The Wrap Around with Dr Z: Issue XV – Preventative Maintenance w/Mental Training Programs

Posted on Apr 1 2021 - 5:00am by DV

Wrap Around with Dr. Dan Zimet, Sport Psychologist

Do you have a question about the greatest game played with a ball?  Send it to Dr. Zimet at  For more articles (and additional mental strategies) go to, menu option ‘Wrap Around’.

There are many ways to train your body for handball – weights, sprints, practice, jump rope and so much more, but can the brain be trained? Are there mental exercises a handball player can do to improve his brain power and thought process? – From MO, SoCal

The role of a Sport Psychologist takes several forms.  I typically address crisis management, where athletes are experiencing specific issues needing immediate attention.  A second role involves mental skills training so athletes can have coping tools and strategies in place before problems arise.  Think of it as training for the mind.  Each mental skill training program (MSTP) relies on an underlying theory defining critical domains.

People who take a crisis approach wait for a problem before addressing it.  When issues arise, as they inevitably do, they begin the work of mitigation.  Everyone uses a crisis-management style in some aspect of their lives.  If you take a moment to think about your choices, can you name a few?  Examples include failing to get timely medical care, saving for retirement, addressing relationship tension, doing routine maintenance on household appliances, and avoiding harmful health habits like smoking, excessive weight, and sedentary behavior. 

Only after I threw out my back for the third time did I stick to my core exercises, and I can assure you that I’m not doing the entire routine recommended by my doctor!  Who has the time?!  The answer, of course, is that I will – when I throw my back out again.  But will that change how I handle my back exercises in the future?  If history repeats itself, the answer, sadly, is ‘no.’

A better approach is to build skills before they’re necessary.  Unfortunately, people are notoriously poor at taking preventative measures.  Mental skill training programs require time and effort, and without the urgency of a crisis, why bother?  Motivation is readily available for habits that come quickly or have a clear and present positive impact.  Avoidance and denial are commonplace when outcomes are a long way off (e.g., retirement), challenging to observe/measure (e.g., recycling), have little impact in the present (e.g., climate change), or risk something unpleasant (e.g., sharing something that’s bothering you with your spouse).

In this issue of Wrap Around, we address training programs designed to build the tools of a robust mental game.  These skills serve several functions, including armoring an athlete with positive habits and strategies that regulate stress, meet goals, and maximize effectiveness.

Crisis management versus preventative maintenance

As you may recall from prior Wrap Arounds, there are three essential aspects of sport performance.  The physical side, including conditioning, strength, flexibility, and overall health and fitness.  The fundamental side, including skills and knowledge like shot-making and game-IQ.  And finally, the mental side addressing the range of emotions and thoughts impacting an athlete’s ability to play at his or her best as often as possible.

Crisis management on the Physical side occurs when athletes are injured or perform poorly because of a failure to manage their weight and fitness.  MSTP’s reduce the risk of injury and increase the likelihood that the body can execute and endure sport’s harsh demands.

Crisis management for Fundamentals occurs when an athlete cannot counter an opponent’s strategy due to a breakdown or inability to select or execute critical shots effectively.  MSTP’s helps athletes maximize practice to increase shot-making percentage (reduces errors) and options (shot development).

Crisis management for the Mental side occurs when an athlete experiences emotions, thoughts, and behaviors that negatively impact performance.  These include tournament nerves, low motivation, inconsistent focus, poor relationships, ineffectively managing disappointment or mistakes, low confidence, and poor coping with issues like injury or retirement.  Once these problems set in, they have an immediate negative impact on your game and cause a host of additional troubles.

The benefits of MSTP on the Fundamental and Physical sides of handball are preventative maintenance and building a strong game.  But what about the Mental side?  The good news is that you can address your mental skills in the same way – by having a routine or set of habits that maintain well-being and keep you sharp and prepared for whatever happens on (or off) the court.  In short, put the right skills in place now – before you need them – so that when problems arise, you’ll be ready.

