14 Ways Our Athletes Can Build Their Mental Strength

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Coaches ask for a simple, but very hard, thing from our athletes: complete focus for a couple of hours each day. I think this is a difficult mental task for our players to manage…I also think it requires practice. I don’t know if it’s fair of us to ask our players to do these things without giving them the space to practice these mental skills. Here are fourteen ways are athletes can break “focus” down and take control of their mental headspace:

14 powerful ways our teams can build their mental strength

  1. Perspective.  A great mental challenge of being on a team is putting the team’s goals first…even when those goals are in opposition to a player’s personal aspirations.
  2. Readiness for change. Athletes and coaches have to be nimble, flexible, and adaptable…that’s the only way to beat a savvy opponent.
  3. Detachment.  This is a call to not take things personally, but to focus on what they can accomplish, not any perceived slights from the coaching staff.
  4. Strength under stress. This one is the name of the game, right? Competition is stressful and, ideally, we’ve equipped our athletes with the tools to manage themselves so that they can shine under the bright lights.
  5. Preparation for challenges. No season is without twists and turns, use the good times to prepare for the inevitable downturn.
  6. The right attitude toward setbacks. I want my athletes to embrace their personal setbacks, because that means they’ve tried to get better. If they never experience frustration/failure/setbacks, then they’re not pushing hard enough.
  7. Self-validation. Many times, I tell my players that only they know how hard they’re working. I can come up with tough workouts, but it’s up to them to make them as challenging as possible. Working hard is a mental exercise and it’s their opportunity to push when perhaps they could get away with not pushing.
  8. Patience. Every player on every team at every school wants to win on the first day of practice. Special players and teams have the patience to work every day over the course of a long season.
  9. Control.  Is your athlete grumpy because you corrected them in practice? Are they disappointed they’re not playing with the first team? It’s our job as their coach to remind them that they, and only they, are in charge of the attitude they present at practice.
  10. Endurance in the face of failure. Quite honestly, our athletes’ goal should be to fail every day. I want my players operating at the outer edges of their ability—where failure is more likely—because I want them to challenge themselves to do what they didn’t think they could do.
  11. Unwavering positivity. We have to encourage our players to be a positive light on the team. There is always a Negative Nelly on the team, hopefully our athletes will have the guts to stop them in their tracks.
  12. Tenacity.  Never give up. Come in early, stay late…be relentless about getting better.
  13. A strong inner compass. This is a great locker room skill. When others may be grumbling, this athlete challenges themselves to do the right thing and support the direction the coach is taking the program.
  14. Uncompromising standards. The standard is the standard, regardless of how hot it is, or how many injured players your team has, or how well other teams are doing. Our athletes shouldn’t bring the standard down, but rather rise up to the standard.

What if we challenged our teams to do a few of these each day? What if, when presented with a mental challenge, we reminded our athletes that this was getting them mentally tougher for a future opponent? What if we posted this up wherever we practice so that our teams have a powerful reminder of what is required of them…beyond the skill they’re trying to master? What if we framed our disappointment with their lack of engagement/focus/whatever with an opportunity to be mentally better than our opponent?

Check out this Inc. article, which served as inspiration for this post.

Everyone Is A Critic

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Coaching, much like parenting, is a thankless job. It seems that no matter what a coach does, there’s someone waiting in the wings to criticize the recruiting technique, in-game move, or the coach’s knowledge.

I’ll never forget being on a high after making it to NCAA’s with a talented team…only to have two players quit a few months later. Buzz kill.

What I’ve learned in my years of coaching is to be open to both criticism and praise, but to take them both with a grain of salt. So I was excited to read Leadership Freak’s blog post about handling a critic/critique.

He says that there are three possibilities for your critic’s actions:

  • Some jerks are actually trying to be helpful, they just suck at it. As I look back at various parents and players that I’ve had to deal with, I think most fall into this category.
  • The criticism has a grain of truth in it. My default position for criticism is to dismiss the person as illogical. Sooo, I run it by our assistant coach to see what he thinks.
  • Your critic is a jerk. This is most definitely the smallest percentage of critic that I experience (at least, that’s what I tell myself) and I count myself lucky.

