Category Archives: Mental game

14 Ways Our Athletes Can Build Their Mental Strength

mental toughnesssource

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.

4 Lessons Our Athletes Need In Order To Measure Their Success


“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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Coaches Corner: Creating Realistic Discomfort For Your Team


When I asked Sam Shweisky, the head men’s volleyball coach at Princeton University, how he prepared his team to handle challenges or being put in uncomfortable situations, I liked his answer about “realistic discomfort”.  Sometimes I’ll talk to a coach and it seems like their main goal is to put their team through some sort of boot camp or make practice about perseverance rather than gaining knowledge.  Of course, I’m not saying we shouldn’t appropriately condition our teams or that we shouldn’t figuratively kicks their butts in practice…but it should be applicable to our sport.  The amount of volleyball coaches I hear about who still have their teams running a timed mile astounds me!  Anaerobic sports need short, fast, all-out bursts…not long, slow, managed cardio.

Anyhoo, I digress.

As Shweisky talked about realistic discomfort, I found myself trying to figure out which ideas would be applicable to my team and if I could make these things happen in my gym.

Creating realistic discomfort

  1. Practice in jerseys.  The fact is, game day messes with some of our player’s heads.  Most times, we hope, it’s good.  They get super amped up and are on edge (in a good way) all day until game time.  On the less positive end, some of our players may get very nervous to the point of not feeling well.  Either way, letting them have the opportunity to learn how to manage those feelings is a great idea and one I hadn’t thought of.
  2. Turn the scoreboard on.  The power of the scoreboard is amazing!  It instantly ramps up the competitiveness of your gym and I’d highly recommend putting some form of visual pressure on your team.  It’s what they have to deal with in real games and they’ve got to be comfortable having those numbers up there.
  3. Set the “game day” court up.  There’s nothing like walking into the gym and seeing it all set up for game day…it’s one of the things that makes game day special.  Again, another things I hadn’t thought about doing with my team that I will now do: make sure we practice with everything set up the way it will be for games.  Hopefully this will help them learn to manage the butterflies that come along with competition.

Not so fun realistic discomfort

These aren’t from Sam, but from me, but I think still pretty good!

  1. Pull your best player from a drill.  What happens if your best player gets hurt?  Or their grandma dies and they’ve got to miss a game?  Do you have a plan of action?  We owe it to our teams to have put them in situations where that player wasn’t on the court/field/ice and the team still thrived.
  2. Unbalanced scoring.  I’m sure most of you do this already, but create an unfair situation and make your team dig their way out.  Not only will they learn that it’s possible, they’ll learn to never give up.
  3. Stack teams.  Make one team very strong, like “why are we even practicing like this?” strong.  There are many ways to address the unbalance in skill level: scoring, you could put your best player on the worst team and force them to step up and lead the weaker team, the stronger team could have parameters on their scoring.
  4. Unfair reffing.  In the heat of competition, the team will look at the coaches and disagree with one another heartily.  Sometimes I tell them that the officials of a game are just people and they make mistakes too.  Practicing dealing with bad calls, in my opinion, is essential.  Worrying about reffing takes our player’s attention away from where it should be and we’ve got to help them manage their emotions.

While these suggestions came pretty close to the X’s and O’s line, I think they hit home the idea that sport is a mental, as well as, physical venture.  These ideas will help you to develop your athlete’s mental games alongside their skills.  Good luck!

How To Motivate Our Teams


Daniel Pink focuses on how we’re motivated in a TEDtalk called, “The Puzzle of Motivation“.  He spends a lot of time going into why we’re going at motivation all wrong and in an outdated way.  In example after example, he shows us that offering up rewards (or delivering the promise of punishment) doesn’t work in today’s world.  The talk is about eighteen minutes long…check it out!

His talk is coming from a business point of view, so certainly a lot different than the world of athletics.  The athletic “business model” allows for some behaviors that would be outside of the norm for an office setting, but I think we can learn from a lot of what Pink says.  Our athletes are growing up in this world where they want to be internally motivated and I think most of us can agree that a motivated athlete is an engaged athlete.

Pink says that traditional ideas of management (you get more money if you perform a task quicker, etc.) are great if you want compliance, but if you want engagement, self-direction works better.  And this is where I see the athletic world as being a bit different…because sometimes coaches do just want compliance.  If we see a weakness in our opponent that our team can take advantage of, we just want to players to do exactly what we say and not ask questions.

