Mental Toughness Exercises For Athletes

In 30 years of playing in pickup games and in organized men’s community leagues, I have used myself and my friends as lab animals to study the use of noradrenaline and other hormones in physical situations. Sometimes I just sat on the bench and watched them. It was like a nutty laboratory with all those 175-pound rats scurrying around, half of them without shirts: Dave the lawyer, Billy the truck driver and Harry the psychotherapist, with thinning hair down to his shoulders, all had unique skills, not only physically, but mentally and emotionally. To become better players, we started sharing observations and information about one another:

• In pressure situations, none of us performed the same as we did without pressure. We either scored more, or we scored poorer.

• We sometimes used our own personal panic-threshold buttons to evoke top performances.

• Some players in their 30s and 40s could do as much physically as they had done in their teens because they had developed their hormone systems.

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• The high-octane noon-hour competitions often drained our anxieties, allowing us to return to work more relaxed and efficient.

• When the outcome of the game became too important, arousal levels spilled over and arguments, even fights, occurred.

• During seemingly obscure moments in the break of action, answers to problems in our lives would suddenly become clear. This didn’t happen every day, but when it did it left a lasting impression.

The most exciting finding was my split-screen experience. In order to understand my particular powers, you will need to know some background. I do not know if I’m any different than anyone else as a human animal: I’m sensitive, particularly to my body chemicals, my metabolism is fairly fast and I look kind of wimpy. When I see myself in the mirror on my way to the shower in the YMCA change room, I see a stickman. In some ways my wife Jennifer is stronger than I am. I guess that’s why I look away when I see myself in the mirror near the shower. But through determination and controlled anger, I have been able to perform what was not expected of me through short and long-term command of my body-alarm system.

I’m not sure where this ability comes from, but I suspect that much of it has been a subconscious need to prove myself. To know the way I think, you should know something about my background. I emigrated to Canada from England when I was five and before I was 15 I moved with my parents more than 20 times. I was close to my mother, but she was very ill through my adolescence, and my electrician father was a good man, but we didn’t have much in common. I wanted his attention, but he rarely gave it. Perhaps he couldn’t give it. In any event, my heroes became sports figures Bobby Hull, Hank Aaron, and Arnold Palmer. In school, I didn’t have a lot of confidence, especially in sports because I was smaller and skinnier than the other kids. Some of them laughed at my body when we played skins vs. shirts in gym class. I played inter-school sports at a small school after grade 11, but I was rather passive and didn’t start using my arousal system until I was 22. It happened in 1971 in a basketball tournament in Grantham, Pennsylvania, in which I was playing for a Buffalo club team made up of former and current American college players. I had played only at a Canadian high school with 75 students and physically I didn’t belong on the same court with them. But anger and determination allowed me weapons to compete at their level. In the championship game, our coach decided not to use me in favor of a taller, more aggressive player. Sitting on the bench as the contest wore on, I started a slow burn. I was particularly miffed because I was the team’s off-court manager and had made all the arrangements for games that season. Finally, with about five minutes remaining and our team down by 15 points, I went in. Single-handedly I turned that game around. The opposing team must have thought I was a demon unleashed. I played the game of my life, driving through the talented home team almost at will, scoring at a rapid pace and generally controlling the action so much, our team completely wiped out the deficit and went ahead. It was easy to see the opponents as the enemy because I’d never met any of them before. The holes in their defense seemed much broader than normal and I could dart in and out before they closed up. It seemed like a combination of others moving in slow motion and me in overdrive. Pain I’d had from back spasms and a mild groin pull disappeared and I felt completely liberated from aggravations and worry. Going 100 mph, I felt strangely at ease, vaulted like a rocket into orbit, leaving my fears and insecurities behind. It felt lovely to be taking big risks. The opposition didn’t know how to stop me; in fact, they became afraid, an athletic kind of afraid. When you see that insecurity in an opponent’s eyes, you go for the jugular. I had never felt so physically powerful and in control of a situation since the day I stopped bedwetting at age 11. My confidence level was enormously high. In a few minutes, I scored 14 points and had untold assists, rebounds, and blocked shots. I even jumped above the rim, something I’d never done before. It sounds dramatic to say that a basketball game changed my life, but in a way, it did. Suddenly, I was aware I had powers beyond that bag of bones in the mirror. I became a much better player, knowing I could call on extra resources for an important moment in a game. And it spilled over into my professional life, too. For 6 or 7 years I’d been an average reporter, then in the next dozen years I won 11 national and international writing awards.

I do not use five-alarm fight or flight much anymore (perhaps because part of my self-esteem is not so much wrapped up in a basketball performance?), and I’m not recommending that amateurs provoke their anger night after night; that’s an ethical question. But I see nothing wrong with triggering hormones in competitive situations to give yourself an edge. If it is a competition, there will always be some pride and self-esteem on the line and a natural desire to win.

Mental Toughness Exercises For Athletes

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