Today, even at a recreational level, most athletes participating in sport are accustomed to a pre-game, physical warm-up — the benefits of which are well-known. Preparing the body to be physically ready and adjusted for the competition to come is essential to ensuring that a high level of performance is achieved right from the moment the puck drops, the whistle blows or the chair umpire says “Play!”
Perhaps not so well-known, however, is the fact that many of the same benefits apply to a pre-game, “mental” warm-up. When you listen to players being interviewed after losing a game that they felt they could have won, they will often comment that they weren’t “in the game.” They will say that they lacked focus or that they let other issues or thoughts creep into their minds and distract them.
On an individual level, it is vital that a player is focused and ready to give their best right out of the blocks — but also that they are clear on what, exactly, it is that they are trying to achieve. When it comes to team play, an individual player’s mental preparation is equally important. If even one player on the team is not as prepared as the others, it can affect the overall team performance and, over the long term, breed friction and negativity between teammates.
Of course, each athlete has unique strengths, weaknesses and areas of required focus, so mental preparation and warm-up is a slightly different process for everybody. However, what it all comes down to is the ability to visualize the events of the day and the game unfolding successfully. This begins well before a player enters the arena. It can be as long as a few days, weeks, months or even years in advance, depending on the individual or the circumstance. However, a good pre-game, mental warm-up generally starts the day before.
Here is a typical example of working on a mental warm-up with one of my players (we’ll call her Lea) just before a professional tennis match.
It was 8 a.m. on the morning of the day before the match. Lea and I decided to go to the court where the match would take place. It was not just any tennis court, however. It was the Roland Garros “Le Central” (Stadium Court), the host venue of the French Open in Paris, France. Though I knew she was physically prepared for the match, Lea was nervous because she had never played in front of thousands of people before — let alone on a show court this big!
I suggested we do a mental warm-up. We needed to change her state of mind. The stadium was empty, thus perfect for us to visualize the match as if it were taking place in reality. I asked Lea to see herself on the court hitting the ball correctly, to listen to the sounds and to feel her arm and body as she stroked the ball. Tapping into all of her senses, she even noticed the unique but refreshing odour of the court. As she became more and more comfortable with her environment, she began to feel relaxed and, suddenly, things didn’t feel so overwhelming. By getting herself mentally prepared (in conjunction with her physical preparation), she began to taste the sweet taste of victory, rather than the bitter taste of defeat.
Lea went on to win her match, portraying a player who looked as though she had been at it for years. She was both physically and mentally warmed up and ready to take control of the playing environment. I noticed the confidence the minute she walked onto the court, and I’m sure her opponent noticed it, too.
By Warwick Bashford, ATP and WTA tennis coach and founder of Champion People