Sport Psychology in the Empty Stadium

When NCAA athletes began their off-season training, no one could have predicted this. Athletes prepare for many scenarios, but competing for a National Championship in an empty stadium? In the midst of a pandemic. Highly doubtful. But here we are. Thankfully, sport psychology helps in times of adversity.

I’d like to tell you that all of my sport psych clients are prepared for this exact scenario. Of course they’re not, but they know how to get there. Quickly.

Sport Psychology

Sport psychology, the mental side of sport, is often overlooked or dismissed. We think athletes are either mentally tough or they’re not. Unfortunately a stigma still exists. Spoiler alert: Mindset skills are like any other skills. They can be learned.

The mental game is mentioned casually (and usually often after a loss), but most athletic programs don’t spend a ton of time or resources on it. In times like these, it will pay off for the programs that do.

When the competition is fierce, the mental game is the game changer.

And that couldn’t be more true when you’re playing in the biggest of games…with no one in the stands.

Those who’ve done the mindset work will have the edge.

Here are three sport psychology tips I’d share with athletes going into this situation.

3 Sport Psychology Tips

Tip #1: Imagery

See it. Believe it.

I encourage all of my clients to do imagery before competition. The night before and morning of are great times for this. Imagery helps with confidence and motivation. It’s like we’ve been there. In this unexpected scenario, no one has been there, so it’s time to rework the imagery.

Your imagery probably includes seeing the crowd, hearing the crowd, and maybe even “feeling” the vibration from the crowd. You’re going to want to revamp. I’d suggest first creating an image of the empty stadium. See yourself running out onto the court feeling confident, loving this change, playing for your teammates, getting back to basketball. As always, keep your imagery present tense, positive, and detailed using all of your senses.

Tip #2: Composure

Get & stay in the zone.

You’re not going to have the same adrenaline rush. You can’t count on the crowd for an energy boost. The vibe will not be the same. That’s okay, because the fire comes from within for you.

You know how to get yourself ready. You know how to find your zone of optimal functioning.

Your pre-game routine may just need tweaked a little. Find a way to make it special.

If in the past you stayed fairly chill and counted on the crowd to get you pumped, you’ll need to increase the internal hype level. Switch up the pre-game music, connect with what drives you, focus on delivering for your teammates.

Remember when you “flip that switch.” Whether it’s when you first run out on the court, when you take off your warm-up, or right after the national anthem, stick with it. That’ll help you get dialed in.

Tip #3: Thought Work

Thoughts–feelings–actions–results. And you get to decide.

You’re going to hear, see, and read a lot about the decision to have empty stadiums. Fans are bummed. Families are disappointed. And this probably isn’t how you dreamed up this moment.

Feel the disappointment and then feel the fire.

Denying feelings doesn’t help. Take a second to acknowledge your emotions about it. Then know that this is what we’ve got. It is what it is. Arguing with it isn’t a good use of your energy.

You control how you spin it. Embrace the pick-up game atmosphere. Get back to the pure love of the game. See it as a chance to make history, because it most certainly is.

I know that’s easier said than done. Most of the work I do with clients is around thought work. Letting the unhelpful thoughts go and embracing the helpful ones. You really do get to choose, even when it doesn’t feel like it.

With that being said, don’t try to force yourself into feeling positive about this.

If you can’t get to a “I wouldn’t have it any other way” thought then go to a neutral thought. A neutral thought is something your brain isn’t going to argue with. Something like “I’m playing in the tournament” or “I play basketball.” Sound boring? Exactly. It’s neutral.

Neutral feels better mentally and physically than negative and it doesn’t have your brain arguing with itself the way a fake positive thought does.

You couldn’t have predicted this, but you can prepare.

You’ve Got This

At Sterling Sport Mindset, this is what we do. We help prepare athletes for whatever comes their way, in sport & life. Developing a best performance, every performance mindset. Ready to check out sport psychology? Want to tailor these skills to you? Schedule a free mini session and we’ll get started.

Go get ’em!

Dr. Linda Sterling. Sport Psychology

P.S. We are very concerned about the effects of COVID-19 and support taking measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

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