Tag Archives: Practice

Keeping Your Athletes From Wilting Under Pressure

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“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

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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.

The Importance of Sleep For Our Players

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On a team long, long ago, I had a player with a troubled friend in her dorm.  This friend would have episodes which involved seizures and scary blackouts.  My player, ever the mother hen, felt it was her duty to stay up with her friend even though these episodes happened during the wee hours of the morning.  This would happen night after night.

No sleep for days.

And she expected to be able to function well in the classroom and in the gym.  She would tell me, “Don’t worry coach, I don’t need much sleep.”  Huh?

Not every scenario is as crazy as this one.  Some are just your players stay up too late doing homework.  Or they aren’t able to get uninterrupted sleep. Or they think they can party the weekend away and pay the homework piper on Sunday.

This should be important to us not only because we’re counting on our athletes to perform, but also part of our role in their lives is to teach them how to be functioning adults.

What’s the problem?

According to this Harvard Business Review article, Sleep Deficit: The Performance Killer, there are four parts to sleep that affect performance.  The first part is our natural drive to sleep.  We think we’re in control of it, but essentially, our bodies will force us to sleep if we put it off too long.  The second is the amount of sleep we get over the course of a few days.  The third is the part of us that says, “Oh, it’s light outside, it’s time to get up.”  Finally, there’s the groggy wakeup.  Apparently, we need about twenty minutes in the morning to get our bearings.

What can we do about it?

  • If we schedule morning practices, we’ve got to give them time to truly wake up.  If I go in the morning, I usually do some sort of conditioning first.  That way, they don’t have to tax their brains until later in the practice.
  • We’ve got to talk to them about how important sleep is to their performance.
  • If there’s a way to show them they’re not being heroic by staying up all night writing papers and studying, we’ve got to show them.
  • Sleep has to be equated to going to the training room, getting strong in the weight room, and watching film…it’s what we need to do in order to be good.



The article equated lack of sleep with drunkenness.  We wouldn’t tolerate our players being in a perpetual state of intoxication and we shouldn’t tolerate sleeplessness either.

Teaching Our Teams To Handle Pressure

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There’s a possibility that I’ve been wrong about how I go about teaching my team to handle pressure.  I’ve always told them, do what you gotta do to figure out how you best handle pressure.  If you’ve got to convince yourself that there is no pressure, then go for it.  On the flip side, if you’ve got to tell yourself that you eat pressure for breakfast…you thrive on it, then that works too.

Turns out, there’s some research that says one is definitely better than the other.

According to the post 3 Words to Improve Pressure Performance (and 3 to Avoid) on the Talent Code’s blog, a test group that embraced the excitement of a pressure situation performed the best.  Better than the group that admitted nervousness.  And way better than the group that pretended to be calm.

I’ve always told my teams that whether you embrace pressure or pretend it doesn’t exist, it doesn’t matter because they’re both mind tricks.  Now it seems that, while that assertion may be true, one certainly has a leg up on the other.

So when your player is standing at the service line on game point, you want her to tell herself that she is excited about the moment.

Check out the post and see what you think.

A Recipe For Success

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My little girl just had her one year doctor’s appointment and the doctor gave me all sorts of interesting information.  The stuff about teaching my child to be a good eater is what stood out to me.  Why?  Because I think it’s similar to what it would take to teach a player to be a good teammate.

The sheet said, “Don’t get your jobs mixed up with your child’s jobs. If you don’t do your jobs, your child will eat poorly and not behave at the table. If you get bossy and try to do her jobs, she will fight back and not eat.”  The sheet then goes into detail about each of our (parent & child) jobs.  For example, the parent’s job is to choose what to buy, cook, and put on the table.  The child’s job is to come to the table hungry and ready to eat.

Teaching our players to be good teammates

For our purposes here, I would say, “Don’t get your jobs mixed up with your player’s jobs.  If you don’t do your jobs, your players will be unprepared for competition.  If you get bossy and try to do their jobs, they will fight back with complaints and lack of effort.”

Coach’s jobs

  • Have well thought out practice plans.
  • Choose what skills will be taught and when.
  • Enjoy the ups and downs of the season.
  • Keep practices competitive.
  • Never stop coaching.
  • Give your players space to make mistakes.



Player’s jobs

  • Come to practice with a willing spirit and open mind.
  • Stay positive during the course of the season.
  • Don’t whine to coaches or teammates.
  • Don’t talk badly about your teammates…to anyone.
  • Always give your best effort.
  • Have high expectations for yourself and your teammates.



Being on a team is hard work…especially if folks don’t hold up their end of the bargain.  It’s often said, coaches coach and players play.  This is just a more detailed version of that statement.

