though girls don’t develop the body mass that boys do as they get older, “girls might make up for power with speed or they might be more accurate,” Dr. Savage, who advocates a positive attitude as the main ingredient for success, said. “You just find that talent and hone it.”
Joe LeBlanc said he recalls how coaches treated his daughter differently — until they realized she could hold her own with the boys.
“Initially, all the coaches treated her like a girl,” says LeBlanc. “But, eventually they saw that what she could do and pushed her just as hard.”
How hard to push depends on the girl and how motivated she is, but always encourage your children and evoke a can-do attitude.
Too often, instead of saying ‘you can do it,’ we say ‘don’t fail,’” Dr. Savage said. “But, children don’t hear ‘DON’T’ … just ‘FAIL.’”

Over-Thinking

By Virginia Savage
FOR FLORIDA TODAY

A new soccer season and a new school year are just around the corner. Hopes and dreams abound for a winning season, good grades, and making people proudmost of all making yourself proud.

Every beginning is a fresh start. Who knows what the year ahead holds for you, and you are determined to start with a positive attitude. You step into it with open arms and suddenly you find yourself playing your heart out, running down the field with eyes only for the ball, jockeying for a position to kick it straight past the goal-keeper and into the net. It is possible even for a rookie to achieve what might seem impossible. How does this happen?

Basically a beginner is free to not think too much. He or she is too busy enjoying the action. This doesn’t mean that the best tactic for a great athlete is never to think. It simply means that thinking too much can get in the way. Beginnings can be both exciting and scary, but if the attention is focused on the negative what-ifs you can count on the mind being too preoccupied to play well. And this concept is important to remember throughout the season, in every practice, at school and all other areas of life. Whatever your brain perceives, it believes.

This brings us to the days following being a beginner: the expectations of success or failure carried over from the last game, fears dredged up from past history. Let’s say your first practice or game was a positive experience. You placed a masterful kick to center field where it was picked up quickly for a goal. Maybe you even placed a goal yourself. Or, if you are a goal-keeper, you wowed the crowd with a block. You’ve been high as a kite all week. Now, as you run onto the field for the start of the next game you think to yourself, I hope I can play like I did last week.

The key word here is hope, not believe. Even if you do believe, you are only human and your first missed kick is picked up by the opponent and ultimately goes into the net for a point. The distraction that occurs here can be major. The negative talk running through your head sounds something like: “I’ve lost it. How embarrassing. My luck has changed. What a klutz. Why did I think I could really play well”? And on and on. This kind of thinking, of course, is a major distraction.

On the other hand, if you are able to keep a beginner mind, the one that focuses not on winning but on playing with all your heart no matter what, you will forget about everything but the ball and that is keyto follow the ball. You can worry and fret about what you did or didn’t do later. Right now your mind is open and free to play the game.

Like every hero, we all have the potential to rise about our expectations and fears and to realize we are capable of becoming much more than good soccer players, good students, or simply popular in the crowd. If we have the right mindset, and keep it there, we are capable of achieving greatness. And by that I mean the qualities we reflect in playing soccer, in becoming an exceptional student, and in having true friends are the ones that inspire us in others’ courage, determination, fairness, integrity, and confidence. And these are the same mental qualities that allow us to play well, to win the game.

Yet even our own heroes had to start somewhere, from whatever challenges they had to rise above, from their own doubts and fears. We never imagine that maybe they cried, had self-doubts, even wanted to give up. We assume they have always been great and we let our assumptions paralyze our own efforts on the field by judging ourselves as failures. We have lost sight of the ball.

It is normal to wonder if you are good enough when you are up against a formidable opponent or even when you are just having a bad day. But at some point it is important, even essential, to make a choice to do the best you know how to do, to stay committed to learning how to be even better, and be willing to see winning as more than a score.

Could it be beginner’s luck is simply a matter of being so free of expectations that the body and mind are allowed to perform without fear of failure, in a zone where no thinking is involved but just total immersion in the action of play?

Consider how babies learn and it may help you to get beyond self-critical thinking. If babies thought about learning a new skill the way we do as adults they would never learn to walk. If they gave up after falling down, even banging their knees and heads a few times, there would be very few people walking around. Everyone would be crawling. And although that is a funny picture, it is very true. Babies simply have no thoughts about giving up. They are always in their beginner mind. They do not criticize their own mistakes. They just keep at it and finally they succeed.

So you see your dream of becoming great can not be limited by the fear that you might lose a few games or miss a pass or a goal. You must continue to be inspired by the joy of playing the game, and commit to being as determined as a baby learning to walk. Learn the mental skills of concentrating on the ball, thinking positively, and how to bring out the best in your teammates. Develop a beginner’s mind, open to learning something new every day, with every practice, every game.

Are you ready to begin? Then begin this season, the school year, and today with a vision of opening your mind to learning about yourself in a new way. All possibilities exist with this kind of attitude.