Skill development is a long-term process, not a short-term goal. The pursuit of skill development requires self-discipline, the ability to set long-term goals, and consistent action in pursuit of the goal. Goal setting and goal striving are invaluable skills that will benefit athletes on and off the basketball court.
Unfortunately, studies suggest that kids (and adults) struggle with the pursuit of long-term goals (Romer, Duckworth, Sznitman, & Park, 2010). This leads to many athletes wanting to get better, but lacking the knowledge of how to get better. Nothing will compare to the frustration of a senior student-athlete regretting that they did not fulfill their potential because they never learned a simple technique to help them achieve their goals.
Solution: Mental contrasting and Implementation intentions. Numerous studies have shown the powerful impact that mental contrasting and implementation intentions have produced alone.
Now a study that combines the two strategies has been shown to enhance goal-directed behavior by 60% (Duckworth, Grant, Loew, Oettingen, & Gollwitzer, 2011). Did you read that...60%?!?!
Teaching athletes how to implement these strategies will help them improve performance and enjoy greater success on and off the court.
What is mental contrasting? Mental contrasting (MC) is the contrasting of a desired future (i.e. an athlete's goal) and the obstacles that stand in the way of achieving the goal. Studies show that MC is an effective strategy to enhance commitment to goals (Oettingen, 2000; Oettingen, Pak, & Schnetter, 2001). Sustained commitment to a goal is critical if we expect players to sacrifice the time & effort needed to develop a skill.
Essentially, MC helps an athlete "connect the dots" from where they are now and where they want to be. The ability to "connect the dots" has a motivational impact and can help players resist the urge to give up when encountering obstacles that would typically deter them from their goals.
Visualizing a better future is a commonly used strategy, but MC is different and more effective because it enables a player to see the benefits AND the obstacles simultaneously. Two less effective (and commonly used) strategies for goal setting are indulging and dwelling. Indulging is when someone fantasizes about the future without considering the obstacles. Dwelling is when someone reflects on all the negatives involved in pursuing a goal.
Contrary to the former two options, MC involves someone to see the desired future first, then consider the obstacles standing in the way. This holistic view energizes players and activates the urgency for action.
There is one important caveat, MC can actually be demotivating IF the player does not believe success is likely. MC should not be used as a strategy to enhance someone's self efficacy (i.e. the belief in one's own ability to achieve a task/goal). MC is most effective when a player has the ability to improve, but they lack motivation and/or a plan to fulfill their goals.
Therefore, it's important for the coach or practitioner to have a strong understanding of who, when, and where it is most beneficial to a use MC.
What are implementation intentions? Implementation intentions (II) consist of a plan that details when, where, and how a person will take action. Studies suggest that II's significantly enhance goal attainment (Gollwitzer, 1999). Failing to furnish goals with II's will often result in the New Years Resolution phenomenon, when people get a burst of inspiration and set lofty goals but fail to execute. This is one of the greatest challenges that players, coaches, and trainers encounter after attending a clinic.
Typically a player attends a clinic for a couple days and they learn tremendous things that could help take their game to another level. But shortly after the clinic the player falls back into their same old habits and they fail to see any significant improvement in their game. This is the result of not having a plan of action. II's help people get started towards their goal - which is a major hurdle - and helps keep them on track.
Most people will simply set goal intentions (i.e. "I will become a better shooter") without the implementation intentions (i.e. "I will make 50 shots immediately after practice each day").
Psychologically, II's are effective because they put our decision-making on autopilot. Essentially limiting the barriers caused by negative feelings (i.e. "I'm too tired") and analysis paralysis (i.e. "Is this worth it?") and promote taking action towards a specific goal. This step is vital for skill development, since the journey requires great self-discipline to consistently practice mundane and repetitive tasks/drills.
What skill would you like to develop by utilizing MC and II's?
Duckworth, A.L., Grant, H., Loew, B., Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P.M. (2011). Self-regulation strategies improve self-discipline in adolescents: benefits of mental contrasting and implementation intentions. Educational Psychology, 31, 17-26.
Romer, D., Duckworth, A.L., Sznitman, S., & Park, S. (2010). Can adolescents learn self-control? Delay of gratification in the development of control over risk taking. Prevention Science, 11(3), 319-330.
Oettingen, G. (2000). Expectancy effects on behavior depend on self-regulatory thought. Social Cognition, 18, 101-129.
Oettingen, G., Pak, H., & Schnetter, K. (2001). Self-regulation of goal setting: Turning free fantasies about the future into binding goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 736-753.
Gollwitzer, P.M. (1999). Implementation Intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54, 493-503.