Aug 7, 2021
Achieving Level II in Athletics
Dr. Richard Fowler, Professor of Psychology, Truett McConnell University

Even though most athletes would tell the coach that they want to perform at their ultimate level of play, the reality is many settle for what would be called a Level I performance. Both the coach and player are unaware that they are not reaching their full potential. Level I performance can be described as an athlete who is faithful in practice carefully studies game film at team meetings and endorses the system outlined by his/her coach.

On the surface, it would seem that this level of performance is all that can be asked of an athlete. However, there is an exceptional type of performance I call Level II. To reach Level II performance, a player needs to additionally learn how to utilize and activate internal momentum — the momentum needed to play in the zone. Many athletes too easily equate confidence with the highest level of play when in fact they are not actually mentally prepared, and when a wrinkle emerges in their performance, their confidence is shattered.  

Question 1: How is the concept of momentum defined?

The word “momentum” is a physics term first coined by Sir Isaac Newton, which is defined as “a body in motion stays in motion, and a body at rest stays at rest.” In athletics, there are players that seem to be stuck in the mire, game after game, never able to achieve velocity (gaining speed in a given direction). To them, achieving momentum is a form of luck. It is not something that can be planned for, rather it is like drawing four Kings in cards — a rarity and, most likely, a situation that can’t be duplicated.

Question 2: What are the biological and psychological dimensions of momentum?

levelFrom a physiological perspective, there are two paths that can activate athletic momentum. When the mind perceives a threat, the body goes into motion. Importantly, a threat can be either positive or negative. A negative threat is caused by destructive fear and anxiety and yields an “I can’t” conclusion. A positive threat is caused by possibly a similar set of circumstances but ends with an “I will” conclusion.

Once the body perceives a threat, the Adrenal Cortex declares a red alert which is sent out to both the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and to the athlete’s dopamine neurotransmitters. Both can create momentum in order to overcome the threat.

    • The Sympathetic Nervous System:

Anytime a threat interrupts the status quo, the SNS turns on the autonomic nervous system to deal with the alert, and the body gears up for war. Instantaneously, it goes into a “fight or flight” mode to handle the sudden change and commands the adrenal gland to produce adrenaline which will be used to produce energy to propel the athlete to accomplish what he/she might have thought to be impossible. In a negative sense, that same adrenaline rush could propel an athlete to act with excessive aggression which will disqualify that person from the competition.

When a high dose of adrenaline is released, the upside is that the athlete gets quick, immediate energy, but the downside includes the heart rate and blood pressure becoming elevated; fingers and toes becoming cold, making it harder to perform. Cognition decreases and spiked energy is inevitably followed by fatigue.

So, for the athlete, is momentum gained via the SNS and adrenaline rushes the best route to pursue in order to get into the zone? The answer is NO if that athlete desires consistency in his/her play. For every adrenaline high, there must be an equal low. Thus, a player who is hooked on adrenaline might exceed the normal production rate for a short time, but fatigue will eventually set in eliminating any gains that had been made. Therefore, the momentum gained via the dopamine route seems to be the better option. 

  • The Dopamine Pathway to Positive Momentum:

When most athletes think of momentum, their view is usually focused on the adrenaline rush needed. However, momentum activated by relaxation (the dopamine effect) can keep the player in the zone for a longer period of time. When the dopamine neurotransmitters are activated it allows the athlete to logically assess the threat. If there is a genuine threat, the SNS will take over and run its course. If, however, dopamine neurotransmitters conclude that the threat is merely a handleable challenge, a dosage of dopamine is released to help the player be relaxed resulting in more self-confidence; more concentration; more focus; and a lowered pulse rate and blood pressure.

levelThe momentum goal of dopamine is to get athletes in the zone where they can play longer without up and down spikes, therefore being able to perform at a high and consistent level. Of course, there are environmental factors that might cut the flow of dopamine. However, experience, training, and positive thinking can elevate dopamine release, causing productivity on a higher level. Dopamine is not just about pleasure. Its real job is to encourage us to act. It motivates us to achieve while avoiding something bad.  

Question 3: How can a Player Create Positive Momentum during a Game, Match, or Race?

An athlete can create his/her momentum, so that much of the luck factor is eliminated. Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Repetitively practice a skill until it becomes part of mental muscle memory. 
  2. The real reason one team catches fire, and the opponents deflate has to do with changes in thinking. That mental change is the difference in the way the two teams play. The change in thinking not only creates the shift but is the shift.  
  3. Focus more on personal behaviors that will make them a champion, rather than focusing on their desire to win the conference championship.
  4. Practice deep breathing exercises in order to keep anxiety levels down.
  5. Maintain a high intensity of effort to avoid coasting.

Question 4: What causes a Player to lose Momentum?

Players can lose momentum in a game, race, or match for a myriad of reasons. Several that stand out include:

  1. The present stress, fear, or anxiety is greater than the athlete’s experience, training, or the reward that can be offered.  
  2. Emotional insecurity contributes to a lack of confidence.
  3. Distractions. These can be a result of environmental or mental distractions. 
  4. The bad habit of negative self-talk will always kill momentum.
  5. When the athlete is the last to hit the practice floor or field and the first to leave. In other words, momentum begins with a willing, even determined athlete.

Question 5: How can a Player regain lost Momentum?

If players recognize that a match or game is moving away from them, can they re-group? The key to reversing negative momentum includes the following:

  1. levelRecognize what thoughts and activities are occurring when they are winning or playing well.
  2. Be cognizant on the court or field when there is a problem. When things go wrong, players will often tend to put the blame on the referees, the weather, or another player instead of taking responsibility for their own play.
  3. Don’t accept a lack of momentum. 
  4. Be totally single-focused.
  5. Learn how to get rid of their “stinkin’ thinkin’.” If a player feels like a loser after a bad play, in his/her mind, he/she is a loser. But, if that athlete thinks, “I am a winner, but made a bad play that I can correct next time I am back on defense,” that player can regain momentum.
  6. Journal each day about the mistakes made and the positive factors achieved in a practice/game. 
  7. Make it a habit to compliment or encourage a fellow teammate. One of the quickest ways to regain momentum is to praise others.
  8. Use bench time to study opponents from a different perspective and personally strategize new behavior to be implemented when inserted back in the game.

Question 6: How can a player learn to play in the zone?

Entering the zone might sound like something from Star Wars, but it is not. Only a few athletes enter the zone state because they refuse to step beyond their natural ability or push themselves beyond what has been comfortable for them. But if athletes desire to have optimal performance, they must be willing to step out of their comfort zone.

To get into the zone, athletes must abandon their tendency to be defensive. Humility is key here. Humility listens, humility thinks of others. The players’ focus should be, “How can I contribute to my team,” rather than “What’s in it for me?”

» ALSO SEE: Information on Inflammation

Striving for game momentum and getting into the zone takes much work. But the reward is well worth the effort. Those goals are achievable if an athlete truly desires to play at Level II. However, to achieve this objective, other pleasures must be held at bay. The choice is up to the individual athlete. Momentum is not a result of luck but rather is a product of commitment to personal goals set.

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