Every athlete, at some point in his or her career, experiences a slump in performance or a performance plateau, which sometimes feels like a slump to athletes who have had steady improvement during their sports career.
Sometimes a slump or performance plateau is short lived but in many cases, slumps or performance plateau’s last for prolonged periods — even years. In this article, I discuss what characterizes a slump or performance plateau and how to recognize when you need improve your mental game outlook in order to get back to your previous performance levels.
This article is ideal for athletes who want to learn how to stay motivated and committed when slumping or when not making apparent improvements from training or in competition.
What is the difference between a slump and a performance plateau? A slump is a noticeable decrease in your performance for a prolonged period. I would not classify one poor performance or competition as a slump or even one week of poor performance. Losing your fastball for one week would not qualify as a slump.
David Duval’s multi-year performance decline would qualify as a real slump. It is well documented that his performance declined from previous levels, it was a prolonged period — years in his case, and he has worked hard physically to overcome his slump — he did not just stop practicing.
Duval’s decline was revealing. Duval was ranked number 1 in the world before Tiger Woods’ climb to the top. Duval was the last No. 1 golfer in the world before Woods grabbed that spot in 1999. Duval was on a hot streak when he won 11 event between 1997 and 1999 including the 2001 British Open.
Just as fast, his performance fell off a cliff. In 2002, he slid to 80th on the PGA Tour money list earning $838,045. This year he dropped to 172nd on the Money list with only making 11 cuts out of 24 starts. He cannot find a fairway with only hitting about 50% of all fairways played in 2006. I think these stats qualify as a verifiable slump!
A plateau is only a temporary stagnation of performance when your improvement is minimal or very slow. Plateaus are common in sports that involve intense fitness training such as bodybuilding, weightlifting, and endurance athletes that are always trying to break personal barriers or records.
The best place to start is to determine if your slump or plateau is from physical causes or mental game causes. Not all slumps are due to mental game issues or challenges. For example, if you change your instructor and she changes the mechanics of your game, this could lead to a temporary slump. However, this could turn into mental game issue if you lose confidence in your new method. Returning from an injury could also cause real physical limitations as well.
If you determine your slump is worse because of mental game issues and not purely physical or technical, the place to start is to identify the specific mental game changes that lead to, are keeping you in a slump, or plateau. Some of mental game challenges that can prolong slumps include:
-Comfort zones or inability to surpass mental barriers
-Complacency with your performance level
-Lack of motivation to improve
-Over motivation or over training
-Self-esteem takes a knock when not performing up to expectations
-Trying too hard to perform well -Frustration with not getting better fast enough
The mental game challenges I listed above might also contribute to keeping you in your slump such as when an athlete loses confidence in his or her game and this exacerbates the athlete’s ability to maximize performance gains.
Below are tips for breaking free of your slump:
- Focus on your performance instead of results. Do not become obsessed with or pay so much attention to your wins or personal statistics. Instead, focus on your actual performance such as improving your pre-service routine in tennis or enhancing your quarterback skills to read defensive formations.
- Stop making comparisons to your competition. Do you worry about athletes or teams that are passing you in order or merit or rankings? Focus on small performance gains and areas you have to do to improve your game daily.
- Stay committed to your dream in sports. When you are in a slump it is easier to question your dream and goals in sports — and other people question it as well. You must stay committed to your dream and goals. This means you have to stay patient and realize what drives or motivates you to compete in your sport. Tune out the people around you who want to tell you to give up your sport and find another pursuit.
- Change your training routine. Focus on your mental game improvement. Some athletes become so fixated on trying to improve their technique such as golfers I work with that they go backwards in their improvement — they are trapped in a training mentality. They get lost in trying to perfect their technique. For example, instead if trying to improve performance.
- Take some time off. Some athletes find it helpful to take a few days off from their sport to re-evaluate their situation. This also allows then the ability to return to practice/training with a fresh attitude and a recovered body.