Another post in the Q&A series...
The first thing I want to say is that I hope people read this post whether or not they've ever been in this exact position with an injury:
Question: "What are some of the strategies you use in overcoming an injury? Specifically, is there a mental pep-talk you give yourself after recovering from an injury when you have a scary moment where you overreact mentally? I find myself apologizing and explaining that I had a recent injury, but need to pull myself together quickly to keep playing after a "close call." I've seen others struggle as well. Advice?"
Certainly, if you've been injured and felt like you've 'overreacted' in 'close call' situations during your recovery (or even well after you've recovered), it's important for you to know what's (likely) going on in your brain and body.
If you're a coach/captain/teammate/friend of someone who's ever had a serious injury or struggled to come back from injury, or has 'overreacted' in 'close call' situations, it's important for you to understand what might be going on for them.
Additionally, the information I'm going to present in this post is valuable for everyone to know because it has broad connections to any type of injury or trauma someone may have experienced in their life.
Let's start by defining the term "overreact." We use this term to describe the moment when our actions/reactions turned out to be more than the situation warranted. It is usually retrospective and it is usually judgmental in tone. I can't think of a time I've ever planned to "overreact" in advance. It usually just happens and it often happens before we really know that it's happening.
This post is written to help you understand why and how our brain and body react seemingly without your direction, much less your permission.
Here's how one athlete describes this experience:
"Everything is fine until all the sudden it's like my brain senses or feels someone running up behind me. I freeze – I go from a full sprint to a dead stop - my body just stops, tenses-up and I scream. All this to find out seconds later that the player behind me wasn't even close to me. The reaction – stopping in my tracks, tensing up, screaming – is instantaneous …it all happens before I even knew it happened. When the time warp ends, I stand there untouched, unscathed. Embarrassed, I apologize...but I feel shaken."
While there is a lot of technical neuroscience stuff that can explain these reactions down to the neuron, I want to keep it more basic here so we can all have a usable big picture understanding.
This is a textbook experience of what it's like when our primitive and emotional brains hijacks our thinking brain.
The primitive brain is responsible for our survival functions like breathing and threat detection. When a threat is detected, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in and we experience symptoms commonly referred to as "fight or flight" such as increased heart rate, muscle tension, and surges of adrenaline. These physiological changes are designed to help us survive the threat by priming us to run or fight for our lives.
Another somewhat lesser known response is the "freeze" response. The physiological changes in the freeze response include a similar activation of the sympathetic nervous system, but a disabling of body movement. The primitive and emotional brains basically says, "this threat is so severe that our best chance of surviving is to play dead."
What's most likely happening for athletes who experience a freeze response while playing is that the primitive brain detects a threat because the conditions - 'someone running up behind me' - are similar to the conditions under which the athlete experienced a severe injury.
Other athletes may experience similar physiological or emotional symptoms to a lesser extent. Maybe they don't freeze, but they hesitate. Maybe it's not in the moment of play, but upon returning to the field where they tore their ACL or facing the opponent they were playing when they got a concussion.
It might seem hard to believe that the brain would create such a strong response to one data point when it has thousands of other data points that are strikingly similar and nothing bad happened. This happens because our brains are wired to encode emotionally charged memories (the one data point) significantly deeper than average, non-emotional memories. Why? To keep us safe. Unfortunately, sometimes they overshoot the mark - especially when it comes to strong emotional memories like an injury.
So what do we do about it? How do we reign-in our primitive and emotional brains and allow our thinking brain to execute some control?
TODAY'S JOURNAL WORK: THE PLAN
#1: Manage your expectations.
This is my number one rule for anything injury related and is especially true here. Retraining your brain to respond differently is going to take time and effort - trust that it's worth it.
#2: Remove the judgment.
Unfortunately, when we judge ourselves or others judge us for our 'overreactions,' it can actually reinforce the intensity of the emotional connection to the response, which can reinforce the response itself.
Try starting by acknowledging the judgemental thought: "I'm feeling embarrassed." Then, acknowledge that your response was in fact nothing to be ashamed of, but simply a survival instinct gone too far, "my brain felt threatened and took over, I wasn't in charge."
#3: Release your physiology.
