The Mental Game with Dr Z: Issue II – Building the Pyramid

Posted on Oct 21 2015 - 8:26pm by DV

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By Dr. Dan Zimet, Psychologist & Sports Consultant-

According to Dr. Jack Lesyk of the Center for Sport Psychology, there are three levels that broadly define all mental skills associated with athletic performance.  These levels are 1) Basic Skills, 2) Preparatory/Pre-Competition Skills, and 3) Performance Skills.  Each level builds on the skills below it, like a pyramid, where Basic Skills are the foundation.  As you would expect, any weaknesses in the foundation will impact each of the skills above.  It can be tempting for an athlete to focus on Performance Skills, since intuitively these are most closely related to competition.  However, it is essential to evaluate all skill levels and take particular inventory of the Basic Skills when you are struggling with performance. While not specifically part of the mental domain, it is critical that athletes focus on their health behavior, including appropriate training, rest, nutrition, hydration, and avoiding health risks (e.g., smoking, alcohol close to competition, etc.).  Consulting with a nutritionist and exercise physiologist/trainer who specializes in athletes can offer invaluable insights.




Basic Skills are the building blocks that answer why and how a handball player commits to the game.  Basic Skills sustain the long-term interest and commitment necessary to develop and improve your game, and include:


1) Attitude

2) Motivation

3) Goal setting

4) People skills/relationships

5) Sport/life balance

6) Confidence






The most central Basic Skill is your attitude, which flows from your love of the game and into your commitment, motivation and intensity.  Love is present when you think about handball even while you’re not playing, look forward to getting on the court, and have positive emotions when talking about handball and thinking about playing.  Having a positive attitude transcends every aspect of life, and impacts all of our experiences by shaping how we think.  For this reason, your attitude is a philosophy or belief system about sports and life.  Attitude impacts 1) your concepts on sportsmanship and how you treat people on and off the court; 2) how you think about and handle yourself based on different point/match outcomes; 3) whether you define success in terms of victories and losses or excellence and improvement; 4) how you prioritize handball with the rest of your life; 5) feeling that achievement and competition, challenging yourself to excel, is an important part of life.  In sum, your attitude is at the base of the mental skills pyramid and supports all of the other skills to be discussed.

Attitude affects how an athlete feels and thinks about competition.  The below chart on Motivational Orientation identifies two patterns of thought about competition.  As you would expect, a Mastery attitude leads to far better outcomes than an Ego attitude.  An Ego orientation is all about wins and losses, while a Master Orientation is all about the process of competing.



Ego – winning/losingMastery – process
  • It’s all about winning and losing.  The whole point is to come in first place.
  • Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, but competing is its own reward.
  • High competition is to be feared…what if I lose!
  • High competition can bring out the best in me…it’s something to look forward to.
  • Happiness = championships and victories.
  • Happiness = being good and getting better at something I love.
  • Losing is unacceptable and means the whole effort was a waste.
  • Competing offers an opportunity to challenge myself…if I never lose how can I assess my abilities and know how to improve?
  • Sportsmanship is peripheral to competition… cheating is OK if I get away with it and it helps me win.
  • Sportsmanship is at the heart of competition.  I want my skills to be the source of my victory.  If I can’t win fairly, why win at all?
  • When I see someone I don’t think I can beat in my draw I wish I was not playing at all.
  • When I see someone I don’t think I can beat in my draw I see it as an opportunity.  It is in those situations that I grow and my game develops.


Video on attitude:






When it comes to motivation, nothing has a stronger impact than the “fun” factor.  If you’re not having fun you just won’t do it.  A motivated player is able to see the rewards of playing/training hard, persisting through difficulties (e.g., injury, losses), and sees a bigger picture than just winning.  One motivational theory identifies three basic human needs that, if fulfilled, keep motivation high and decrease the likelihood of feeling burned out.  First, an athlete needs to experiences a strong internal desire to play.  That is, the motivation to play comes from nothing more complicated than a love of the game and enjoying the act of playing.  This intrinsic motivation is fueled from within, where the athlete strives to achieve personally valued goals or finds the game to be a vehicle for self-expression.  Second are social factors, which include receiving support from people in our lives and feeling like a valued part of the handball community.  Third are feelings of competence.  An athlete needs to compete at a level on par with his or her expectations.  In summary, when an athlete feels an internal drive to compete, feels connected to the community, and feels good about his or level of play, motivation will be high.


Goal Setting



Success for peak performers in business often revolves around having a mission statement, which can be defined as ‘a mental image of a desired future state of affairs that inspires feelings of longing and an energetic will or drive to make it happen.’  Beyond winning, what would you say your mission statement is or has been in the past?  Only with a clear vision of what you hope to achieve can you begin to consider what steps will need to take place in order to reach your goals.

