Category Archives: Mental game

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.

The Key To Performing Under Pressure


I’ve seen it happen in volleyball.  A team holds a two games to none lead, then proceeds to give up the next two games and they head into a deciding fifth game.

Or in basketball, both teams exiting the final timeout and the game is tied with only five seconds on the clock.

Or in track and field, a sprinter has dominated their event for the entire season and now it’s time to go for the conference title.

Pressure is the running theme throughout all of these scenarios.

In Pressure Performance: Do You Have the X Factor?, Daniel Coyle talks about elite athletes and how performing under pressure is a myth.  The good news (for the rest of us, at least) is that we’re not coaching the top 1% of our sport, so there is something to the whole “clutch” player idea.

What is clutch?

The clutch player is the person who executes a skill successfully when the team needs it.  John Wooden called it competitive greatness.  It could be a game point serve or a game-winning free throw…whatever your sport, whatever the scenario.  Being clutch is just being at your best when your team needs you to be.

Being competitively great isn’t doing something outside of your skill set.  It’s performing a skill that you’ve done a million times, except this time, the team needs you to perform.  The team result will suffer if you don’t execute a particular skill.  Now that’s pressure.  That’s sport.

Value emotional control

A clutch player can have lots of great qualities—a great leader, best player on the team, excellent communicator—but they’re greatest asset is their ability to control their emotions when they need to execute.

Years ago, I coached an incredible player.  She may be the most physically gifted player I’ve worked with—tall, long, fast, quick off the ground.  She was really good.  We made it to the conference final when she was a senior and, unfortunately, we were losing and the prospect of winning was slowly fading away.  I looked out onto the court and this player, my best player, was crying.  That’s right, she stood out there, while the game was still being contested, and cried.

Suffice it to say she wasn’t clutch.

Competitively great players—maybe not your best players, but your clutch players—rise to face the fear of “the moment”.  They do it by figuring out how to manage their emotions.

Hopefully you’ve got time to check out both links, both posts have different things to say about performing under pressure and becoming competitively great.

Read about choking here, if you dare.

Keeping Our Players Engaged With Their Teammates


Over the course of a season, we have the opportunity to deal with lots of personnel issues.  Some of them are easy, some of them are quirky, and some of them are tough.  One of the tough ones, in my opinion, is when a player suddenly withdraws from the team.  I saw a great article called, Shutting Others Out, that talked about the reasons that this could happen.  Read on for three of the reasons that a player could isolate herself from you and her teammates.

3 reasons a player may isolate herself from her teammates

1.      They may want something. Some of our players will be passive aggressive by nature.  They’re afraid to come directly to us, so they stew.  In the personality assessment that I use, they’d be the S…resigned that no one wants to hear what they have to say anyway, so what’s the point?  Action item: Reach out to them.  They have things on their mind that are very important to them, but don’t know how to properly assert themselves.  And when you talk to them, reassure them that they don’t have to be nervous about talking to you about anything.

2.      They may have something to hide. If your players think they’ve let you or the team down, they may withdraw.  They’re probably embarrassed at doing whatever it is they did…and they’re surely afraid of the consequences that may follow.  This player is of the “why do today what I can put off until tomorrow” mindset.  They know they’ve screwed up, they know they’re going to get in trouble for it…so they’re going to let you find out any kind of way except from them!  Action item: Get behind the scenes.  Someone on your team knows what’s going on.  So talk to your captains or talk to her bestie on the team to find out what’s happening in her life.  That way you can approach her and come up with a plan of action so that she can be herself again.

3.      They may be hurting. Something happened to them.  Whether it’s a bad grade, a fight with a good friend, or a sick relative…they’re sad, but they really don’t want to talk about it.  These are your independent players who are used to doing everything themselves…and usually they do it pretty well.  They have a tough time admitting that they’re having a problem that they can’t solve…this player will say they’re “alright” if you ask them how they are doing.  Action item: Ask once and then step back.  Alert your captains, have them keep an eye on her and chat with her.  You’ll check in with your captains about how this player is doing, because they’ll just get annoyed if you keep asking them what’s wrong.

We’ve got to keep our eyes peeled for these things…and also know our players personality type so that we can correctly address the situation.

How Coaches Can Fight Burnout


Are you getting ‘er done…or just burned out?  Do you know when you’ve hit the wall and just can’t go hard anymore?  I was over at (a business website) and read a great article called “Is Your Company Turning You Into A Corporate Zombie?” and thought it made a lot of great points about what folks look like when they’re burned out and decided to bring it over here and put my coach spin on things.  How do you know when you’re burned out?  Well read on to find out!

**Keep your eyes peeled!  If you’re doing these things, you may be on the verge of burnout.**

1.       Your creativity level has dropped. Back in the day, you could spot a problem on your team and figure out a drill to fix it…or you’d schedule a team meeting…or you’d do whatever it took to address the issue.  Now, you’re flummoxed.  You’re all out of ideas to keep your team motivated.