Mental Skills Programs

Most of my work as a Psychologist involves crisis management since people seek help when a problem reaches their threshold for suffering.  However, others in the field and I also create programs designed to build a robust set of mental skills applicable before issues emerge.  These programs identify core domains of competence that help an athlete in two ways.  First, they build a mental game that best enhances sport performance.  Second, they offer vital coping strategies to mitigate the impact or likelihood of adverse events.  The remainder of this article articulates the Sport Psychology programs of my profession’s most reputable members.  I address most of these skills in previous issues of Wrap Around, so I encourage going to the WPH website or reviewing issues of Handball Magazine for additional information.

Programs include lecture series, drills, and assessments that educate athletes on skill domains and building personal accountability to practice during and between meetings.  Athletes journal their experiences to track their progress and process, build accountability, and create a record of the tools they’re developing.  Services are either tailored to a sports program or generic, as in the case of online packages.  Let’s review three mental skill models developed by Dr. Lesyk (Ohio Center), Dr. Maher (MLB), and Drs. Pineau, Glass and Kaufman (MSPE).

Jack Lesyk
Ohio Center for Sport Psychology
1 Attitude Basic
2 Motivation Basic
3 Goals and Commitment Basic
4 People Skills Basic
5 Self-Talk Preparatory
6 Mental Imagery Preparatory
7 Managing Anxiety Performance
8 Managing Emotions Performance
9 Concentration Performance


Dr. Jack Lesyk’s three domains of mental skills 

Athletes utilize Basic skills during sport performance but mostly off the court.  These include having the right attitude, staying motivated, being committed to your craft, using SMART goals, and working well with others.  Strong Basic Skills set the stage for an athlete to successfully walk into competition by being athletically prepared, having a healthy support system, and building emotional resilience.

Athletes utilize Preparatory Skills before competition, including self-talk and imagery.  These skills help an athlete get into a proper mindset and build the right energy, focus, and readiness.

Performance skills come into play during a competition and help an athlete recover from mental lapses and stay present and focused.  These skills include techniques for managing negative emotions like anxiety, anger, and nihilism.  They also help athletes reach and stay in the zone.

Dr. Lesyk visualizes these skills on a pyramid, where top skills (performance) depend on strong middle skills (preparatory), which rest on solid Basic Skills.  He argues that you need an excellent off-court mental game before you can benefit from skills utilized before and during competition.

The Complete Mental Game of Baseball:

Charles Maher of the Cleveland Indians authored The Complete Mental Game of Baseball: Taking Charge of the Process, On and Off the Field.  He identifies the core mental skills of perspective, personal awareness, self-motivation, mental discipline, confidence, emotional intensity, focus, composure, teamwork, self-esteem, performance accountability, and continuous improvement.

Quality Preparation:  Dr. Maher states that proper preparation needs perspective, defined as life balance and having strong personal values.  Quality preparation requires personal awareness (knowing who you are, your strengths and limitations), self-motivation (having passion, goals, giving consistent effort, and mental discipline (exhibiting patience, persistence, perseverance, and self-management).  Effective self-management includes clear priorities, dealing with procrastination (confront bad habits, challenging yourself), implementing a pre-game routine, developing and following through with a game-plan, coping with risk, and working through injuries.

Competitive Follow Through:  Competitive follow-through entails self-confidence or believing in your skills and ability to be successful.  Dr. Maher breaks this down into three concepts: global self-confidence (believing in your ability to be generally successful at whatever you attempt), situational self-confidence (belief in the ability to handle a specific situation), and a commitment to quality preparation (honesty in appraising yourself; respecting the game, continuing to seek pathways to growth).

Athletes must also stay present while competing, have the right emotional intensity level, be able to focus and shift focus (broad to narrow), remain poised under pressure, decompress when stressed, let go of mistakes, and build successful relationships.

