Developing a Mental Game Plan: Mental Periodization for Achieving a “Flow” State for the Track and Field Throws Athlete

### Abstract

Athletes participating in all levels of sport experience extraordinarily high levels of stress, expectations, and physical challenges. The throws event athlete in track and field should strive to achieve an optimal state of arousal and concentration during specific competitions. A strong body of research evaluating the qualities of the flow state in athletics and psychological skills training is present in sport psychology. A practical guide for coaches to apply psychological skills training in a periodized training plan is missing. The purpose of this article is to: 1) describe a periodized annual plan for mental skills training and 2) suggest a method to interject those skills into the competition day routine to achieve flow for the track and field thrower.

**Key words:** flow, mental toughness, mental periodization, track and field, throws

### Introduction

Achieving an optimal arousal and focus state is beneficial for successful throwers. The optimal state for a thrower can be referred to as a “flow” state (6). Whereas most throws coaches are quite adept in training the necessary physiological systems, many coaches lack a proper framework for addressing psychological components. What is absent in the literature is a system of psychological preparation that is thorough enough to match the physical preparation and help the athlete to achieve “flow.”

Mental Periodization has emerged as the latest tool to help coaches prepare athletes (11). Mental periodization is a systematic mental conditioning program designed for peak performance for specific competitions. Recognition of the need of a theoretical framework for the periodization of psychological skills is easily accepted intellectually – however, the practicalities of putting this framework together for coaches have not yet been fully realized. Thus, coaches and sport psychology consultants must work together to properly implement mental periodization plans. This paper attempts to bridge the gap in building a mental periodization plan for helping track and field throws athletes achieve “flow.”

#### Flow State in Athletics

The idyllic mindset enables the body to function automatically with little conscious effort. In this optimal state, complex tasks appear to be effortlessly accomplished and time is even perceptually transcended. Coaches and sport psychology consultants often refer to this optimal mindset as a flow state or “the zone.” For some athletes, performance in the zone is achieved only a few times in their careers; however, with systematic training using mental periodization the opportunities for achieving flow state are increased. Where does this concept of a flow state fit into athletics? The body of research exploring the relationship between flow states and sport supports the notion that a flow state also acts as a peak performance state in athletics.

A flow state or “the zone” is an experience athletes get wherein everything they do seems effortless. Within the state of flow is a delicate balance between skill level and challenge (13). If the demands of an activity are greater than one’s skills, then a state of anxiety is a result. If skill level exceeds the situational challenges, boredom will result. A flow state includes the achievement of a positive state void of either of these conditions (6). The participants allow themselves to be athletes and surrender their subconscious minds to “auto pilot”. In this state, athletes produce their best performances. When an athlete is properly physically trained, the body is conditioned, and skills are well-practiced or “programmed” so that when an athlete peaks for a championship, they are in their best physical shape for the best possible performance. Flow is a transient state and it must be viewed as a process rather than an overall state to achieve (23). Trying to anticipate when flow will occur or getting into flow is not very likely because there is no direct route and often thoughts about flow distract from actually achieving a flow state (6). However, the more often athletes can create similar processes especially in practice; the more likely they are to experience this state. For instance, flow can occur by accident, but common themes are associated with optimal experience.

Csikszentmihayi lays out essential steps for producing flow based on the use of physical skills: a) set an overall goal, b) find ways to measure progress, c) concentrate on what one is doing and make distinctions in the challenges, d) develop skills necessary to interact with opportunities available, and e) raise the stakes if the activity becomes boring (6).

![Figure 1. Mental Periodization](/files/volume-13-number-4/6/figure-1.jpg “Figure 1. Mental Periodization”)

Similarly, Jackson (12) researched 16 national champion figure skaters with at least 13 years of skating experience. Results revealed four important dimensions for allowing flow states to occur. 1) Positive mental attitude: inclusion of positive thoughts, feelings of confidence, and motivation to do well; 2) Positive precompetitive & competitive affect: including feelings of being relaxed and having fun; 3) Maintaining appropriate focus: staying in the present moment; 4) Physical readiness: being well-trained.

In order to construct the optimal performance model for the thrower, a training program must be developed that systematically and progressively builds the proper physiological abilities, necessary fundamental skills, and psychological tools that will lead to the achievement of peak performance for targeted competitions (17). Coaches may get impatient with athletes because they cannot perform at full capacity during the championship season and coaches fail to realize the true cause of an athlete’s technical difficulties: the training plan. Training programs often lack carefully planned long-term goals agreed upon by both coach and athlete program through mental periodization. Sound planning is essential to elite sport performance and mental skills must be developed at the same rate as physical skills. Proper sequencing of the training effects function further contributes to sport form and peak performance (3).