2.       You spend less time in reflection. So I wrote this whole post about how leadership and solitude are linked (read it here) which makes it pretty obvious that I believe in giving yourself time to reflect.  When you’re burned out, you’re like the hamster on a wheel…just go-go-going!

3.       You laugh less. Your team goofball used to be able to make you smile no matter how intense you were in practice…not anymore.  Nothing’s funny because you’re tired, hopped up on caffeine, not eating right, and haven’t seen your family in weeks.

4.       You look beat down (like everyone else in your office). You come dragging in to the office at 7 am and you go dragging out at 9 pm.  You get home, go to bed, get up the next morning and do the same thing all over again. Why?  Because everyone else in the office does that when they’re in season.  You’re exhausted but you won’t rest or sleep or otherwise enjoy yourself because you’re “getting after it.”

5.       The sparkle in your eye dims. Talking about your team, planning practices, chatting with the coaching staff after practice…all of those things used to fire you up.  Now you sigh when someone asks about the team, dread planning practice, and hustle out of the gym as fast as you can when practice is over to avoid shop talk.

**Burnout killahs…do these 3 things to keep the bounce in your step!**

1.       Go home. Whether it’s to spend time with your family, or to make a proper meal, or just to relax and read a book…we all need to get away for a few hours.  Many, many things are out of our control as coaches.  Our players may get injured or another team may get the world’s best recruit, but our time?  It’s ours.  Let’s manage it so we can stay sane.

2. Set time limits on email/phone calls. Some of us think we can game the system.  We say, “oh, I go home at 6 every night.”  But what you don’t say is that you’re on the computer with the phone attached to your ear the whole time.  At some point, you’ve got to make an agreement with yourself when you’re going to turn everything off…and not just when it’s time to go to sleep!

3.       Workout/pray/meditate. Whatever you need to do to get your mind right…do it!  The idea of all of these burnout killahs is to get in control of your time, because it seems like burnout happens when you feel like there are so many things that you’ve “got” to do and you just “can’t” take time for yourself.  (I put those in quotation marks because they’re not empowering and most times just not true.)

Author’s note:  just because you’re doing the top five things doesn’t mean you’re burned out…you may thrive in that environment for short spurts.  But take an honest look at how you’re going about your business and figure out how long you can operate like that without losing your love of the game.

When To Bench An Athlete


“The bench screams.” –Ron Wilson, Head Coach, Toronto Maple Leafs

My general philosophy in life is to say what you mean and mean what you say.  But how long is too long to keep saying the same thing to a player?  You’ve told her for an entire season that she’s got to square up to target or keep her elbow high…whatever the correction, she’s just not getting it.  And if she is getting it, she surely isn’t making the changes that you’d like to see.  So when your throat is sore from yelling and your eyes tired from rolling…maybe it’s time to let the bench do the talking.

3 reasons to bench a player…short term

  • Give them a breather: Maybe it’s a freshman who’s freaking out at her first conference match or a senior who’s emotional during senior night, sometimes a player just needs to take a deep breath and refocus.  It may only take a couple of points for her to calm down and come back to herself.
  • Get a spark from your reserves: If your team is stuck in a skill and/or energy rut, a reserve player can be just the ticket!  You’ll probably go back to your original lineup, but it’s nice to know that you can count on your entire team to contribute to your success.
  • Light a fire under them: Hopefully after you’ve taken that starter out to get a spark from the bench, they begin to realize that they need to step their game up.  The ideal reaction would be for that player to come back onto the court and be an absolute monster out there.  She should want to erase any sort of doubt you may have about her ability to positively contribute to the team.

3 reasons to bench a player…long term

  • Lack of effort: She’s just going through the motions in practices and games.  If your team has always prided itself on having a “whatever it takes” attitude to their play, lack of effort is a slap in the face to you, as their coach, as well as their teammates who expect their effort level to be matched.  A player can only control their skill level and playing time to a certain degree, but effort is completely within their control.  Lack of effort is a choice…and a bad one, in my opinion.
  • Not continuing to get better, getting passed up: During preseason, you can always tell the folks who worked their tails off in the off-season.  Typically because they’re in such good shape, their skill level is higher at the beginning of the season.  Then slowly, but surely, the rest of the team catches up and eventually blows right by them.  As coaches, we want to reward the player that worked hard when no one was looking, so we pull her aside and let her know our concerns…and nothing.  She’s gotten passed up and it’s time to sit her down.
  • Your starters are awful: There’s a point in the season where it’s time to look to the future.  Your team’s shot at winning the conference are long gone and you’ve got a bench full of players who haven’t played all season.  So why not give them a shot?  If you’re out of contention, that means the starters haven’t been getting it done anyway, so how much worse could your reserves do?  Bench the starters and start the bench…they may not be as skilled, but I’ll bet their effort level will be crazy high.

So there you are…use your bench as a motivating tool and your team may be better off for it.

