Author Bradford Strand, Ph.D, a 1988 University of New Mexico alumnus, has recently published ”Optimal Sports Performance: Practice Smarter, Think Faster, Play Better,” a book rich in training methodologies for athletes, teachers, coaches, and parents of athletic young children. The book lays out a model for consistent and confident training and dissects the psychological and physical barriers that lead to suboptimal performance in people of all ages.
Strand is a recent recipient of the UNM Alumni Association Bernard S. Rodey Award which recognizes leadership efforts that have contributed significantly to the field of education. He is currently a professor at North Dakota State University and has spent much of his career teaching curriculum and instruction of physical education and coaching education to teachers, coaches and college students.
Most of his research involves ensuring that children have quality and positive sports and physical activity experiences that keep them coming back to the activity consistently. This quality experience is what defines Optimal Performance.
“Optimal performance is a lot of things.” said Strand, “It's eating healthier, sleeping longer, training consistently, having the right psychological mindset, and having coaches that care about helping you get better, which is the X factor of performance.”
Athletes face a variety of challenges like anxiety, arousal, emotional reactions, distractions, and mental blocks while performing. They often compete with the fear and embarrassment that they will fail, disappoint their parents, or let their coaches down, all of which make it hard to play confidently.
There are many “uncontrollables” in sports, too, he added. If a volleyball player hits a perfect serve and somehow the ball goes astray despite the player doing everything right, the uncontrollable has happened.
“How do you react to that?” Strand whistled. “People sometimes lose their emotional control and react by slamming something down, throwing, hitting, or swearing.”
When this loss of emotional control occurs, athletes have very little time to recuperate and follow through with their performance.
To prevent that loss of emotional control, Strand hopes to guide athletes in learning and applying coping skills and arousal management, thus minimizing any psychological pressure. Athletes can’t manage the uncontrollable, but they can manage how they respond to the uncontrollable by means of their behavior. In doing so, athletes need to develop a plan of action, called a preloaded response, so rationale takes over, not emotion. This is what Strand defines as optimal performance.
“If it’s a negative response, I use the word ‘flush’ to describe what to do with that emotion,” Strand disclosed. “Athletes need to flush, reset, refocus, and reflect.”
The trick, Strand said, is to use that very little rebound time to put emotions aside and refocus on the game. In “Optimal Sports Performance”, he reveals strategies for athletes and their coaches to learn and apply principles of arousal control, fail response, and coping strategies in the context of the competition.
To get athletes to a place of confidence in their performance, success, to Strand, looks like consistency of physical and mental performance. These skills are formed through practice, training, and competition, wherein athletes learn technical and tactical skills, followed by physical and mental toughness. In other words, players need to learn how to manage failure.
The more they learn, at any stage, the better they perform.
“If it’s consistent, it’s comfortable, and you’re confident! You know that if you do X, Y is going to happen, because you’ve practiced enough to feel certain. Then, you commit to the action, trust your skills once they’re automatic, and there we have it: improved performance.”
Optimal performance looks like practicing smarter. The less time spent on emotional response, the easier it is to build the mental processes to think faster, and develop the skill quicker.
“Whatever your sport is, there are things you can control in that sport. You can control how fit you get, and how hard you work. You can control what you wear to the event,” he explained.
Once athletes master their skill, they don’t have to think about the follow-through because they’ve rehearsed it. As soon as they’ve served the ball to the best of their ability, it’s out of their hands, literally. Whatever happens, happens, he said.
“I want to help athletes develop that consistency of a sports performance to the best of their ability. I want to help them develop a mental routine that can eliminate this distractive stuff and get them ready in the moment,” he guaranteed.
“Optimal Sports Performance” touches on these challenges, the principles of learning and what the benefits of a growth mindset are as opposed to a fixed one, physical vs. mental toughness, and technical skills of performing better and thinking faster. It also discusses stamina and the benefits of quality sleep and dietary health.
Find your copy of “Optimal Sports Performance” on Amazon.