As coaches, we've all seen swimmers in slumps.
We call them plateaus sometimes depending on the age and
development level of the swimmer. No matter what we call it,
the results are the same...poor performances and unhappy swimmers
(and families). This is an interesting article that talks
about slump busting from Dr. Alan Goldberg, Sports Performance
Slumps and repetitive performance problems are a natural and
terribly frustrating part of any sport. They can sometimes drive
coaches to distraction and athletes into quitting or early
Unless you can learn to constructively handle times when you fall
into a slump or suddenly have problems performing in your sport,
you’ll have a difficult time reaching your full
So where do slumps come from? It could be from a number of places:
A bad performance at a really BIG game
Too much pressure from coaches
PARENTS who push too much
Unrealistic expectations (parent’s, coach’s or the
Family or social problems
An injury or series of them
Two or more bad performances in a row
Trying too hard
Faulty mechanics in your individual sport
The alignment of the stars and the planets!!
Performance slumps, IF THEY ARE UNRELATED TO PHYSICAL AND TECHNICAL
FACTORS, are almost ALWAYS self-maintained by the athlete. They are
a direct result of what the athlete says to him/herself before,
during and after he/she plays.
I like to use a term called GIGO, which stands for “garbage
in, garbage out,” when that self-talk turns negative.
If you tell yourself that you’re going to bomb, strike out or
boot the ball AGAIN and, while you do so, you accompany these
comforting words with failure imagery, (garbage in), what
you’ll get back out in terms of your performance will be
another bad game (garbage out).
The graph shows the cyclic, self-maintaining process of the
slumping athlete. It starts with something as ordinary as a bad
game, but quickly leads to negative self-talk as the athlete begins
to trash him/her-self and abilities, which lowers self-confidence,
sets up poor expectations for the future, destroys concentration,
and so on until the cycle becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This negativity is also accompanied by what I call SELECTIVE
DISTORTION. All this means is that you develop a long term memory
for all your problems and failures and a short term memory for all
your successes. In fact, frequently the slumping athletes forget
that last month they had several wins and even broke their own
record! Focus on just the negative and ignore your accomplishments
and in no time flat you’ll DIMINISH your own abilities and
find yourself in a seemingly insurmountable slump where negative
beliefs, increased fear and worry, and lack of concentration rule
your athletic life and leave you feeling miserable.
So how can you get yourself or one of your athletes to finally get
beyond that slump? Good question! I thought you’d never ask!
Below is a very simple model that I have used with hundreds of
stuck ball players, swimmers, tennis players, gymnasts, divers,
skaters, soccer players, and other athletes. I will be greatly
abbreviating the steps because it’s a lot of information, but
I highly recommend my book
Sports Slump Busing: An Athlete’s and Coach’s Guide to
Busting Slumps and Overcoming Blocks to really dive into
these strategies further.
STEP #1 RULE OUT THE PHYSICAL/TECHNICAL/MECHANICAL
Before you assume that a slump is mental, you have to rule out the
physical or mechanical reasons that might be causing it. Is there
anything mechanically wrong with your stance, grip, swing, stroke,
or balance? Is there anything physically wrong with the
athlete’s eyesight or depth perception?
If there is a lack of physical endurance in the athlete and this
contributes to repetitive performance problems, then the solution
is to specifically focus on building up stamina. This is an example
of a slump that should be addressed through targeted physical
training. As the athlete improves their skills in this particular
area, their confidence will improve and the slump will be a thing
of the past.
STEP #1A DOES THE SLUMP SIGNAL A FAMILY PROBLEM?
Sometimes a persistent block or slump is an athlete’s way of
dealing with family pressures or interpersonal problems. Many
younger athletes I’ve worked with have “used”
(unconsciously of course) their slump to help them deal with pushy
parents, or to “tell” the coach that something at home
is very wrong and as a cry for “help”. Also, if you're
a coach, then you need to take an open and honest look at your own
behavior in relation to the athlete. Sometimes athletes get stuck
BECAUSE of the coach and how he/she deals with them.
STEP #2 DEVELOP AWARENESS OF THE BLOCK AS A FAULTY MENTAL STRATEGY
Slumps are most often SELF maintained by what the athlete says to
him/herself or thinks just before a performance. As an athlete you
want to come to learn the dialogue of your “inner
coach” because what he/she feeds you is responsible for
keeping you stuck.
As a coach you want to get that athlete to teach you HOW you could
have the very same performance problem that he/she has. Get them to
tell you what they SAY to themselves, THINK and SEE when
they’re in the hole, while waiting in the on-deck circle and
while up at the plate, (or in the field before the ball is
pitched). What is the dialogue of their “inner coach”
at these points?
STEP #3 NORMALIZE AND REFRAME
Performance slumps are NORMAL!!! To be a good athlete you have to
come to understand that over the course of your career you will
have bad games and periods where you can’t hit the broad side
of a barn, or times in the field when your fingers are made of
stone. This does NOT mean that something is wrong! A bad game or
two or three does not necessarily mean that you are in a slump.
