Mental preparation: It’s not just in your head

No one area of preparation for play is receiving as much attention as mental preparation. In monitoring the play of elite teams one thing is blatantly evident. Technical skills alone do not account for the continued success of the vast majority of teams. In addition, excellent ice conditions and running surface inserts in stones have removed much of the good fortune factor. I would like to believe that improved coaching skills has leveled the playing field among teams either fortunate enough or smart enough to have a National Coaching Certification Programme (NCCP) trained coach but as the sole factor, I would be rightfully accused of being somewhat self serving.

Top coaches and their players understand that ignorance of mental preparation skills, deals a losing hand to that team. In today’s competitive environment, teams hoping to win on sheer technique and practice alone are fooling themselves big time! Sound delivery techniques, team skills, bonspiel experience and practice are still essential but they do not complete the picture. If you are among the skeptical, attend a high performance camp in your province and watch and listen as national high performance coaches such as Gerry Peckham, Jim Waite, Lindsay Sparkes, Ron Meyers and others present the evidence. And there is much to present. For example, do you know the differences among visualization, imagery and mental rehearsal? Can you describe strategies for handling stress? What is the definition of performance? How does one deal with the athlete who has a low level of activation and must be pumped up, or one with a high [level] of activation and must be calmed down? If a cold shiver just went down your spine because you know few of these answers, you are not alone. Please allow me to open the door just a crack to the ever expanding world of mental preparation. I will do so with the accounts of some real life experiences.

A swim coach was preparing an athlete for an upcoming 50m race. As part of the athlete’s normal training, some of the time spent away from the pool was used for mental rehearsal. The athlete used his ability to visualize, to see himself in all phases of the event (removal of his warm-up suit, leaning over the pool’s edge and splashing pool water on his upper torso, standing on the starting platform, moving to the leading edge of the platform, right through to the touch of the wall at the finish). I might add here that as part of the mental rehearsal, the athlete was encouraged by his coach to use all of his senses. Some of the these included the smell of the air in the pool enclosure with its characteristic chlorine odour and the sensation of the temperature of the water as he dives into the water at the start. The athlete’s ability to visualize (visualization) and feel (imagery) heightened his preparedness to compete successfully. Together, visualization and imagery give the ability to practise away from the practice facility. Video tapes of races and workouts certainly helped the athlete!

As the race drew near, the athlete confessed to the coach that he could mentally rehearse most of the race but could not see himself finish. The coach asked if he (the athlete) saw a physical problem occurring. That negative reply was repeated in responses to many other queries by the coach. The athlete was simply encouraged to focus harder on his mental rehearsal.

On the day of the race, the athlete reported that he could still not see himself finish the race. With nothing left but the race itself, the athlete prepared to compete. The start was uneventful as was the athlete’s turn at the wall. As the swimmers raced for the finish, another coach at the pool’s edge was swinging a towel to encourage his swimmer. The towel struck the 10m backstroke flag line and the line fell into the pool in front of the racers. The officials stopped the race! (Do you hear the strains of the Twilight Zone theme music playing in the background?)

Mental rehearsal means everything to some athletes. One case in point is the great Canadian synchronized swimmer, Carolyn Waldo. At the pool’s edge, with the music playing out of earshot, she can perform the movements of a five minute routine, and stop within a second or two of the music.

My favourite is the basketball free throw study. Thirty adults were randomly selected and asked to attend a one hour practice session at a local gymnasium. A basketball coach and some of his players taught the group the technique of shooting free throws. They all received the same instruction and had the same opportunity to practice during the one hour session.

The participants in the study were then randomly divided into three groups of ten. Group “A” was asked to return once a week for free throw shooting practice. Group “B” was asked to set aside 20 min. a day, and mentally rehearse shooting free throws. This group was also asked to always visualize only successful attempts. Group “C” was simply asked to return with the other two groups on a set date for a post test evaluation.

As you might imagine, the test scores for the members of group C were the lowest. What you might not suspect is that group B scored highest! What might account for this? Many sport psychologists might argue that (a) group C actually practiced more (140 min. per week, as opposed to group C’s 0 min. per week and group A’s 60 min. per week) and perhaps more importantly (b) they arrived at the post test with a very positive image.

The lesson of positive re-enforcement was also learned the hard way by a Canadian ski coach. In preparation for a race, he noticed that at a particularly difficult gate, most of the ski racers were sliding off the course, some falling. He took his athletes to that gate to watch the problem occurring. His races saw skier after skier fail to negotiate the gate. In the race, every Canadian skier failed to negotiate the gate as well. What he had unwittingly done was negatively re-enforce an image.

