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You know it’s playoff season when the word “slump” starts appearing in the news cycle. Get used by the media to describe an underperforming superstar (think Mitch Marner, who didn’t score during last year’s playoff series between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens), a teammate on the Local League beer, or the average Joe or Jill complaining about a prolonged period of less-than-stellar workouts, crashes affect athletes in all sports, regardless of age and ability.
Sports psychologist Jim Taylor defines a drop as “an unexplained decline in performance from a predetermined baseline level of a given athlete that extends longer than would be expected from normal cyclical variations in performance in a given sport.” Little is known about why they come and go, but theories abound. Injuries, overtraining, lack of confidence, non-sports personal issues, technical errors, and troubled relationships with teammates or coaches are often cited as underlying causes.
How frequent are the falls? In a survey of 70 athletes, 23% said it was a frequent problem, 54% said it happened infrequently, and 23% said it was almost never a problem. However, beyond that definition above, there is a lot of room for interpretation, especially as athletic performance naturally ebbs and flows over the course of a season. For some athletes, a takedown can mean going a game or two without putting any points on the board. For others – especially individual athletes like runners, cyclists or swimmers – it can take weeks before a sustained drop in performance can be recognized.
If falls are unavoidable, how can athletes regain their energy? To help shed light on the dynamics of this misunderstood but common problem, a trio of researchers from Leeds Beckett University in the UK reviewed 18 studies and attempted to identify the causes, symptoms and exits of a crisis. The studies included athletes from a variety of sports and levels of competition, from professional basketball, baseball and cricket players to college and high school athletes.
Not all athletes react the same when they go through a rough patch. Those who have previously worked with a slump are better able to deal with the stress of low performance than those experiencing it for the first time. Research suggests that the more athletes believe they can control the cause of the fall, or that it is a natural occurrence, the less anxiety they have about finding their way around it.
As for tips on how to get out of a crisis, again theories abound. However, no foolproof method has been identified to help Marner get the puck into the net or help Kyle Lowry hit three points. Still, UK researchers have found that athletes who choose a problem-solving approach to getting back on track are more likely to break a slump than those who find themselves mired in positive thinking, denial or avoidance.
“Setting specific goals improves performance, increases self-confidence and builds mental resilience,” the researchers said. “Likewise, mental images can establish or increase trust.”
Another common approach to breaking a takedown is to focus on skill development, often referred to by athletes as getting back to basics. But while there’s reason to believe it’s a useful process, there’s also a concern that too much attention to retooling technique could prolong a fall.
“Artists in crisis need to re-establish goals as a way to get them out of the crisis,” the researchers said. “More work is needed to see if catering to the skill perpetuates the problem or helps experienced athletes and/or athletes get out of the crisis.”
One of the best ways to break a string of poor performers is to change practices or training regimens. In less structured and stressful situations, athletes or their coaches can manipulate conditions so that the athlete can regain dominance and confidence. Modified workouts and game formats can bring back the joy of play and competition, and can restore control and certainty in your athletic abilities.
“If an athlete believes they can manage the fall by decreasing anxiety or by adopting goal-directed (or task-oriented) coping strategies, they can accumulate positive performances under pressure that reverse the trend of sub-standard sustained performance,” the researchers said. .
If you’re feeling the strain of underperformance, repeating the same routine probably won’t get you out of a slump. Instead, you need to create conditions that help you find your flow, which happens when you have the right balance of challenge and skill mastery, combined with clear goals and simple but clear feedback.
“The conditions that provide flow and the symptoms that athletes demonstrate in a state of flow may be the opposite of the conditions that induce a drop in performance and the symptoms suffered by falling athletes,” the researchers said.
Finally, the performance drops are finite. So if you’re struggling with one, reduce negativity, reset goals, and find a way to achieve small wins in less stressful conditions. It won’t be long before winning form is back.
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