WHAT CAUSES ANY SLUMP TO GROW AND PROSPER IS WHAT YOU SAY TO
YOURSELF ABOUT THOSE BAD GAMES.
It’s directly related to your mental strategies.
STEP #3A DISCOVER WHAT FUNCTION (IF ANY) THE SLUMP PLAYS
Occasionally, a slump or block “does something” for the
athlete. It serves some kind of purpose or “positive
intention”, although the athlete is rarely aware of this. A
slump can keep an athlete safe and free from parental pressures to
win. That is, it’s the athlete’s way of saying
“Back off, I can’t do any better, can’t you see
I’m in a slump”. It can protect an athlete from the
fear of failure. Sometimes an athlete who’s stuck will stop
trying. Even though they are failing, the slump gives them an
excuse to not really go for it, and thus helps them avoid REALLY
failing had they tried. It can also “help” an athlete
(on a superficial level) get a whole lot of attention from the
coaches and parents.
Remember, sometimes negative attention is much better than none at
STEP #4 CHALLENGE FAULTY BELIEFS
The blocked or slumping athlete is one that has stopped believing
As a coach you have to help your athlete restore this belief in
themselves. You have to continually challenge and confront their
“I can’ts” and “I’ll
never’s”. Unless you can restore their belief they will
continue to stay stuck far longer than is necessary. As an athlete
you need to learn to once again believe in yourself.
STEP #5 EAT AN ELEPHANT/G.O.Y.A
One of the best strategies for busting a slump or getting over ANY
obstacle is simple: DO THE THING THAT YOU ARE MOST AFRAID OF OVER
AND OVER AGAIN AND IT WILL NO LONGER SCARE YOU. Fears and slumps
keep athletes from working on skills and improving. The more an
athlete avoids something, the scarier it gets!
Help your athletes TAKE ACTION and move towards their fears. Have
your athletes approach their fears using the EAT AN ELEPHANT
strategy, ONE BITE AT A TIME. Break their performance problem/block
into small pieces and then have them work MORE, NOT less.
STEP #6 RESTORE CORRECTIVE IMAGERY
One of the reasons your athletes stay stuck is because they are
“watching” the wrong movies in their head. Slumping
athletes usually view the wrong imagery when they think about or
mentally rehearse an upcoming game. They “see”
themselves falling, striking out, or coming in last. Remember,
images program and control your movements. Have your athletes use
mental rehearsal positively as a BRIDGE to get themselves unstuck
and playing well again. Correct mental practice nightly will soon
lead to correct actual performance. One of the ways to get unstuck
is to mentally practice getting that big hit/goal/perfect landing
or making that great play over and over again.
STEP #7 RESTORE PROPER CONCENTRATION
Athletes stay stuck MAINLY because they concentrate on the wrong
things before and during a performance. Your focus needs to be on
what YOU are doing and on the important performance cues, i.e. the
pitcher’s release point, a teammate looking for an opening,
the positioning of your hands or feet, etc., in the HERE and NOW
and NOT everywhere else. The slumping athlete’s focus is
usually IN THEIR HEAD on their last run or the last error they
committed (in the past) or in the future on the “what
if’s” of screwing up again. As long as an athlete
maintains this FAULTY focus he/she will continue to play poorly.
Help your athletes learn to switch concentration to the visual or
kinesthetic cues in the HERE and NOW necessary to play loose and
STEP #8 REPROGRAM THOUGHTS/SELF-CONFIDENCE WORK
The slumping athlete maintains a lot of inner negativity. Because
of repetitive failures, he/she is continually down on him/herself.
This negativity is part of the problem. Help them work on changing
their mental diet. Help them get off all that “mental junk
food”, (“I stink”, “I’ll
never”, “I can’t...”etc.). Do not collude
with their negativity EVER!!!
STEP #9 AROUSAL CONTROL STRATEGIES
Athletes that get stuck in a slump are usually too nervous before
and during a performance. There is too much uncertainty and
distraction floating around in their body to play well. In order to
snap that slump, they must LEARN TO RELAX. Teach them any number of
relaxation skills that they can use to lower their tension.
STEP #10 ACT AS IF
Have your athletes ACT AS IF they are in control and confident
instead of in a slump. Acting as if has to do with how the athlete
carries him/herself before and after a performance. It refers to
their posture. Watch a slumping athlete and you can SEE this in how
they carry themselves in the field or arena. The shoulders may be
hunched up or drooping, the head is usually down, facial expression
usually reflects unhappiness and/or disgust and their step is
usually slow and tentative.
ACTING AS IF is what I call a WINNER’S FALL BACK POSITION.
When a winner is feeling intimidated, they ACT (posture, breathing,
movements) confident; they hold their head and shoulders up, have a
relaxed smile or passive expression on their face and have a spring
in their step. When a winner is feeling anxious, they ACT calm,
physically; Get your athletes to practice acknowledging inside that
they may be bummed out or intimidated, but ACTING AS IF
they’re confident and capable on the outside, physically with
Follow these 10 guidelines and soon you’ll be able to put
that slump behind you. If you are still having trouble and
can’t seem to get unstuck, CALL ME! Or learn more about these
techniques in the related books and packages below.