Goal setting is a necessary component for keeping motivation high, maximizing training results, and improving confidence.  Complacency and boredom sets in when an athlete recycles the same patterns over and over without change.  A clear mission statement with well-constructed goals has the potential to create lasting changes in performance and keep the game fun, exciting, and challenging.  Improvement is a necessary condition for continued interest in anything, and without goals progress is often slow or non-existent.  As stated by Bill Copeland, “the trouble with not having a goal is that you spend your life running up and down the field without scoring.”  Here are some tips about setting goals:

  1. Write a clear mission statement, a big-picture dream that fuels your motivation.
  2. Make goals specific, observable, measurable, and time delineated.
    1. Good: “In three months I want my serve will hit the crack 25% of the time, where it is now at 5%.”
    2. Bad: “I want to hit more aces.”
  3. Moderate in difficulty – goals should have a 75% chance of being met when solid effort is applied.
    1. Good: “I’m going to increase my cross training by 25% for the 6-weeks leading up to the tournament.”
    2. Bad: “I’m going to train 2-hours a day (too hard)…nah, I’ll just add another 5-minutes to the treadmill (too easy).
  4. Goals need to be in your control and not dependent on someone else.
    1. Good: “I will execute 50% of my off hand ceiling shots in competition.”
    2. Bad: “I’m going to win the state singles title.”
  5. Document your goals and your progress in a journal or on a phone app. Consider sharing your goals and progress with a friend or find someone who is also working on a goal and encourage each other.
  6. Short-term goals need to connect to your mission statement.
    1. Good: “I’m going to practice three different defensive shots with my off hand three times a week, which will make me more competitive and give me a strong chance of winning the state championship.”
    2. Bad: “I’m going to work on my off hand so I can play better.”
  7. Set goals for practice as well as competition. Most handball players warm up before playing in a match, but otherwise do not engage in formal practice.  Try adding structured practice to your pre- or post-match routine.  Begin your warm up a few minutes early and work on shots that you will purposefully incorporate into the match.
  8. Only set goals that are meaningful to you and that you intend to follow through upon. Never set goals you take a weak interest in or that lack personal meaning.
  9. Use positive language and focus on what to do rather than what not to do.
    1. Good: “I’m going to improve my kill shot.”
    2. Bad: “I’m going to stop hitting the ball into the floor.”
  10. Each goal needs a sensible strategy. A goal is what you hope to accomplish, and a strategy is the group of behaviors that will bridge your current performance to your goal.  For example, “I’m going to increase my average game aces from 2 to 6 (goal) by practicing my crack serves to the left and right 20 times before and after each match for the next two months (strategy).

Adapted from:  ‘Goal Setting for Synchronized Skaters and Coaches: Self-determining what you can achieve!’ in Synchronized Skating Magazine, May, 2007.


People and Relationships Skills



Relationships an essential part of every athlete’s life, both on and off the court.  Successful athletes are relationship builders with their family, friends, teammates, coaches, training partners, and adversaries.  Having positive relationships adds an element of social bonding and connectedness, and being a part of a community meets an essential human need.  Sport is a venue for confronting many of life’s challenges, and the relationship skills needed to sustain positivity require the appropriate expression of feelings/emotions, dealing effectively with conflict, and managing the stressful circumstances that come from playing an intense and competitive game.  Players who fail to effectively manage relationships risk isolation, passive-aggressive hostility, and distrust from fellow handball players.

Many athletes minimize or fail to recognize the importance of our fellow competitors.  We have an intimate connection to our opponents, as well as a deep dependency.  Who else will hit the ball back if not our opponent?  Wise athletes recognize that it is only under the conditions of great pressure caused by fierce rivalry that one’s own greatness can emerge.  After all, who would Ali have been without Frasier? Or Larry Bird without Magic Johnson?  Or Roger Federer without Rafael Nadal?  Keep in mind that the most memorable moments in sport emerge from the intensity of fierce competition.


Sport/Life Balance



Having a good balance between sport and other life pursuits provides a base from which an athlete can persevere through the challenges of competition, training, and disappointing results.  This balance helps an athlete see where sport fits into a broader life, allowing perspective on athletic outcomes and support during more difficult times (e.g., injury, a tough loss, or reduced inspiration on the court).  One good way to think about it is to compare your life to a home, where each room represents a different way you spend your time.  If you live in a home with many diverse rooms, even when one room is messy, being renovated, or has your angry spouse in it you can always go to another room temporarily until things improve.  Since each room has the potential for ups and downs, having multiple rooms keeps things more even keeled.  When you’re stuck in the same room for too long you risk burnout and greater emotional swings.  No matter how great handball can be, even the most delicious meal would become dull if you ate it every day.





