Sports are an essential part of my life, and I think they can be a fun and rewarding activity for anyone. Since my early childhood, sports and other physical recreation have been an almost daily part of my routine, and this continues through today. I played three varsity sports in high school, one in college, and have won competitive tournaments in all three. I have been coached by professionals, including the coach of a previous top 5 tennis player. I have personally coached in three sports, tennis, volleyball and hockey, and continue to coach volleyball today. I truly believe that anyone can be successful at any sport; that’s not to say you can be a professional, but that you can learn a sport, play it well and reap the benefits, including the eustress might want to add a wiki or news article link here — not everybody knows what this is of a competitive environment, the camaraderie of teammates and other like-minded individuals, and win or lose, the satisfaction from knowing you played to your maximum potential.
Pick a Sport or Activity
Baseball was the first competitive sport my parents had me try, and let me say I was terrible. I was afraid of pitches, spent most of my time plucking dandelions in the outfield, and didn’t enjoy myself at all. No one is expected to be great at any sport, but why do something voluntarily if you are not enjoying yourself? It may take a few tries, but find something you can truly love.
If you are an adult, it may make more sense to choose a “lifetime” sport. Contact football is not something you can play into your golden years, but swimming, tennis and golf certainly are. This process may take a few tries, and may require going outside your usual suspects. Some people find themselves immersed in hiking, rock climbing, and other outdoor activities not conventionally called sports. These still offer all the same rewards, and should therefore be treated with the same regard.
During my baseball years I found myself playing roller hockey over the summers and really enjoying myself, setting goals (learning to skate backwards over a summer), and learning the game. I finally got involved with ice hockey in fifth grade, which is considered rather late for hockey. But because of my love for the game, I quickly learned the sport and how to excel.
What athletic activities do you find yourself drawn to? With this question in mind, observe your habits and thoughts for a few weeks, and the answer will quickly become obvious.
Obsess About the Fundamentals
A new sport is best learned surrounded by top coaches who can teach the basics. In sports such as tennis, there really are only a few strokes you must learn to be successful. But if you begin playing without the proper fundamentals, and it can take years to re-learn how to do something correctly.
Whatever your age it is easy to find good training, though the number of sports in which good lessons can be found for adults is more limited than for the under-18 crowd. Before choosing an organization with which to take lessons, you should go to a lesson just to watch, and perhaps ask other players about their experiences.
Things to look for with an organization include:
- Coaches who have excellent training, including being certified by a national program. Quality lessons, especially for beginners, need not to be taught by someone with extensive high-level playing experience. Although many professional coaches are former players, some people achieve great coaching success without having been a great player themselves.
- Experience coaching beginners. Many coaches may be great with experienced players, but not able to convey the fundamentals to players who are new to the sport. Experience also helps a coach recognize common beginner errors, and know which ones are okay to keep, and which motions must be immediately corrected.
- A coach that knows how to make practice fun. When starting anything, one has the best chance of continuing if he doing it! To learn about this, you could ask the coach themselves, but its probably best to ask a participant. Ask players how long they’ve been playing, how long they’ve done the lessons, and if they are looking forward to going each time.
Once you chosen whom to take lessons through, its time to get to work, and immerse yourself in all you can learn about the sport!
Much research has been done as of late on why super-athletes like Tiger Woods are more successful than others. The results show that yes, these people do have the gift of above average athletic performance, but so does every other professional athlete. It turns out that excellent athletes are able to practice more often, for longer periods of time, but most importantly are able to more effectively use that time. The term used is “deliberate practice”. This means every practice session is performed with the highest mental and physical effort. Repetition turns not into lackadaisical “going through the motions”, but each swing, throw or stride performed is turned tighter and tighter. All practice can be effective to some extent, but only deliberate practice can lead to superior results.
Everyone can try the elements of deliberate practice to improve their game:
- Quantity — the more you practice, the better you get. Period
- Consistency — try and practice as many days as possible per week, and aim to practice for the same amount of time each day
- Mindset — You must strive to increase your focus and concentration the longer you practice. If you start to fade, stop, take a deep breath, and re-align your thoughts. The longer you can hold a focused mindset, even not while playing during practice, the better you will be.
- Feedback — Find someone who knows the sport who can help out at least part of the time, and take their comments seriously. Remember the highest level of sports often have the highest ratio of coaches.
Learn the Mental Game
Baseball great Yogi Berra once said “Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.” No matter the actual mental/physical ration, all experts agree the “mental game”, is essential to any sport. I recently read a book entitled Mind Gym, which is about the universal mental training anyone needs to reach their highest level of performance in any sport. There are numerous hints and tips, but they are easily summarized:
- Actual game-play is the best practice.
- Visualize your success in every shot, pass, goal, and every other action performed in the sport.
- Learn to harness the positives from every game, and learn to keep confidence through any event.
Books like Mind Gym spell everything out, and I think are worth a read (it certainly helped me). Just realize if you aren’t mentally tough, all the practice in the world can’t help you in true competitive events or tournaments.
As mentioned in the book Mind Gym, there is no substitute for actual competitive play. Many coaches encourage “game-like” activities for practice, as these apply pressure similar to what you experience during a game. However, there is no substitute for the critical situation when all the pressure to perform is on your shoulders. How can practice prepare you for such a situation? It can’t. You can be confident in your skills, but highs and lows of actual competition are second to none. The only way to improve is to keep placing yourself in competitive situations.
The first few times you participate in a tournament you may feel nervous or afraid. But the more you experience it, the easier match-play will become. Jimmy Connors, a hall of fame tennis player once said “Tennis was never work for me, tennis was fun. And the tougher the battle and the longer the match, the more fun I had”. Everyone can improve their handling of game-time stress:
- Take a deep breath. It increases oxygen flow and mental awareness. Golf great Tom Watson is quotes “I didn’t learn how to play golf under pressure until I learned how to control my breathing, which in turn controlled my heart rate.”
- Remember that everyone deals with the same stress. Watch the end of any sporting event (preferably in person) and see that at some point someone cracks. If you can remember that your opponent is dealing with the same stress you have, it’s much easier to keep everything in perspective.
- Have fun! Even in the heat of battle, remember you are playing sports for the fun of the game. You won’t lose a signing bonus because you lost, but you will have valuable insight on how to improve for the next round.
Handle that stress well, master the basics, and practice deliberate practice, and you can be successful at any sport!