Visualization Could Be The Key To Your Success

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I’m back people! My blog vacation is over and I’m back at it…enjoy!

When I was a high school athlete, I had a track coach who was big into visualization.  He would take the entire team into a room, turn down the lights, make us close our eyes, and he’d walk us through what the next day’s meet would look like, feel like, and sound like.

I loved it.  In my mind’s eye, I could feel myself getting into the blocks, I could hear the starter giving his commands, I could even see and hear my teammates lined up around the track cheering for me.  Visualization is a skill that I use to this day.  Now I’m sure every athlete in that room wasn’t locked in on what our coach was saying.  I’m sure some of them thought it was hokey.  I’ll even bet that some folks fell asleep.  But for those of us who opened our mind to the idea, we reaped the benefits.

There’s all sorts of information out there about visualization, but the fact that resonates with me is that our body reacts physiologically the same whether we’re actually doing an activity or if we’re actively imagining it.  Our heart races, we may break out in a sweat, our breathing increases…crazy!  That fact alone shows our brain could be the key to our success.

Over at the Talent Code blog, Daniel Coyle has four keys to help us visualize properly.  Check out the article, it’s got a couple of very cool examples of how visualization has led directly to success on the court/field.

4 steps to powerful visualization

  1. Highly specific and detailed.  He calls it visualization in HD.  Your players should visualize everything about game day.  Getting to the locker room, the music that’ll be playing in there, going to the training room to get taped, putting on their warmup clothes…there’s no detail that’s too small.  I hope it goes without saying that they should also visualize themselves being successful in all facets of their game.
  2. Two-step process.  As they go from scene to scene in their memory, they should think about how to correctly perform the skill…then see themselves executing.  How many times have we heard the winning Super Bowl quarterback talking about how many times he’d won the game on a hail mary…in his mind?  They see themselves performing the skill: receiving the ball, releasing the ball, the amazing catch in the in-zone, and the celebration that follows.
  3. Solitary.  While this goes against what my high school track coach did, he always encouraged us to go home and finish the visualization process on our own.  So before you say, “See Dawn, I shouldn’t do this with my team, they’ve got to do it on their own”, I’d say that they may not do it if you don’t introduce it to them.  Send them home and encourage them to feel the game…to feel their success.  Visualization isn’t remembering an amazing moment from the past, but “remembering” an amazing moment from the future.
  4. Combine with intense practice.  I speak to groups a lot about motivating female athletes and every now and then someone will say, “But Dawn, don’t all kids need good coaches?”.  To which I generally answer that that’s an assumption I make…we’re all starting from the viewpoint of wanting to be the best coach possible.  And I’d say the same is true for visualization.  Someone could say, “Well Dawn, just thinking about something doesn’t make it happen.”  I’d agree and say that I am under the assumption that we’re all getting after it with our teams to give them the tangible skills they need in order to dominate the competition.


Visualization could be that missing ingredient that your team is missing to move up to the next level…try it out!

4 Guidelines for Sports Families

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A few weeks back Coach Dawn wrote a post that I think should be invaluable to any sports family.  Her notes on 6 Reasons Kids Quit Sports sparked a quick email conversation between the two of us.   With two young boys of my own, ages 9 and 11, I continue to be very interested in what keeps kids motivated in sports, and what causes them to “burn out”, often at rather young ages.

Our family, meaning my wife and I, have been working with a few guidelines that we’re hoping will help combat “burn out”.  We’ve both been coaches for a number of years, so naturally our children jumped into sports at a young age.  We could have hardly prevented it, if we would have felt we needed to try.  There’s been no study or formal testing of these guidelines.  These are simply what we’ve been doing.  And…we have no true data set…as we do not yet know for sure if our two boys will burn out or not.  So, I submit them to you for your review…

  • GUIDELINE 1:  They Can Play Any Sport They Want

At young ages, the more the better I think.  Dr. David Geier’s writings assert the same thing.  Have them play multiple sports.  Not only will it help prevent burn out, but it may actually make them perform better in their favorite sports.  As parents, it is understandable that we don’t like certain sports, or like some sports better than others, but maybe we shouldn’t overly influence what sports our kids choose.  I think logical parameters would have to exist, two examples would be time and expense.  I told Coach Dawn that if one of our boys decides he wants to take up base-jumping or jet-fuel racing, we might have to adjust this guideline!!  But generally, let them pick anything they want to play, mainstream or not-so-mainstream, go to it!

