How to Avoid or Overcome Performance Slumps

If you're an athlete, there inevitably comes a time during the season when performance and energy levels dip. Few teams are as fortunate as the record-setting Golden State Warriors in the NBA to be sailing along, seemingly on a smooth path for a deep run in the playoffs. Similarly, in more individual sports, rare is the wrestler, golfer or swimmer who doesn’t have at least a few poor matches, rounds or meets and could benefit from proper support from a coach.

Experienced championship coaches like Bill Self at the University of Kansas understand that periodic slumps are normal and teams or coaches don’t panic or rush to make big changes: “Everybody goes through funks like this. I mean, the Royals won the World Series. Didn't they have a crappy end of August and early September? That's what happens in sports.”

As coach Self notes, everyone can be expected to have ‘bad days’. However, these are not slumps. Performance slumps are defined as unexplained drops in performance that go beyond normal performance fluctuations.

Performance slumps create adversity, but successful athletes and coaches believe that adversity simply creates opportunity. This is the message 5-time national football championship coach Nick Saban gives to all of his teams: “When obstacles are placed in front of you, don’t say ‘Why me?’ Instead, say, ‘How can I overcome this?’”

Athletes should consider adding a form of "mental practice" to their preparation as the season wears on. Standard mental practice techniques include imagery and meditation.  Research shows that when athletes combine imagery with physical practice, they outperform athletes who rely solely on physical practice.

Athletes can use their imagery or meditation time to visualize themselves performing the skills needed to achieve the desired performance outcome. The focus should always be on the steps needed to achieve the next win, not winning. For example, Nick Saban always tells his teams, “Every time you think of winning the national championship – stop. Instead, think of what you have to do to dominate your opponent for sixty minutes.”

If an athlete makes a big deal over an ‘off day’ performance, they may fall victim to negative self-talk and come to expect poor performances, and increasingly become more pessimistic. This can lead to learned helplessness – or giving up.

An athletes should should listen how she or she talks about poor performance. If you say things like ‘We never can hold a lead’ or ‘I can never make that play,’ that shows you are starting to believe the poor performance is an expected and normal pattern. An athlete needs to learn to acknowledge the poor performance as being momentary and fixable, and then design a plan to specifically address performance gaps.

The negative self-talk that can creep into an athlete’s head after poor performance should also be countered with positive self-talk. For example, baseball players have been found to work their way through hitting slumps by using self-talk statements such as:

- You’re at this level for a reason

- Keep telling yourself you are a good hitter

- You know that you are good enough

- Slumps are a natural part of the game

Finally, athletes need to understand that the occasional ‘off day’ is normal but temporary if they don’t panic or lose faith in their training. 


This article is adapted from an article on the Human Kinetics “Coach Education Center” website by Dr. Wade Gilbert. Click here to read the full article.