John Terry, one of the best soccer players in the world, steps up to take the penalty shot that will win Chelsea the prestigious Champions League Final. He takes a moment and then approaches the ball. Thousands of fans are screaming and the stadium is rocking viciously. The environment could not be more hostile. Terry approaches the ball, slips, and misses the kick. The shot misses the net completely and Chelsea loses the game.
What can appear to be a virtually simple task, can become a nightmare when players are not mentally prepared for high pressure situations. These situations may cause high levels of anxiety and arousal. Every athlete has a zone of optimal performance or an arousal level where they are “in the zone.” It takes many years of training for athletes to fully understand where this optimal zone is.
Imagine that you have taken John Terry’s place on the field. The crowd is screaming and millions of people around the world are watching you through their televisions. This one moment can set you apart from all the other players and put you in the record books or will be the dark shadow that hovers over you for the rest of your life. Picture the environment and how the crowd is reacting. What are they shouting, is the goal keeper yelling at you, are your teammates offering support or are they silent? How do you feel in this moment? Is your heart racing or are you calm and collected? This will all depend on how you have prepared for the high pressure moment.
Imagery can be one of the best tools that will improve an athlete’s mental performance. Constantly running through a moment over and over, will prepare the athlete for the actually scenario. In John Terry’s case, he should have imagined himself in the stadium, with the thousands of fans screaming his name for support. Then he would walk up to the ball and focus on putting the ball in the right side netting, just past the goalies finger tips. Next, he would imagine the celebration with his team. It is important to focus on the successful act of completing the penalty kick and how it makes the athlete feel. That feel of success is very important for increasing and maintaining self-confidence. When an athlete has high levels of self-confidence, performance can vastly increase.
Another important tool for improving performance is self-talk. During the walk up to the ball, an athlete should repeat to a specific script. This script should be made prior to an event and utilized during practice sessions so the athlete is comfortable using it during a game situation. The athlete should kick the penalty to the same side every single time to make sure the repetition works, implementing a sort of muscle memory. For a player who wants to shoot to the right side, an example script would be; “I am going to shoot the ball, with the inside of my right foot, with a little bit of curve, around the goalies fingertips, into the side netting of the right side of the net, and score the penalty kick.” It has to be that specific for the self-talk to really take effect. Having the plan already set in your mind and visualizing the successful completion just before making contact with the ball will help you take action. Self-confidence will also improve, because you believe the ball is going in the goal and the goal keeper cannot do anything about it.
One final technique to help prepare for the high pressure situation of shooting a penalty kick is taking a deep breath. This may sound simplistic and you may be thinking how can a deep breath help me take a penalty kick. The fact is that when athletes are put into extreme situations they forget to do what is most important for existence. Breathe. Deep breathing will help you focus on the task at hand. It will slow your heart rate and help decrease some of the symptoms of anxiety, like increase heart rate and nausea. A deep breath will give you a calming moment to clear your mind completely. Taking one before you start the imagery script and then taking another before you attempt the penalty kick will truly improve your focus. The benefits of taking a deep breath are endless.
Training the body is very straight forward, but training the mind is far more difficult. Although it may be difficult, it is still important to improve mental function when participating in sports. Creating the best connection of the mind with the body is vital to achieve the most from ourselves. Simple techniques like mental imagery, self-talk, and deep breathing can help facilitate the training of the mind and every athlete, whether recreational or professional, should utilize them.