When we have a survival response like fight, flight, or freeze, our bodies fill with neurochemicals and hormones that create physiological activation such as increased heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and muscle tension. If there is no threat, we want to release these things from our body as soon as we can so they don't continue to influence us unnecessarily.
Try starting by noticing which of these symptoms you're experiencing: "My heart rate is through the roof, I'm short of breath, and my shoulders are hunched up to my ears." Then, take deliberate action to release these sensation such as a few deliberate breaths, shaking out your arms, or a quick sprint. Be sure to pay attention to what it feels like as your symptoms release.
#4: Start rewiring your brain.
Once the judgment is contained and our body is returning to baseline, we now want to get our thinking brain truly back online. The thing is, you want to be as deliberate about this process as you can as this is a great time to start rewiring your brain for the long haul. I highly encourage you to pre-plan these thoughts in a moment of calm instead of relying on them to come to you in the moment. The stronger the emotional resonance, the more effective they will be.
Try starting with a word, phrase, mantra, or image that fills you with a positive emotion such as hope or gratitude. It could be something as simple as "I'm OK." It could be more complex like a reminder of 'your why': why you play the sport, why you love the sport, why you're pushing to play past this experience. Perhaps something like, "I'm a living example of perseverance for my kids/friends/teammates." If possible, connect this new thought to your calmer physiological state or the positive emotion it elicits. This will help you more deeply encode this response.
Numbers 2-4 are a plan for in-the-moment. The first few times you try to engage these strategies, it might be a bit slow, clunky, or bumpy. That's to be expected. The idea is that this new plan will become easier and more natural each time. You'll start to recognize indicators sooner and be able to more quickly recover. Numbers 5-X are strategies to rewire your brain in calmer moments.
Our brain has a hard time distinguishing between what is real and what is imagined. It's why we feel physical excitement just from thinking about something exciting; or feel stress from thinking about something stressful. Use this to your advantage by training your brain to respond how you want it to in your mind first.
Try starting by imagining yourself playing, using all of your senses. When you get comfortable, imagine yourself in the conditions that usually elicit your intense response - like feeling someone running up behind you. It is likely that you will start to feel some emotional and physiological activation at this point. Ideally, instead of letting that primitive brain response take-over, you imagine yourself staying calm and playing through that moment.
It may take many repetitions at this to 'get it right' and actually see yourself playing through it without having an extreme reaction. Your brain is a powerful thing, harnessing it will take time (see rule #1). If you do still see yourself responding with a fight/flight/freeze response, see yourself implementing your new recovery plan (#2-4) and returning to baseline faster.
#6: Enlist help.
Struggling is hard. Struggling alone is harder. Know that other people have gone through what you're going through. Those people may not be on your team, but that doesn't mean your team can't still be helpful.
Try starting by taking time to think about what you need/seek from people in those moments. Do you need to make eye contact with someone? Would you benefit from someone saying something specific to you? Then, think about who you want to ask for that support. Maybe start with a best friend, maybe start with a coach - whoever you feel will be most helpful for you.
#7: Embrace a new normal.
It is important to understand that injuries, even when fully physically healed, still impact us. Pay attention to what mark that injury is leaving on you and know that you can work to frame that mark in a way that it is helpful instead of harmful.
Try starting by recognizing what impact you might be noticing: "I'm not planting and cutting as much off my surgery leg." Then, think about how you could frame that in a way that is helpful: "That is forcing me to tune-in to my cutting patterns in a way I never have before." The idea here is to recognize and embrace that big things impact us, and with some deliberate work they can have a positive impact on us.
Many people who experience major life events (like athletic injuries) recognize that while they'd never wish it on anyone else, they appreciate how it has helped them grow. We might be smarter, stronger, or straight-up tougher than we were before. Let's recognize and leverage it.
I really hope you found this post helpful in understanding what might be happening for people with injuries. If you want more information on any of the topics discussed or have questions about your own experience, please reach out and let me know!
Finally, I want to acknowledge and thank a few people for their contribution to this post: E Kruise (a fellow sport psych consultant for some mind-bending 'nerd out' conversations), Jenn Housholder (a trainer with the Trauma Resource Institute for her insight on injury and the brain), and the athletes whose first-person accounts inspired and informed this post.
