One of the ardent followers of Floating & Stinging wrote in with the following complaint about his weekly basketball game: “I knew it; this always seems to be the case; having played abominably last week, I played out of my mind tonight. What is that? Never know what you're bringing to town, I always say.” We understand his distress. Knowing what to count on when you step into the ring is one way athletes seek to control their side of the contest, and consistency is the very backbone of good, not to mention enjoyable, performance. We also know that top amateurs and professionals achieve consistency through hours of dedicated and focused practice, the very luxury unavailable to the weekend warrior. But even the weekend hack can employ several fairly easy strategies that will improve consistency and aim at bringing your best game to town on any given Sunday. Here are some tactics you can try that will not require more time that you already don’t have.
Make the transition. Here is what is it like: you finish a hard day’s work, punch the clock and rush over to the venue. Alternatively, you carve out some precious time from your weekend home duties, and ask your partner for yet another time credit on your already overdrawn account. But as you go, your head is filled with unfinished tasks from the day, some snarky comment or perceived slight, the plaintive glance of your child as you depart. Then, you show up at the venue, engage in ribald jive talk with your mates, and bang! the game is on. But instead of this habit, set an intention to make a mental transition as you head to the court. Have a mental picture of releasing what has come before and open a space for what is about to be. View a tape in your mind of playing your best, and try to feel in your body what it’s like when you do play your best. People often think of the warm up--usually short and insufficient under any circumstance for the weekender--as the time to transition. But try extending that transition to include your travel time to the venue.
The “bounce-hit” drill. I don’t know if you’ve read any of the Inner Game books, but in the Inner Game of Tennis, Tim Gallwey suggests a drill which I think is utterly brilliant and have used to good effect several times when I have been totally unprepared for competitive play. The brilliance of the drill lies in its simplicity. When the ball bounces, say in your head, “bounce.” When you or your opponent hits the ball, say, again, in your head “hit.” Continue in this way for five minutes. The point of the drill is to clear your mind of all the flotsam and jetsam and get it focused on what is happening in the here and now. And the drill is incredibly malleable, so you can tailor it to your sport. My basketball player should detach himself from the pre-game folderol and listen to the dribbling of the ball, the squeak of shoes, the sound of the net and backboard as the ball pelts it. Also, he should tune in to his body: call attention to his breath and notice it as it increases its work with his effort. And he should do these things while dismissing any thought that tries to pop into his head unbidden. All of these things serve to get him out of his head and onto the court, and also provide some important data, provided he is mindful to it, of how he is feeling and what he will need to do to play better (i.e. up-regulate or down-regulate).
Track the problem. Note that Mr. Basketball experiences himself vacillating between the two poles of brilliant and abominable. Well, we’d want to track that problem more closely. Is it true that his play is that polarized? Might there be some sign of the cognitive distortion of black and white thinking at play here, and that his play is really more even over the weeks than he thinks? If so, he’d want to know that so he can do some cognitive restructuring about what to expect when he goes to the court. But, taking him at his word for his variability, we’d also want to know whether it was mood dependent and if there was some trigger on the brilliant or the abominable days that produced that particular performance outcome. If so, we might learn what to avoid or cultivate on game days.
One more note on cognitive distortions: most weekend warriors fall prey to an insidious cognitive distortion which I will call grandiosity. This distortion, particularly prevalent in the male of the species, would have you believe that you’ll always play your best regardless of how long it’s been since you’ve played, how much you’ve changed physically since then, or that, when you were playing your best, you played three times per week rather than once. Interestingly, this distortion is augmented by all the pre-game banter and strut. It’s kind of endearing that when we think of doing our sport, we think of ourselves performing our best. It’s a testament to the human spirit, and all that. But then, it also sets us up for some pretty sore disappointment when we learn that our best checked out of town some fifteen years ago. All jokes aside, it’s important to be aware of our cognitive distortions, because, as I wrote in a previous post (“Why Sport Cognition,” Sept. 2012), they are like termites in the wood and they need to be eradicated if we are going to have happy & successful (sporting) lives.I believe that these three tactics will help anyone at any level become more observant of their sport performance and take a more active role in determining the quality of that performance no matter how frequently or infrequently they play. I also believe that by engaging in these tactics, they will come to know themselves even better, and that this knowledge is, ultimately, the great promise of all sporting endeavor. And if I’m wrong, well, just call me grandiose.