Head in the Game


Humber Forward Kenny Ejim. | Photo by: O’Niel Barrington Blair

How visualization and mental preparation leads a college athlete


As he takes out his headphones and heads to the University of Toronto-Mississauga (UTM) gym basketball court, the 6’4” Eagles number 12 forward, Zamam Khan, prepares to play against yet another college team. A voice in his head reminds him to do his best, but to remember it’s only basketball. Then the buzzer sounds telling everyone in the room the game is starting.   

Khan is a 23-year-old third year UTM Political Science student who holds the title of number two in the OCAA men’s varsity basketball points per game chart. He has a ranking average of 24 points per game. Because of this achievement, he feels the expectations that he and his friends and family have inevitably put on his shoulders.

“Every game my friends and family are like ‘are you going to still be number one or number two?’,” he says. “Every time I go out on the court, everyone expects me to put out the big numbers. But I try to cancel out all that noise and just play basketball and not force anything.”

This is the first year the UTM men’s basketball team is entering the OCAA, and the players are feeling the pressure. The new team has had a tough season with winning only eight out of 28 games. Head Coach Nkosi Adams has served as an Assistant Coach on the Centennial College’s men’s team for three years before taking over at UTM.

“Going into any new situation, naturally there’s going to be a little bit of anxiety because you don’t know what to expect,” Adams says. “But I’ve been involved with other basketball programs from the ground up. Everything comes into fruition after a few years.”

Prepping for any competition begins in the mind. It can be easy for some people to forget that athletes are humans and feel anxious over competitions all the time. Mental performance consultant Sarah Gairdner told sweat that mental imagery is useful for athletes when preparing for competitions. Mental imagery allows an athlete to basically compete in their heads before they enter the actual competition.

Gairdner was a gymnast in the Canadian trampoline team from

2002 to 2008. She practiced mental imagery when preparing to perform in the three world championships she competed in.

“I used to imagine my routines in my head. I was always writing down goals and planning out what routines I wanted to do,” she says. “But there’s a whole host of things that need to be in place in order for an athlete to control the amount of performance anxiety they have so that they can compete optimally.

“A lot of competitors get distracted by external sources. They could be worried about what their coach thinks or a past failure. These worries could make them focus on what is out of their control instead of the task at hand.”

The main piece of advice Gairdner gives to athletes who struggles with performance anxiety is to get them to visualize what kind of a player they want to be when they’re out on the court and what about their sport makes them passionate. Athletes have complete control over focusing on their strengths and communicating with their teammates. They don’t have control over the possible negative outcomes of each game.

“I say to them, ‘You know what? What you need to focus on right now is your task. What you can control in this environment is focusing on your skill level, your tactics, being positive with your teammates’,” she says. “The athletes will feel less anxious because they have somewhere else to direct their mental energy.”

Khan says political science studying that allows him to think critically about so much more than just politics. Learning how to think critically in his classes has helped him reflect on his highs like holding the second-best scoring average in the league, as well as his lows like getting injured and losing games.

He says he tries not to overthink while playing games which is why he thinks he’s been scoring so well this season. He was also dealt with a few minor injuries, which made him question whether or not he should play in the next game.

“Injuries definitely take a mental toll on you because you still have to go to class the next morning and do your assignments. You also have to take some practices off so you just watch your teammates go through intense workouts when you want to be with them.”

Khan says he pushed through his injuries, despite the physical and mental tolls they had on him, because he wanted to win. He tries not to let any barriers distract him while he’s competing, and focuses on having fun while playing the sport he loves.

The UTM student athletic therapist, Steven Lam, says athletes who have been severely injured during a game in the past get anxious over having that same injury happen to them again, which negatively affects their athletic performance. He says some players, especially in tackle sports like football, are afraid of looking weak when they get injured. They keep the injuries to themselves or downplay how serious the injuries are in fear of having to sit out during a game.

