Fitness: How can athletes break out of a slump?

Research suggests that the more athletes believe they can control the cause of the slump, or that it’s a natural occurrence, the less anxiety they have about finding their way through it.

Jill Barker 5 minute read May 15, 2022

You know it’s playoff season when the word “slump” starts hitting the news cycle. Whether it’s used by the media to describe an underperforming superstar (think of Mitch Marner, who was scoreless during last year’s playoff series between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens), a teammate about the lacklustre performance of the leading scorer in the local beer league, or the average Joe or Jill complaining about a sustained period of less-than-stellar workouts, slumps affect athletes in all sports, regardless of age and ability.

Sports psychologist Jim Taylor defines a slump as “an unexplained decline in performance from a previously determined baseline level of a particular athlete that extends longer than would be expected from normal cyclic variations in performance in a given sport.” Little is known about why they come and go, but there’s no shortage of theories. Injuries, overtraining, lack of confidence, non-sport-related personal issues, technical miscues and problematic relationships with teammates or coaches are often cited as underlying causes.

How frequent are slumps? In a poll of 70 athletes, 23 per cent said it was a frequent problem, 54 per cent stated it happened infrequently and 23 per cent claimed it was hardly ever a problem. Yet beyond that definition above, there lies a lot of room for interpretation, especially since athletic performance naturally ebbs and flows over the course of a season. For some athletes, a slump can mean going a game or two without putting any points on the board. For others — especially individual athletes like runners, cyclists or swimmers — it may take weeks before a sustained dip in performance can be acknowledged.

If slumps are inevitable, how can athletes get their mojo back? To help shed light on the dynamics of this misunderstood but common problem, a trio of researchers from Leeds Beckett University in the U.K. reviewed 18 studies and attempted to identify the causes, symptoms and ways out of a slump. The studies included athletes from a variety of sports and levels of competition, from professional basketball, baseball and cricket players to collegiate and high school athletes.

Not all athletes react the same when going through a rough patch. Those who previously worked through a slump are better able to cope with the stress of underperforming than those experiencing it for the first time. Research suggests that the more athletes believe they can control the cause of the slump, or that it’s a natural occurrence, the less anxiety they have about finding their way through it.

As for tips on breaking out of a slump, once again theories abound. Yet no surefire method has been identified to help Marner put the puck in the net or help Kyle Lowry hit three-pointers. Still, the U.K. researchers discovered that athletes who choose a problem-solving approach to getting back on track are more likely to break a slump than those who find themselves mired in wishful thinking, denial or avoidance.

“Setting specific goals enhances performance, builds self-confidence and develops mental resilience,” said the researchers. “Similarly, mental imagery can establish or increase confidence.”

Another common approach to breaking a slump is focusing on skill development, often referred to by athletes as getting back to the basics. But while there’s reason to believe it’s a helpful process, there’s also concern that too much attention on retooling technique can prolong a slump.

“Performers in slumps need to re-establish goals as a way of lifting them out of the slump,” said the researchers. “Further work is needed to see whether attending to the skill perpetuates the problem or helps athletes and/or expert athletes out of the slump.”

One of the best ways to break a run of bad performances is to change up practices or training regimens. In less structured and stressful situations, athletes or their coaches can manipulate conditions so the athlete can regain mastery and confidence. Modified drills and game formats can bring back the joy of play and competition, and can re-establish control and certainty in their athletic abilities.

“If an athlete believes they can control the slump by lowering anxiety or adopt coping strategies that are goal-directed (or task oriented), they may accumulate positive performances under pressure that reverse the trend of sustained substandard performance,” said the researchers.

If you’re feeling the strain of underperforming, repeating the same routine isn’t likely to get you out of a slump. Instead, you need to create conditions that help find your flow, which occurs when there is the right balance of challenge and mastery of skill, combined with well-defined goals and simple but clear feedback.

“The conditions that afford flow and the symptoms athletes demonstrate in a flow state may be the polar opposite of the conditions that induce a performance slump and the symptoms endured by athletes in a slump,” said the researchers.

Finally, performance slumps are finite. So if you’re suffering through one, reduce negativity, re-establish goals and find a way to achieve small wins in less stressful conditions. It won’t be long before that winning form is back.

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