Athletic Training Journals (an introduction)

Over the years I have had the privilege of working with some outstanding athletes and coaches. An athlete is made up of two parts, what he or she does, and what he or she thinks. Of course these two understandings as well have their own separate breakdown. It is true that an athlete is as much what he or she does ‘not’ do or does ‘not’ think. I want to help you focus on not so much the physical training, but rather the mental training that is necessary to achieve success in the competitive arena.

There are really two types of athletes. The first, and most popular type is the athlete who participates in the experience with no real focus or attention given to long-term success. This athlete almost always views the training as what happens during the session. This is the basketball player who never touches a basketball until the season is about to open. This is the volleyball player who does not lift any weights in the ‘off season’ because she does not like going to the gym to lift, and besides she is a strong enough athlete already. You will often here this type of athlete talking about participation in the sport for the ‘fun’ of the experience. In a word this is a lazy athlete who uses athletics just to fill a social space in his or her life.

The second type of athlete of course is very different. For any number of reasons he or she has decided that sport is a way for him or her to learn how to live a more quality life. Success in the competitive arena matters to this athlete. There is no ‘off season’. Training is a way of life, which includes mental as well as physical training. To be the best he or she can be demands improvement, both for the individual as well as the team on which he or she participates. These athletes are rare at the high school level, and this is a source of frustration when these athletes end up on a team where they are one of the only ones who take the game seriously. Of course it goes without saying that at each level of competition the number of these types of athletes increases. These types of athletes will use any number of methods to gain a mental and physical advantage in competition. Athletic training journals (ATJ) is one way that athletes have gained control of their emotions and thoughts and put them to work to help the athlete achieve success.

ATJ are a way many of these second type of athletes have used their writing to discover their thoughts before, during and after athletic contests. The argument of using ATJ is simple. During the life of any athlete there are millions of thoughts, which enter the mind and leave the mind. Many times the athlete is not even aware of those thoughts and the effect those thoughts can have on the success of performance. ATJ is a simple way to first of all simply notice those thoughts, and then of course to find ways to use the positive thoughts for athletic success, and to limit the negative thoughts which lead to frustration and resignation.

From the time we acquired language at the age of two years old we enjoyed a certain amount of talking to ourselves. Watch children at play and you will see their lips moving, even if they are playing alone. Early on in school children are taught to not speak aloud while they are doing activities, such as reading. Their talking to themselves as well becomes internalized. However any young adult will notice that under moments of stress that the internal dialogue comes to the fore very quickly. ATJ simply says that we want to take that process of internal dialoguing that you already possess and use all the time, and make it go to work for you, not against you.

We could just speak words aloud to ourselves, and soon we might find ourselves doing that very thing. But to start with ATJ is all about writing. The idea is really simple. Find a small notebook or journal that can be your place for writing down your thoughts and practice actually putting your thoughts onto the page with as little concern about the words as possible. When we write we actually have two ‘writer minds’. The creative mind is the thing that gets us started and we are off and running, enjoying the words exiting our mind and appearing on the paper. But very soon the second mind, the editor’s mind steps out of the shadows and tells us that we need to become more critical of what we are doing, informs us we should stop and read what we are writing and notice all the things that are wrong with our writing. The editor’s mind is often much stronger than the creative mind, and this explains why so many of us hate to write. We can do it if we have to, but for us writing is a painful reminder of all the ways we are not so good at creation. Of course professional writers are those who find a way to break past this ‘writer’s block’ of the editor’s mind and let the creative mind do its job.

ATJ is built on a type of free writing that I call Jam writing. This is a form of non-stop writing where we do not allow the editor’s mind to step out of the shadows and critique what we are writing. Because we are writing these words only for ourselves we don’t have to worry about grammar and mechanics and all the ‘English stuff’ that the editor’s mind concerns its self with. All we have to do is put whatever is in our brain onto the page. (By the way some athletes will use a laptop and type their ATJ instead of hand write them).

Practice at Jam writing is central to the success of ATJ. You must feel comfortable with writing for ten or more minutes, especially initially when you pick up the practice. There are a good number of topics you will be asked to write about during the early stages of learning ATJ and that means the more you learn to let your inner dialogue out onto the page in a free way, the better. At the end of this essay there is a list of writing prompts, which you should spend at least ten minutes writing about. Take the list in the order it is provided because these are ideas which, build towards a certain training and writing attitude which allows for true ATJ to begin.

The actual practice of ATJ is very simple. I have discovered over the years that if the practice is not simple that athletes will stop doing it. You want a practice of writing in your ATJ, which helps you, not distracts you. If the early practice is correct you will actually grow to enjoy doing this kind of writing which you know in the end is for your own athletic and mental well being. ATJ is really writing in three different frames of reference. You will write before a training session or contest. You will reflect during the training session or contest on your pre-writing. You will qualify the training session or contest after the fact in another writing session.

Most athletes will admit that once they start studying their mental states during training sessions or contests that they have a tendency to lose focus and become distracted. I have helped athletes who report that they do okay during the first 1/3 of the event, the training session or the game, but at some point in the middle 1/3 they begin to lose focus of what they are doing, so much so that they actually have a hard time remembering certain moments in the training session or the contest afterwards. It’s like they were not even there for some of that time. They mentally drifted away and by the final 1/3 they had to bring themselves back to focus and finish. Of course coaches can often see this loss of focus and will design training sessions with this in mind, trying to adjust the routine to help keep athletes focused. The goal of ATJ is to give the athlete something to focus on during that time. Simply put, if the athlete is focused during that middle 1/3 of the training session or the contest he or she will perform much better against other athletes, especially those who are unfocused during key moments of the contest.

