Our camps focus on one theme a day to help athletes play beyond the game: focus, failure, teamwork, strategy and playing to win. Each week our blog will highlight one.
In college, our coach (the amazing Judy) gave players a post-it sized note before big games, affectionately labeled sock notes. The note always contained two things: why she appreciated us as a player and an area of our game that we could focus on for the match. I loved those sock notes. They made me feel confident, reassured me that coach valued me, and gave me something concrete to focus on until the clock ran down. Before walking out of the locker room, I would slip the note under my shin guard. Two hours later, back at my locker again, I pulled out the sweaty pulp of a note, assessing whether or not I accomplished what my coach had set out for me during the game.
Back then, I never put my finger on why I loved those notes so much, but I carried on the tradition when I became a coach years later. I don’t do it as much as I’d like, but at least once a season I give my varsity players sock notes. They love them just as much as I did.
Turns out, my coach was onto something big with those little notes.
She was helping us in the critical first step of focusing and achieving success as an athlete. Sock notes are essentially what the Director of Mental Training for the St Louis Cardinals, Dr. Jason Selk, calls a performance statement. A performance statement is simply a “type of self-talk designed to help athletes zoom in on one specific thought to enhance performance consistency. It is a simple, yet concrete thought that specifically identifies the process of success, or what it takes to perform at your best” (from 10-Minute Toughness, as are all following quotes).
Putting your finger on a simple and concrete phrase to help you focus is easier said than done (and why I loved when my coach did it for me). Now a coach myself, I realize players should practice creating these statements, just as they would work on technical skill. Players often self talk like this to some extent subconsciously, but elite athletes deliberately work to pull the subconscious activity into three conscious steps. By being deliberate, athletes can create a stronger, more honed in performance statement that leads to more successful results.
I’ve found that making your own performance statement, aka a sock note, can be achieved in three steps:
- Remove clutter.
The average person supposedly has 60,000 thoughts per day. That means in the course of a two hour practice, 5,000 bits of self-talk will gallop around the space between your ears. For the average high school athlete, there is a lot going on besides sports that can creep in and derail performance. Even if you are focused on the task a lot of these thoughts drift towards self-doubt, negativity or anxiety (even more so if you are a female). The good news is cognitive psychology shows that we can only focus on one thought at a time, so if we learn to focus on our performance statement, we leave no room for negativity. When self-doubt inevitably creeps back in, you stop, focus and repeat your positive performance statement in your head or even out-loud. This is a straightforward way to flush the negative and flood the positive.
- Eliminate “Don’t thinking”.
Avoid negative thought; avoid “don’t” performance statements. Ideas like “don’t let your grip loosen” or “don’t forget to lower your shoulder” or “don’t hold the ball” simply reinforce that you tend to perform the trait incorrectly. Focus on “the path to success rather than the obstacles in your way”. In camp, when we focus on visualization or self-feedback, the general rule is to ignore the negative and focus on the positive so the good can grow and we starve out the bad. Eliminate ‘don’t’ from your conscious vocabulary and it will eventually find less space in your subconscious as well.
- Stick to the Simple Plan.
A good performance statement is big enough to leave room for adaptability. It allows the athlete to focus on what they do best, rather than what they don’t do well currently. Don’t worry about making some pithy profound statement; you’re not trying to create the next Nike campaign slogan. Hall of Fame baseball player George Brett used to tell himself, “Try Easier.” For Sean Townsend, a champion gymnast, his statement was “one skill at time, one routine at a time.” For me, it was often “Go get the ball, then give the ball.” It reminded me to go after those fifty-fifty opportunities and then look to pass. You can never cover everything, so cover the biggest point well and don’t focus on the rest.
Before we even touch a ball in camp, we believe getting focused and starting on a positive note will increase success, make the game more fun and the enhance on-the-field learning for all our athletes. First thing on Monday morning, before warm ups, before we teach visualization and before a drill, we will all write our own sock notes. By learning to create performance statements for success, athletes will have the power to become their own transformational coach. Our coaches are there to help, but teaching players to self-coach and focus will help them streamline success long after the last camp session.
Playing beyond the game is a big concept but it really means doing the little things. In part, that can start with just a sweaty note in your sock.