During Lam’s freshman year at Brock University, he was on the varsity soccer team from 2013 to 2014. He injured his knee while playing for the Brock Badgers, which turned into a chronic injury. This physical disadvantage lowered his confidence, which affected his outlook on sports, his career path, and life altogether.

“I felt like I lost that passion for sport because the rehab I received was not the greatest,” he says. “That’s how I got into athletic therapy. I didn’t get the good, supportive rehab I needed so I fell into the Sheridan athletic therapy program and realized how rehab is supposed to be.”

Lam says he wanted to make a change in other athlete’s lives who were going through the same struggles he was. He says when a player gets injured, they need to have one on one rehabilitation support from an athletic therapist. Lam spent two months trying to find an athletic therapist who would help him with his injury, but none of his treatments were working. He says an athlete should never have to deal with an injury on their own.

“When I got that injury, I saw one person one week who didn’t really help me, so I went to another person another week who didn’t help either, and it just carried on like that. I got fed up and tried to do things on my own, which didn’t work out. By the time that happened, everything fell apart and I wasn’t

passionate for soccer anymore.”

Lam says he will sometimes use the placebo effect on his players to mentally help them gain confidence during games. Some players will go to him right before a game when they’re feeling physically sore to ask for anything to relieve the pain. He says he knows some of these guys are fine, but they just need that mental reassurance from him that they’re okay to play. Lam will sometimes give them a pain-relieving cream, which helps the players go through the game without worrying about their injuries or soreness. He says taping also plays a mental game on the players.

“Some guys sprained their ankle at the beginning of the season. From the beginning of the season up until now, they are getting their ankle taped,” Lam says. “In the beginning, there are physiological mechanisms saying taping will help, of course, but I feel like at this point it becomes more of a mental aspect. They can’t play without the tape on because it’s become a norm to them.”

Mental performance consultant Peter Papadogiannis used to be a hockey goalie on the York University varsity team. Today he is a faculty member of psychology at York, University of Guelph-Humber, and Sheridan College. He became interested in sports psychology because of his experience as a student athlete. He’s also one of the founders of HeadSet Sports, an online mental training program for athletes to build mental strength under pressure.

“When I played, I really didn’t have someone who specialized in sports psychology or mental skills training. I definitely could have used someone along the way,” Papadogiannis says. “A lot of athletes don’t plan mentally. If I could go back, I would plan mentally just like I plan physically.”

Papadogiannis tells the athletes he works with that they have to have a mental plan, not only for during games, but for practices, before games, and after games. He says it’s hard to be mentally thoughtful as an athlete without developing the skill. The consultant had specialty goalie coaches who were helpful when he needed mental guidance. He says his specialty coaches were able to relate to him as a goalie which was important to have when building confidence, preparing for a game, and handling unexpected challenges during a game.

“It all leads to confidence. When you trust your preparation and your abilities then it’s such a different experience,” he says. “I work on helping athletes fail fast. Meaning, having a plan to come back from failure better than anyone else.”

He says it’s one of the hardest things to do, but athletes must accept their failures. For an athlete to play their best, they are going to get scored on, lose sets, and lose games. He says it’s harder to deal with unexpected challenges during games in real time, but having a mental plan and routine makes it easier to bounce back from those negative experiences.

Papadogiannis says communicating struggles and goals to coaches, teammates, friends, or family is important for athletes to mentally prepare for future competitions. Writing down what they want to improve on and how they plan on reaching their personal goals is crucial before heading into any game.

He says every week there’s a new story from an athlete about a fear they need to overcome in whatever sport they’re competing in.

“That’s the beauty of the profession,” he says. “You get to see them overcome their obstacles.”

Khan says he’s been good at staying positive his whole life so when his team dealt with hearing uncalled for negative comments towards them, he didn’t let the comments bother him. He also mentions that he would always have support from his family which has helped him get through the season.

“I’m blessed to be in the position that I’m in and I don’t take it for granted,” he says. “I’ve had good games and I’ve had bad games. It’s hard to ignore people, but I tell myself that this is what I love to do.”