Today I'm finally getting around to focusing on the positive. I think this is one of the areas that all of us can improve. This holds true for athletes, parents and coaches. All of us would benefit from being more positive and optimistic. As an athlete we normally vividly remember the bad mistake that we can't believe we made or the poor loss lingers on. I feel that most of us are too fixated on the areas we need to improve or a bad loss compared to the good things. If we focused more on our strengths and good performances we would be more confident, play better and enjoy competing more. We wouldn't worry about repeating a mistake or having a bad loss. It sounds so simple, doesn't it? Let's find out how we can change our thought patterns and become more positive.
For The Athlete
Positive Self-Talk: it starts with yourself. It doesn't matter what anybody else says or does if you are too hard on yourself. I like to ask people to pretend they are a coach. What would you say if you were coaching yourself? If you can take a step back and listen to the critical things you're saying about yourself no wonder you're not playing better. It's difficult to step back and not judge yourself while you're competing. If you make a mistake don't beat yourself up over it. You need to look at the positive about how well you set up the rally and that next time you will make that shot. This is a challenging perspective to have when you play, but it will positively influence your future performance by having this type of outlook and response. The more challenging of situation you are in the more important it is to stay positive. That's how I look at it. If things are looking bleak think like a champion and remain calm and confident. Always expect things are going to turn around and continue saying positive statements to yourself like 'I can do this,' or 'I will do this.' If I find myself losing confidence when I'm not on court I remember all of the hours I've dedicated to my craft. 'This is my destiny, I'm prepared, I'm ready for this, I can do this.'
Positive Body Language: watching juniors play you can normally tell how they are doing just by a quick glimpse at them. When things are going well we have our shoulders back, our head up and exude confidence. We are saying positive things in our head and we believe it because things are going well. However, when things aren't going well most of us slump our shoulders and you can tell by looking at our face we are not happy. In this mindset we are judging ourselves and living in the past. It is up to us to turn this around and become more positive. To turn things around I like to get up on my toes and bounce on them before the serve. Get your head up and shoulders back and repeat a positive statement to yourself. Take a deep breath and you are now refocused. The more challenging the situation the tougher this can be to do. This game is very mental and being confident and maintaining confident and positive body language will help you stay more upbeat. Some people feel they don't deserve to be positive and confident. They accept that they are not that good and that they actually enjoy this low self-esteem. This way they are prepared for failure and can handle it better mentally. This is not an effective method for becoming a top competitive squash player. What you think about yourself and choose to believe is up to you.
Focus On The Present: this is how we can get into the 'zone' and stay in it. That doesn't mean we can't interpret the past, we learn from it and move on and don't dwell or relish in it. If you spend your time thinking about the last point or game or about what may or may not happen you are not in the zone. We have a tendency here to remember the bad things that have happened and the potentially bad things that may happen in the future. If you can stay focused on the now you will play better squash.
Visualize: this is something many top players do before each match they play. The amount of time they spend varies from person to person, but the reasons for visualizing are similar. This is an effective method for getting into an ideal mindset for competing. Some people visualize a previous excellent performance while others visualize the upcoming match. They use their minds eye to see what they are about to do in the match and the more vivid the imagery the better. Imagery is a powerful tool and can help build your confidence. You can envision your strategy and building rallies and winning points. Visualize how fluidly you move around the court, how you are hitting perfect length and taking the ball in short with great precision. This isn't a skill that will always show benefits the first time you try it. Like any skill the more you do it the better you get at it and the more beneficial it will be to your performance. You don't need to be on the professional tour to begin using imagery.
Prepare: to be confident going into a match or a tournament we will feel more confident and positive if we have prepared properly. If we've done all that we can to prepare for a tournament there is nothing we should worry about. Even if we don't have the results we want, we did everything we could to get ready for it. This we can be proud of. If you want to feel more confident, train and prepare properly for your tournaments. If you were sick or coming off an injury you should still feel confident that you did all that you could to prepare. You may not be 100%, but you can give it your best shot and go in without any expectations. When we aren't playing our best or feeling our best how we think we are playing is not actually that far off from our normal performance. This means we are prone to poor body language, negative thoughts, and our focus drifts into the past or future. Don't use these as excuses. Stay positive and compete; that's within your control.
