Tuesday Tips: 3 Strategies For Building A Pregame Mental Toughness Routine, Presented By Spin

Ditch stressful expectations and focus on what you can control.

Tulsa Douglas get the start for Boston Brute Squad at the 2017 Club Championships in Sarasota, FL. Photo: Paul Rutherford – Ultiphotos.com

Tuesday Tips is presented by Spin Ultimate; all opinions are those of the author. Please support the brands that make Ultiworld possible and shop at Spin Ultimate

Imagine stepping onto the line for each point you play calm and ready to perform. You are self-confident because you know that you’ve done the work to feel completely ready to play.

How do you get there?

You reach this place of stability by establishing a pregame mental prep routine, which will help you systematically cover areas that will influence your performance. You will feel more in control and you will be better able to stay focused and relaxed before and during your game.

For your pregame mental routine to be powerful and effective at your season’s peak, you must start to work on it right now. Throughout the summer, you will try it out at tournaments, and this will allow you to make adjustments along the way. Here are three strategies for helping you build your pregame mental preparation routine.

A Few Weeks Before Your Tournament: Anticipate Your Challenges

In games and tournaments, sometimes we get triggered by unexpected events that cause us to get tense and frustrated, or moments that cause us to lose control of our emotions. It could be a poor spirit from our opponent, or a mistake we made on the field. Most of the time, these situations affect us because we do not have control over them—there is nothing we can do about what happened, but we can change our attitude and transform our perspective so that events like these do not knock us off kilter.

When you become aware of potential distractions that challenge your composure, you can overcome them by figuring out a new response and retraining your brain to react differently to the same challenge.

Here is the process:

  1. Identify your main challenges and distractions.
  2. Identify your usual reaction when facing challenges.
  3. Work on a different response that shows confidence and composure.
  4. Practice coping imagery to train your new response.

Identify Your Main Challenges And Distractions 

Here are a few examples of events that could trigger your emotions:

  • Strong wind, or intense heat
  • Friends and family watching you play
  • Falling behind a weaker opponent
  • A problem with your cleats, your gloves, or any equipment
  • Not being called on the line

For example, it is possible that you become very frustrated when your teammates make mistakes that result in turnovers. Can you do something about it? Probably not. And this is why you feel so angry.

Identify Your Usual Reaction When Facing Challenges

In this example, you could realize that your usual reaction is that you start lashing out at your teammates and criticizing from the sideline. As a result, you start focusing more on your teammates and mistakes than on your own performance.

Work On a Different Response That Shows Confidence And Composure

Knowing that your anger does not help you or your teammates to perform, you can start thinking about a new coping response to this particular situation. What could you do to come back to a calm and focused state of mind?

Here are two examples of a poised reaction:

  • You start focusing on your breath; you breathe in and breathe out slowly 4-5 times. This helps you redirect your attention to yourself, on your actions and your performance.
  • You consciously choose to focus on the good things that happen on the field. At least for a few points, you do not pay attention to mistakes and cheer for good decisions and good execution.

There are many others ways to regain emotional balance when you lose your composure. You want to figure out what works for you.

Practice Coping Imagery To Train Your New Response

After you have found out what could be your new response to a particular challenge, train it with coping imagery.

According to Alan Goldberg, a sports consultant who has been working in the field of sports performance enhancement for over 32 years, “Coping imagery involves experiencing yourself handling upsetting or problematic situations. i.e., you just made a mistake and you want to practice mentally rebounding quickly and getting right back in the performance.”

Once or twice a week, choose a potential distraction, feel the emotions triggered by the event, and visualize yourself adopting your coping response.

You can include this strategy in your mental prep routine a few weeks before your tournament. One week prior to your competition and on game day, you want to use performance imagery and visualize yourself performing at your best).

One Week Before Your Tournament: Get Rid Of Expectations And Focus On The Process

Expectations are the results you demand of yourself that are not completely under your control that can cause you stress and worry.

Examples of expectations that can cause stress:

  • Statistics, such as points per game, that you feel you should achieve based on past performances.
  • Other people’s demands, or what you think your coaches and teammates think you should do.
  • Personal goals that are not fully under your control, such as being the most dominant defensive player on the field, winning a specific game or executing a particular set play with zero turnover.

Focus On The Process

When focusing on expectations during a game, very often you feel disappointed because you are not fully in control. An expectation is one of the biggest killers of self-confidence. Expectations often involve the team performance. Therefore, focusing on expectations also can affect the trust you have in your team.

The week before your tournament, forget about expectations and replace it with one or two process goals. Process goals will help you stay relaxed and in the present moment.