#### Mental Periodization Training for Flow

Mental Periodization is intended to maximize effects of psychological and physical training. Similarly to physical periodization concepts, the goal of such programs is to focus on specific competitions, which allow the athlete to “peak” (11). Thus, mental periodization programs are centered on varying specific themes, timing, sequence, and interaction of the training stimuli to allow optimum adaptive response in pursuit of specific competitive goals (11). Each training phase addresses and reinforces specific mental skill components to enhance the opportunity for flow states to occur.

For the track and field throws athlete, mental periodization training is broken up into two macrocycles (long-term training cycles) for the indoor and outdoor season. These are further broken into mesocycles (shorter-term cycles), each lasting three to four weeks (which is the summation of training effects from various stimuli). These phases have specific themes and are designed to blend smoothly, unfolding in an evolutionary process (3).

#### Preparation Phase (General and Specific) Microcycles 1-12:

The goals of the preparation phase are two-fold; first, to develop and nourish one’s motivation; second, to help the athlete merge awareness and action of performance. During this period, the first mental skill addressed is motivation. Developing and enriching one’s motivation requires a balance of merging appropriate challenges and skills. An accurate balance puts one in a desired flow state as opposed to feelings of anxiety or boredom. For instance, if one’s skill level is (or is perceived to be) advanced for the task at hand, then boredom will result. On the other hand, if the challenge is too high, then anxiety will result. If a throw athlete and coach can effectively manage merging the challenge and enhancing the skill level on a consistent basis, then the opportunity arises for flow to occur.

Performers and coaches alike often set goals, but are often solely outcome oriented rather than performance or process based. Examples of outcome goals are frequently indicative of beating an opponent or record. However, outcome goals can often cause anxiety for performers due to the high challenge and relatively uncontrollable nature of competition. Contrarily, performance and process goals are more effective because they are based on aspects within the performers’ control. Process goals allow athletes to accept challenges more easily while not becoming burdened by feelings of anxiety. Alas, the acceptance of a process goal can also engender boredom from not having effective challenges.

An effective process goal could be to execute a certain skill three efforts in a row, or to complete a certain skill by the end of the week. Process goals should encompass every facet of training including physical and mental goals, and practice and weight training goals. Research has labeled this effective merging of challenge and skill “intrinsic motivation.” Intrinsically motivated athletes strive to master the task at hand, seek challenges, enjoy competition, and focus on the fun of the sport (26).

Feedback regarding one’s goals and challenges must be effectively monitored by both coach and athlete. For instance, Czisentmihayi (6) stated that feedback of execution must be present in order for flow to occur. Thus, allowing athletes to experience progress and results (no matter how small) presents the best opportunity for successful skill execution and optimal functioning. During the preparation phase, different types of competition can be a means of evaluating progress. For instance, throwing performance tests provide feedback, yet instead of contesting the competition implement, one might challenge athletes with a different weight implement, such as a heavy shot put. Full technique tests may be performed with overweight implements like the 5k shot put instead of the 4k shot put for women. Testing technical parts of the throw or warm-up drills, such as the standing throw, can be utilized for performance feedback. Throws may also be performed into a net to best provide appropriate “technical” or kinesthetic feedback.

Within the paradigm of flow states, merging awareness of self and action is a key component. In addition, Jackson (12) points out that physical readiness for competition is an important pre-requisite for flow states to occur. Being physically ready for competition requires an awareness of one’s ideal arousal levels. The Individual Zones of Optimal (IZOF) hypothesis of arousal proclaims that for every situation, an athlete has an optimal arousal level (10). Coaches must help athletes discover their best recipe for achieving optimal states of flow. The initial process is recognizing one’s optimal arousal level through identifying past peak experiences and past poor performances. For instance, Orlick (18) designed a competitive reflections assessment that asks the athlete to assess arousal level, cognitions, and awareness during both best and worse competitive experiences. This exercise is intended for athletes (and coaches) to begin to recognize their optimal states before and during competition. Within the twelve weeks of the preparation phase, this worksheet can be utilized every few weeks as a progress check. As the athlete reflects on more recent experiences during the start of training, he/she can begin to identify key components to successful practices.

