Set Goals To Improve Performance

BY DR. VIRGINIA SAVAGE FOR FLORIDA TODAY

Everyone begins a new soccer season with high hopes and good intention, players, coaches, and parents alike. Chances are that it WILL be a fantastic season. Maybe you’ll win the tournament, maybe you/one of your players will be voted MVP of the season, or maybe you’ll be a starter, break your own record for goals, or win a scholarship. Chances are that it could happen. But why leave it up to chance? Why not determine your own destiny and learn to become mentally tough at the same time? Mia Hamm would undoubtedly tell you that having a clear strategy for winning is fundamental and essential in playing your best season. “I am building a fire, and every day I train, I add more fuel. At just the right moment, I light the match.”

The strategy for winning is straightforward and simple.

· Establish both individual & team goals that are specific, measurable, meaningful, and achievable within the time that you have.

· Be open and truthful about your values, priorities, and motivation to commit yourself (both team and individual).

· Make sure all are in agreement (players, coaches, parents) about what is important and how to support it.

· Practice positive thinking and concentrate only on what you WANT.

· Practice the “feeling” of playing well, without hesitation, and with a huge heart for the game.

Of course, if you have never developed such a strategy, it is possible to feel a little overwhelmed, and it can seem like too much to remember when the pressure of competition begins. So, I suggest you start by asking one question, “What do I/we really want to achieve this year”? Make a list of everything you want and then prioritize it until you can see and feel what is most important. Then, brainstorm everything you believe you will need to do to achieve it. Create a timeline to see how much time and what kind of training you will need focusing your goals on “personal best” improvements that can be achieved within shorter time deadlines. Measure your progress regularly. This may sound tedious but, take my word for it, you won’t be sorry. Achieving tiny steps can be motivating and build confidence, especially if it is a goal that means something to you.

Make sure that you follow this same process for establishing team goals. Most likely, you could use a good facilitator for this. Your coach can do it but you have to make sure that it’s a TEAM goal and not the coach’s goal. A better idea would be to have an outside facilitator to guide players, coaches, and parents in establishing a common goal and collective commitment toward success. As each goal is achieved, then another and another, it may seem as if you have been creating your own destiny. At this point Chance has been taken over by Character.

Confidence & Belief

BY DR. VIRGINIA SAVAGE FOR FLORIDA TODAY

No doubt, the biggest barrier between you and your goal in soccer (or anything else) is your brain. It is also your biggest asset. The most critical element in accomplishing goals and overcoming difficult odds is your ability to BELIEVE IN YOURSELF. Of course, this is not as easy as it sounds. Wanting to achieve and believing that you CAN are two different things. Desire can be a powerful motivator but if there is any doubt in your ability to play against formidable odds, or even to perform without your lucky socks, then desire can quickly turn into frustration and anxiety… and ultimately even work against you.

Believing is much more than hoping. Michelle Akers, a Central Florida high school graduate, is a great example. In 1999, she overcame the debilitating effects of a chronic disease (CFIDS) to lead the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team to another World Cup victory. Although her disease is invisible to the observer, Michelle made it especially invisible as she gave the game 110% of her available energy, finally collapsing at the end of regulation time (the game was won in overtime) after preventing a winning goal by the Chinese team. “Impossible is just another word for Work Harder” writes Dan Voss, one author of her story.

We marvel at our “heroes,” not just in soccer but in all walks of life, who have made the “impossible” possible and inspired us to believe in our own potential. If you read or listen to their words take notice of the language they use and begin to reflect on your own. Words like “determined”, “faith”, “commitment” and “inspired” pop up everywhere.

Likewise, listen to the language of people who always seem frustrated and limited in their achievements…. “I could never do that”, “if only…”, “who cares anyway.” Luck and fairness seem to define the arguments of failure. Believing in the “possible” defines the character of success. This leads us to the next practice session of mental toughness… developing a language of BELIEF.

Notice the language of your friends and fellow players, adults, and generally everyone around you… negative or positive? What is their accompanying attitude and motivation?

Begin to notice your own words and change negative statements to positive ones (change “I can’t” to “I will”… even if you don’t quite believe it YET).

Add the word YET to any negative statements that escape your head. Notice how this change creates a subtle difference in the way you feel.

Omit the word “try” whenever you can. It implies that you don’t really believe you can, that you are giving yourself an excuse to fail if it happens.

Omit the word “but” and replace it with “and.” The word “but” dismisses everything said before it.

Begin to focus only on what you WANT. Avoid focusing on the “what-if’s”.

Post notes on the wall in your room, on your mirror, in your locker, in your books… that say I BELIEVE. Practice repeating it to yourself over and over.
And finally, change takes time. What seemed impossible two years ago may seem entirely possible now that your ability to succeed is just a matter of time. Henry Ford (founder of the American car industry) once said, “whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you are right.” Indeed, your thoughts determine your destiny.

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.

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.