When Ron Hextall played goal for the Philadelphia Flyers, the team had a video tape machine that created personalized tapes for the players. When a player did something well, a technician would “punch in” the player’s jersey number. At the end of the game, each player was handed a tape with his best performances during the game. Each player was then asked to view the tape before the next game. In Ron Hextall’s case, his tape would display all his saves and none of the goals scored on him. To this day, he attributes much of his success to the positive re-enforcement of these tapes. How often in curling have we heard “Don’t be wide” rather than “Tight to the brush is OK” or the classic “Don’t be light” rather than “Be sure to be here”?

The first time I heard the accounts of these examples of mental preparation, I could not help but compare the effectiveness of these techniques to curling. The conclusion I drew was much the same as the one I’m sure many of you drew as you read the ones I just presented. Curling is ideally suited for its players to benefit from mental preparation.

Our sport is one in which the management of stress plays such an important role. A curler can’t go out onto the ice and level a stiff hip check to an opponent or hurl himself into a cross-body block to relieve stress. Well, you could, but I would advise against it! The management of stress is a key factor in mental preparation. Before I get into stress management let’s deal with the word performance. Now, no peeking, what is performance? Ah, you peeked, I saw you. Performance is the ability to do what you are capable of doing, when you need to do it. The catch of course is the “when you need to do it” part isn’t it? I can draw the four foot. But why is it that I can’t do it with my last shot in the 10th end, down two, with last rock, counting one? Sandra Schmirler can. Vic Peters can. Why can’t Bill Tschirhart? (Try to keep the replies down to the “truck load” please!)

Much has been written and field tested in the area of stress management. Not, only in sports but in life in general. There is a “cornucopia” of activities available for you to try. At your local audio shop, you will find commercially produced stress management audio and video tapes. Most use music to some degree. Music is being used more and more by athletes to place them selves into what author James Loehr calls the ideal performance state (IPS). In one of Colleen Jones’ early Scott Tournament of Hearts, she received some criticism for wearing a personal listening device on the ice in the warm-up phase of her games. Many saw it as somewhat less than respectful but what she was really doing was using music to place her into the IPS. The type of music makes a big difference. The athlete that needs pumping up might listen to very upbeat, “heavy metal” music while the athlete that is already “on edge” might be better served with music that is more soothing. The team might have music that places the whole squad into that readiness state. Jim Waite, while coaching at the University of Western Ontario confided that one year his team adopted the song “We Are the Champions”. On the way to each and every game it had to played on the vehicle sound system with the volume set to LOUD! It was their way of mentally preparing!

One of the best stress management techniques was taught to me by my friend and colleague Linda Corcoran. Linda is the author of “The Little Rock Manual” which has helped so many clubs begin and maintain effective little rock programs. Linda calls her strategy Taking a Mental Holiday. It is an auditory strategy so, if you can get someone to read this next part to you, I will give you the Tschirhart version of Linda’s mental holiday.

“Close your eyes. Take a deep breath in through your nose and slowly exhale through your mouth. Relax! Picture if you will, your favourite place. Look around and notice all the things which appeal to you. Notice the colours in your favourite place. Listen for the sounds in your favourite place. If there are other people in your favourite place see each one of them. Take in another deep breath and smell the smells in your favourite place. Feel the texture of things in our favourite place. See yourself in your favourite place. Notice the feeling you have in your favourite place.” (Thank you helpful someone.)

Now, was that easy or what? Everyone can do that. I have yet to meet a person who does not have a favourite place. For those of your who have been following my articles, you will not be surprised to learn that my favourite place is in the cockpit of my sailboat. I can be in the middle of a crucial game and while there is a little “down time”, for 30 sec., I can be aboard Radio Flyer with my hands on the wheel, hearing the seagulls, smelling the fresh water of Lake Huron and feeling the wind on my face as I sail across the water. It calms me right down! Linda gets her athletes to focus on an object in the club as a cue for the mental holiday. It may be a banner hanging on the wall or a clock. It will be a different object for each player.