#### Precompetitive Phase Microcycles 13-17:

The pre-competitive stage is intended to reinforce one’s capacity to concentrate effectively and create a positive effect before and during competition (12). In order to augment these skills, phase I should accomplish setting process goals, evaluating such progress, and merging one’s arousal level during competitive states. Only by thoroughly reflecting on one’s optimal arousal level can he/she recognize such barriers. For instance, perhaps outside distractions, worry about past performances, or future events cause the throw athlete to worry or to be distracted during competition. Thus, being totally absorbed in the task at hand is a requisite skill necessary for the process of flow (6).

The establishment and maintenance of a pre-competitive routine is paramount for flow to occur. Research has shown the establishment of a routine is effective for performance and the most effective means for athletes to focus on the task at hand and control arousal levels (2,10). A few components have been noted for a routine to appropriately focus one’s attention.

First, breathing and being focused on a cleansing breath prior to a throw appears to be the easiest and most effective means of a consistent routine. The acquisition of diaphragmatic breathing consists of slow, controlled breathing patterns that originate in the abdomen as opposed to the chest cavity. These types of breathing patterns are designed to reduce muscle tension, and shift one’s focus to internal stimuli of controlled respirations (20). Within the realm of competition and the pre-throw routine, the onset of the routine is an ideal opportunity to utilize a deep, controlled, diaphragmatic breath. Variations of a cleansing breath are abundant, but a common theme appears to be counting both the inhalation and exhalation to a specific count, such as four seconds each.

A second main component of a routine is to utilize proper self-talk during execution (22). Individuals possess a limited attentional capacity (24) and the attentional demands are even lower for well-learned tasks. Due to our limited attentional capacity, research has suggested that a cue word, either instructional or motivational in nature, might have a positive effective on performance (5). The majority of research has supported that an effective cue word prevents lapses in concentration due to unwarranted or noxious thoughts. Since research varies regarding whether motivational or instructional cue words are best, implementing the use of different types to discover the most individually effective is warranted. Practices can vary in which an athlete can utilize a motivational cue word such as “power,” or “release,” and other practices the athlete can focus on a technical cue such as “turn” or “tight.”

Another contribution to routines includes the practice of allowing athletes to choose pre-competitive music. Research has suggested the use of music in a variety of capacities including within pre-competition routines to help regulate arousal and concentration (14). Music has also been shown to help athletes directly with flow states (19). Recent results from Mesagano et al. (15) revealed that the inclusion of music helped facilitate performance in free-throw shooting by decreasing public self-awareness and distracting thoughts. With the availability of portable music, athletes can chose any type that pleases them, without the worry of distracting others. The implementation of a set “play-list” is an important aspect of building confidence and alleviating anxiety. In a track and field competition music can be utilized during the general warm-up but headsets cannot be brought on to the field of play; because of this rule, it is important that athletes do not become too reliant on headphones at practice.

#### Competitive Phase Microcycles 18-27:

Up to this point in training, specific processes have been implemented that increase one’s chances for flow to occur. It is important to reinforce the previous examples of process goals, awareness of optimal arousal levels, providing situations for feedback, and establishing pre-throw routines. Within the last phase of periodization, additional components as pointed out by Jackson (12), and Reardon and Gordin(23), are to reinforce the positive mental affect through confidence. Additionally, Csiksentmihayi (6) suggests developing skills necessary to interact with available opportunities.

Nearer to specific competitions, it is important to create both a physical and mental taper for the championship competitions. As mentioned previously, confidence and control are interwoven constructs. The main goal is for athletes to have confidence in aspects that he/she can control. Csiksentmihayi (6) suggests that “it is not the sense of being in control, but the sense of exercising control in difficult situations” (p.61). Within the sporting realm, the outcome is out of one’s control; however, nearer to competition the focus naturally becomes more result based, which often raises arousal levels and adds irrelevant thoughts. One avenue is for athletes to accept more responsibility and control over their pre-competitive states. One strategy may be for coaches and athletes to collaborate on practices for the day. For instance, athletes can exercise control over their preparation and coaches can reinforce confidence by helping choose components focused on athletes’ strengths.

Coaches can have a direct impact on an athlete’s confidence during this stage. Bandura (1) suggested four main sources of self-confidence including past performances (I’ve done it before) and vicarious experiences (modeling). It is important to recognize past accomplishments and goals achieved earlier in the training phases. The mere identification of progress and past performances can elevate one’s confidence.