The beauty of being in charge is being able to control yourself and your reactions. While I may be cussing them out in my head, this cucumber stays calm and cool when faced with coaching’s sometimes unfortunate interactions.

4 Possible responses to a coaching criticism

  1. Thank you for your observation. Don’t know how I feel about this one. Seems like a blow off to me.
  2. What makes you say that? I like asking questions to start off what I think may be a difficult convo. That way, I respond to concerns directly from the horse’s mouth rather than relying on what I’ve heard through the grapevine.
  3. How might I address this issue? It’s easy to complain, much harder to problem solve. Involve your critic in brainstorming possible solutions.
  4. Wow! I hadn’t thought of it that way. Just because someone sees a situation differently, doesn’t necessarily make them wrong. If our conversation is fruitful, then I should have gained some insight into why they’re upset/critical/not happy. Ending with this sentiment gives both sides a chance to explain where they’re coming from.

If you don’t want to get wet, then don’t swim. If you don’t want criticism, then don’t coach. Hopefully, this gave you some ideas on how to effectively manage the critics in your midst.

How To Turn Around An Underperforming Team

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If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, then you know I’m a huge fan of TEDtalks. I just watched a great one by a principle of an epically underperforming school. Linda Cliatt-Wayman’s talk gives details about just how bad the situation at the school was when she arrived…and it’s depressing.

But for those of you out there who are taking over a team that has historically underachieved or are looking to turn around the fortunes of the team you coach, her talk should be inspiration for you. Paraphrasing one of many awesome points from her talk for our purposes, low expectations from coaches play a major role in the destruction of a team’s culture.

So how do we fight the inertia of low expectations? Here are the three points to she said helped guide the amazing turnaround of her failing school.

3 Steps To Turn Around Your Underachieving Team

  1. If you’re going to lead, LEAD. First things first, assemble the best leadership team you can…assistants, captains, etc. Cliatt-Wayman emphasized the importance of not hiding from the problem and being able to change things that aren’t working. At their best, leaders make the impossible possible. She also discussed making sure her students knew what her non-negotiables were…what are yours? Mine are athletes who walk in the gym and don’t put their teammates first and don’t bring a competitive mindset.
  2. So What? Now What? Of her three main points, this one is my favorite. She says the primary responsibility a leader of an underperforming team has is to eliminate excuses. When I think of times when my team hasn’t reached their goals, there were always many excuses and not many players accepting responsibility. Cliatt-Wayman’s point is to challenge our athlete’s view of the problem…so what we have a lot of injuries, what are you going to do to step up? So what you lost your starting spot, how much harder are you willing to work to earn it back?
  3. If nobody told you they loved you today, remember I do. Our players need to know that we care about them as people and not just what they bring to the team. It’s our job to believe in the possibilities of our athletes. So whether you have organized meetings, text/call your players, or use your warmup time to chat with your athletes, taking time to get to know them will make everyone’s experience much better.

I certainly am not here to say that turning around an underperforming team will be easy, but it can be done. Have a plan, have high expectations, and care about your athletes.

Being On A Team Isn’t Always Fun…And That’s Okay

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There was a time when I felt frustrated by my lack of voice at a particular place of employment. Those two things (frustration combined with lack of voice) are tough to overcome and can lead to malaise, a bad attitude, and a desire to look for greener pastures. Those things, in turn, can then lead to team-wide discontent…and that will inevitably lead to less success in terms of team dynamics, as well as fewer wins and more losses.

This, of course, leads me to think of my team. Is there a way to make sure they know how to handle these kinds of feelings? I wanted to think of ways to help them push through this normal life situation. How can coaches guide their athletes through the process of not being in charge/knowing your role/blooming where you’re planted?

I read a great post over at Leadership Freak, where he gave fifteen ways our players could lead themselves. I like the idea of helping them find ownership in something of their athletic experience, because a lot of it is out of their control.

