How to Avoid or Overcome Performance Slumps

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Whether coaching, or competing as an athlete, there inevitably comes a time during the season when performance and energy levels dip. Few teams are as fortunate as the record-setting Golden State Warriors in the NBA to be sailing along, seemingly on a smooth path for a deep run in the playoffs. Similarly, in more individual sports, rare is the wrestler, golfer or swimmer who doesn’t have at least a few poor matches, rounds or meets and could benefit from proper support from a coach.

Experienced championship coaches like Bill Self at the University of Kansas understand that periodic slumps are normal and don’t panic or rush to make big changes: “Everybody goes through funks like this. I mean, the Royals won the World Series. Didn't they have a crappy end of August and early September? That's what happens in sports.”

As coach Self notes, everyone can be expected to have ‘bad days’. However, these are not slumps. Performance slumps are defined as unexplained drops in performance that go beyond normal performance fluctuations.

Performance slumps create adversity, but successful coaches believe that adversity simply creates opportunity. This is the message 5-time national football championship coach Nick Saban gives to all of his teams: “When obstacles are placed in front of you, don’t say ‘Why me?’ Instead, say, ‘How can I overcome this?’”

Coaches can help their athletes avoid, or overcome, a performance slump by first understanding the root cause of slumps. Performance slumps typically can be attributed to physical and mental fatigue. Watch for the natural tendency when struggling during a slump to push athletes with more training and harder workouts. This inevitably only accelerates athlete exhaustion and frustration.

The easiest and most effective way to prevent or end a slump is to adjust the training schedule as the season progresses. In fact, legendary basketball coach John Wooden always held his longest practice sessions at the start of the year and gradually shortened practices throughout the season. Although practices can be shortened across the season, the intensity should remain high to help athletes stay sharp.

Coaches should also consider replacing some physical practice with mental practice as the season wears on. Standard mental practice techniques include imagery and meditation. For example, after mid-season 90-minute physical practices could be split into 75 minutes of physical practice and 15 minutes of mental practice. Coaches need not fear a loss of conditioning with this approach as long as they keep physical practice intensity high. Furthermore, research shows that when athletes combine imagery with physical practice they outperform athletes who rely solely on physical practice.

Athletes can use their imagery or meditation time to visualize themselves performing the skills needed to achieve the desired performance outcome. The focus should always be on the steps needed to achieve the next win, not winning. For example, Nick Saban always tells his teams, “Every time you think of winning the national championship – stop. Instead, think of what you have to do to dominate your opponent for sixty minutes.”

During the season coaches should pay close attention to how each individual athlete responds after a performance setback or a loss. This will help coaches proactively identify which athletes might be most susceptible to a performance slump. Some athletes place too much emphasis on the outcome and develop perfectionist tendencies. These types of athletes may be overly critical of themselves – and their teammates – and fall into a psychological slump spiral.

If an athlete makes a big deal over an ‘off day’ performance, they may fall victim to negative self-talk and come to expect poor performances, and increasingly become more pessimistic. This can lead to learned helplessness – or giving up.

Listen to how your athletes talk about poor performance. If they say things like ‘We never can hold a lead’ or ‘I can never make that play’ that shows they are starting to believe the poor performance is an expected and normal pattern. Teach them to acknowledge the poor performance as momentary and fixable, and design follow-up practices to specifically address performance gaps.

The negative self-talk that can creep into athlete’s head after poor performance should also be countered with positive self-talk. For example, baseball players have been found to work their way through hitting slumps by using self-talk statements such as:

- You’re at this level for a reason
- Keep telling yourself you are a good hitter
- You know that you are good enough
- Slumps are a natural part of the game

Performance slumps can also drain team trust and goodwill. As athletes fall deeper into the psychological slump spiral stress levels will rise. This leads to increased friction between teammates and strains coach-athlete relationships.

To avoid losing team cohesion coaches can consider periodically during the season replacing a traditional practice with a fun team outing to release some pressure. Common examples include taking the team bowling, going to a movie, or still meeting at the practice facility but playing a game from a different sport. For example, if you are coaching basketball and the team is struggling consider mixing in a game of volleyball or floor hockey for a practice.

Once when working with a college golf program we held a ‘pumpkin practice’ to help athletes re-energize when it was evident they were slumping. It was Halloween and the coach brought pumpkins to the driving range and placed them on boxes at different distances. Athletes then competed against each other to see who could destroy the pumpkins. The athletes unwittingly were practicing many important golf skills (club selection, shot approach, focus, competing under pressure) while having their most fun practice of the season. The following week the team set a course record and captured their first tournament win.

Finally, teach your athletes that the occasional ‘off day’ is normal but temporary if they don’t panic or lose faith in their training. A great way to help athletes learn this lesson is to let them hear from other athletes who have successfully overcome a performance slump. Consider bringing in former members of the team or reading them stories about famous athletes who have overcome adversity or performance setbacks. This is a valuable strategy for building mental toughness and works particularly well with young athletes who may be experiencing a performance slump for the first time.


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