A few additional resources for those interested in the details of the brain and the different responses, check-out the videos below...
Emotions and the brain:
Areas of the brain:
The next few posts will be responses to questions posted on our PC/Ultimate Mindset Facebook Page. Enjoy and keep the questions coming!
Original comment/question: "Getting the team hyped up the wrong way - during a game there's an important point - do you pump up by saying "do we want this?! Do we want it more than them?!" ...etc...Do you pump at all? I feel that's when a lot of teams make mistakes is in that game point...certain things you say I think can have a more negative impact because you're putting more pressure on it.
I'm guessing this question is stemming from experiences with the often used strategy of a rowdy pep-talk intended to pump people up to increase motivation, effort, or execution. We yell things like, "C'MON, YOU KNOW WE WANT THIS MORE THAN THEY DO!" or "THIS IS OUR GAME!" or "WE'RE BETTER THAN THIS TEAM, WE'VE GOTTA STOP PLAYING DOWN TO THEIR LEVEL." Etc...etc...etc.
I'll be clear, I say "we" because I have given my fair share of these speeches (feel free to check with my Ultimate and soccer teammates dating back to high school). Sometimes they work and sometimes they don't.
Why is that and how do we fix it?
Problem: Everyone is different.
Okay, maybe not everyone. But on a team of almost any size you're going to have pockets of people who have different needs in different moments. That speech will work for the other people who need that type of speech in that moment. Unfortunately, in that same moment, you'll have pockets of people who need calming reassurance or a deliberate breath and that speech will only derail them further.
Strategy: Make a plan as a team.
Take 10 minutes during a stretching session at the end of a practice to ask people to talk about what they need in those moments. Make it a conversation driven by curiosity and team growth - aka, don't heckle people's contributions. Ask what works for them and what doesn't. Not everyone will participate, and that's okay...but get as many people talking as you can.
Key takeaways from this conversation should be:
-We hear you, we took notes and we (captains/leadership/coaches) will cater to everyone's motivational needs as much as we can, but it'll never be perfect. So....
-Each of us is responsible for our own needs. Be aware of where you're at, what you need, and how you can get it. (This may mean staying in the huddle but tuning out the speech).
-Find buddies who have similar motivational styles as you so you know who you can talk to or simply be near in those moments.
If the pump-up speech is a leader's only strategy it is likely going to lose value and effectiveness.
Strategy: Look inward / Speak up
If you're the leader/teammate overusing the pump up speech: Look inward. Pause, relfect and ask yourself curiously why is that my go-to strategy? What am I seeing/feeling that makes me want to say something? Do I have an accurate read on how my speeches are perceived by my team? What are other strategies I can try? The answers to these questions may not come to mind readily, so give them time. If you don't know how your speeches are perceive - ask around. If you're not sure what other strategies you can try...practice breaking down what you're seeing: is it an effort thing? is it a precision thing? is it a confidence/composure thing? As you refine your observation about what's going wrong, you'll be able to diversify what you're saying to fix it. (And, as always feel free to ask me anytime).
If you're a teammate of someone who is overusing the pump-up speech: speak up. That doesn't necessarily mean go straight to this person and tell them you think they're overusing the pump-up speech. I'd suggest first speaking to other teammates to make sure you're not the only one who feels it is overused. (Caution: this should be approached with a behavior-focused, problem-solving manner...Not as a gossip session which tends to be done in a person-focused, problem-lamenting manner.) If your data suggests others have the same sense you do, then speak to the person directly.
Problem: The message and the messenger
If the message comes across as inauthentic, fake, or simply lacking the right emotion - the speech will likely demotivate instead of motivate. If the message is too focused on the outcome instead of the process OR the person giving the speech is too emotional - the speech will likely create unnecessary or unhelpful pressure.
Strategy: Be flexible
I almost always see inauthentic speeches when coaches/captains/leadership feel like it is their sole responsibility to motivate. This means they give a speech even if they aren't feeling it or they try to get the team to calm down, but they're a hot mess.
I encourage all team members to look for the person who has what the team needs in that moment and leverage them. If your team needs fire, who's got fire? If the team needs calm, who's most composed? It might be the rookie. It might be the quiet one. It doesn't matter. Ask them if they can share what they've got in a way that works for them. This is a task not just for leadership, but for all team members.
