In team sports, the most challenging situations that have the greatest impact on your performance are often out of your control and can seem like insurmountable setbacks. In order to be a teammate, you have to compromise some of your personal expectations to provide what the team needs in the role that you have been assigned. However, this isn’t easy to accept when players are ahead of you in the hierarchy of the team.
The key is to work on finding perseverance and resilience when challenged with facing adversity. Coping with stressors, adversity, change, or opportunity in a manner which supports individual and team success in pursuit of common goals needs to be considered.
Recently, a collegiate athlete and I met to discuss some challenges he was having with his coaches and teammates. He had an incredible senior season in high school helping his team win the championship by blocking and scoring the winning penalties in an extra time shoot-out in the semi-final and final (it was amazing!!!). He knew that the jump from high school to D1 was large and expected to “pay his dues” his freshman year as more of a backup to the current senior goalkeeper.
In the off-season, he was determined to work the hardest on and off the field by doing extra position workouts and leading the team in the weight room, which he accomplished. However, when playing on his club team over the summer, he was still the backup goalkeeper. He managed to focus on the work and what he could control and continued to improve even though he wasn’t receiving a lot of game reps from the coaching staff.
Deciding to seek help with his mental approach finally happened during his sophomore year. The team recruited an international goalie from overseas and started the new goalie over him. Knowing the new goalie had the approval from the coaches made him unravel, and this frustration began to manifest itself on the field during practice, especially when trying to make decisions with the ball. Ultimately, he felt defeated believing there was nothing he could do to change the minds of his coaches and his play became worse than before.
No matter how hard he worked, he thought he just couldn’t catch a break. Believing that his backup role was permanent is the type of thinking that can become a handicap to athletes. It’s also potentially a self-fulfilling prophecy to the effect that he may end up putting less work into improving without a believable chance of accomplishing his goals. Responding negatively to negative situations can create negative future results.
The reality is that to make a difference in his team he must first adjust his focus. He must shift away from what he assumes the coaching staff thinks of him and more toward what he thinks of himself. Caring too much about what others think can decrease motivation, enthusiasm, perseverance, and resilience in sport.
He also needed to create a more robust goal-setting system to support his larger and longer- term outcome based goals. He had forgotten that targets of improvement in his game set up by focusing on daily process goals were what had helped him earn the starting position and accolades in high school. Looking back on his past and reliving the successful experiences would also give him a “feeling state” to repeat, rediscover, and recreate now.
The support of a few people can go a long way in boosting and maintaining motivation toward achieving your goals. He needs to actively seek to connect more with his teammates without going too far to fit in. The goalkeeper position is by nature somewhat isolated and athletes in this type of position are not always on the same training program as the rest of the team so it is even more important to be aware that he must connect. Through connection, trust is developed, and an athlete who has trust in their teammates and from their teammates have a much stronger chance of success.
After we finished our conversation, he felt much more relaxed and in control of what he could control given the situation and role he has on the team. He remembered that the process is much more important than the outcome and that, from his past, he tends to reap the rewards of his effort more long-term than short-term. As he persists through the season, the most important mental practice for him is how he thinks of (or appraises) the circumstances of the situation. If he is aware of what he can’t control and gratefully invests his effort in the areas he can control then he will continue to improve, enjoy his sport, and get closer to achieving his long-term goals. Many things have a way of working themselves out when athletes commit to something over the long-term with a short-term focus on what they can control.