Unanticipated Transitions: Becoming Elite Outside The Lines Part 2
Posted by: Carlos Coto & Kamille Larrabee | University of Denver Sports Psychology
What is an Unanticipated Transition and What Are Some Types Presented in Sport?
Just as it was presented last month, a transition is the process or period of changing from one state or condition to another. The focus of this blog will be unanticipated transitions and strategies that can be used to learn from and cope with them. The challenge with unanticipated transitions is rather straightforward: we do not know when one may occur and often feel as though we are unable to prepare for them. While anticipated transitions can often be proactively managed, coping with unanticipated transitions is primarily reactive. Here are a few of those unanticipated transitions and various challenges that accompany them.
Injuries are a part of sport, and the possibility of getting injured is something every athlete must accept prior to taking the field. It is rather easy to argue that no athlete likes to be injured, miss games, or be separated from the team due to an injury. Unfortunately, we see injuries occurring left and right when we talk about sports, and even more so when talking about contact sports such as soccer. Depending on the type and severity of the injury, an athlete can miss a few games or an entire season. Missing time due to an injury can stir up an array of emotions and concerns for an athlete (and a parent), including: a potential role change, their position in the lineup, playing time changes, and stress/pressure from a coach or staff member to return to play. During times of injury athletes are challenged physically, mentally, and emotionally. Traditionally, injury recovery has been directed exclusively toward physical recovery. In recent years, though, it has been shown that athletes who are 100% physically recovered may not be mentally ready to return to play. Because of this, it is crucial to ensure the total health of the athlete prior to returning to playing full force.
After sustaining an injury, athletes can do several things to help their physical and emotional recovery. First, listen to your body! There’s a line between pushing through pain and pushing too far; as an athlete you are the advocate for your body. Second, reach out. Athletes have a unique support system in their teammates. Chances are they have an athlete or coach who has gone through something similar and can offer advice or encouragement during a difficult time. Reaching out during times of injury can also help the athlete feel involved in the team while not being able to physically be on the field. Third, be a great teammate. There is no question that it is extremely frustrating to be sidelined with an injury. However, your growth as an athlete should not stop because of an injury. You can learn just as much watching and supporting your teammates as you can on the field!
Change of Coaching Staff:
Another unanticipated transition, that could happen at any point of the season, is a change of coaching staff. This could be due to a variety of reasons such as lack of results, health issues, professional opportunity for growth, etc… When this happens, it is normal for athletes to start having thoughts and questions like, “Who is going to replace the former coach? Is this new coach going to have the same style of coaching as the previous one? Is this new coach going to like my style of play?” It is okay to have all these different thoughts toward a transition of this nature. As a player, you don’t have control over these circumstances, but you do have control over how you respond to them. Do you want to be the player who complains and argues with the new coach? Or the player who welcomes the new coach and sees this as an opportunity to learn from someone new? An athlete’s reaction to this transition can truly make all the difference.
Athletes naturally become accustomed to playing one or two positions; they develop specific skills, learn the flow of the game from that position, and read their teammates and the other team from that position. As an athlete, this is where you feel comfortable and confident, so what happens when your coach suddenly asks you to play somewhere else? How do you respond? Athletes can see this as a challenge to prove they are good enough to play anywhere on the field and to learn the game from all positions. Alternatively, athletes can see it as a threat to their talent or skill set. This request from a coach can be frustrating and stressful as an athlete. However, in an arena as unpredictable as sport, multi-faceted, skilled, and flexible players are large assets to any team. As an athlete, when this happens, take it as a compliment and accept the challenge to be the best player and teammate you can be.
Strategies for Growing Through Your Transition
The three unanticipated transitions mentioned above are just some that could potentially occur in the sporting world. When they arise, it is normal to feel frustrated and stressed by the uncertainty of the situation! We will now provide you with some tips and tricks that you can store in your “mental toolbox.”
Control What You Can Control:
One of the most challenging aspects of being an athlete is recognizing the number of things in sport that you are unable to control (the referees, the other team, the weather, etc…). Often, in and outside of sport, performance will decrease when the performer is too focused on things outside of their control. As we’ve mentioned, one of the largest difficulties about unanticipated transitions is they are often uncontrollable. That said, how we respond and choose to move forward is within our control. During these periods of transition, it is important to identify the factors of a situation that are within our control and develop a plan for how to continue to grow through this challenging time.
- Injury: Most of the time athletes are unable to control the injury or the rehabilitation time for the injury. However, you can control how thorough you are with your rehabilitation, your attitude, and how you support your team while you are unable to play.
- Coaching Change: One of the biggest things an athlete can control throughout a coaching change is their reaction to and acceptance of the new coach. This is incredibly powerful, as one athlete’s reaction has the potential to impact that of the entire team.
- Position Change: Similar to a coaching change, athletes always have control over how they choose to respond to a change in position. As noted above, approaching the change as a challenge as opposed to a threat is recommended.
Preventative Fitness Work:
Preparation is key for any performer, as both physical and mental preparation increases chances for success. Being both mentally and physically “fit” is the best way to prepare for the unanticipated transitions of life (hence why we are writing this blog!). Being physically fit is one of the best ways to prevent injury. There are multiple different components to being physically fit, including being intentional while stretching and warming up, taking lifting and conditioning sessions seriously while using good form, and being deliberate in your skill work at practices. Though preparation is not always the most enjoyable aspect of sport, it is of nearly unparalleled importance. Remember, there is a great purpose behind every aspect of preparation, so be engaged, be deliberate, and be willing to put in the work!
The use of imagery or visualization can be very powerful. Two main ways that imagery can be used to deal with unanticipated transitions are:
- Injury Recovery: Imagery can be very beneficial in injury recovery. While injured, athletes can use visualization to rehearse specific skills and stay immersed in the game without physically participating. Research shows that using imagery to review certain skills and movements can actually mimic the effect of physically doing that specific skill in both muscles and neural pathways! Visualization can also be of great use to athletes while rehabilitating major injuries, as this practice is shown to promote more rapid healing.
- Learning and Practicing Performing Strategies: The skill-directed imagery mentioned above can be beneficial to both healthy and injured athletes. Athletes can use imagery to both contribute to their learning of new skills and improve existing skills. Research suggests that combining physical training with visualization is the most efficient way to learn a new skill.
Parents and Coaches:
Remember that every athlete’s experience is different. Because of this, how an athlete reacts to and copes with unanticipated transitions will also differ from person to person. To reiterate an important point from our last blog, it is crucial to show continuous support for developing athletes as they encounter challenging transitions. Understand that the ability to grow through such transitions takes time, practice, and conscious effort. Unanticipated transitions can be trying for, not only the athlete, but also their support system. Because of this, it is important to recognize and applaud even incremental growth during such periods.
We hope you have enjoyed learning a bit more about unanticipated transitions and ways to cope with them! We will shift the conversation next month toward the universal and oftentimes frustrating topic of failure. Thank you for reading!