  • GUIDELINE 2:  They Do Not “Have” to Play Any Sport

This one is tough for us sometimes.  When I was in high school, I played many sports, but if you asked me, I’d say I was a “football player”.  That was my primary sport.  Now I coach volleyball.  My wife was a record holder as a collegiate swimmer and has coached swimming ever since.  Guess which three sports our boys show very little interest in playing?  We’d love to see them on the swim team, or at little league football, or into youth volleyball.   But it’s OK that they are not.  We’ve decided we’re not going to force them into our favorite sports, or into any sports.   They will play what they want to play…not what we want them to play

  • GUIDELINE 3:  One Sport at a Time

It’s rather obvious that you can now play just about any sport, all year round, at any age.  Good or bad, it is a reality that sports are available all the time.  It’s easy to fall into playing more than one sport at a time.  This guideline is one that I feel pretty strongly about.  It’s complicated, and maybe not fair, to have kids try to keep up with more than one sport.   One winter we ignored this guideline. Our older boy wrestled and played basketball.  Pretty soon he got real tired, every day.  And didn’t always look forward to either practice…and eventually wasn’t even excited about the games or tournaments.  It was just too much.   There might be overlaps when one season ends and another begins, but we’re going to try hard to stick to one sports schedule at a time!

  • GUIDELINE 4:  If They Start a Sport, They Must Finish that Sport

This means we will not allow them to quit mid-season.  Kids often like to be involved in everything, so they might want to try something.  And that’s all good, but we ask…no we make…them play it out for the season.  Give it a chance for the duration of one season before deciding that it’s not for them.  Furthermore, they’ve made a commitment to the team, and that is important to learn, even at a young age.  So, barring extreme circumstances of course, we will make sure they fulfill that obligation.

There you have it.  My Four Guidelines for Sports Families.  I’d love to hear feedback.  Tell me what you think, maybe you like them, maybe you feel they’re hogwash.  In any case, the discussion is important.  You hear story after story of the star athlete, with a bright promising future, who instead gives up the sport prematurely.  As a college coach, I always hate to see that.   It’s always a tragedy when a sport becomes a burden for an athlete.  Sports are great for so many reasons, let’s try hard to make sure they stay great for the young athlete, for a long time!

Keep reading Coach Dawn Writes.  Great stuff every post!!

Want more info on youth sports?  Check out Y Is For Youth Sports: 5 Reasons Kids Should Play Sports and 4 Reasons Our Children Should Play Sports (Or My Love Letter To Athletics).

Today’s post  was written by Randall Kreider, the Head Volleyball Coach at Elizabethtown College.  As you can see, he’s a coach and a dad…please contact him with any questions.

Book Review: Outliers

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“The thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works.  That’s it.  And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else.  They work much, much harder.” –Outliers

The tagline of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell is: The Story of Success.  I think that’s a topic of interest to most folks and coaches in particular.  I’ve got a story about a teammate of mine who is the definition of the opening quotation.

My teammate, let’s call her Susie, was an all-American at the University of Wisconsin, which was a top twenty-five team at the time.  She was the best, most skilled, and hardest working player that I knew.  She had aspirations beyond collegiate volleyball…Susie wanted to represent our country in the Olympics.  She talked to one of our assistant coaches who’d played on the national team about what she should do…and the coach told her to work harder.

I’m telling you, Susie was already the hardest working player on a nationally ranked team!  She was our best player, she was the undisputed leader, she was a baller.  But if she wanted to move to the next level, Susie needed to work harder.

And if we want to be better, we’ve got to work harder as well.  And so do our athletes.

The rundown:  Like Daniel Coyle talked about in The Talent Code, Gladwell identifies ten thousand hours as the magic number for success.  It’s not just ten thousand hours of casual practice…but motivated, focused, persistent practice.  We’ve probably all coached the athlete who gives up about twenty seconds after we’ve tried to teach her a new skill.  We’ve got to let her know that “success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard for twenty-two minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after thirty seconds.”

Recommended for:  Coaches who want to get better and who want their athletes to get better.  I believe we all want to put ourselves and our players in the best position to excel and reach our highest potential.  This book will motivate us all to put in the work necessary to never have regrets about our achievement level.

Not recommended for:  Coaches who believe that hard work is all it takes to be successful.  While Gladwell talks about the ten thousand hour rule, he also mentions things that are out of our control that influence success.  Things like the month and year we’re born, the era in which we’re born (if I were a woman fired up about coaching a hundred years ago, I’d be out of luck), affluence or lack thereof, etc.

So, Susie didn’t make the Olympic team.  As I think back, I wonder what would have happened if she’d stuck with it, because she was almost at her ten thousand hours.  Gladwell says that it takes about ten years to reach that threshold…Susie stopped playing in year eight.  We didn’t know about this kind of stuff back then.

But we do now…let’s make sure we’re using the information that’s available to us.

If you love to read books, keep checking back as I talk about three books that are great for coaches, but not made for coaches:  The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, How to Grow Leaders by John Adair, and Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.

