mardi 22 mars 2016

Taking Advantage of Off-Season Time

Winter is ending rather quickly on the east coast. For the average person, spring means that the end of the financial year and the school year is approaching. However, for athletes and coaches, it is also the end the competitive season for most winter sports, as well as most school indoor sports such as volleyball and basketball. Once the championships, exams, term papers or year's review are completed, it is a good time to get ready for the next season, but first it is very important to take time to recharge our batteries, take some time off, and re-discover the passions that drive us to do what we love. 

This time of the year is also important to take time and reflect on the season that is ending: what was well done, what was less successful and what needs to be done to improve in the future. Personally and with the athletes I work with, I like to put those reflections in writing (on paper or on the computer), which might me more time consuming, but ultimately helps to organize thoughts and gives us the opportunity to share ideas with people that can help us to develop (coaches, mentors, friends or family). 

In addition to reflecting, the upcoming off-season is an ideal time for working on technical and physical skills to help performance. To illustrate the importance of this point, imagine two pyramids, a wide one and a narrow one. Both are equally steep, however the wider one will be able to reach higher because its base is stronger and allows to support more weight. Developing skills works the same way: each year, when you start working during the off season, you work on basic technical skills, basic strength or flexibility and those basics increase your overall potential. 

Another benefit of working on those physical and technical skills is confidence. Confidence is the belief in our own ability to successfully perform at a task. In sports, there is a strong, direct link between confidence and athletic performance. Moreover, confidence facilitates the development of mental toughness. Back to our pyramid analogy, confidence is the mortar that holds everything together. Unlike other skills that you can work on directly, it improves with doing the work, day-in and day-out. More precisely, confidence comes from 3 main sources: training, feedback and pre-competition practice. If we take an exam at school as an example, doing your homework and studying (training) helps to increase your confidence that you will perform at the exam. Getting positive, precise and constructive feedback from your teachers, friends or parents also helps boost your confidence in your ability to master the content of the class. Finally, doing a practice exam or weekly tests (pre-competition practice) will seal that confidence and get you ready to perform on exam day. 

Now, let see how we can do the same process in sports: 

1- Plan 
In your end of the year/season debrief, you can reflect on specific areas in which you want to improve. Those can be physical (strength, vertical jumping height, flexibility, endurance...), technical (shooting precision, outside ski pressure, skating speed...) or mental (focus, visualization, mental toughness, decision making...). Once you have identified these areas, you can select 3 main aspects you want to improve and write them down. Then, identify your starting point (I can jump 20 inches) and your target (I want to jump 24 inches) with a time frame (by the end of June). The third step it to plan what you will do to reach that goal. It is the most important step! Setting a goal and not working on it daily or weekly is self-defeating. Imagine your plan like a stair case: your goal and target are the top of the stairs, and right now you are at the bottom of those stairs. What are the steps you need to make to get there? How do they unfold in daily, weekly and monthly training?

Goal: Improve Jumping
Current performance: 20 inches
Target performance: 24 inches (22 inches)
Deadline: End of June (end of May)
Plan:  Twice a week in the gym for May and June do 10 squat jumps at the end of every practice

2- Social Support / Feedback
To help you achieve your target, you can use the help of others. You can use teammates, friends, parents or coaches by telling them your goal. That way, they can help you stay on track, give you that little incentive to go to practice on a tougher morning, and they will assist you to stay accountable to your goal. Your coach or teammates can also help you by providing feedback, letting you know how you're doing ("you're jumping higher than last practice" "your kicks are getting more precise") and giving you positive and constructive cues that will help you get better ("use your arms more to jump higher" "plant your foot closer to the ball" "keep your eye on the puck as you shoot"). Feedback is extremely important to reach your goal and to build confidence. 

However, just like the pyramid, you want to go up and build. Destructive feedback (and self-talk) is not going to help. To build constructive feedback, identify what you don't do enough and frame your ideas in a positive way: tell yourself what you want to do, not what you don’t want to do. You can find ways to give yourself feedback, too. An example for shooting precision would be to keep track of your accuracy (shots on target out of 10). When your accuracy is getting up, it is important to challenge yourself (increase the distance of the shooting, jump on a higher box...). Those are steps in the staircase and it will help you reach your goal and build your confidence. 

To conclude, the services of a coach, a strength coach or a mental training consultant can help you make your plan and guide you in identifying the steps of your “staircase” towards reaching your target. Don’t hesitate to contact one if you require support for your off-season training!

What are your goals for the off-season? How do you plan on achieving them? Feel free to share and comment in the section below!

  • Zinsser, N., Bunker, L., & Williams, J.M. (2006). Cognitive Techniques for Building Confidence and Enhacing Performance. In J.M. Williams (Ed.), Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance (5th ed., pp. 284–311). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill. 
  • Connaughton, D., Wadey, R., Hanton, S., & Jones, G. (2008). The development and maintenance of mental toughness: Perceptions of elite performers. Journal of Sports Sciences, 26, 83–95.