Category Archives: Mental game

Challenging An Athlete’s Beliefs About Their Limits

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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.

3 Reasons Why Making Mistakes Is Vital To Your Team’s Success

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Trust me, if you aren’t making mistakes, you’re not learning — or, at least, you’re not learning enough.
The Miracle of Making Mistakes

I enjoyed this article because it has been my mantra as a coach for as long as I can remember and I can’t imagine that there are too many coaches out there who want the sort of timidity that comes from playing it safe.  That quotation above is from an article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR), which I’d highly recommend you read by following the link.  The fun part of my job is getting across to my players that there is joy in making mistakes and that those mistakes are the best way to get better and here’s how you can teach the same lesson.

First:  Learn to take risks
The opening of the HBR article talks about our obsession with perfection:  from getting A’s in the classroom to avoiding getting in trouble with mom and dad…we’re hard wired at a young age to not make mistakes.  So it’s our obligation as coaches to explain that mistakes are a part of the game and that neither you nor they should expect perfection.  I usually tell my team that if they make twenty five different mistakes, that’s great!  But making twenty five of the same mistakes?  Not so great.  They should take risks and make new mistakes every day.  As the German proverb says, “you will become clever through your mistakes.”

Second:  Learn to manage their emotions when taking risks
Using volleyball as an example, how will your players learn that their heart will be pounding out of their chests when they’ve got the serve and it’s match point?  How will they learn to manage their breathing, their thoughts, and their self-talk if you don’t put them in those pressure situations (in practices and games) and coach them through it?  And that’s the key.  It’s our jobs as coaches to equip them with the tools that they need to successfully navigate risk-taking.

Third:  Learn how to turn failure on its head
This is where your athletes learn that making mistakes will pay off for them.  If they’re challenging themselves to master new skills, they’re going to fail because it’s new.  But if they keep at it, they’ll fail themselves forward and acquire a new skill that they can use to challenge competitors.  Imagine if a baby decided that it could do everything it needed to do by crawling everywhere…how limited would their lives be?!  The same is true for athletes!   It’s our jobs as coaches to challenge our athletes and to give them enough knowledge in practice that they can self-correct mid-competition…and I believe that knowledge is the key to taking smart risks and making smart mistakes.

How do you encourage your team to make mistakes?  Do you think you create an environment where your athletes feel comfortable making mistakes?

Why Weakness Unlocks The Strength Within Teams

If you’ve got fifteen minutes, I’d highly suggest you listen to Caroline Casey’s TEDtalk, Looking Past Limits.  Not only is that an intriguing topic for those of us in the coaching field, Casey is also a fabulous storyteller.

A quick rundown of her story: She was legally blind since birth, though her parents never told her, but rather let her toughen up through battling past road blocks.  She excelled in life, eventually achieving a high profile job where her coworkers never knew her secret.  But that’s not the heart of the story, it’s what happens when she couldn’t hide her blindness anymore.

And that’s where my interest in her story begins…because I believe it can help us with our teams.  It’s a story of belief and vision.  We’ve got to believe in ourselves and combine that belief with a vision that is bigger than us.  Ignoring the obvious irony of a blind person talking about vision, let’s look at how vision is sometimes restricted and how we can free it up…and watch our teams soar!

The first title I came up with for this post was, “Why Vision And Belief Will Make Your Team Great”.  I liked that one a lot and think that it would have been good, but this one is closer to the heart of the story.  Once each team member is willing to admit their weaknesses, they’re on their way to becoming a strong and successful team.

 

Tom Hanks Was Right…There’s No Crying In Sports

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Here is Pet Peeve #249:  players that cry in practice.  You’re probably thinking, “oh Dawn, you’re so heartless, sometimes there’s a good reason for crying…stop being so mean!”  In my mind though, there’s never a reason to put self before team and that’s exactly what crying in practice or a game does.  Now, I’m not talking about tears that are the result of an injury or yay-we-just-won-the-championship tears…those are both acceptable reasons for crying in sports.  I’m talking about the tears that stem from frustration, anger, or just plain lack of knowledge as to how one’s behavior affects others.  Let’s look at why I have such a strong opinion about crying and what you should do when faced with a crier in practice.

4 Reasons Why Tears Aren’t The Answer

1.       It’s selfish. When a player cries in a practice or game, they’re saying that their interests are more important than the team’s…plain and simple.

2.       It’s distracting. When there’s a player that cries, the team and coach have a decision to make:  do we attend to the emotional player or do we get work done here at practice or our game?  That’s not fair!  Their teammates shouldn’t have to debate whether they’re being awful people just because they want to focus on the task at hand.

3.       It shows lack of respect. The crier doesn’t respect the work that the coach has put into practice planning, because we’ve got a time schedule to keep.  They don’t respect their teammate’s focus or desire to get better at practice.  And in turn, if it’s not nipped in the bud, the crier could lose the respect of their coach and teammates.

4.       It shows lack of control. There’s no age that’s too young to start teaching our athletes how to manage their emotions.  After all, isn’t that the beauty of sports?  They’ll learn how to win and lose with grace, how to earn or lose a starting spot, and how to succeed and fail in front of others…it’s great!  It’s also our job as their coaches to teach them how to handle life’s ups and downs without it negatively impacting the lives of others.

So You’ve Got A Crier…Now What?

1.       Explain the points above. If you don’t explain those things, they’ll just think you’re being mean…which could spawn more tears (*sigh*) and an exponentially higher level of frustration for you as their coach.  They need to understand that those four things above are contrary to any sort of team success and because of that, you can’t let it slide.

2.       Acknowledge whatever their situation is. Their boyfriend broke up with them, they failed a huge test, they’re playing at an amazingly awful level…whatever it is, you get it, right?  You understand why they’d want to cry, why they’re frustrated, and why they feel like they can’t handle it anymore.  You get it…you just won’t tolerate it, because you and the team still have work to do.

3.       Remind them that they’ve got a mouth. They’ve got to use their words.  You’re a reasonable human being, right coach?  If they came to you with a legitimate problem or concern, you’d listen and the two of you would work it out together, right?  Let them know that you’ll be there for them…but only when they can behave like an adult.  You love them and care for them, but poor behavior is poor behavior and it’s not to be tolerated.

4.       Give them a break. Sometimes the crier can get themselves together and refocus.  Sometimes they can’t and you might have to give them a break.  But it’s got to be legit…you can’t hold it against them!  You can’t say on one hand: come to me like an adult and I’ll listen and we’ll work it out…and then when the crier tells you the problem, you yell or scream or are just generally pissed.  Maybe you allow them finish practice with the understanding that they’re going to be terrible, or maybe you send them home knowing that they’ll be better the next day.

So there you are folks, this is a tough one for a lot of coaches…tears are powerful and disarming.  But stand your ground and turn the situation into a teachable moment.

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.

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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Coaches Corner: Creating Realistic Discomfort For Your Team

comfortablesource

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

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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

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“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

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“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!