The “Big Game” Effect

11 07 2014

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The idea of the ‘big game’ where the pressure is on to perform at your best is all over is sports today. Rivalries, college world series, scouts watching, interleague play, etc. all provide this feeling of the ‘big game’. It is in moments like this where we most often hear stories of choking or subpar performance leading to an undesirable outcome. However, what is the ‘big game’ and what makes this experience so much different and more challenging than other games throughout the season? The actual game is still the same. It’s the same 90 ft between bases, same 9 innings, same pitch calls, etc. it’s all the same. The idea of the ‘big game’ is an idea we have created in our minds based on our environment. As a result there is more pressure placed on each opportunity; each at bat, each defensive play, and each pitch. When in reality those plays are no different than any other day. Our PERCEPTION is that there is more pressure to which our mind and body react.

Under pressure our mental attention often shifts from what we should be focused on, to elements inducing high stress. In fact, the more we try to make our brain not think about the pressure the more challenging it becomes to do. We have talked in the past about working memory and the small amount of information your brain can hold in conscious awareness. Which is why you should be giving your brain one thing to focus on to make is easier for your brain to calm down and attend. Some examples might include; quick hands, getting your foot down, keeping your front side close, etc. Just pick one! Your brain will be more equipped to perform optimally.

Another strategy suggested in the research is a technique called Stress Exposure Training. In its most basic form, this training is practicing under pressure conditions. For some reason, as athletes and coaches, we think it works to practice in controlled settings with little to no pressure when that is not how the game is played. If more time is spent practicing under pressure conditions our mind and body will have the opportunity to become comfortable in this environment. Stress Exposure Training consists of 3 parts;

1. Inform: This includes informing the player of potential events, typical physiological, emotional, and cognitive reactions to stress that may occur, how stress is likely to affect performance, and how the individual may adapt to these changes. This information will allow the player to begin to familiarize themselves with the environment and therefore be more prepared when these feelings/events occur.

2. Skill Acquisition: This includes physical, mental, and emotional skills. Under stress, attention is diverted externally to task-irrelevant cues (ex. crowd noise) as well as inward to interpret novel or unfamiliar stress-related reactions (ex. racing heart), and less attention is devoted to task-relevant demands. Meaning that we are no longer attending to performance in the way we practiced and prepared in a controlled setting. Step 2 is designed to build the skills needed to manage these changes. Specific and unique programs should be development with your mental training consultant.

3. Application and Practice: This is the final step where you are able to take your knowledge of the environment and the mental, physical, and emotional skills you have learned and practice them in simulated environments. Some examples might include practicing with spectators present, with noise playing over the loud speakers, in game situations (ex. runners on 2nd and 3rd two outs, 1-2 count), being rushed or iced, etc. Be creative with this step, not all situation will be the same but they may have commonalities. The more you can practice (mentally, physically, and emotionally) in this environment the more prepared you will be when the time comes to actually perform.

Players can’t be expected to perform at their best under pressure if they’ve never developed the tools to handle games situations. By teaching players what to expect both externally and internally, teaching them strategies for how to deal with these changes, and being given the opportunity to practice the mental, physical, and emotional skills in realistic settings will help preparation, comfort, and control for when the performance really matters!

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