Keeping speeches focused on the process takes practice. It takes re-training your brain to first think about the process: Yes, we want to score this point or win this game, but reminding people of that often adds pressure that people weren't expecting in that moment. Instead, tell us what we can DO to make that happen: shut-down person defense? taking more risks with the disc? taking fewer risks with the disc? running through catches? better sideline talk? simply out-work the other team?
1. Mental training should be as deliberate as your fitness and skills training - both for individuals and teams.
2. Ultimately, we are all responsible for ourselves. Own that. Because when you do, what other people say and do will only effect you if you want it to.
Hopefully this was helpful and answered the question asked!
Other questions I'll be answering in the next few posts (in no particular order):
-What are other quick ways to recover and get back on track when you're struggling?
-What can players do to be good teammates when we feel the mental toughness/morale of the team slipping?
-Are there mental warm-ups we should be doing in addition to our physical warm-ups?
If you have a question that's not captured here, reach out via email or social media and I'll add it to my list!
I’m going to start today with a true story from my own athletic career.
I had a teammate on my college soccer team who, before every game, would turn up the music in the locker room and jump around like she was at a punk rock concert. As she got more and more pumped, she would jump and bump into people on purpose, get in their face and shout something like, “C’MON!! GET PUMPED! AREN’T YOU PUMPED?! I’M SO PUMPED!”
It sounds funny, but it’s true.
Whenever she would do that to me, I’d hardly respond. I’d give her a light chuckle and a bro-like hug and say, “Yeah, yeah…I’m pumped. I’m ready.” Each time I responded this way, she’d remember that I like to keep a lower energy and she’d go bouncing off like Tigger to someone else.
You see, the energy she needed to be at the top of her game was super high - quite literally bouncing off the walls. The energy I needed to be at my best was much lower – a reserved intensity. Were we both ready? Absolutely.
But there’s three important lessons to this story:
The essence of today’s post is:
what do you need to do/think/feel prior to game-time to get there?
TODAY’S JOURNAL WORK:
To get after this, I’m going to pose a series of questions and a few examples to help you think more deliberately about how you prepare for game-time. Take care as you answer these questions to base your answers on experience as much as possible. Think back to performances where you’ve accessed your ideal state and recall what you did prior to those games that you felt worked and didn’t.
*A note before you begin: I encourage you to read through the whole list before embarking on answering the questions. Some people may find they only really need to focus on a few areas while others want to take-on the whole list. Additionally, once you’ve read through the list, decide whether it will be most productive for you to go in the order I’ve presented or in the reverse order (game-time backward).
-What is important to you to feel prepared in the 2-3 days leading up to game-time?
A couple final notes:
*Your answers may be different than those around you and making sure you get what you need could take some tactful social-navigation.
*As much as you can, the elements of your preparation should…
- be controllable (i.e. they shouldn’t depend on anyone else or any particular circumstance).
- not be controlling (i.e. if I don’t do XYZ exactly and perfectly and in the right order then I’m doomed).
As usual, shout out with any questions or comments. I know a lot of us have Regionals coming up this weekend…If there’s anything I can do to help with your mental game last-minute, let me know! If you’ve got a question, it’s likely someone else does as well so I am going to try to run some Q&A on the Facebook page: www.facebook.com/performancecolorado.
Happy planning & happy playing!
If you’re here today, it’s because you’re ready to find out how to play your best more consistently.
Before we dive in, I want to remind you that there is no quick fix.
This blog isn’t about me telling you some magic formula or inspirational words that make you mentally tough and a better player. This blog is about the work you’re willing to put in to get better. I remind you of that because today’s post is comprised mostly of activities and questions that you have to complete on your own. The more deliberate you are about this process, the better able you’ll be to perform at the top of your game more often – but it’s likely going to take some time and effort on your part.
If you're still ready, take out your journal because today's post is almost all journal work!
TODAY'S JOURNAL WORK:
The first step to being “switched on” more consistently is knowing what “switched on” feels like for you. After all, how can we get to our destination if we don’t know what that place is?
