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Maintaining Consistency on the Field: What’s Your Number?

In a previous article, I wrote about the psychological characteristics of developing excellence (PCDEs). One of these was self-awareness, which in sport involves being aware of:

  • How you are interacting with your environment (other players, the ball, the field surface)
  • The way your body is moving
  • How you are feeling physically
  • How you are feeling emotionally
  • How mentally prepared you are to compete

One tool I teach athletes to address the emotional and mental preparedness is what I call their Optimal Readiness Number (ORN). Simply put, ORN is the number that reflects the way your child feels when he prepares for a competition at which he expects to perform at his absolute best. If your child were to rate his readiness to play on a scale from 0-100 where 0 is he is sound asleep, and 100 is he is absolutely climbing the walls and bouncing off the ceiling, where would he say he falls when he is playing at his absolute best? To evaluate this number, he would consider some or all of the following:

  • Feelings of nervousness or anxiety (butterflies in the stomach, sweaty palms, quick breathing)
  • Body tension (tightness in shoulders, legs, hands and/or face)
  • Ability to focus on the task at hand (is he distracted or can he concentrate on what he needs to do)
  • Fear or feelings of self-doubt (what is he saying to himself)

Ask him to consider a time when he felt he had his best, most successful performance–a time when his play seemed almost effortless, free of worry or overthinking. Where would he say he fell on the 0-100 scale at that time?

The number your child comes up with is unique to him. There is no right or wrong number; there is only his personal ideal or optimal number. Some athletes have to be extremely wound up, jumping around, yelling at themselves or others or no one in particular in order to feel ready to perform. Others prefer a calmer, cooler preparation and focus more internally to prepare to play.

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Let’s say for example that your child’s ideal ORN is 79. How is knowing this number useful to her? This type of self-awareness is vital for maintaining consistency in performance. Every time she gets out on the field for practice or games, she should assess her current number at that moment. If she is particularly tired or down emotionally that day, she may assess her number as perhaps 40. This would be a signal to her that she is not where she would like her body and mind to be optimally if she wants to perform at her best. This may help to explain subpar performance at that moment after the fact. Or, she could do something to attempt to bring her current number up to her ORN.

Techniques to adjust a number are as myriad as players themselves. Your child will need to use trial and error to find what works best for her. Perhaps just doing some quick calisthenics will help to increase the number toward the ORN. Self-talk, with which she “psychs herself up” for the practice or game may be useful, and should be expressed with enthusiasm (“I got this!” “I am ready!” “Go! Go! Go!”).

The same goes for a number which is higher than the ORN. The goal in this case would be to lower the number through calming or relaxing techniques. For example, if your child is especially anxious or tense, she may rate herself as a 90. Knowing this exceeds the point where her best performance lies, she could then try some deep breathing, perhaps closing her eyes and visualizing a relaxing scene, a “happy place,” that helps her to calm down. Self-talk is useful here as well, and would include calming words spoken softly (“I am calm.” “I am ready.” “Breathe.” “Focus.”).

The ORN to shoot for should remain the same for practices and games, but the number that reflects what your child feels at any given moment is dynamic, and may rise or fall during play, depending on what is happening. A goal scored for or against the team, a coach yelling, an opposing player getting too close or saying things that may bother your child, a mistake he makes on the field, all influence how he feels and ultimately how he plays. While this is beyond your control, one of the best things you can do is ensure your child enters the competition in an ideal state of readiness, and knows how to adjust to meet that ideal state. During the game or practice, if your child has the opportunity (during a time-out, prior to a throw-in or goal-kick), he can do a quick assessment and make any adjustments he deems necessary. A deep breath or two goes a long way to promote relaxation. A word or phrase provides the mind and body with immediate direction and focus.

As your child practices assessing herself and using techniques to help increase or decrease her number as needed toward the ORN, she will feel a greater sense of confidence and control over her play. Keep in mind, this works for any performance, not just sport. Optimal readiness is essential for presentations at school, quizzes and big exams as well. These provide great opportunities for your child to practice regulating her optimal performance state.

A useful tool, especially while your child is learning to become more self-aware, is a journal. Your child can use it for practices and games, to record his numbers from pre-performance and numbers he estimates he experienced during performance. He can keep track of techniques he employed to reach his ORN and how well they worked. He can include a list of events which occurred during the practice or game which may have led to a number change (coach yelling, crowd noise, tripping or falling, scoring a goal). You will both start to notice patterns and links between number and performance. Your child will be able to keep track of what techniques seem to work best to keep his play consistent. He may even find that he actually is more consistently successful at a different number, in which case he would use that number as his ORN.

So the next time your child heads off to practice or a game, rather than just asking, ‘Are you ready?’ ask, ‘What’s your number?’

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Christie Marshall

Christie Marshall is a Sport Psychology Consultant in the Washington, DC area. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from William and Mary and a Master’s degree from Penn State in Exercise and Sport Science, with a concentration in Sport Psychology. For more than 25 years, Christie has worked with athletes of all ages and levels teaching mental skills and ways to apply them for peak performance. http://www.personalbest-sports.com/