5 Ways To Control The Controllables

  1. Remember what matters to you. During the low points of the season, whether it’s because they’re not seeing as much playing time as they’d like or just because their school work is kicking their butts, it’s good to remember why they love the game.
  2. Evaluate yourself with greater rigor than you evaluate others. This one really stands out to me…I probably should have written it first. Too often, players who are in a bad mental cycle spend all of their time tallying up their teammate’s flaws rather than looking in the mirror. Remembering that they can only control themselves will help them feel more in control of their lives.
  3. Build transparent relationships that strengthen your soul. I’m not one of those coaches who feels their team should all be BFFs, but I do think they should have a friend or two on the team who aren’t afraid to tell them the unfiltered truth.
  4. Reflect on your journey. Try keeping a journal. I’ve heard this advice from quite a few coaches who have their teams write reflections in journals. Some teams do it daily, after practices as well competitions. Others journal at set points during the season. Questions like: What am I learning? Who am I becoming? Am I being a great teammate? Would I want to coach myself?
  5. Extend second chances to yourself. Probably a lesson all of us could learn, huh? They’re probably going to fail at some or all of these things during the season. They may fall into a funk where they have a bad attitude or even think of quitting the team or transferring. That’s when they’ve got to find their positive headspace and remember that they love the game.

Having these conversations with our athletes can help them frame their feelings of discontent as normal rather than a sign that they aren’t where they’re meant to be.

Culture Change: Evolution or Revolution?

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A coworker of mine let me know about The Corner Office, which is a management/leadership section within the New York Times magazine.  It has lots of interviews of hot shot management types that are very interesting and, I think, applicable to the coaching profession.

Changing a team culture needs to happen when you take over a new team, when your team is stuck in a negative rut, and sometimes when a new and dominant set of leaders take over.  How should you go about it?

A model for changing a team culture:

  1. Evaluate the team.  Sit down with your assistants and go through your team, player by player.  What positives do they bring to the team?  Negatives?  Do you have the players you need to win?
  2. Figure out what needs to be changed.  Do you have good team leaders?  It’s easy to dust off old practices each year, but maybe you need to get to some clinics to learn some new ways to teach your old tricks.
  3. Figure out what doesn’t need to be changed.  Similar to #2.

Decide:

  1. Evolution.  Slow, steady change.  Probably best for a team you’re currently coaching.
  2. Revolution. Fast, radical change.   Probably best for taking over a new team.

Action plan:

  1. Set the strategy.  Where will you start first?  Staff improvements? Recruiting?  Increasing the skill base of your current players?
  2. Come up with a structure/plan.  Implementing the strategy.
  3. Identify the right players.  We can’t anything without our players.  Make sure you’ve got the right team leaders in place, the right players in the right positions, and the right recruits in the pipeline.

So that’s the coach version of the business turnaround plan from The Corner Office.

Teaching Our Female Athletes To Value Toughness

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One of the things I hear a lot from young players is they don’t enjoy their team experience.  Sometimes they’ll say they don’t like their coach, their team isn’t very good, but many times (too many!), in a moment of honesty, they’ll say their teammates are bitches or their coach is a bitch.  Usually, they’ll whisper that word…but they still say it.  I believe it’s our job, as coaches, to take this word out of their vocabulary.

Navigating the world of toughness and bitchiness is a life lesson we must teach our female athletes.  This post was inspired by this article from Fast Company.

4 ways we can help our women embrace toughness and success

  1. Be confident.  “No matter who you are in the world of business, there will be people who find your methods unattractive. That’s intimidating for anyone, male or female.”  Sometimes women make the mistake of thinking we can make everyone happy, this quotation says that when we stick to our guns and follow our morals, some folks will be upset by our behavior.  We’ve got to be confident enough in our tactics and our leadership styles that we can manage not always being well-liked.
  2. Learn to “speak guy”.  In her book, Gender & Competition—How Men and Women Approach Work and Play Differently, Kathy DeBoer talks about the differences in how men and women communicate.  One phrase stood out to me as I read the book: “Die before you cry.”  She explained that men don’t see tears as getting in touch with your emotions, but rather they see it as weak and out of control.  Don’t do it…at least at the office.  These are great lessons that will not only help our players on the court, but also in the real world.
  3. Embrace unpopularity.  Part of being the boss is being unpopular.  I often joke with coworkers who are chatting in my office that if I were the big dog, they’d be in someone’s office talking about what a bad job I was doing.  I think it’s important to acknowledge that we’re never happy with the boss…no matter how nice/understanding/amazing they are.  It’s the nature of the job.  What if we taught that lesson to our team captain’s so they’d be ready for the business world when they entered into it?
  4. Defining “bitch”.  “Assertive or competitive qualities are usually associated with men, and are thought to be essential for successful leaders. But for women, they can be a landmine.”  Being assertive and competitive are two of the qualities that will make women successful…on the field and off.  It’s also mislabeled as “bitchy”.  As the article says, if we’re being a mean and disrespectful person or if we’re elevating ourselves above our coworkers in a malicious way…then maybe we are being jerks and need to step back.  I hope my athletes never feel they have to apologize for being driven and goal-oriented.