On the other side of the coin, we need our athletes to be able to identify trends within a game without us telling them every second.  Most sports don’t have tons of timeouts where we can relay information, so we rely on our players to understand what they’re seeing, remember the scouting report, and react to those things in an appropriate manner.

So how do we create this engaged (passionate, hard-working, accountable), yet compliant, player? If I knew, I’d be a gazillionaire! But I have some ideas.

  • Create trust.  And not just that the coaches know what you’re talking about, but that you care about your players and want the best for them.
  • Build in autonomy when possible.  We’ve done 30-day challenges in the off-season where each player was responsible for their own work.  As coaches, we focused on why this was important and how each person’s contribution was vital to our success.  Pink says we all have an urge to direct our own lives.  I think this is a great way to give them autonomy, but within a team construct.
  • Have amazing team chemistry. Huge!  If you don’t got it, go get it.  If you got it, fight like heck to keep it.
  • Empower leaders.  Pink talked about self-direction within the business world and I think a great way to bring that to athletics is a captain-led practice.  It teaches your captains how to lead, plus you’ll find out what drills the team likes and what things they think they need to work on…a win-win.

There you have it!  Let’s all get out there and motivate our teams.

Non-Verbal Communication

power posesource

“Our bodies change our minds
And our minds change our behavior
And our behavior changes our outcomes.

In a TEDtalk called Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are by Amy Cuddy, I learned that how we present ourselves is amazingly powerful.  And not in the way that you think.  It’s how you present yourself to yourself…not necessarily to others.  The findings of assuming powerful positions, like my man Frank Underwood up above, are pretty astounding.  I’d suggest you watch the talk, it’s about twenty minutes long and well worth your time.

It turns out that folks in studies who assumed high power poses for two minutes and then were put through an intense interview situation were seen as:

  • Passionate
  • Enthusiastic
  • Captivating
  • Comfortable
  • Authentic
  • Confident

Which all sound like the qualities we’re looking for in our athletes!  Apparently, powerful people are more assertive, confident, and optimistic than their less powerful peers.  They think more abstractly and take more risks, as well.  It turns out that power isn’t only about dominance, but how you react to stress.  The high-power pose people in the studies had hormonal changes from just two minutes of assuming their powerful positions.

Here are some examples of high power vs. low power poses:

power pose2source

I’ll add as a side note that checking your phone is also a low-power pose, because you’re making yourself smaller.  The high power poses are all about making yourself bigger and taking up space.

What if we had our teams take on high power poses before each competition?  The studies seem to show that their bodies will physiologically react to the pose with a more powerful view of themselves.  I’m willing to try it…are you?

Coaches Corner: Creating Enduring Confidence Within Your Athletes

confident teamsource

“All teams are confident at the beginning of the season.”—Joel Walton

I’ve just finished up a weekend of recruiting and it’s always fun for me to watch teams in action. Whenever I’m on the road, I play a little game of guess-who’s-going-to-win-the-game. How do I decide? The team that reacts poorly to adversity is always my bet to end up on the losing side of the equation. Their lack of confidence comes across as poor body language, snipping at one another, or no communication at all.

When I spoke with Joel Walton, head men’s volleyball coach at Ball State University, I asked him about instilling confidence in his players. He said that confidence is something that good teams have…so maybe our confidence efforts should be corporate rather than individual.

Team confidence, according to Walton, is a function of the makeup of the team successes they’ve had and the length of time they’ve played together. We can’t do anything about the time our teams have been together, but we can work on those team successes in practice and get a bunch under their belt before games start.

What lack of confidence looks like:

  • Uptight. Tense, anxious, on edge, impatient, angry…those are all synonyms for “uptight”. And none of those sound like a player who will be able to perform a task well.
  • Verbal sparring between players. I’ve only experienced this a couple times in my time as a coach. Once my team reached that point, it was a “back to the drawing board” moment. My only caveat to this statement is sometimes things get heated in practice and we, as coaches, can manage the situation. If players snip at each other during a game, then you’re in trouble.
  • No communication. I don’t only mean talking, but motivating their teammates, making some sort of physical contact (high fives, fist bumps, etc.)…all of these things are missing on teams that lack confidence in their ability to execute.

I don’t know if there’s a solution to this (and I’m sure we’ve all been on the bench when things go sideways with our teams), but putting our teams in stressful situations in practice should help them learn how to deal with stress…and also how their teammates deal with it. I’m also a believer in pointing out poor behavior—whether it’s a sport or mental skill—right when it’s occurring.