We have heard curlers say that they have a feel for draw weight. Or, unhappily, that on a given day, they don’t have a feel for draw weight. Feel, what is it and how do you teach it? Can you teach it? Without imagery I don’t think you can. With it, you most certainly can. Consider the application of weight to a stone to deliver it the desired distance down the sheet of ice. What sensory cues are available to monitor your velocity through time and space? I would submit that I can feel the cold air on the cheeks of my face and if I am moving through that ocean of cold air more quickly, the air “wind chill” is noticeable. The sound of the stone on the pebble changes directly with its velocity across the ice. The vibration of the pebble on the slider of my shoe changes in the same fashion. The circadian clock that is within us that regulates such things as sleep patterns works on a short term basis as well. I just know that it is taking too long to slide to the near hog line than it should for draw weight. Or conversely, that I’m getting to the near hog line too soon. The monitoring cues are there! Simply increase your athletes’ awareness of them.

As athletes, we all have experienced the times when we were “in the zone”. Although descriptions of “the zone” will vary, often it is described as a time in which total focus was achieved. All possible distractions were ignored without consciously doing so. Needless to say, we performed. We did the things we knew we could do when we needed to do them.

Author James Loehr in his book, “Mental Toughness Training for Sport” coined the phrase used earlier in this article. He calls the zone, the ideal performance state (IPS). It is his contention that the IPS is a combination of two factors, energy (which can be either high or low) and the degree to which that energy level is either pleasant or unpleasant. The combination of these two factors is illustrated in the figure below.

Quadrant A of the diagram is the area of HIGH POSITIVE ENERGY. The feeling here is one of relaxation, a calm mental state, and focus. Quadrant B is the area of HIGH NEGATIVE ENERGY and the athlete has tight muscles and his/her mental state is accelerated with tunnel vision. Quadrant C is the area of LOW POSITIVE ENERGY and is characterized by relaxed muscle tension, a calm mental state but the athlete is unfocused. Lastly, quadrant D is the area of LOW NEGATIVE ENERGY. The athlete will notice a low to moderate muscle tension, variable mental state and clearly the athlete is unfocussed.


In terms of the likelihood for success, clearly A is the IPS and will offer the greatest opportunity for success followed by B and C. In D, the athlete will almost always perform poorly.

The athlete will experience different feelings in each of the four mental states as well. He or she provide keys to his or her mental states by the statements he/she makes. In Figure 2, some of these statements are identified.


“As indicated in fig. 4, the high positive energy cell “A” is directly related to relaxed muscles, a calm mental state and the ability to maintain an appropriate focus. The data collected indicates that some states of high energy do not lead to over-arousal. The exaggerated fight-or-flight alarm reaction was not triggered in spite of the presence of the high-intensity energy state. The high negative energy cell “B” revealed an entirely different picture. Here high levels of negative energy were associated with tight muscles, a fast, accelerated mental state, and tunnel vision – a very rigid, inflexible, and generally inappropriate kind of mental focus. The low positive energy cell “C” (low energy but still pleasant) was consistently paired with relaxed muscles, a calm mental state, but poor concentration and focus. Here the problem was not tunnel vision, however, but rather one of being easily distracted. Athletes found their attention constantly wandering off to irrelevant things during play. They could be distracted by almost anything. Only with great effort could they keep themselves mentally on target. The low negative energy cell “D” (low energy that is unpleasant) provided the most inconsistency and unpredictability. Muscle tension varied from low to moderate, and mental calmness was highly variable. Considerable inconsistency was also reported in reference to concentration. Both tunnel vision problems and distractability problems were reported.”

It is one thing to be aware of the IPS but quite another to achieve it as often as possible. More than twenty years ago, Dr. Paul Dennison founded the Educational Kinesiology Foundation in (where else) California. It was his premise that educationally challenged children needed to place themselves into an ideal learning state for learning to occur. He developed a series of body positions to achieve this. He called them BRAIN GYM.

Since those early days, Dr. Carla Hannaford has built on Dr. Dennison’s work and, in one instance, found herself helping athletes.

In Hawaii, I was invited to work with a soccer team of boys aged 14-16 who wanted to win the state championship. They were good players but all too often they “lost their cool” during games, got penalties and lost. I did one brain gym session with these boys as they focused on this goal: “We’re calm, cool and collected and will win the state championship.” Until this tournament, the boys voluntarily carried and drank lots of water and did lots of CROSS CRAWLS, BRAIN BUTTONS and HOOK-UPS before and in the middle of each practice and game. Their whole game improved and they qualified for the state championship play-off in Honolulu. There, they easily won the first two play-off games and advanced to the final championship game. The tension during this make or break game was very high and the boys began to lose their cool. During a time-out, the boys spontaneously lay on the field and did hook-ups as the coach, parents and everyone else looked on in amazement. Then they stood up and won the state championship.