Often, our athletes are afraid to lead because they have a bad stereotype in their heads about what a female leader looks like and how she acts.  Let’s help show them that women can be effective and successful leaders.

The 5 Stages Of A Coach’s Career

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Let me tell you what I think about coaches: we’re crazy in our preparation and dedication, we work long hours and love it, we give up our nights and weekends, we mentor our student-athletes, we demand big things from them and even more from ourselves, we’re passionate in our belief in our team and our love for our sport, we believe in the power of sport to have a positive and long-lasting impact in our athlete’s lives.  So when I saw “The 5 Stages of Your Career” over at Bob Starkey’s blog, I wanted to expand on it over here.  It’s interesting to figure out what stage you’re in and those that you’ve already gone through…or have you circled back around to some you thought you were finished with?  Check them out and see what you think.

The 5 Stages of Your Career

1.       Survival: Don’t Know What You Don’t Know
Coaches, you remember what this stage felt like don’t you?   Or maybe you’re in the middle of this stage now and feel like you’re flailing.  I remember being beyond clueless…that’s back when I thought I just needed to know volleyball to be a volleyball coach!  Turns out also I needed to formulate a recruiting plan, balance a budget, create practice plans, order equipment, manage assistant coaches, and make in-game adjustments.  Color me unprepared, but thank goodness for a veteran coach who took me under his wing.

2.       Striving for Success: You Want Folks to Recognize You Can Coach
Your motivation?  Winning, plain and simple.  You’re obsessed with conquering the competition and put in hours and hours of your time to make it happen.  Being the best is what drives you and to be the best, you need the tangible accolades that go along with that:  lots of W’s in the win column, all-league awards for your team, and maybe a coach of the year for you.

3.       Satisfaction: You Relax, Set Another Goal, & Want To Get Better
Now that you’ve achieved a few of your goals, you can relax and know that you’re a good coach and you have the respect of your peers.  You attend conferences to network and visit with old friends as much as you do to learn some new things…you’re getting established.  Each year you set new goals to accomplish that will push you and your team forward…you’re focused.

4.       Significance: Changing Lives For The Good
At this stage you’re more concerned with how you impact your teams and your legacy than you are with personal glory…after all, you’ve already accomplished a lot.  Now you want to make sure your teams understand the value of sport and hope that you’re teaching them how to be better people, not just better players.  With all of your experience and years in the game, you’re very knowledgeable.  And because of the success you’ve had in your career, this is the stage where people solicit your opinion and ask for your help with their coaching conundrums.

5.       Spent: No Juice Left, Can’t Do It Any More
The busses, the trips, preseason, recruiting, the hustle, the grind…you’re over it.  You’re ready to hang with the family and actually make it home before nine o’clock at night.  And your weekends?  You want them back.  Not even the prospect of that super sweet and talented recruiting class that you just brought in is enough to bring you back into the fold.  As much as you love your sport, you’re just not that fired up about the season this year…it’s time to hang it up.

So what stage are YOU at?

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4 Lessons Our Athletes Need In Order To Measure Their Success

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“Bloom where you’re planted” and lots of other clichés (“when life hands you lemons, make lemonade”) are created to help people deal with the fact they’re not where they want to be in life.