One avenue for exploring both of these sources is to create a highlight film of successful past accomplishments. These videos can serve as compilations of specific skills, competition, and personal bests and can include music of the athletes’ choice. Templin and Vernacchia (25) created highlight films of specific basketball players’ performances and set the videos to inspirational music. Players watched themselves throughout the season and although causal relationships were not established, performance increased for most players involved in the study. The video is played often enough to provide the athlete an avenue to visualize their own success before and during competition when video is not readily available.

Mental periodization training can then involve watching the mentioned highlight performance video and utilizing the images from the video as a template for imagery. Athletes should bring all of the senses into play to recreate the video in their own minds. The effective amalgamation of senses is termed synaesthesis (17). Athletes should rehearse the sequences of their event or sport as if looking through their own eyes, noticing all the shapes, colors, and textures. Competitors should immerse themselves in the smells, sounds, and general feel of their competitive environment. After the athlete has become proficient with imagery, coaches can later implement a series of “what if” scenarios: unplanned competition situations that may include unforeseen obstacles. Athletes should be taught to use imagery to help cope with late starts, poor conditions, tough opponents, and minor mishaps during the pre-competitive phase so they are prepared for the “uncontrollables” during the competition phase. Preparing mentally for any adversity before it happens ensures that athletes will not be impacted in competition when such situations arise.

Lastly, an athlete’s self-talk during this phase is also important for the process of flow. Effectively monitoring self-talk requires a focus on the positive aspects of performance, which in turn reaffirms positive self-talk (22). Developing statements that remain positive and focused on the task at hand is important for reinforcing positive self-talk. As Gill (9) points out, one strategy is for athletes to develop pre-planned statements to help produce positive thoughts and images. Athletes can develop and experiment with various statements in practice such as “I am mentally tough,” “It’s no big deal,” and “stay relaxed.” Self instructions, or instructional self-talk, can likewise be used during practice sessions to build a technical habit or immediately before a performance to serve as a technical cue (8).

#### Preparing for Competition Day: Getting into the Flow

Coaches without the school-hired asset of a sport psychology consultant can take the initiative themselves and implement mental periodization training for flow on the day of competition. But keep in mind that competition day skills need to be introduced early in the training program and developed as the training program unfolds. Utilizing techniques that have not been properly rehearsed may be more detrimental than beneficial to the athlete’s overall performance.

Imagery and instructional self-talk can be utilized on the day of competition. Positive imagery in sports involves imagining oneself doing the needed athletic performance. Imagery can be utilized as practice between throws in a competition (8), or immediately before a competition as a cue and to increase self-efficacy (8,16). Self-instructions (sometimes called instructional self-talk), such as a shot putter saying to himself, “eyes on the spot when you throw,” can likewise be used during practice sessions to build a habit or immediately before a performance to serve as a cue. Again, due to our limited attentional capacity, having a cue word either instructional or motivational in nature may have a positive effect on performance (5). In a sport like track and field, the coach may not be within earshot of the athlete on certain competition days and may have to use hand signals, further emphasizing the need for easy and direct cue words.

The application of psychological skills for competitive situations requires the execution of the pre-competition routine (Table 2), a sound pre-performance routine, and a sound recovery/refocusing routine for use in the heat of competition (7,21). All of these routines need to be developed, utilized, and applied in a practice situation in order to be able to effectively implement them in a competitive situation. Elements of a competition day mental plan include:

– Energy Management Skills
– Checklist For Competition Day
– Mental Plan Chronology

Table 2. Sample Pre-Competition Routine for a Shot Putter

<td >

4 Hours Prior 2 Hours Prior 1 Hour Prior 30 Min. Prior 20 Min. Prior Competition Post-Competition
Video review Arrive at the competition site and set up camp Execute a series of planned walks, jogs, and skips to increase body temperature Execute a specific warm up drills to set up the technique Execute a predetermined number of warm-up throws Counts breaths in between throws to re-focus for next throw Review competitive strategy
Visualize proper technique Walk over and examine throwing venue Begin to achieve physical arousal Feel the desired body positions during the drills Count breaths in between throws to re-focus for the next throw
Review technical cues worked on in the previous week of practice Count breaths if one loses focus until concentration is once again reached Positive self-talk: no negative thoughts about or during throwing warm-up Positive self-talk: no negative thoughts about or during throwing warm-up
Positive self-talk: review all reasons why athlete should do well that meet
Count breaths if one loses focus until concentration is once again reached

A pre-competition routine may include a planned warm up, positive self-talk, a focus on performance goals, a relaxation strategy, controlling the type and amount of interaction with others, an imagery session followed by a nap earlier in the day, and monitoring fluid and food intake. Ultimately, athletes need to experiment with the pre-competition routine in practice with the guidance of the coach keeping the three skill areas of flow in mind to help the athlete evaluate the strategy.

