5 Steps to Faster Sports Mastery

5 Steps to Faster Sports Mastery
by Art Rondeau
(as published in Teen Performance Magazine) 

The more that we practice a sport, the better we play it.  Practice is a vital part of our athletic success.  In Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, a book about highly successful people, he cites numerous studies that show that becoming a master at playing a sport, a musical instrument, or chess requires at least 10,000 hours of practice.  In sports terms, we’d define a master as a top-level professional or medal-winning Olympic athlete.  Other levels of excellence – such as high school varsity, Division I college varsity, or minor league pro – require roughly 3,000 to 8,000 hours of practice.  

No matter what level of performance you’ve set your sights on, you’ll need to practice a lot to get there.  But as a teenager, you’ve probably got some limits on your practice time.  You’ve got school to attend, homework to do, and maybe a part-time job.  You need a place to practice, a way to get there and people to practice with.  Many teenage athletes find it challenging to practice more than a couple of hours a day for a few days a week. 

What can you do if want to practice more so you can get better more quickly?  You can supplement your actual practice time through the use of visualization, a process where we mentally practice a skill.  You can do it anywhere and anytime.  Studies show that an athlete will improve almost as much from mental practice as from physical practice.  When we use visualization to supplement our physical practice, we can reach the next rung on the ladder to mastery much faster. 

A famous study conducted decades ago tested the effectiveness of visualization by tracking two groups of free throw shooters.  Every day over a number of weeks, the first group shot 100 free throws.  The second group shot 50 free throws and then visualized making another 50.  At the end of the study, the group that visualized improved their free throw shooting by 21% and the other group improved by 22%.  Clearly, visualization is an effective way to practice. 

Here are the steps for visualizing successfully.  I’ll use free throw shooting for the example and you can adapt the steps to your sport. 

1.         When you have 15 to 30 minutes to visualize, find a place that’s quiet and comfortable.  (Note: don’t do this in bed.) 

2.         Close your eyes and remember a free throw where you used good form and made the shot.  As legendary coach Vince Lombardi said, “Practice does not make perfect.  Perfect practice makes perfect.”  Visualizing a shot made with proper form is important. 

3.         In your mind, run the movie of taking and making the free throw from when you went to the free throw line until you saw the ball go through the net.  It should take as long to visualize the shot as it does to take it for real.  Feel confident as you run the movie – after all, you know that the ball’s going in because you’re remembering a made shot.  Keep visualizing this way until you find it easy to do. 

4.         Once you’re comfortable with visualizing, start adding game characteristics into your movie.  Add the sounds of the crowd and of you dribbling the ball.  See the other players lined up on either side of the key.  Feel the confidence and certainty that come from knowing you’re going to make the shot. 

5.         As you continue to get better at visualizing, start practicing different game situations.  For example, take two free throws knowing that your team is down by one and there’s no time remaining.  Another example is getting ready to take the shot and imagining the other coach has called time out to “ice” you.  After the imaginary time out, go back to the free throw line and make the shot. 

Remember that mastery doesn’t mean 10,000 hours of free throws, it means 10,000 hours of different basketball skills.  You’ll want to visualize shooting jump shots, passing, rebounding, playing defense, etc.  By adding visualization to your actual practice, you’ll reach the next level of mastery much faster than normal.  Congratulations on your current and future success.


One Response

  1. […] the system before.  And visualizing themselves playing in the system, as explained in the “5 Steps to Faster Sports Mastery“, will help all of the Lakers, even the injured ones, learn or remember their roles in the […]

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