The most common problem athletes report is a loss of confidence, and understandably so.  Poor athletic performance, negative thinking, and a generally bad mood are typical signs of a confidence problem.  Low confidence contributes to physical tension, which restricts movement, impedes accuracy, and more quickly fatigues the body.  Mentally, low confidence contributes to thinking too much about the past (e.g., “I just keep setting him up”) or the future (e.g., “I’m going to lose”).  Conversely, an athlete who feels confident often plays at a high level, enjoys the experience, has positive thoughts, and is able to quickly bounce back from adverse events (e.g., a bad call).  Confidence allows an athlete to relax on the court, which makes the body more efficient and fluid.  A confident athlete’s mind is focused on the present, taking each play as it comes.

Since athletes are constantly facing setbacks and dealing with adversity on and off the court, confidence is not a static phenomenon.  Developing robust self-confidence is the key – confidence that is resilient to things like poor play (mental or physical), unmet expectations/disappointment, and pressure.  In a summary article on confidence, Beaumont and his colleagues (2015) identified several main themes that are used by Sport Psychologists to help athletes build robust self-confidence.  Above all else, winning and hitting great shots builds confidence.  But even the greats have off days and hard losses.

While every athlete knows what it feels like to lose confidence, few athletes stop to really explore and explain what confidence is for him or her.  Taking a step back and thinking about what adds to or subtracts from your self-confidence can offer insight into the specific sources of your feelings.  Similarly, you can explore the ebb and flow of your confidence to increase your moment-by-moment awareness of how these feelings play out based on your experiences.

Second, logging evidence of personal highlights is a helpful technique connecting an athlete to personal accomplishments.  Logging evidence can include 1) reflecting or talking about great moments with friends or thinking about great shots or victories on your own; 2) journaling those moments; 3) watching video of those moments; 4) watching someone else who inspires you play a match; and 5) reflecting on how your game has improved.

Third, working with a coach and or trainer can be helpful to make improvements and develop better strategies on and off the court.  Of course, having the right coach is crucial and a bad coach can do more harm than good!  Making changes to your training can also help, such as playing a stronger player and asking for honest feedback.  It can also help to consistently play someone marginally weaker in ability in order to feel in control and have a game where you are able to assert yourself.

Fourth, there are numerous psychological skills that help athletes with confidence.  These include, 1) goal-setting; 2) imagery/visualization; 3) reframing/restructuring, which involves learning how to see events from a more productive standpoint; 4) mastery orientation (process) as opposed to an ego orientation (winning/losing); and 5) developing mental plans for competition, such as a guiding statement like “play hard for each point and if you keep the pressure constant you’ll have a good chance to win.”

Fifth, if confidence becomes an ongoing concern that markedly impacts your ability to perform in competition and enjoy the game it can be helpful to work with a mental coach or Sport Psychologist.  Having a relationship with someone trained in mental fitness can be very helpful, and often in a short period of time.

Sixth, it is important to know your signature strength(s).  What is it about you or your game that makes you successful and influences the outcome of a match?  Is it your speed, power, endurance, or retrieving ability that your opponents comment on?  Or is it your off-hand defense, back-wall game, soft hands, or lob serves?  Knowing how you excel puts a signature on your unique style, and gives your game an identity as well as a means of controlling the game.  In short, when you are able to do what you do well on the court, you feel better about your game and hence more confident.


Knowing Your Game: Assessing your Basic Skills



  • Identify three reasons why you love handball.
  • Does how you carry yourself on the court accurately represent you as a person?
  • When preparing to face tough opponents, what thoughts do you have – and would you say these thoughts help or hurt your performance?
  • Is winning more important to you than challenging yourself? Or having good sportsmanship?
  • To what extent do you 1) have fun playing handball; 2) feel an internal desire to play; and 3) feel like your skills allow you to compete with your peer group?
  • Do you make an effort to have positive relationships with your fellow handball players, and participate in creating a community mindset?
  • Do you have a vision for your goals in handball that you could easily explain? What is your ‘mission statement?’
  • Does your game feel stale? Are your ambitions boring or out of reach? Or do you have no ambitions for your game?
  • Apart from your actual game, what is your reputation in the local handball community? Think in terms of sportsmanship, dealing with conflict, being on time, meeting agreed to obligations, helping new athletes or playing weaker opponents, and generally being agreeable and positive on and off the court?
  • To what extent does handball fit well into the rest of your life? Do you make an effort to cultivate other interests in your life beyond handball?  Does handball get enough attention to support healthy play?
  • How would you define ‘confidence’ and in what way do you personally experience high or low confidence?
  • Can you quickly and easily think about great moments in your game where you performed well, had fun, and did great things on the court?
  • When your confidence is low, do you have a few strategies for trying to get your mind in the right place again?
  • Identify your signature strength(s):

Editor’s Note:  Dan Zimet PhD has given us an opportunity to learn and grow.  Dr Zimet will provide more articles in the future, for members of the World Players of Handball.  Stay tuned for the next edition!