Earlier I referred to a Coaching Association of Canada video tape. One sentence in that tape sticks with me. “What the mind can conceive and your heart can believe, you can achieve.” What those words say to me, quite clearly, is that any goal must have the body and mind working together. That’s what BRAIN GYM is all about. Performance breakdown frequently is a breakdown between the mind and body. Brain gym bridges and repairs that gap.

Brain Gym Activities

Brain Buttons *

– place one hand over the navel while the other stimulates the points between the ribs just below the clavicle (collar bone) beside the sternum

– the hand over the navel brings attention to the gravitational center of the body (balance)

– the other hand stimulates the blood flow through the carotid arteries to the brain to improve brain function

Hook-Ups *

– sitting on a chair with legs outstretched, cross on ankle over the other (your choice)

– stretch arms forward with backs of hands facing one another, thumbs down

– lift one hand oever the other (now plams face one another) and interlock the fingers

– roll the locked hands straight down and in toward the body so they eventually come to rest on the chest

– rest your tongue on the roof of your mouth behind the teeth (the hard palette)

– this position connects emotions to the limbic system with reason in the frontal lobes of the cerebrum thus giving integrative perspective from which to learn and respond more effectively

Cross Crawls *

– touch the right elbow to the left knee and then the left elbow to the right knee

– do this SLOWLY for more motor control

– this activity activates both hemispheres of the brain to facilitate balanced nerve activation

<54>Lazy Eights

– place one hand on a table or desk top, palm down

– make an “infinity” sign by crossing up at the midpoint of the sign

– use on hand to make several signs then switch to the other hand

– then use both together

– this is an excellent stress reliever due to its ability to achieve cross lateral integration

– “lazy eights for the eyes” is a similar activity but look down the outstretched arm, focusing on the raised thumb

– use the eye’s field of vision as the boundaries for the infinity symbol

The Elephant

– place the left ear on the left shoulder

– extend the left arm like the trunk of an elephant

– with knees relaxed, draw the infinity sign (crossing up in the middle) in front of you

– switch arms after three to five signs

– this activity activates all area of the mind/body system (highly recommended for children with ADD (attention deficit disorder)

Energy Yawn

– massage the muscle around the TMJ (temporal-mandibular joint) at the junction of the jaws

– another great stress reliever

The Calf Pump

– hold the back of a chair keeping the torso fairly upright and place one foot (with the heel up) about 25 cm. behind the other foot

– take a deep breath and as you exhale, lower the heel of the back foot to the ground and bend the front knee (keep the torso upright)

– this stimulates the reptilian brain (to “pump” the athlete up)

* These three activities are central to the whole Brain Gym approach to mind/body connections.

Now you can physically facilitate IPS. Did, you notice the number of times the word “balance” was used in the descriptions of the Brain Gym activities? Balance is key to all sports but paramount to a curling delivery. Skips in particular can benefit from “‘The Energy Yawn” and “Brain Buttons”. Fifth end breaks are great times for “Hook-Up’s”. “Cross Crawls” could be part of the stretching routine prior to the game.

Although this article is not about nutrition, I would be remiss if I didn’t devote at least a small section to the importance of the elixer of life, WATER! My favourite author, Natalie Babbitt said it so creatively in her fantasy novel “The Search For Delicious”. Water is essential to the preservation of life and the catalyst to a productive being. In the midst of all the sports drinks on the market today, none has been proven to be as quick and effective as water. Water makes it possible for all the hard work done in strength and fitness training to pay dividends in the actual competition.

All the electrical and chemical reactions of the brain and central nervous system are dependent on the conductivity of electrical currents between the brain and the sensory organs, facilitated by water. Did you know…

  • psychological or environmental stress depletes the body of water, leaving cells dehydrated?
  • water is essential to proper lymphatic function (the nourishment of the cells and removal of waste is dependent on this lymphatic action)?
  • all other liquids are processed in the the body as food, and do NOT serve the body’s water needs?
  • water is most easily absorbed at room temperature?
  • excessive water taken less than 20 min. before or one hour after meals may dilute digestive juices?
  • foods that naturally contain water, like fruits & vegetables, help to lubricate the system, including the intestines (their cleansing action facilitates absorption of water through the intestinal wall)?
  • processed foods do NOT contain water, and, like caffeinated drinks, may be dehydrating?

Before I close, I want to encourage your team to seek the counsel of a sports psychologist. They are wonderful people who are on the cutting edge of success in sports. If there is a post-secondary institution near you, call and ask if one might work with your team. Often their help is inexpensive but invaluable!

Enjoy working with your athletes!

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