Athletes: Focus on What YOU Control – Preparation, Effort & Attitude


by Stephen E. Walker, PhD, NCC, CC-AASP, USOC Registry of Sport Psychology and  Bill Walker, JD.


Athlete’s Dilemma: With So Many Variables in Training – Overwhelm is a Common Occurrence

Not too long ago Podium Sports Journal conducted an interview with Dr. Sam Maniar, former staff Sport Psychologist with The Ohio State University.  In that Podcast Dr. Maniar illustrates the difference between “choking” and “anxiety reactions” in an athlete’s performance.  The most interesting thing to note about this, is that the casual observer can not tell the difference.  Maniar defines choking as a state of “overthinking” the challenges an athlete is engaged in.  With so many technique driven tasks, situations that call for different responses, or circumstances that are confusing and no clearly identifiable course of action is understood by the athlete…they shut down and oftentimes look like they just ‘blew the assignment.’  This situation is what one experiences when the athlete’s brain becomes “gridlocked” and there are too many competing thoughts going on.

On the other hand, an anxiety reaction involves the experience of an athlete going “blank”, unable to recall their assignment because the stress levels have shut them down.  In both cases, the athlete experiences a case of “Overwhelm” – a very common occurrence in sport at every level.  So what is the antidote?  It seems they are different problems.  Fans, and sometimes coaches, just can’t understand because the athlete’s performance might just look exactly the same even though the cause is quite different.  So – what is the solution to these performance problems?



Keep it Simple – Focus on What YOU Control”


One of the first things to examine is “how” these two problems are similar.  First off, they both look much the same when observing the athlete’s performance.  And, they both involve a high degree of stress in how the athlete perceives their situation.  Hence, one of the key components to any solution is to better manage the stress load involved.  Podium has contributed several articles focused on how athletes can better manage their “jitters” before and during competition.  Coaches offer help and can be key when identifying those key moments when the athlete has the most trouble.  By training “with a Purpose” through these circumstances the athlete can address them productively.  There are times when parents can provide one or more forms of assistance also.  Practicing techniques designed to equip each athlete with arousal control is huge, and there are many opportunities to apply these skills to develop expertise.  In virtually every case, that situation and the triggers for overwhelm should be reviewed with each athlete, either with a teammate, coach, parent or sport psychologist.  There is no substitute for having specific antidotes that you developed for your own situation.  Still, it is critical for each athlete to have the ability to break things down into “bite-sized” pieces.  No one play will determine a college scholarship or life success, but the methods we train with for overcoming “overwhelm,” exercised day in and day out – just might.  Once again, we get back to….

“FOCUS ON WHAT YOU CONTROL.”  This is a common piece of advice given to athletes throughout many years in virtually every sport invented.  But what does that really mean?  After all, some sports are amazingly complicated.  Some have all kinds of gear, even multiple sports per event.  There are details to execution, details to strategy and tactics, nuances and special circumstances that determine implementation, factors that involve strong emotions, tons of hard work, important relationships, sponsorships, scholarships, seeding – whew!  When you consider all the things there are to think about, it is even “more” IMPORTANT TO FOCUS ON WHAT YOU CONTROL.

I define these factors as the P – E – A of sport.  Lets take a closer look……..


The Athlete is almost always in control of their preparation.  The appropriate time to train, to study the play book, to practice for a certain type of scheme you’re likely to face, a well designed diet for fueling yourself properly, film study of your opponent’s skills and execution, making the most of your recovery time…..the list goes on.  It is clear that those athletes that are known to prepare efficiently and competently for competition tend to do well even when conditions are less than optimal.  Truth be told, athletes that PREPARE experience fewer “surprises” in competition, know “how” to play against obstacles their opponents throw at them, and perhaps most importantly, understand the “level and intensity” required of them to be successful when success or failure is on the line.  Are you that athlete?  The one who prepares meticulously?

Preparation is not just the job of the athlete, but athletes bear the burden of responsibility to demonstrate they can play with their opponents.  Coaches have an equal responsibility to identify and articulate the challenge and the training required for their team or athlete to be successful.  And so it is – that TEAMWORK – is not just the collaborative effort amongst athletes.

