Preparing Mentally for your Squash Tournaments
Having traveled to a few tournaments recently it occurred to me what a stressful experience it can all be. I am sure players would fare better if they took some time out to prepare better for the whole randomness and worry of playing in different environments, against different competition and at different times of the year.
Here is a quick guide to help you prepare yourself mentally for such occasions.
"Less is More"
In the final stages of preparation for a tournament or match, it is important to adhere to the "less is more" attitude. The tendency is to want to over-prepare for the event by squeezing in a number of competitions and practices as the event approaches. Generally, athletes need to be well rested and mentally relaxed prior to the major competition. Their mental and physical resources need to be high in order for them to perform at their best. Sudden changes or adjustments to training, performance or personal routines should be minimized at this point. Small refinements and some ‘sharpening up’ may be necessary but the key is to stick with the elements that have been working throughout the season.
“Dealing with anticipation, excitement, nerves.”
Before important tournaments players may experience unusual tension, high excitement or worry. This is quite natural because clearly the tournament means something to the player and a mixture of these emotions will pop up even weeks before the event. I believe players need to admit this to themselves and understand that they are going to feel different emotionally than usual. Simply trying to block it out or shy away from it will lead to panic when the tournament actually arrives. You can also end up feeling nervous about the fact you are going to be nervous. So admit it, face it, talk about it and then DEAL with it.
A good coach will be able to help you put together a plan for controlling the emotions you will get. Warm up routines, relaxation training, event planning and visualization can all help in this area.
Knowing you are going to be emotional leading up to an event can give you time to respond in the right way.
Key Question to answer:
What am I going to do about it? How am I going to deal with it?
“Come knowing exactly what you want to achieve from your performance”
Players should arrive at tournaments with a clear goal in mind related to their performance and how they want to experience the tournament. There is a significant difference between having an event "Performance" and an event "Experience".
An event "Performance" implies a clear focus on the task at hand and a commitment to choices that will give the best possible chance for you to play at the level you want to.
An event "Experience" implies taking in the sights and sounds around the performance during the tournament in preparation for future tournaments.
Ultimately, it will be important to find a balance between the two so you can focus on playing well and absorbing the event atmosphere. But to succeed on a performance level, players will need to direct their focus completely on the match when the time comes. Orlick (2002) suggested answering the following two questions to strengthen confidence and belief and help direct focus at this point:
• Why can I? - develop a list of reasons why you can achieve the goal you have set out.
• How I will? - identify how the goals will be achieved during the event and what specifically has to be focused on to achieve those goals.
“Get familiar with the tournament surroundings”
Players should aim to take steps to familiarize themselves with the surroundings of the tournament and with everything that is important to them specifically: Find the cafeteria or nearest food outlet, identify a meeting place at the venue, explore the distance from the accommodation to the competition venue. Personalizing particular areas can also help. Bringing things from home, placing posters or bringing photos for your hotel room can help create feelings of comfort, familiarity and a sense of control.
Visiting the tournament venue before can help players get used to the surroundings. If there is opportunity, it can also be beneficial to access the venue when there is no one else around. This opportunity can provide athletes with a chance to walk through or think about their pre-competition plans and preparation strategies within the physical setting. They can also imagine themselves performing while in the venue thus creating feelings of familiarity and comfort before competition even starts. This is very powerful and can really help nerves calm down rather than increase them. At least when you arrive, you will feel like you know the place.
“Prepare a daily schedule – be organised”
Daily schedules are another useful tool for players and coaches to use while at a tournament. Part of mental preparation is knowing what to expect throughout the course of the day and written schedules can help that preparation. Knowing specific times for such things as matches, eating, free time, warm ups, travel, rest as team meetings, free time, rest etc allows players the opportunity to fit their personal preparation plans within that schedule.
This is good because it promotes a focus on the present which can be very helpful during a major competition. Knowing when things are going to occur allows athletes the opportunity to focus on exactly what they are doing in the moment rather than wondering when a particular event is going to occur. It also helps with all the “hanging” about that can occur at tournaments when there is nothing to do! It is in those times where the mind can start thinking up negative things and become bored. All negative stuff leading to frustration and tiredness. You want to be engaged in something mentally but not thinking about your match all the time.
Books, DVD’s, Internet, computer games etc are some ideas of activities that should be preplanned to help this.
“Expect the unexpected”
At tournaments, players and coaches should expect the unexpected. Things never go exactly as planned. It is inevitable that something unexpected or unusual will happen. Both players, family members and coaches need to maintain a sense of humour or achieve a level of perspective when things out of the ordinary occur. Further, some crisis or setback is also likely to arise during the event. During those times, it will be important to problem solve and find alternate ways to push through the issue.
How can this change of plan benefit me?
“Recovery plans for you body and brain”
Consider how you are going to recover both physically and mentally between performances. Players and coaches should have clear strategies to relax or to shift their focus away from performance and competition. There needs to be a background sense of “being on a mission” but you should be able to totally switch off between performances too. Friends, family and coaches need to be mindful of this and let the player forget about the next days play or next match during their deserved downtime. There is a time for review and a time for planning the next match but once this time is over switch over to something else!
Players should be good at refocusing in after these periods. If they are not then they need to learn strategies to do this in their long term mental training.