Now I’m not naïve enough to think that every student-athlete that I coach has dreamed of attending my institution since they were little tykes.  I know that most, if not all, of them would love to play at Big Time State University if they could.  They’d get all sorts of gear, they’d be on television every weekend, they’d be big-timers.

You might be in another situation.  Maybe a player thought they’d make Varsity and only made JV, or they thought they’d make the “1” team and ended up on the “2”…whatever it is, we’ve got to get them fired up about moving forward rather than looking back.

4 tips we can give our athletes to refocus their goals and have measurable success

  1. Don’t make general plans.  Saying, “I want to start” or “I want our team to win conference” isn’t a specific goal.  Instead of vague, “I just want to help the team” type goals, let’s focus them on figuring out how they can get better every day.  I know of some coaches who have their athletes fill out a goal sheet at the end of each practice.  They set a mini goal and then write down whether or not they accomplished that goal.
  2. Award incremental positives.  Goals are hard enough to accomplish without waiting until you’re standing on the championship podium!  If the player has been able to string a bunch of great games together, be sure to give her a pat on the back.  If she wins a smaller award, like all-tournament team, be sure to make it a big deal.  Being good is hard, being good over a long period of time is a lot harder…celebrate small victories.
  3. Read.  So many times, our athletes are only focused on reading for classwork…it’s rare for them to read for fun during the school year.  That’s why I read a book with my team each year.  Reading it as a team helps each person to carry the load of the book, because they sign up for chapters and are then responsible for teaching their teammates the content.  Picking books that will make them better leaders, players, or help them overcome a mental barrier has been critical to helping my athletes be successful.
  4. Don’t wait for something to happen to you.  A few years ago, there was a book that made the “Law of Attraction” popular.  The Law said that if you thought about something enough and had enough positive thoughts about it…whatever the thing was that you really wanted would come to fruition.  Those of us who live in the real world understand that good things don’t just happen, we’ve got to hustle for them.  It’s a great lesson to teach our athletes.  If they want amazing things to happen in their lives, hard work and success have a reciprocal relationship.

The idea for this post came to me after reading A Checklist for Measuring Your Success on Huffington Post.  As the clichés have a fun way of telling us, we have the ability to take life’s disappointments and turn them into opportunities.

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Why I Love When My Team Makes Mistakes

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You will become clever through your mistakes.—German proverb

I’m old enough to have accumulated a long list of mistakes.  Small ones like locking my key in the car to big ones.  I’d like to tell you a little story of a big one I made during my freshman year of college.

Dawn’s doozy of a mistake

I went to a big time school to play volleyball.  I walked on and earned a full scholarship by the second semester of my freshman year.  We were pretty good, nationally ranked, so I wasn’t seeing much playing time early on.  I tell you this to help you understand why I thought I’d be able to get away with my doozy.

We were all excited to play another big time team on our schedule.  On the bus, as we were driving to play this game (against the team that would ultimately win the national championship that season), I made a realization.  A gut-wrenching, sweat-inducing, stomach-turning realization.  I didn’t pack my uniforms.

I didn’t tell anyone.  We warmed up in our warmup shirts, so still, no one was the wiser.  When we went out to play, I kept my jacket on…so no one knew.  I thought I could get away with it.

But then it happened.

My coach looked down the bench, as coaches do when the players on the court aren’t doing what they should be doing, and motioned for me to come sit next to him.  I knew what that meant and in my head I’m screaming “No! No! No!” because I thought I’d get away without anyone knowing I’d forgotten my uniform.

As I slinked over to whisper to an assistant coach (I certainly wasn’t telling the head coach!) that I didn’t have my uniform, I realized from her very annoyed look (and the very ticked look I got from the head coach when it was whispered to him) that I was in loads and loads of trouble.

Why mistakes are important

Quite simply, mistakes are important because we learn from them.  As is said in an article I found over at Psychology Today, What’s Your Favorite Mistake, big mistakes that leave “you feeling hot-faced with shame” lead to innovation.  After my doozy of a mistake, I came up with a buddy system for checking teammate’s bags before we left for a trip.  I even created a checklist (because someone was always forgetting socks, hair ties, etc.) of must-haves for every travel bag.