More articles on confidence:
How To Cure A Slump Of Confidence
3 Keys To Unlock The Confidence That Will Lead To Your Success
How To Build Long-Lasting Confidence Within Your Team
3 Ways The Effective Leader Builds Confidence Within Each Team Member
Using The Movie Inception To Build Confidence In Your Athletes

More from the Joel Walton series:
Coaches Corner: Joel Walton
Coaches Corner: On Handling Pressure
Coaches Corner: The DNA Of Good Coaches
Coaches Corner: Managing Various Personality Types

Join me in a series of interviews with successful coaches.  I believe what we learn from our coaching peers can be applied to our teams, our recruiting efforts, and how we behave as professionals. These interviews will be less Q & A and much more philosophical in nature, keep coming back to see who I’m talking to and what they’ve got to say!

Coaches Corner: On Handling Pressure

handling pressuresource

There’s a saying in coaching that you don’t want to follow “the guy”, you want to follow the guy who follows “the guy”. Joel Walton followed a coaching legend at Ball State University and has been quite successful in his own right. I’d guess most of that success is due to his great knowledge and astute coaching ability. But some of it has to be an inner confidence he had within himself to handle the pressure of following a beloved coach. I’m sure his mindset helps him guide his team when they’re in pressure-filled situations.

When I talked to him about teaching his athletes to handle pressure, he had some pretty interesting things to say. During his time at Ball State, as a player, assistant, and now head volleyball coach, his team has enjoyed many Top-25 rankings and has played against many teams with national rankings.

How to handle the pressure of a big-time program:

  1. Recruiting. As I’ve said before, Ball State volleyball has a passionate fan and alumni base who have high expectations for the program. Walton says students choose to play at Ball State precisely because of the pressure. He recruits athletes who won’t shy away from having expectations of greatness put upon them.
  2. Focus on the process. Walton says he doesn’t talk to his team about national rankings and whatnot, but rather breaks it down into more manageable pieces for them. He’ll focus on doing well in conference because he can show the team how much easier their path will be once they get into tournament play.
  3. Enjoy the outcome. The outcome isn’t necessarily a national ranking or a conference championship, but a legitimate chance at those things. I’m sure all of us would agree that being in control of your destiny at the end of the season is a good place to be.

Those steps almost seem easy, but those of us who’ve been at this coaching game for long enough know that finding the balance of expectation, focus, and fun can be challenging. I linked a few other articles I’ve written on pressure down below. Enjoy!

More articles about handling pressure:
Keeping Your Athletes From Wilting Under Pressure
The Key To Performing Under Pressure
Teaching Our Teams To Handle Pressure

More from the Joel Walton series:
Coaches Corner: Joel Walton
Coaches Corner: Creating Enduring Confidence Within Your Athletes
Coaches Corner: The DNA Of Good Coaches
Coaches Corner: Managing Various Personality Types

Join me in a series of interviews with successful coaches.  I believe what we learn from our coaching peers can be applied to our teams, our recruiting efforts, and how we behave as professionals. These interviews will be less Q & A and much more philosophical in nature, keep coming back to see who I’m talking to and what they’ve got to say!

Coaches Corner: 3 Ways To Overcome Challenges

overcome challengessource

For most of us, the biggest challenge we’ll face as coaches is trying to land a high-profile recruit, reframe a weakness your team has, or beat an insanely good team. But in 2010, Christy Johnson-Lynch faced a bigger challenge. She, her volleyball team, and the greater Iowa State University community experienced a debilitating flood…the week preseason was supposed to start. You can check out this twenty-second video to see what the water did to their gym. She ended up playing that season at a local high school.

So she has learned a thing or two about facing and overcoming challenges…both of the expected and unexpected variety.

Here are three tips Johnson-Lynch has to help us all deal with adversity when it strikes:

  1. Put a good face on. When I asked her about a big win her team had against a big-time opponent, she commented that your team really has to believe you think an obstacle can be beaten. She says that she wakes up and says to herself, “today is an amazing day, this is the day we’re going to beat insert-tough-opponent-here.” Your team can pick up on your belief, preparation, and body language…make sure it’s good.
  2. Embrace it. Johnson-Lynch says she and her team are driven by a “what’s next?” attitude. Meaning, okay, we’ve overcome this obstacle and we’re ready for whatever is coming up for us. Whether you walk into your gym and it’s covered in water or you have a five-foot-tall center on your basketball team, you understand that it’s just a challenge to be overcome.
  3. Look for the silver lining. When I asked her specifically about the flood, Johnson-Lynch actually said it was good for the team, because it helped them focus on what really mattered. I’m sure a lot of that statement is hindsight talking, but I’m also sure her mindset helped her players move forward.

