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  • Writer's pictureKarl Avdek



Ah, sports psychology and mental toughness … the “new frontier” in training for peak performance confidence and success in sports; especially with youth sports.


Well, sort of but, to be honest … mostly NOT.

WHY not?

“Perception”. You know that “thing” when what people THINK and FEEL about something is more important than what it actually IS.


VERY!!! In fact it is probably the single MOST important element in performance.

EVERY athlete needs it and NO athlete can achieve PEAK performance without it.

An enormous number of individual professional athletes and high level collegiate and literally ALL professional teams employ sports psychologists and mental toughness trainers in order to build confidence and eliminate fear of failure.


Well to begin with … because at those levels; wins and losses; WINS and LOSSES; MONEY and JOBS are on the line and the hard reality is that the difference in physical skills and peak performance between high level athletes is miniscule (tenths of seconds in track and field for example).


In fact it could truthfully be said that, at the UPPER levels; the college and professional levels; sports psychology, mental toughness, and confidence are by far and away THE MOST IMPORTANTS element in training for peak performance and yet …

… at the amateur level the “perception” seems to exist that it’s not a big deal.

Uh oh, there’s that nasty nasty word again; “perception”.


I mean so … okay, sports psychology and mental toughness. “No big thing,” say all the sports coaches and parents.

“What the heck, you just (a – breathe (I’ve been doing that for a long long time, (b – relax (where’s the beer and the chips and the TV?) (c – visualize (whatever the heck THAT means and who in heavens name knows how you even DO it!!!) and then you … perform.

Big deal!!! Piece of cake!!! I can do that,” thinks the athlete and …

“Big deal. I don’t HAVE to TEACH that (Thank God),” says the coach. “I can just throw out some of my favorite “sayings” when we get in trouble. “You know … sayings like … “Believe in yourself” or … “Try harder” or “Be tough!!! Be strong!!! You have to WANT it!!!”

Stuff like that except unfortunately … they don’t work.

I think that means that we have a “perception” vs. “reality” thing going on here, don’t you?

Speaking just for myself, I will be the first to admit that I used to go NUTS before and during my HIGH SCHOOL games. College? College was much worse. What if I don’t play well. What if I don’t give a peak performance? I’ll lose my scholarship. I’ll get cut. I’ll have to change schools. I won’t be able to AFFORD school. I’ll have to work waiting tables the rest of my life.

This goes on every minute of every single day!!!

For me personally, especially when I played in college, as an athlete, I could easily fall through the cracks. I had one skill set that I could perform at a very high level; speed. I could run fast. That was it!!! The rest of me was not much better than “average”. I was not especially strong and not very big.

Fear of failure? Feel confident?


I was a mess. The memories alone are worth a cold sweat … or two. I used to think … all the time by the way … about quitting just so I could avoid those bouts with “nerves” and “fear failure”. With practice at 2:30 every day, my stomach would start flipping about 1pm.

Now crank that up by about a million times and try to imagine what it must feel like to come to bat in the world series with the winning run on second or third; or to be on the free throw line in an NBA championship or on the golfing green or entering the ring during an equestrian event at the Olympics or …

What must be running through an athlete’s mind at those moments? What about their feelings?

And, as we all know, the DEMAND for this type of mental toughness and peak performance goes way beyond the playing fields and later into life with contracts, and deadlines, and schedules, wives, and husbands, and children and money money money.

Depressing? Nerve wracking? Let’s take a breather and get back to sports and youth sports.

As I’ve mentioned; most nonprofessional athletes (and by definition NON professional means “student” athletes; high school or college) think that sports psychology or mental toughness training is a bunch of mumbo jumbo or … simple; easy … and disregards or diminishes its importance.

Here are two of my favorite “sports coach” phrases : “Relax” and “Believe in yourself.”

Let’s discuss those today. Not only are they my favorites but I think they may be the most important because of the inaccurate “mythology” surrounding those phrases.

Confidence. Fear of failure.

So … HOW, in fact, DO you relax … HOW do you believe in yourself … be a confident athlete.?

They don’t work, do they? The little “coach” phrases (listed above)?

Would you feel better … even a little … if you knew that the REALITY (NOT the perception but the REALITY) is that you don’t need to … do ANY of these things … in order to perform and … even to perform at your best; your PEAK performance?

Lars Eric Unestahl is a Swedish sports psychologist. In his research on elite track and field athletes he found that their mental state during peak performance involved (a – intense concentration (b – a lack of feeling or association with physical sensations such as pain (c – changes in “perceptions” such as time slowing down; the size of objects; i.e. the ball … or goal … looks bigger; (d - heightened focus, etc. (e – displacement from the event; virtually an amnesia for what occurred and (f – a heightened sense of power and control.

What? No breathing? No visualization (whatever that means?) No relaxation?

Nope. None of those. Not even any … “coach phrases/sayings?”

Gasp!!! I thought those things were all that there was to “mental toughness”. You know … breathe, relax, visualize and then perform like a Hall of Famer.

You mean you don’t HAVE TO do those things in order to perform?

How about throwing up? Vomiting?


Both Jim Kelly; the Hall of Fame quarterback and Bill Russell the legendary Boston Celtic threw up before every one of their games and yet they performed at an incredibly high level; Hall of fame level.

Don’t misunderstand. These techniques; the breathing, the relaxation, the visualizations are all good. VERY GOOD!!! They are wonderful and useful tools but the best tool perhaps is the realization that nervousness, fear, anxiety, are, to a large degree, part of being “human” in performance situations.

During my sophomore year in high school I got moved up to the varsity football team. This was in a small; mostly farming community in Iowa where high school football “ruled”. The entire town turned out on Friday nights for the games. It was a nice achievement.

It scared the daylights out of me.

Even though they were only one or two years older than me the other players appeared to be beasts; super human beings. In my mind’s eye they were suddenly not other high school players but giants; adults; way more experienced than I was. I was not ready for this. I was intimidated and scared and so … just like Jim Kelly and Bill Russell; I threw up before the game.

Brrrrrr … acccckk!!!

Trust me. Throwing up is NOT a remedy for nerves. It relieved and emptied my stomach of lunch … but not the fear.

I was terrified.

Five minutes before the game and the whole team was standing in a hallway, waiting to run onto the field.

Run onto the field? I wanted to run home and crawl under the bed where I would be safe and far away from the responsibility to perform in front of all these strange … and demanding … people.

My eyes … probably darting around like a ferret’s eyes on speed … glanced up at the player behind me; coincidentally who happened to be the star of the team; an all state player.

The player appeared relaxed; focused.

I blinked and somehow got the courage to squeak, “You don’t look nervous. Aren’t you nervous?”

He looked like he had a block of ice for a brain … and heart.

Only the other player’s eyes moved in the helmet as he glanced at me.

“Of course I’m nervous,” he intoned sarcastically. “I’m not dead, am I?”

He laughed. “I throw up before every game.” He leaned down in close. “Do it at home before I come in.” He straightened and winked. “… so nobody knows.”

Don’t get fooled by perception. It’s okay to have fear; fear of failure.


A very good thing and by all means, do all the “stuff” you feel you need to do; breathe, relax, visualize then … no matter HOW you feel …

… go do it anyway.

You’re not dead, are you?

The process works when you work the process.

"If you are struggling with a performance issue that just isn't responding to instruction and hard work, then call me now and let's fix it. I've got a systematic process that takes care of any interference you have to your ultimate performance potential that you have seen short bursts of...and want to see it show up consistently! Call me or email me right now while you're thinking of it!”

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