So, while I ran what surely added up to a marathon in sprints that season, I never forgot anything again.  And neither did anyone I played with…nor have any of the players I’ve coached.

The same thing happens with sport skills.  When we challenge our players to take a risk, they sometimes make that big, huge, mistake that is just embarrassing when you come right down to it.  When that embarrassment seeps over them, “like hot acid” according to the PT author, that’s a feeling they don’t want to replicate.  And it’s that feeling that propels them to figure out ways to solve that problem.  That feeling forces our athletes to be more thoughtful, more creative, and more focused on problem solving.

Odd as it may seem, we’ve got to teach our players to embrace failing and be okay with making mistakes.  Only then will they truly feel the impetus to get better.

If you liked this post, I’ll bet you’d enjoy 3 Reasons Why Making Mistakes Is Vital To Your Team’s Success, The Secrets To Greatness Are Within Your Control, and M Is For Mistakes: The Value Of Taking Risks.

Jingle Bell Rock: 8 Christmas Wishes For The Athletes You Coach

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It’s crunch time people…only one more day to find that perfect gift for everyone on your list.  Though I suppose at this point, it doesn’t really have to be perfect, does it?  I do have a list of gifts that would be perfect for your team to receive this year.  Gifts that would make them better teammates and better players.  They may not know that they need these gifts though, so you’ll need to write up a wish list for them.  Here they are:

8 things you’d be fired up for Santa to leave under your player’s Christmas trees

1.       Confidence.  In themselves, in their abilities, and the future of the team.  It’s essential to any sort of success your team may have…and it’s got to be consistent.  Situational confidence is short-lived, to be crushed by the next loss or poor performance.  But genuine confidence?  Now that’s the good stuff!  It’s a belief held deep down within the athlete that they will ultimately be successful.

2.       Success. We love our athletes, don’t we?  And we want the best for them and hope that all of their hard work and focused intensity will pay off in the end with some sort of tangible success.  Whether it’s the non-starter who becomes a starter, or the starter who makes all-conference, or the all-conference player that receives national recognition…we all hope for a measure of success for our players.

3.       Self-motivation. In my mind, the best gift that Santa could leave!  Every drill, every game, every weight room workout is only as good as the amount of effort our athletes are willing to put in.  For those who are internally motivated to work hard in the off-season, during preseason, in the weight room…those are the athletes who will see tremendous improvement over the course of their careers.

4.       Hard work. There’s only one person who knows if your players are working to their full potential…that’s the players themselves!  We can put them into physically and mentally challenging situations, but it’s up to them to truly challenge themselves.  We all hope that we’ll have a team full of players that will never “dog it” in a drill or not push themselves in a practice, but we’ve got to trust them to take things seriously.  Those athletes who are willing to keep their foot on the gas pedal throughout the entire season will ultimately experience success.

5.       Leadership. The responsibility of being a team leader is exciting to some and daunting to others.  We’d love for our teams to be full of leaders and leaders-in-training.  Your current leaders could model to your leaders-in-training the proper ways to motivate and encourage people.  An openness and desire to lead is essential because I don’t think that you can thrust leadership onto someone, but rather it must be accepted.

6.       Teaminess. That’s a word that I’ve made up that describes the state of an individual who values their teammates and enjoys being in a team environment.  The teamy player puts their teammates first and is willing to sacrifice personal glory for the good of the team.  Teaminess is what occurs when a group of people come together with a common goal, a common purpose, and a common level of dedication.

7.       Skill. Hopefully Santa will leave a gigantic box of skill under our player’s trees!  Because all of the intangibles in the world won’t do the team much good if it’s not combined with skill.  But those intangibles should spur the player on to work at their skill level with a laser-like focus.

8.       Hunger. I’m sure we’ve all coached the athlete that was blessed with a tremendous heaping of skill, but junks it away with their laziness.  I’m not talking about that athlete, but rather the one who is very skilled and willing to work to better their already finely tuned skills.  The athlete who wants to win and be successful so badly that they can literally taste it.  The player who is being propelled by their desire to get better every single day.

Those are the things that I want for my players.  They’ve got a finite amount of time to accomplish great things and my wish for them is that they do everything within their power to attain their goals.