How To Max Out Our Athlete’s Potential

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One of the things I loved about my collegiate athletics experience is that I don’t think I could’ve gotten any better.  I squeezed all the juice out of the lemon.  There was no meat left on the bone.  I licked the plate clean.  I left it all on the floor.  What other cliché phrases can I come up with to state that I maxed out my potential?

I want that same feeling for my current athletes.  I don’t want them thinking, in the year after they graduate, that they should’ve worked harder when they had the chance.

What if there was some sort of rating system for effort?  For focus?  For investment in individual and corporate betterment?  According to the article, The 3 Levels of Effective Practice, there is!  As the saying goes, you get out what you put in…let’s show our athletes how to monitor what they’re putting in.

3 different athletic mindsets

Bronze:  They come to practice, do what the coach tells them to do…nothing more, nothing less.  By virtue of coming to practice, this player will get a little bit better, but there won’t be any a-ha moments.  To me, this athlete isn’t very invested.  Just coming to practice and doing what they’re told is the very base level of being on a team.  I’m not impressed.

Silver:  These are your hard workers.  These are the athletes that look their coach in the eye when receiving correction and immediately apply the change.  They want to get better and are willing to put in the time to get there.  When their coach suggests they come in ten minutes early and stay ten minutes late, the athlete jumps at the opportunity.  This player is going to get a lot better because getting better is important to them.

Gold:  These guys are Silver Plus!  They do all of the stuff that the silver folks do, but they add reflection and analyzation to the mix. This player may set up a meeting with their coach to find out what they should be working on and then they sit down and come up with a plan of what they should do outside of practice to accomplish their goals.  It doesn’t always have to be skill work.  It can be watching video and keeping notes of what they need to improve on.  It can be writing down a list of goals that need to be accomplished at practice that day.  It can even be giving themselves a pre & post survey on effort & focus in practice.  This is what will take them from getting better to getting better by leaps and bounds.

The idea of reaching the Gold level is to plan for success.  We all know that success doesn’t just happen.  What if we asked our players to write down the feedback they receive at the end of each practice and to review those notes weekly?  What if they had to rate what level (bronze, silver, gold) they thought they practiced at each day?  I think they would get better and they would max out their potential.

I’m not going to lie to you and say that I’ve been doing this in my gym…but I’m going to start.  It’s a great reflection piece to get our athletes more invested in their own development.  Furthermore, it eliminates the confusion about what “hard work” means…no more excuses!

Best Practices: 4 Principles Of Perfecting Performance

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First, the cliché phrase was “Practice makes perfect”.

Then the cliché evolved to “Perfect practice makes perfect”.

I don’t aim for perfection in my gym, but rather a perfecting attitude.  In my mind, perfection is finite whereas perfecting means that we’re constantly working toward getting better.  As a coach, I understandably put a lot of thought into the merits of practice: are they working, is the team getting better, what can the coaches do better?  According to this article from Psychology Today, Some Ways to Practice Are More Perfect Than Others.  Here are four ways we can make sure are practices are perfecting our players.

4 requirements of purposeful practice

  1. More practice yields more learning.  It sounds simple, but for those players who want to be really good at what they do…practice is the key.  Getting to the upper limits of a player’s ability will require time and patience…but mostly time to get those reps in.
  2. Mindful repetitions.  These days, age group sports are an economic force…with parents paying big bucks to make sure their child gets better and gets seen and (hopefully) gets a scholarship.  While I’ll stand by the idea that more practice is better than no practice, I believe that mindful practice is much better than unfocused practice.  It’s not just getting touches on the ball/reps in the pool/intervals on the track, it’s understanding where corrections need to be made and making each rep better than the last.
  3. Top notch coaching.  That’s us!  Again, I believe that age group sports are great…in theory.  If the coach is just letting the players drill without correction, that’s not the best situation.  And if they haven’t figured out how to effectively give coaching cues, that’s also not the best situation for player development.  Without proper coaching, the players are left to repetitively perform the skill incorrectly.  But with top notch coaches, a player can get immediate corrective feedback, which will hopefully result in their becoming a better player.
  4. Learn to self-coach.  All of this leads to the player being able to self-correct.  My ultimate goal with each class is that I become less and less important.  When they come in as freshman, my players are pretty reliant on me…but as they progress through their careers, they become more autonomous.  More able to recognize what to do in each situation and more able to process through the appropriate response to what an opponent is presenting.  It’s not that I stop coaching my older players, it’s that the coaching can become more and more complex.


Saying all of that, I guess the new cliché phrase can be “Practice makes perfecting players.”

If you found this post interesting, you should check out The Secrets To Greatness Are Within Your Control.