As a collegiate lacrosse player, I used to go to sleep at night concentrating on “the triangle.” The triangle is the upper corner of the lacrosse goal cage, opposite the goalie’s stick side. A shot placed in the triangle is near impossible to defend and results in a sure goal. Over and over again I would imagine myself shooting the ball into the triangle, just a fraction below the goal post. The attack players on our team called this the “psychology of the triangle.”
Other sports, too, have a triangle. In tennis, a serve placed in the corner of the box (an imaginary triangle) at a high speed is nearly impossible to return.
A football pass placed in the corner of the end zone so only the receiver can catch it is another imaginary triangle. Again, perfect placement is near impossible to defend.
Other sports have key skills that can be improved through visualization.
My oldest son, Ben, and my daughter, Carly, are collegiate swimmers. They visualize their starts and turns in preparing for the race. My youngest son, Jackson, is an accomplished dancer and dance instructor – I watch him in amazement as he prepares his choreography, oftentimes visualizing his steps as he listens to music.
Later in life, I learned that this practice of mentally visualizing something, such as a score, is called “imagery.” And today, many universities offer degrees in sports psychology, which does involve training in how imagery can improve athletic performance.
I have a specific memory of my senior lacrosse season. We, tiny Lafayette College, had home-field advantage against Penn State in the semi-finals of the NCAA Division I tournament. The night before the game, I repeatedly visualized a fake and score on a free eight-yard shot. It turned out that late in the first half a foul was called and I had an opportunity to execute the exact shot I had imagined. Rather than attempt to beat the goalie from eight yards out with the difficult triangle shot, I faked the shot, drawing all the defenders in front of me. I cut to the right of the defenders to score the triangle goal from a closer position and better angle. Exactly how I had imagined it!
More recently, it dawned on me that this same kind of sports imagery could be used to improve my attitude in all areas of my life. I began imagining how I would respond to the different stress-inducing situations in my life – the mess in the home office, the kids’ text messaging, missed deadlines, last-minute school projects, hurtful comments, delayed traffic, fighting siblings – and how I would like to respond. Instead of imagining myself getting angry and silent, which would often be the case, I imagined an even-keeled and level-headed response that would bring about a positive change or level of acceptance. After all, the only person we can change is ourselves. And as these situations presented themselves, as they always will in all our lives, I was able to respond as I practiced.
The first time it worked, it felt like scoring the triangle goal in the Penn State game!
So, whether practicing for the big game or for difficult life situations, imagining a positive outcome and how to achieve it will bring a measure of success and peace to our lives.
A sports mantra is defined as “an intervention strategy by athletes to focus attention internally and to reduce anxiety.”
I’ve utilized several different mantras over the years to assist me through workouts and/or competitions. My most recent jogging mantra is not very inspiring. I inhale through the nose and count, “4, 5, 6”; exhale through the nose and count, “1, 2, 3.” This mantra was born from a temporary pass code I had to memorize and, because I needed to learn it at the start of a recent attempt to train for a 5K, it has stuck. When I feel my breathing becoming uneven or difficult to catch, I instinctively revert to my mantra and, within a few repetitions, feel myself come back to center and back to a relaxed breathing pattern.
Over the years, my running, swimming, biking, yoga or competitive mantras have taken on religious tones, angry rebellious tones (doesn’t work well), peaceful chants, and motivating song lyrics.
The “4-5-6, 1-2-3” mantra is not very inspiring. But it has proven personally effective.
My “God is good, you can pass her. God is good, you can pass her. God is good, you can pass her” mantra might be a bit more inspiring. It was to me when I competed in my first (and only) sprint triathlon, the 2003 Family Circle Tennis Center Triathlon.
Sport’s mantras actually evolved from a method borrowed from Buddhism and Hinduism, both of which utilize the mantra as a technique for spiritual advancement. Mantras are an integral part of any yoga practice, as the literal translation means “instrument of thought” or “to free from the mind.”
In trying economic times, who wouldn’t like to free his or her mind from worrying about paying the bills or losing a lifetime’s worth of retirement security? What parent couldn’t use a little cerebral clearing when it comes to the anxiety, stress and worry caused by raising children, especially teenagers?
I’ve found that my sports mantras are good to use to focus attention and reduce the tension of everyday life’s stressors. Whether during stressful work situations or anxiety inducing home dilemmas, I often find my breathing, stress and tenseness hitting the same levels of exhaustion and difficulty that occurs during running or other physical activity.
A “God is good” mantra or even a one word mantra like “peace” or “relax,” when I remember to use it, often brings the stress and anxiety levels down and the breathing back to normal. This not only relaxes me, but my family as well.
Mantras – a good way to reduce anxiety on and off the athletic field.