Sports Psychology: Creative Mental Toughness Activities

Garth Weiss, M.S. and Kristine Krueger

Young athletes often have difficulties paying attention for long periods of time when material is presented in a lecture format.  The following four activities are designed to involve players in the process of learning sport psychology skills.  These activities are based on categories from the USTA Player Competency guide.  Use the activities as a framework and modify them to fit your needs. 

Activity # 1    Separating identity from results
This activity will help players understand that they self-worth and identity should not be based on their tennis results.

Description of Activity:  Give the players a piece of paper with approximately 10 circles on it.   Explain that they need to think of words that either describe themselves, are roles they play, or are things they like and then write those words in the circles on the paper.  Explain clearly that “tennis” can only go in one of the circles!  Most of the circles will contain descriptions of themselves that have nothing to do with tennis.  If the players need more circles, tell them to draw them in.  Let them do this for several minutes.  After everyone is done writing in the circles, instruct everyone to draw a big circle around all the little circles.  Explain that that the larger circle represents the total picture of who they are and that finding a balance in their lives helps reduce the pressure the may feel when competing.  Discuss this for a short while.  Have the players then draw a small tennis racket in the bottom right-hand corner.  Explain that the tennis racket can only “hit” the tennis playing part of themselves (one of the circles within the big circle).  If they involve more of their roles while they are playing tennis, the ball becomes too big.  By recognizing this, they can realize that a bad loss or poor performance only effects a small part of who they are.  They still have many other things that don’t depend on their tennis results.  This will lessen the pressure they may be placing on themselves and allow them to compete with less worry about losing or playing poorly.      

Activity # 2    Factors players can and cannot control
This activity will help players become aware of which things they can and cannot control.  They will also realize that trying to control the uncontrollable leads to increased stress and frustration, as well as decreased levels of performance.

Description of Activity:   Two circles (one inside the other) are put on the floor.  Ropes, tape, or extension cords can be used to make the circles.  The circle of control is smaller than the other circle.  A coach will read a factor from the list below.  The players have 5 seconds to choose and stand in one of the circles.  If they think the factor could be in both circles, they can stand with a foot in each circle.  After final positions are locked in place, a player from each circle could be asked to justify their choice.  This often generates discussion among the players.  After the correct answer is given, each player standing in the correct circle receives a point. The next round begins with a new factor.

Possible factors:  Intensity during practice, parent’s actions, line calls on the opponent’s side of the net, tournament draw, broken string, how much they sleep, or ranking.

Activity # 3    Performer skills (rituals and routines)
Performer skills can help players change from a bad mood to a good mood and provide structure during pressure situations.  This activity enables players to try out new behaviors which they can use in matches.  During a match players should think of themselves as Hollywood actors playing the role of a tennis player.  Their script calls for them to act confident, energized, relaxed.  The script is the same in every match that they will play.

Description of Activity:  The players will act out the performer skills.  A panel of judges (2-3 coaches) decide which players’ performance is the best.  The performance is based on how well the players’ body language matches the mood asked for in the activity.

Performer skills:  1) confident walk,  2) serve or return ritual, 3) high energy walk, 4) anchoring a great shot, 5) reacting to a big mistake, and 6) reacting to a bad line call.

Activity # 4    Self-talk
This activity is designed to help players understand the benefits and use of positive self-talk, and understand that negative self-talk can damage both the mind and the body.

Description of Activity:  The players may work individually or in pairs.  A coach will read a negative self-talk statement out loud to the group.  Then they will all clap their hands once.  The hand-clapping functions as a signal to stop a negative thought.  Each player or pair will then be asked to replace the negative thought with positive self-talk. They will get 30 seconds to write down their positive self-talk response.  A panel of judges (2-3 coaches) will decide which response is the best based on the following criteria.  Does the statement address the original negative thought?  Is it re-framed to be positive?  Is it fairly short?  Is it under the players’ control?
 
Garth Weiss is a former intern with  USTA Sport Science.

 
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