Coaches must include relaxation strategies in two ways: on a regular basis as part of the mental periodization program and as part of a pre-performance routine. When performed regularly, relaxation techniques can reduce the physiological response to stress, prevent the cumulative effect of stress, improve memory and concentration, increase energy levels, and reduce muscle tension (4). Remember, the power of flow is a feeling that makes a difficult task fun, and daunting tasks feel manageable. The power of flow is present when your athletes have the confidence to accept their situations, when they enjoy the process, and when they have the enthusiasm needed to accomplish specific results.

### Conclusions

This manuscript represents only a modest beginning point of mental periodization training for flow (see 11 for a further discourse on the topic). Competing at a high level requires a well-planned program of physical training and technical preparation. Psychological preparation for any athletic endeavor is a complex process that involves acquiring, practicing, and applying many different specific psychological skills. Many athletes and coaches utilize training programs that concentrate too heavily on physical training. Inadequate mental preparation can easily overcome and undermine an excellent physical technical preparation. Flow, or what many experts in the field term “being in the zone”, is the goal of athletes and coaches alike. Introducing a plan to train the psychological skills along with the physical skills will take the guesswork out of performing to the best of an athlete’s ability when it counts in big meet situations. Preparing mentally for any adversity ensures that athletes will not be stifled in competition when unexpected stressful circumstances arise.

### Applications in Sport

This manuscript has several important implications for athletes and coaches. Dedicated and driven coaches seeking success cannot stop their knowledge base at just understanding the physical aspect of training. Sport psychology has emerged as the latest tool for helping coaches prepare athletes to edge out other competitors; however, few coaches take full advantage of psychological skills preparation. Psychological training for any athletic undertaking is a complex process that involves acquiring, practicing, and applying numerous psychological skills. Psychological training must be part of the periodized plan and must be programmed as such.

Although this paper has focused specifically upon mental periodization for the throwing events in track and field, the basic psychological concepts and practices noted have applications in numerous other sports. Other sports can benefit from development of a psychological training plan that is sequenced and unfolds in harmony with the physical training plan. That gap between the science used to develop the training program on paper and the art of maximizing the performance on the playing and practice field separates good coaches from great coaches. All coaches strive for the ability to have their athletes perform in an uninhibited, relaxed, skillful manner. Various personalities, team chemistries, motivations, and attitudes coalesce to create a series of variables to juggle. With the session plan in hand, the coach steps onto the field and begins practice. Implementing and successfully executing the plan may very well be the biggest challenge. It does not matter what is on paper if the coach cannot relate to the athletes. Understanding each individual athlete and knowing what motivates him or her is the crucial step to a great performance. Inadequate mental preparation can easily overcome and undermine an excellent physical technical preparation. Flow, or as many experts in the field term it, “being in the zone,” is the goal of athletes and coaches alike. Introducing a plan to train the psychological skills along with the physical skills throughout the year will take the guesswork out of performing to the best of an athlete’s ability when it counts in big competitions.

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### Corresponding Author
Dr. Larry Judge
Ball State University
School of P.E., Sport, and Exercise Science
HP 213
Muncie, IN 47304, USA
(765) 285-4211
<LWJudge@bsu.edu>

### Author Bios

Lawrence W. Judge, PhD, is an associate professor and coordinator of the graduate coaching education program in the School of Physical Education, Sport, and Exercise Science at Ball State University. Prior to arriving at Ball State, he was an NCAA Division I track and field coach for the 18 years and coached 100 All Americans and 8 Olympians. Dr. Judge is currently the president of the National Council for the Accreditation of Coaching Education (NCACE).

Robert J. Bell, PhD., CC-AASP, is an assistant professor of the Sport & Exercise Psychology program in the School of Physical Education, Sport, and Exercise Science at Ball State University. He consults with high-school, collegiate and professional athletes. He specializes with the sports of baseball and golf, and with players on the PGA/Nationwide Tour.

David Bellar, PhD, is an assistant professor in the department of Kinesiology at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. He research interests include cognition, fitness and aging as well as human performance. Dr. Bellar also serves as the throws coach for the Cajun track and field team.

Elizabeth Wanless, BA., is a currently a graduate student at Ball State University. Liz was an alternate on the 2008 United States Olympic team in the shot put and participated in the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki, Finland. She finished 6th in the 2008 World Athletics final and finished the 2008 season ranked 20th in the world.

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