Process goals are the small steps you take to get your outcome goal during each training session or game. It can be related to the execution of a technical skill—for example, improving a specific throw or a type of cut. It can also be related to tactical or strategic aspects of the game, like defensive positioning or decision-making. These goals depend solely on you, not on the performance of your team or teammates.

Here is how to apply this strategy:

  1. Identify your expectations before your tournament.
  2. Replace expectations with process goals.
  3. Practice seeing yourself performing at your best (performance imagery).

For example, a few days before the tournament, you could look at the schedule and decide you want to win against a specific opponent. Later on, if you keep focusing on winning, as soon as the game does not go according to your plan, you could get angry, or nervous and you could lose your composure.

Instead, replace your expectation with two process goals that will help you and your team perform well against that team. Once set, focus only on your process goals, not on the win.


  • Catching 80% of the 50-50 discs.
  • Breaking the mark two times out of three.
  • Looking at your reset at stall four.

In the week before the game, visualize yourself performing with these goals in mind.

Game Day: Perform With A Functional Mindset

Patrick Cohn, in his book The Relaxed Athlete, says that when arriving at the competition, an athlete should prepare their mind to win ugly—meaning they should put themselves in a state of mind to do what needs to be done to reach their goal. According to Cohn, this is called a functional mindset. To win ugly is to stop worrying about what your game looks like and to prioritize the effectiveness of your actions. Cohn borrowed this expression from tennis coach Brad Gilbert, who said in his book Winning Ugly:

“I’ve used whatever skills I do have in a calculated way that maximizes potential; that gives me my best chance to win. It’s why I’ve been able to beat players who are supposedly ‘better’ than me. You can do the same. Make the most of what you’ve got.”

Caution, Precise, And Perfectionist (CPP) Vs. Functionalist

There are two states of mind, the first being a cautious, precise and perfectionist state of mind (which I call CPP mindset), and the second being a functional state of mind—or the Win Ugly Mindset. Some athletes tend to be more precise and perfectionist in their approach to practices and games, while others prefer a functional approach.

For each athlete, one of the two states of mind is often more natural, while the other must be trained. The art of performing is all about adopting the right state of mind at the right time. Sometimes, the situation requires us to be in the CPP mode, while at other times, to perform we must adopt the functional mode—in other words, we must do what it takes to win. The most successful athletes are those who make the transition from one to the other when necessary.

Which Mindset To Use When

Get into the CPP mindset in the moments when the process matters most, e.g. when you work on:

  • tactical aspects of the game
  • the execution of the strategies
  • synchronism of your cuts
  • the technical execution of a throw

When your goal is to work on details, you should get into a CPP state of mind.

Get into the functional or win ugly mindset when the result matters most:

  • during scrimmages
  • in games, especially in critical moments and in bad weather

When your goal is to make things work (and not learning), let go of small details and focus on what allows you to perform efficiently.

Using The Functional Mindset For The Benefit Of Your Performance

Here is an example: you and your team are in the end zone, in a vertical stack. Maybe you have a set play; maybe you do not. But you probably have some basic principles to follow. In the first stalls, the player who should cut according to your game plan is not moving. If the count gets high and no option is available:

  1. Some players will freeze and stick to the plan, probably thinking “this is not my turn to cut, I don’t want to mess up.” They are performing with the CPP mindset.
  2. Other players will naturally take charge of the situation and do what it takes to make this work. They prioritize efficiency over strategy. These players are performing with a functional or win ugly mindset.

In competition, you do not want to think too much and over-control your game. Allow your natural instinct to take over. Go with the flow and get into the functional mindset. During your warm up, forget about proper technique and do not assess the quality of everything that you do. Your primary goal at this time is to get a feel for the game.

Designing Your Pregame Mental Routine

Here is how to use the three strategies to build your pregame mental routine.

On game day, take some time to get rid of expectations, and review your process goals. Make sure that you keep your focus on these goals during the whole game. Use your warm up to get into the functional mindset. Stop worrying about messing up, forget about what people think of you, and give it everything from the very start. And any time an unexpected event triggers you, take a deep breath and use your coping response to maintain composure.

When facing a situation you have no control over, remember that your best answer is always to transform your perspective, and then your attitude.

  1. Guylaine Girard

    Guylaine Girard is the former head coach of the AUDL's Montreal Royal. She lives in Montreal and has been coaching for 25 years. You can download her free ebook "3 Steps to Get in the Zone", check out her YouTube Channel (French), and follow her on Instagram (French).

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