Before a training session or game the athlete should sit down and write or journal for a few minutes, focusing specifically on what he or she must accomplish during the coming event. Try to be as specific as possible. Don’t just say that I will try to not turn the ball over today. Say rather I will dribble with my head up and see not only the person I’m passing to, but also the person guarding that person so I don’t turn the ball over. Working with the coach, you will want to be as specific as possible, and keep the number of things you focus on to a minimum. All physical processes in any competitive athletic environment have steps. Write those steps down in as much detail as possible, so you can focus on those steps during the actual training session or game.

During the training session or contest monitor your mental states. When you feel yourself starting to lose focus take a few seconds and return to the thoughts of your ATJ in the pre-training/contest stage of writing. In fact there are coaches who actually stop the training session and challenge athletes to take ten seconds and focus again on what they wrote about a few minutes before the training session opened. Picture yourself sitting there writing the words and then focus on the words. If what you wrote was important enough to write about it, then why not focus on it now?

Most importantly ATJ challenges the athlete to rethink what happens after the training session or the contest. These few precious moments following the event are a prime time for learning and improving. Unfortunately, athletes often don’t use this time as wisely as they could. So the final stage of ATJ is the post-training/contest writing. Most athletes want to begin their writing with negative thoughts of what they did wrong. Fight this temptation. Instead train yourself to report first what success you had specifically in regards to what your training or contest goal was. Did you keep your head up while dribbling? Did you keep your eyes on the ball focused while kicking it? Try to capture in vivid language any success you had in completing your goal. Don’t comment on whether you won or lost the contest at this point. Don’t worry about how the rest of the team did or what your opponent did. Just focus on what you did and the ways that you were successful. One of the values of this type of an approach is that it helps the athlete who has lost the contest find some value in the experience.

Of course we must address the ways that things didn’t go well. But we want to be very careful about how we do this. The negative mind of a competitive athlete is very strong. Most top athletes can remember failure long after the event, while they have a tendency to quickly forget success. Instead of writing about how much you ‘sucked’ today, simply write about what you must improve on for the future. Try to be gentle with yourself, without making excuses for your shortcomings. It might help to make an actual list of two or three things you will focus on during the next few training sessions. Often athletes will return to this writing before the next training session and the pre-training session writing of their ATJ to be reminded of what they must focus on for the next training session. In this way the athlete is taking control of his or her improvement and this empowers the athlete to excel and be more successful in the next contest.

ATJ is a way for the athlete to address the pre-contest stress and anxiety, which often limits performance. Nerves or butterflies are usually rooted in a fear of failing to meet expectations. But when the athlete is interviewed about what specifically those expectations are, he or she will often report vague goals like winning, or not letting the team down. ATJ provides the athlete with a concrete focus during the contest and the nerves go away. Their thoughts begin to sound more like, “I am an athlete who will focus on these two things during the contest. I know that if I do these few things well our team will have a chance to win today, and I will be successful as well.” Many athletes find that writing before the contest is a way to settle the nerves and to focus on the breathing which is really the key to athletic success.

Finally ATJ offer both the athlete and the coach a chance to see the bigger picture. Several times during the season it makes sense for the athlete to sit down and to read back over the entire season of ATJ. When we do this we find what kinds of trends in training are present. We also can actually see success, something for which competitive athletes long. Of course over a career, the athlete can really see the ways he or she has grown as athlete and person. Coaches will often use these review readings of ATJ as a way to help the athlete create new goals for training, and at the conclusion of the season these kinds of review readings will help prepare the athlete for the out-of-season training that really is the key to the next season’s success.

Journal/Jam writing topics for the athlete who wants to begin ATJ: (you should write on each of these for at least 10-15 minutes in the order they are provided)

1. What does it mean to you to be an athlete?

2. What do you find fun about your sport? What do you find that is not so much fun?

3. Write about your favorite memories from your sport.

4. Write about your worst memory from your sport. (Be specific without beating yourself up. You can use this information later to help you)

5. If you were coaching yourself (or your team), what advice would you give yourself right now about ways to be successful as an athlete?

6. What are your primary fears when you think about contests?

7. Write about one or two ways you think you can deal with the fears you wrote about in number 6.

8. What is your long range plans as an athlete? (Be as specific as possible, addressing how many seasons you think you have left in your sport)

9. Who are your athletic heroes and why?

10. Write about your coach. What does he or she do that is good and bad?

11. Write about your team, what are its strengths and weaknesses?

12. Write about yourself as athlete. What are your primary strengths? Try to be as specific as possible.

13. Write about yourself as athlete. What are your primary weaknesses? Try to be as specific as possible. What 3 things should you focus on right now to be more successful?

14. When you look at number 12 and 13, write about what you consider to be your greatest strength as an athlete and your worst weakness. Discuss what you consider ways to use your strength to help your weakness.

15. Write about your breathing patterns. After sitting for a few minutes and trying to feel and notice your breath write about any experiences you can remember as an athlete in regards to your breathing. (Once you have written this entry it is time to start working with your breathing to improve your athletic performance)