Self-evaluation:  Being able to evaluate performance unflinchingly is essential to mental strength.  Doing so requires separating self-worth from performance outcomes.  Techniques include mentally “parking” yourself when you step into the role of performer, being mindful of the moment, keeping self-judgment out of your performance, using positive self-talk, visualizing positive actions, looking for small wins, taking personal inventory, watching out of the big- (over-ego) or little-head (self-demeaning), and learning to enjoy the process.  Mentally healthy athletes take accountability for their performance by acknowledging their responsibility, seeking or accepting feedback from teammates and coaches, and controlling the controllable.  The goal is an attitude driven towards continuous improvement, striving to get better on and off the court to be the best possible version of yourself.

Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement (MSPE)

Drs Kaufman, Glass, and Pineau developed MSPE to teach athletes fundamental mindfulness concepts and practices.   The program addresses awareness and acceptance through five primary performance facilitators, including concentration, letting go, relaxation, establishing a sense of harmony and rhythm, and forming key associations.  The program improves attention and emotional regulation, an integral part of optimal performance and flow-state experiences.  I highly recommend their podcast, the Mindful Sport Performance Podcast, and their 2018 book Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement: Mental Training for Athletes and Coaches.

MSPE is six step-by-step sessions introducing concepts, exercises, and discussions on applying Mindfulness in and out of sport.  Athletes train on the two primary Mindfulness characteristics of awareness and acceptance, which helps establish a present-moment focus and non-striving attitude.  Awareness is the capacity to recognize the fullness of an experience in a given moment, including internal and external factors.  Acceptance means applying awareness without judgment or needing to change anything in that moment.   Being aware of and openly accepting your thoughts and feelings can reduce their intensity.  At the same time, attempts at control or suppression can exacerbate the problem (i.e., the ironic mental processes)

MSPE exercises evolve from sedentary mindfulness practice (e.g., breathing meditation), then being mindful in motion (e.g., walking mediation), and culminate with a meditation using sport-specific movement.

MSPE’s sessions include educational content focusing on why Mindfulness is helpful.

Session 1 – Why Mindfulness works for athletes.

Session 2 – How Mindfulness works for athletes.

Sessions 3-4 – The mental obstacles of expectations and attachments that Mindfulness can address

Session 5 – How to respond to obstacles with a non-striving attitude.

Session 6 – Creating a long-term mental training routine and a mindful team culture.

The heart of Mindfulness is practice, which MSPE encourages by drawing parallels to physical conditioning since both require dedicated work to maintain and improve.  Practicing ahead of time in low-stakes situations, when you can more easily choose where to direct your attention despite internal or external distractions and accept when things are unexcepted, prepares athletes for a crisis and when the pressure is high.


Not everyone is part of a team or can afford to pay a Sport Psychologist.  If you’re interested in taking a systematic approach to developing your mental skills, consider buying one of the many books available.  Here are few recommendations:

How Champions Think or Golf is Not a Game of Perfect by Bob Rotella.

Chasing Excellence by Ben Bergeron

The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday

There are a host of online programs available.  Here are a few recommendations:

Dr. Dan Zimet is a Psychologist and Certified Sports Consultant.  Dr. Zimet has been working as a Psychologist for more than 15 years in private practice, specializing in young adult and adolescent issues, marital counseling and sport psychology.

Drawn to handball because his father, uncle and grandfather played, Dr. Zimet has accrued an astounding 24 31 combined singles and doubles National Masters Titles in 1-Wall, 3-Wall and 4-Wall, while also serving as the Maryland Handball Commissioner from 2003-2013. He cites victories against Andy Schad in the 2012 3-Wall National Final and winning tournaments with partners Alan Frank, Andy Schad, Eli Zimet (father), and Adam Zimet (brother) as his most fulfilling moments in handball. Dr. Zimet has set his sights on another a top four WPH SR48 ranking and winning a USHA National Masters Title in each of the USHA national events.

Dr. Zimet lives in Columbia, MD with his wife Danielle and son Fletcher

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