This month we’re taking you behind the scenes. Over the next four weeks, we’re sharing real stories from work we’ve done with athletes, this month with examples from me, Emily. This is what mental training really is!
As you follow along, you might find that you relate to what some of these athletes were going through, or that you could use some of the strategies we discuss. Hopefully, these cases give you some insight into how mental training can help you.
Here’s what to expect:
Case 1: A soccer player struggling with return to play after an injury
Case 2: A collegiate wrestler developing routines to be hyped up before matches, but relaxed and composed in between
Case 3: A basketball player recognizing low confidence affecting her performance
Case 4: A swimmer discovering how to use imagery in a way that works for her
Case 1: Finding Yourself After Injury
My relationship with this player started with a conversation with his trainer. The trainer approached me and said he’d been working with this player on the team – lets call him Mike – to rehab an injury for over 6 weeks. Mike was physically ready to go… and had been for nearly 2 weeks. Still, the trainer got pushback from Mike; Mike just didn’t believe he was really ready.
So, my role?
“At this point, I think it’s all mental,” the trainer said. “Can you help him figure it out?”
I’d been working with Mike’s team all season, but didn’t have much of a relationship with Mike. Still, I made an introduction and scheduled a session for that week.
In our first session, we met one-on-one in my office, away from the field, coaches, and teammates. It was a good setting to get to know each other and for me to delve into what was going on. By the end of our first session, lasting roughly 45 minutes, this was my analysis:
Highly competitive player with high expectations
Very committed to his sport and, importantly, identified strongly as a soccer player
Struggling with isolation from the team in his weeks in rehab
Missing training and competing
Not confident that he’d be able to play how he used to
Worried he’d get immediately reinjured
What to learn from this, then? Most of my take-aways with this player are common among injured athletes. Feeling isolated, missing the game, and worrying about the player you’ll be when you return to play are normal and common – especially for athletes who strongly identify as an athlete/player.
This is how our sessions progressed over the next few weeks:
My first move was to validate what Mike was experiencing. Going through an injury sucks, and that’s what I told him (and tell every injured athlete I work with!).
The next thing we talked about was his rehab process. I learned what he’d been accomplishing and how he’d progressed. This helped build rapport, but also gave me some examples of reasons for him to be confident to return to play.
We identified his support network. Who did he have in his life to lean on throughout this process? Trainers? Coaches? Teammates? Family? Friends? Having a strong support network is a crucial element for a strong, smooth recovery.
We also discussed his fears. What was he afraid of about returning to play? What were the best and worst case scenarios? Getting this out in the open and recognizing that you can handle any scenario can be helpful, even if it’s a little uncomfortable to talk about at the start.
We set realistic goals and expectations for his return to play. He shouldn’t expect to be quite as technically smooth or as conditioned as he was pre-injury as soon as he stepped on the field. Having effective expectations makes slow progress or minor setbacks easier to roll with.
We made plans for what he wanted to focus on and the self-talk he wanted to use as he worked to get back into the swing of things.
Throughout this time, we met weekly for 30-60 minutes. Because I was working with the team, I also got to observe him play. Besides my sessions with the player, I checked in with the trainer periodically, too, to get his perspective on how the return to play was going.
Side note: I never shared anything Mike told me with the trainer unless Mike gave me the OK to do so. Maintaining confidentiality is important for maintaining trust with an athlete.
In time, Mike was fully back to himself. He was playing aggressively and with confidence, just like he did before the injury. Still, we continued to meet. Our working relationship grew stronger over time and Mike recognized that there were always improvements he could make in his mental game. We ended up working together for over two years and he’s now playing his sport at the semi-pro level.
Stay tuned for next week when we discuss a collegiate wrestler developing consistency in his performances.