Coaches, position coaches, coordinators, strength and conditioning experts, trainers, sports medicine professionals and parents ALL CAN AND DO play a key role in an athlete’s preparation for competition.  In what way do you as an athlete RELY on the counsel or training of others to become successful?  Is your communication with these important role players a good one?  Do they want to help YOU succeed because you are appreciative of the input, are coach-able, listen well and practice the strategies provided?  Sometimes an athlete will look like they “don’t care”, indicate they don’t value the contribution of every individual charged with the task of making them better, or worse, they appear “annoyed” by the helpful “input.”

Bottom line – athletes that prepare well are far more capable of performing what they practiced.  Hence, they’re more likely to deliver the goods at the right time.

So, what’s next?


Effort is .one thing an athlete is in complete control of.  You either know what is required to master a skill or you don’t.  You either do the work or you don’t.  You work at it or you don’t. You put the time in or you don’t.  You eat right or you don’t.  You listen or you don’t. You study film or you don’t. The opportunity to be successful in a competition is not limited to the 60 minutes, or distance of a race.  The OPPORTUNITY is experienced everyday in training, every off hour in how you recover and in the quality of relationship and teamwork you exhibit in “helping” your teammates, coaches and supporters to bring their best, both to you and the team.  Athletes that train well, practice well, and prepare well demonstrate an effort level that often makes a big difference in the way you feel when the sun sets on competition day. When all the individuals that make up a team work together, and in concert with one another, team goals are much more likely to be accomplished.  There is nothing in sport quite so enjoyable as accomplishing goals set as a “team.”  As one philosopher put it, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Pond Hockey at Silver Sticks

A = Attitude

Attitude is defined as your “mind-set” in approaching, preparing for, and performing during competition.  There is no substitute for being coach-able, whether you are the coach or the athlete. A positive mental attitude changes your perspective on the grind…(you know the grind…practicing in the heat or cold or wind, doing your umpteenth repetition of a drill…one that could easily cause you to bitch and moan…if you let it.) Attitude is what builds cohesion, brings leaders to the front, and sees “every” player on the team contribute at the right time.  A great ATTITUDE requires a constant desire to improve, not just for yourself, but for your teammates.  A positive mental attitude is evident when one experiences a bad break, and they find a way to overcome.  Some make a science of learning excuses or finding ways to say “I can’t.”  Athletes who have the right attitude know “how” to turn a negative into a positive.  The spirit that can’t be defeated provides inspiration, guidance and leadership amongst your teammates.  At the very least, they will respect the way you learn from your mistakes, and make the most of your difficulties, to overcome those liabilities that you do not let “define you.”  UCLA’s famous coach John Wooden once said, “Things work out best for those who make the best of the way things work out.”

Virtually every marquis player in the NFL covets the “RING”… the SuperBowl Championship.  Every college basketball player is focused on being in the FINAL FOUR – or better yet – cutting down the nets with an NCAA Championship under their belt.  The special nature of striving together to accomplish greatness in such a venue is simply “unforgettable” and there is not one athlete who has been a part of such success – that later regretted how hard they worked to earn that success.  Champions at the highest level can understand how Coach Lou Holtz could say, “Ability is what you’re capable of doing. Motivation determines what you actually do. Attitude determines how well you do it.”

I like the way our 26th President and fearless leader Teddy Roosevelt put it:

“It is not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
– Teddy Roosevelt (1858-1919)

The point being that competitive results themselves – overvalued in our winning obsessed culture anyway – are ultimately not in the competitor’s control and should not be the way the athlete (or coach or parent) judges “success.”   The athlete’s quality of competing – the PEA  – should be the way the athlete (or coach or parent) judges whether the competitive process was “a win” or not.   I think “the overwhelm” can often be triggered by a counterproductive focus on the importance of a winning result, which distracts from what the player actually controls in the heat of battle – a winning process.   This seems especially true of youth or recreational athletes, like myself, who have a tendency to get unduly distracted in competition by imagined consequences of winning or losing, and unduly bummed out by losing, instead of just focusing on competing to the best of one’s ability and calling that a “win.”   Even star athletes are not immune to getting “tight” in the clutch and performing poorly at times but they are usually better at battling that and refocusing on the PEA of the moment and brushing off defeat as part of making them a better player.

Roosevelt was an expert at leading teams and his accomplishments reflect that.  There is no greater experience in athletics than ACCOMPLISHING TEAM GOALS TOGETHER.  So keep it simple, focus on your mantra – FOCUS ON WHAT YOU CONTROL – YOUR PEA – PREPARATION – YOUR EFFORT – AND – YOUR ATTITUDE.  Good things will happen.


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