Pause and do some imagery: Close your eyes and think about those times you’ve felt like you were “switched-on” or “in the zone” – those times when things seemed easy, everything just flowed, you played to the top of your potential. You weren’t thinking about yourself or your performance…you were just doing. As you watch yourself in those great performances, tune-in to:
Once you’re done with your imagery (or perhaps even as you go along) write down answers to each of the prompts above. Don’t judge yourself for what you write down – everyone is different. Some people feel super physically amped up, some people feel calm. Some people feel positive emotions and some people perform best when they’re angry. This is about you and what helps you perform at your best. Take your time on this activity. Repeat the imagery if necessary because this is the critical data that will help you better understand what “switched on” feels like for you.
Now that we’ve got some raw data about what “switched on” feels like for you, let’s fine-tune the data to gain greater understanding.
For each word you wrote down above (physical, emotional, and mind) rate how strongly you want to feel each of those things on a scale of 1 to 10 (where 1 is low and 10 is high) in order to perform at your best. Once you rate each word, rank order them from high (these things are really important for me to feel to play at my best) to low (these things play a role in my optimal performance, but a less significant one).
What you should have in front of you is a profile of sorts. You should be looking at a description of what you feel like when you perform at your best. Hopefully, looking at this profile brings you a sense of certainty – like, “Yeah, that’s how I feel when I play my best and that’s how I want to feel more often!”
For some people, simply completing this profile is enough to help you get to this place more often. This is most likely because having this awareness in your mind will prompt you to subtly shift the way you prepare. Like I said before, if you know where you want to go you’ll have a better idea of how to get there.
While this intuitive shift in preparation is a good start, the next few blog posts will help you to become even more deliberate in shifting your preparation including recognizing when you’re not in the right place and how to adjust accordingly.
I often get asked to work with individuals or teams right before a big performance. When that happens, two tips have emerged as the most helpful for athletes on short notice. I originally wrote this to share those two tips with all the college players headed to DIII Nationals this weekend and DI Nationals next weekend, but really these tips can be used by anyone in any performance.
Tip #1: Know that nerves are normal
Got the butterflies? Hands or knees a little shaky? Feel like you’re going to puke? That’s all normal. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to play well and it doesn’t even mean you’re “nervous.” All it means is that what you’re about to do is important to you and your brain is sending that message to your body. In response, your body prepares itself to perform and the results are the sensations we label as “nerves.”
Tip #2: Breathe
This might seem like the most obvious piece of advice ever, but in those clutch moments it is quite possibly the most important thing to remember...and do. Remembering to take a deep, intentional breath or two can improve your performance in a number of ways:
TODAY'S JOURNAL WORK
1. Identify the "nervous" sensations you experience from the list above. Write out how each symptom is actually just your body's way of preparing to perform and how that function can help you perform better.
2. Identify specific times you will breathe intentionally to take control of and improve your own performance.
Enjoy! And remember to tag or share with a friend or team you know headed to Nationals or any other big event coming up!
If you’re the kind of person who stays after practice to do a few extra sprints, you’re probably also the kind of person who wants to do more with your mental game. These “Extra Sprint” posts are just for you - extra, quick-hit activities to help you develop your mental game even faster.
Your assignment from the first post was to identify your biggest mental stumbling block and your biggest mental strength from last season. In this EXTRA SPRINT post, we’re going to build on that first assignment and gain greater self-awareness. It may sound boring or overly simple...but if we don’t know where we’re starting from, how can we get to where we want to go and how can we track our progress?
If you have questions, it is likely someone else does as well. Post your questions in the comments and I will answer them for everyone. Or, if you'd prefer, you can always contact me directly at Petra@PerformanceColorado.com or start a conversation on Facebook or Twitter
One last note: What you put in is what you get out. Be sure to set aside some dedicated time to complete this activity...it goes better than if your attention is divided.
Special thanks to my friends and beta-testers (Claire Chastain, Molly McKeon, Candace Yeh, Alyssa Kelly, Pogo, and Lauren DiCredico) for completing this activity in advance and providing valuable feedback!
Hi! I'm Piers. I am an Ultimate player, spouse, parent, and human performance coach. My passion and my profession is to help individuals and teams perform at their best through research-based mental skills, resilience, leadership and team dynamics training.
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