Most times, challenging situations aren’t things we can readily change, so understanding how to frame them for our athletes is paramount. Coaches (obviously) have value. We teach the X’s and O’s and equip our athletes with the skills they need in order to compete. But the best thing we can teach our players is how to face and overcome adversity.

Join me in a series of interviews with successful coaches.  I believe what we learn from our coaching peers can be applied to our teams, our recruiting efforts, and how we behave as professionals. These interviews will be less Q & A and much more philosophical in nature, keep coming back to see who I’m talking to and what they’ve got to say!

Challenging An Athlete’s Beliefs About Their Limits


We can never know that we can’t do something; we can only know that we haven’t yet done so.
—Ellen Langer

I watched an athlete perform during the Olympics and after winning a gold medal, she revealed that she listened to the song, I Know I Can, before every competition.  Here’s the chorus, which is sung by kids:

I know I can
Be what I wanna be
If I work hard at it
I’ll be where I wanna be

It’s a great song, positive and empowering.  As is the quotation at the top, from 5 Mindfulness Steps That Guarantee Increased Success And Vitality.  Often, our athletes are too quick to say what they can’t do and what Dr. Langer found out is it’s an impossibility to know you can’t do something.  How about that?  It’s a powerful message.

Of course, poor mindset—like thinking and verbalizing you can’t do something—can create an environment where success will be difficult.  So that’s where we coaches come in to save the day.  For an athlete to say they can’t perform a skill or a team to say they can’t find the success that’s eluded them is a falsehood.  So how can we intervene to stop the negative self-talk and help our teams test their limits.

2 ways mindfulness will help our athletes challenge their limits

  1. Encourage dreaming.  What if our athletes went beyond setting goals?  Goals are great and motivating, but can be limiting.  Perhaps they can be separate categories.  Your team can set goals but also have “why not us?” sessions.  Dream big.  Why not?
  2. Redefine failure.  I had a team that had a goal of winning the conference championship.  We didn’t win, we lost in the finals and we were all devastated.  We set a goal and we failed.  I can tell you something, I’ve never had a more motivated team in the off-season.  We won the championship the following year, in no small part, because of our failure the previous year.

Mindfulness means being present.  Mindfulness means being aware of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.

Saying, “I can’t”, isn’t mindful because it lives in the future.  We should encourage our athletes to stay present.  Worrying about the mistake they’ve just made isn’t being mindful because it lives in the past.  We’ve got to help our athletes fight and battle to stay in the moment…it’s the only thing they can control.

If we consistently challenge their mindset and mindfulness, our athletes will blow through any limits they think they may have.

Keeping Your Athletes From Wilting Under Pressure


“To choke is to wilt under pressure, to fail to perform at the moment of greatest importance.”
The Relationship Between Anxiety and Performance

The antihero to the clutch player is the choker.

Here’s an expert definition:  a “worse performance than expected given what a performer is capable of doing and what this performer has done in the past.”

I’m sure you’ll remember back to your playing days and recall that you were pretty nervous before every competition.  For example, I ran the 400m for my track team in high school.  Every race (three times a week), I stood at the start line and internally berated myself for choosing to do that event.  Before every race (Every. Single. One.) I’d tell myself I was an idiot for choosing to run that race and that I’d never run it again.  Then I’d run, it’d be fine, I’d run it again at the next meet.

Those are nerves…totally normal.

Choking is different.  Something happens that prohibits a person from getting beyond their nerves.  Choking is anxiety gone all wrong.

Why do people choke?

Quite simply, they’re so worried about messing things up…that they mess things up!

Helping our athletes beat the choke monster

  • Change their self-talk.  As my assistant coach says, you’ve got to ask some players to think about what they’re doing on the court.  Others, you’ve got to tell, “Don’t think!”  I’d say our chokers fall into the latter category.
  • Don’t worry about the outcome, just the task at hand.  Being present will help.  Again, don’t think…just do.
  • Control breathing.  I encourage my players to breathe in their nose, hold it for a moment, and then let it out.  The article talked about some sort of nervous system reaction that responds to this, but I like it because it focuses their brain on something other than what they’ve got to execute.

Our players can’t always control the direction a game goes, but they can control their reaction to it.