Golf is a mental game. Physical skill is necessary, but in a round that lasts three hours, the actual action takes less than 20 minutes, providing a golfer’s mind significant time to influence his or her play. In basketball, one cannot focus on a missed shot or errant pass, as he or she has a new task that requires attention.
If the player focuses on his or her poor play at one end, he or she is susceptible to a mistake on the other end. “It is possible to process at most 126 bits of information per second… The limitation of consciousness is demonstrated by the fact that to understand what another person is saying we must process 40 bits of information per second,” (Csikszentmihalyi, Flow; The Psychology of Optimal Experience). When a player diverts his or her attention to the mistake, he or she lacks the attention necessary to play successfully, as he or she must process player movement and his or her relationship to the ball, his or her teammates and opponents and listen for teammates communicating with him or her.
The attention deficit is most apparent at the free throw line. During the game’s flow, players are lost in the action; they hardly hear the noise in the stands or the coach yelling from the bench or even the whistle. They are involved in the action, and there is no separation between body and mind; there is no time to think, and players play on instinct, habit and automatic actions.
“When all a person’s relevant skills are needed to cope with the challenge of a situation, that person’s attention is completely absorbed by the activity. There is no excess psychic energy left over to process any information but what the activity offers… people become so involved in what they are doing that the activity becomes spontaneous, almost automatic; they stop being aware of themselves as separate from the actions they are performing,” (Csikszentmihalyi).
When players drive the length of the floor, stop short of the defense, jump into the air and shoot, they do not think about their elbow, or the consequences of a missed shot; they shoot.
The free throw is a unique moment, not unlike a putt in golf. Golfers have time to analyze and overanalyze and allow their minds to play tricks and debilitate their skills. At the free throw line, the game stops; shooters have time to step outside the action and think about the shot. They catch their breath and feel the fatigue that built during the continuous action. Whereas players may be able to catch and shoot moving full speed and make the shot with no problem, they step to the line with trepidation, worrying about their shooting technique or the score.
When players step to the line, they are told to concentrate or focus. When you actively think about concentrating, you lose the ability to perform optimally. “The great Zen master D.T. Suzuki described this non-thinking state: ‘As soon as we reflect, deliberate, and conceptualize, the original unconscious is lost and thought interferes,” (Douilliard, Body, Mind and Sport). During the action, players are in the flow; however, at the line, they lose the flow and their mind negatively affects his performance. “Tony Gwynn said, ‘When you’re in it [the Zone], you don’t hear the crowd, you don’t think about the situation, you don’t think about nothin’. It’s something way beyond confidence. I mean, I’m usually fairly confident, but this is like-I don’t even know what the word would be,” (Douilliard).
To enter the zone when at the free throw line, train for these situations using Psychological Skills Training, particularly relaxation breathing and visualization. People mistakenly believe visualization is either unimportant or easy to do.
“Jerome Singer, the Yale psychologist who has studied daydreaming and mental imagery… has shown that daydreaming is a skill that many children never learn to use. Yet daydreaming not only helps create emotional order… but it also allows children (and adults) to rehearse imaginary situations so that the best strategy for confronting them may be adopted,” (Csikszentmihalyi).
Visualization conditions perfect practice and prepares the body to perform. Visualization relaxes the body and mind; the athlete is free to concentrate on the target and shoot without mind interference.
“Perhaps a better way to describe the player who is ‘unconscious’ is by saying that his mind is so concentrated, so focused, that it is still. It becomes one with what the body is doing, and the unconscious or automatic functions are working without interference from thoughts,” (Gallwey, The Inner Game of Tennis).
Before receiving the ball, or before one toes the free throw line, visualize the shot from start to finish, ending with a swish. “The reason for doing this is that you have a short-term visual memory, and if you shoot with the image of a missed shot in your mind, then your eyes will naturally tend to focus on where your last shot hit the rim instead of correctly on the center point of the basket,” (Mikes, Basketball FundaMENTALS). Visualize success and then make it happen.
Psychological Skills Training must be practiced to be effective. Encourage players to spend time visualizing their shooting technique before each practice; they will improve as they gain comfort using the technique.
To improve one’s visualization:
- Make imagery as realistic and detailed as possible; use all the senses.
- Practice imagery regularly.
- Use mental imagery while in a relaxed setting or frame of mind; the use of a relaxation technique-such as deep and calm breathing-prior to the imagery is beneficial.
- Conduct the imagery in real time.
- Imagine the execution of the skill and the result.
- Practice Perfection.
One drill I use to incorporate mental imagery into practice is Mental Shooting, a drill Paul Westhead described in Coaching Basketball (Krause):
- Shoot five-Physical Practice
- Picture five-Mental Practice
- Close eyes and picture five-Mental Practice
- Close eyes and shoot five-Mental/Physical Practice
- Open eyes and shoot five-Physical Practice
When coaching in Europe, we used this drill several times per week as our free throw practice. Some veterans struggled with my unorthodox ideas, but it helped those who did. In one case, shooting with her eyes closed relieved her of the expectation of making every shot; she shot more freely and with better technique. With her eyes opened, and the expectation and pressure to make every shot, she shot the ball flat; however, with her eyes closed, she had a nice, high follow-through and shot about the same percentage. Her internal pressure with her eyes open created tension in her shot; without the tension, she allowed her body to move freely. When she focused on the feeling of the shot with her eyes closed, she felt the difference between the two shots and slowly changed her shot.
In addition to visualization, use relaxation breathing. When standing at the line awaiting the ball, breathe deeply through the nose. “In the lower lobes of the lungs are an abundance of parasympathetic nervous system receptors. When activated with nasal breathing, they calm the mind and rejuvenate the body,” (Douilliard). This nasal breathing calms the body and aides optimal performance.
While these Psychological Skills will not help a player with poor shooting technique, they may make a significant difference for a player with good technique who struggles during games or under pressure. However, like any other skill, players must practice visualization and relaxation breathing in order to derive their benefits.