How To Inspire Those Around Us


X’s and O’s…I’m sure most of us feel pretty solid about our grasp of the nuts and bolts of the game.  Of course we’re always trying to learn more and love to hear about the newest thing, but we’re mostly happy with where we are.  But what about the intangibles, how many of us feel as good about those?  About our ability to inspire those around us?

Check out this video by Simon Sinek called How Great Leaders Inspire Action.  It’s about eighteen minutes long, but I liked how it challenged us to think about not only what we do, but why we do it.  He says that the “why” is how people are inspired, not the “what”.  Quite honestly, the “what” can be the same at any school or with any coach…but the “why”?  That’s all yours coach!  So as you think about your “why”, let’s talk about how we can be inspiring.

Here are 4 areas that are important for a coach to inspire action

With administrators. Whether it’s new uniforms or equipment, a cross-country trip, an additional assistant coach, or even just a raise for yourself…we’ve got to give our athletic directors our “why”.  For example, you think this could be your team’s year.  The only thing you’re missing is an incredible team building experience that will bond your team together.  You think that if they bond early, they’ll be good early, and gain confidence.  That’s the “why”.  The “what” is that cross country trip…it’s just a means to an end.

With players. This is the easiest of them all…we do this already.  At the beginning of the season, we’ve got to get them on board with goals that they will work tirelessly toward…with no guarantee that those goals will actually be accomplished.  A strong “why” will keep them motivated to get after it every day.  The “what” is winning.  But we’ve got to explain why that’s important.  You may think that it’s obvious, but a strong “why” will keep them working even after a couple of losses.

With alumni. When we’re hitting them up for donations to our program, there’s got to be a reason why.  Very similar to the administrator example, you’ve already got the “what” in common.  They’re alums of your program…of course they want you to be successful!  A good “why” will help push them over the edge and open up those wallets.

With recruits. Were you first on your recruits list of ten schools that they’re visiting…or #8?  How will you stand out?  With your “why”.  Why should they come play for you?  What’s different about you, your team, and your school that will inspire something inside of them to choose you?

What’s your “why”?  Once we all figure out our “why”, then we can be truly inspiring.  Every team wants to win and be successful…that’s the “what”.  It’s our “why” that gives people something to believe in and will inspire them to action.

Failure Is Instructional


Before listening to Diana Laufenberg’s TEDtalk, How to Learn? From Mistakes, I hadn’t really thought about how much differently athletics teaches than our academic cohorts.  I’ve always been the flag-waving “we’re on the same side” person who believes in the value of sport and what it teaches.

Not that I’ve changed my opinion, I still believe in how awesome athletics is and I believe in its value as an educational collaborator with the academic side of the world, but now I see the biggest difference between the two and why we sometimes struggle with getting our athletes into an athletic frame of mind.

Academics focuses on perfection while athletics focuses on failure.

  • Athletics isn’t a standardized test for which there is one correct answer…but that’s what academics celebrates.
  • The goal of athletics isn’t to get one hundred percent, but that’s what our high-achieving students want to receive…on and off the court or field.
  • Athletics isn’t about memorizing facts and reciting them, but understanding situations and responding appropriately to them.

Failure as part of the learning process.

  • Did you know there are sports, like track and field for example, where you can win your event and still finish the day as a failure?  The winning high jumper or pole vaulter is only the final person to fail if we look at the world through an academic lens.  Through an athletic lens, they not only won, but perhaps challenged a previous personal best.
  • I would guess in most of our gyms, we design practices around failure.  We know certain drills will be very difficult, if not impossible, to complete correctly…yet we put the team through them anyway.  Why?  Because failure is part of the learning process.
  • Imagine if teachers posted the results of each quiz and test online for everyone to see.  How much more difficult would it be for students to excel?  Yet, that’s what we do with athletics and I believe the accountability which stems from that public knowledge makes them mentally stronger than the average non-athlete.  (Totally biased, I know.)

According to Laufenberg’s talk, there are three stages to creating an environment where failure isn’t seen as awful.  I’d hazard a guess that lots of us are doing these things already.

  • Experiential learning.  Give your athletes the opportunity to experience every possible scenario in order to increase their sports IQ.  This is a novel idea on the academic side, but it’s what we’ve been doing for years.
  • Student voice.  As we work on their sports IQ, we have to remember that the goal of our practices isn’t to do all of the thinking for them.  Our goal should be to guide them so that when they’re in game situations, they know what to do.  They won’t succeed at this task if we don’t give them a little room to be innovative in practice.
  • Embrace failure.  “Being innovative” is a really nice way of saying screwing things up until they finally figure it out.  Of course, the coach is there for teaching and guiding, but how will my players know how to succeed if I never let them struggle and fail in practice.  Maybe when left to her own devices, my setter comes up with an awful game plan for her hitters.  What better place for that to happen than in the safety of our gym?

I hope you have a chance to check out the video, it opened my eyes to the stark differences in teaching methods between athletics and academics.  Though many schools are moving to our side of the fence in terms of how to teach effectively.