Every serious athlete is familiar with the gym and all its equipment. There are treadmills, stair masters, elliptical machines, medicine balls, punching bags, dumbbells, barbells, kettle bells, balance machines, TRX rooms and much more. You work out every day, you get stronger, and naturally, you play better. This is obvious. So where on Earth is a mental gym with its own machines to give your mind a workout in order to be stronger emotionally? Well, to date, there is no such thing as a mental gym, and I can guarantee you that the first guy to invent one is going to get rich. Every athlete I know, whether they are willing to admit it or not, needs to develop mental and emotional strength or what I like to call “character.” Tennis players, football players, golfers, boxers … you name it, they all need to develop character, courage, focus, pain tolerance, forgiveness, aggression and a desire to win. So here are my suggestions on areas to focus on when I build that mental gym.
Station #1: The Dream Machine
Equipment: A couch
The drill: Spend time with the athlete asking them to talk about their big goals in sports. Tiger Woods placed a picture of Jack Nicklaus on his bedroom wall when he was five-years-old and dreamt about being more successful than Jack. When the athlete envisions their dream, go find a photo which represents that dream and post in on the wall to look at every day.
Station #2: The Focus Machine
The drill: The blinkers are merely a symbol of how one must train your mind to stay in the present. The run of the mill sport psychologist will tell the athlete to “stick to the process, not the results.” Or better yet, to “stay in the moment,” yet will have a hard time teaching the athlete exactly how to do this. If you are two serves away from match point, it’s easy to get ahead of yourself, get over anxious and grow cautious. The field of psychoanalysis provides the only theory which addresses this issue. They call it “defense mechanisms,” which include repression, suppression and compartmentalization. The athlete must come to realize that fantasies about winning will creep in and be trained to use suppression and compartmentalization in order to return to the present. The way this occurs is by pointing out times when focus was lost and then teaching corrections and self-talk in order to prepare the athlete for the next time.
Station #3: The Forgiveness Machine
Equipment: A band aid
The drill: Harsh self-attack and perfectionism are very common problems in sports, and the athlete often does not realize just how hard they are on themselves. They often feel that they deserve to be punished for making mistakes. Once again, the drill for this is to talk about how previous mistakes were met with self-attack, to understand where this tendency comes from and to have the therapist demonstrate a more forgiving attitude. A band aid is a good symbol of this and can even be worn as a reminder of self-forgiveness.
Station #4: Self-Belief Machine
Equipment: A mirror
The drill: Have the therapist ask the player to recall all of their highest achievements and write them down on a piece of paper. Then, have them look in the mirror and tell themselves just how talented they really are. Your most significant achievements are often symbolized by trophies and that is why it is a good idea to keep your trophies shined up and in a place of prominence. Sports can often shake one’s sense of confidence, and it is wise to have a daily process which reminds you of your true talent.
Station #5: The Winning Machine
Equipment: Ear plugs
Drill: The athlete must remain cool, calm and quiet in order to defeat their opponent. An internal focus allows one to tap into a feeling of being separate from the opponents in order to win. Bjorn Borg was perhaps the best at this. He played like an ice man. Nothing got into this head.
Station #6 The Terminator Machine
Equipment: A video tape of Chris Evert walking with shoulders back and head held high
The Drill: Instruction in body language and how to walk tall and with pride. Research done by George Kelly shows that when you walk with pride, you actually begin to feel proud and dominant. This attitude helps both in sports and in business. Our family attorney was Leon Hirshbaum, and I was always amazed at how he carried himself in the courtroom. He was the very image of confidence, as he strutted about with his shoulders back and head held high. He really did look like a terminator.
Station #7: The Aggression Machine
Equipment: Boxing gloves
The drill: Tiger Woods’ parents told him two things: First, he must get straight A’s in school if he wanted to play golf; and second, he was given permission to “Go out there and kill them all.” His mom and his father, who was a Green Beret, had given him full permission to be aggressive. That was one of the reasons he became the biggest winning and wealthiest athlete of all time. All athletes need permission to be aggressive. Light training with the punching bag can help get you in touch with your aggression.
So there you have it. Seven machines and seven training stations that will build character and mental strength in an athlete. No one has built it yet, but some day, someone will … I promise.
Dr. Tom Ferraro
For consultations, treatment or on-site visits, contact Dr. Tom Ferraro Ph.D., Sport Psychologist, by phone at (516) 248-7189, e-mail DrTFerraro@aol.com or visit DrTomFerraro.com.