Think Like a Baby

Mental Toughness Tip

During competition, the toughest competitor is most likely the one you see in the mirror, yourself! Many athletes start training with SPMI because they notice a big drop in level from practice to competition. These athletes are already performing at a high skill level but really struggle mentally when the game or competition is on the line. Oftentimes, the biggest mistake athletes make in key moments is they start to over-analyze. Many athletes will perceive a situation as more important. Therefore, the athlete feels that he or she must come up with something extra special to win or help their team win. In other cases, it isn't even the athlete's fault but instead, it is due to an outside expectation by a coach or parent that they need to step it up more. This shift in focus has an overall negative impact on how the athlete feels (emotions), thinks (cognitive), and performs (behavioral). This change in behavior is often called paralysis by analysis. It is when the athlete over-thinks, over-prepares, and even over-worries. So here is one fun tip that has helped many athletes that you or your athlete may try as well. 

Several years ago I was working with a very talented junior ITF tennis player who was improving significantly in his mental game. He was able to stay calmer under pressure, remain focused for longer periods of time than his opponents, and overall was winning more matches. However, during one of our sessions, he brought up a recent struggle that he was having in close moments of a match. He said, "I feel a lot stronger mentally on the court; however, one area that I can't seem to get over are tie-breakers." Tie-breakers are close moments at the end of each set of a tennis match when the set is tied at six games each and the players must finish the set by playing the best of 7 points and win by 2. He mentioned that when he found himself in a tie-breaker he would freeze up and play more conservative. He said it was an uncomfortable feeling where his mind would start racing and he couldn't stay present with the ball. As a result, he lost most tie-breaks up until this session. I then asked him a strange question and that question was, "what would a baby do?" At first, he gave me a funny look and asked me to explain more. 

"Imagine, a baby who was able to play tennis at a very high level but still had the thought process of a baby. How would the baby approach a tie-breaker vs. any other moment?" My client pondered the question for a minute and then laughed and said, "A baby wouldn't change anything! It would just keep playing the same!" He was exactly right. A baby would just keep going for his or her shots, having fun, and not over-thinking. In fact, the baby would just let her training take over and focus on one shot at a time. 

After discussing the baby analogy, I suggested that he should go purchase a pacifier and place it on the outside of his tennis bag. That way every time he noticed his mind starting to over-analyze he would see the pacifier on his bag and tell himself, "think like a baby." After that session, he went on and improved his tie-break record significantly, and more importantly, he started having more fun in pressure moments.