Have Fun: this sounds too simple to be true, but it is a common problem. When we don't enjoy playing squash it can feel like a chore and isn't fun anymore. When we feel relief to get a victory this is a sign that we didn't have fun. Can you really have fun playing in a big competition? I enjoy the feeling of being focused and the process of hitting good shots and retrieving their best shots. If you don't enjoy competing it's because you are focused on the wrong things. Squash is a game and odds are if you're reading this you aren't making a living based on a single result. We put pressure on ourselves to live up to our own or someone else expectations. This is debilitating and unnecessary. If you can stay more relaxed and enjoy the game you will play better and do better.
For The Coach/Parent
Encouragement: we all have a tendency to tell people what they can do better. That's why they pay us coaches. I've learned how important and sometimes challenging it can be to give an athlete positive feedback. All I ever want from an athlete is that they go out and compete and give it their all. If they are overmatched on the court I can at least give them encouragement about their effort and try and be positive and encouraging. This is great experience for you. Keep fighting for every shot and point. Regardless of the situation it is essential to give positive feedback. I feel that I tell it like it is so if I give someone positive feedback they know that I mean it. Telling someone how poorly they executed something just makes it worse. They probably already know this and are focused on it.
Put A Positive Spin On Things: this is a skill that great coaches make look easy, but it is not always so. We don't want to say to an athlete don't do this or that. Instead we have to put a spin on it to make it more positive. For example, if someone is hitting too much tin you don't need to tell them to stop hitting it, they already know that! If they are going short at the right time you can reinforce that they have a great drop and when it's on to go for it. This is what they likely want and need to hear and will give them the best chance of turning things around and hitting higher quality drop shots. Athletes are often emotional after they lose a game or when they feel they are not playing well. Our job is to lift them up and get them back in a positive mindset. We can only do this by putting a positive spin on whatever we feedback we give. Even if our feedback has nothing to do with tactics or the game, we should try and get their mind in a better place for competition. Sometimes this means as a coach we need to avoid getting caught up in the emotion as well. We are invested in our athletes and can easily get swept up in the heat of the game. Sometimes talking about something other than the match can help the athlete refocus and lighten the mood.
Process Based Feedback: again we all have a tendency to praise someone for a win and saying tough luck when they lose. Even though the person may have played better squash in the loss.. to me this doesn't make sense. The outcome is only moderately under our control. Nobody can will all of the time. Give your feedback based on the process of the match. How did the individual conduct themselves in challenging situations? This is what I commend people for, win or lose. Of course I want people to be successful, but sometimes winning does not define success. This is important to remember for kids as they grow and develop. Otherwise they will learn to feel bad and unhappy when they lose a match and that can lead to avoiding competition or making up excuses so they feel better about themselves after they lose. How kids handle the outcome is a learned response. For the longevity and development of their sporting career it's important to focus on the process of the game as opposed to the outcome. I believe that even professional athletes would play better and in turn would be more successful if they could do this. If winning is the goal, how do you not focus on the outcome? Focus on how you are going to give yourself the best change to be successful, the process and you'll improve your chances of winning.
The last thing I want to discuss is the use of video. When we watch video of ourselves play we always want to pick up things we can improve and watch for errors in performance. I believe we should all have clips of our best rallies and make a montage of us at our best. We can watch this before matches or just a replay of one of our best performances. This will improve the vividness of your imagery and improve your self-confidence. It's up to you to believe in yourself. Find a routine that works for you and stick with it. This is why almost every professional athlete prepares the same for game. They eat, drink, warmup and visualize all the same. It isn't necessarily a superstition per say, it's about getting into the same mindset on a consistent basis to perform at their best. We are all capable of this. It just takes time to find what works best for you. Positive self-talk and body language are good places to start. Your brain can be your greatest ally or enemy, it's up to you!