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#1 THE MIND OF A CHAMPION – “Good athletes are a dime a dozen” the coach said to me, “what I really want on my squad is an athlete with a good head on his/her shoulders!”

If you are serious as an athlete and have some important dreams that you’re going after then you probably know how important it is to work on the physical part of your game. There’s no substitute for hard work and consistent practice. You can’t become a champion without having a strong foundation in the “basics.” You need to learn the skills, understand strategy and build your body up both strength and endurance wise. You have to pay your physical dues to get to your goals. But don’t be like most athletes! This is where most stop their training.

Hard work by itself is not enough to become a champion. You also have to be smart about your training and make sure that you train yourself completely. Most athletes train themselves partially, just physically. To train yourself completely and to become as good as you possibly can you have to seriously begin to work on the mental part of your game.

What’s the mental side in sports? Ever choke before? Have you gotten psyched out or intimidated enough so that you performed poorly? How many times have you lost to someone that had no business beating you? Does poor confidence get you to quit before you have a chance to finish?

All of us have had situations like these happen to us in sports which highlighted the importance of the mental part of the game. Becoming a champion means that you have to understand what mental skills are involved in developing mental toughness, and then learn them. What are these so-called mental skills? The ability to handle pressure – to stay calm and composed at crunch time. The ability to concentrate on what’s important and block out everything else. Having “reboundability” or being able to quickly let go of bad breaks, losses and other failures. The ability to avoid psych-outs and intimidation. The visualization skills necessary to help you best prepare for an upcoming performance. Knowing how to believe in YOU and to develop self-confidence. The ability to handle negativity and self-doubts and to think like a winner. How to motivate yourself and to set and reach challenging goals.

The good news is that anyone can learn to develop mental toughness. Even if the sound of the grass growing tends to distract you, you can still learn to develop the concentration skills of a winner! Mental toughness training will help you improve and take your game to the next level. However, one word of caution!

Mental training is not magic a magic pill. You can’t expect mental toughness strategies to really work for you if you’ve only practiced them once or twice. All skills in sports need to be practiced over and over again before they will hold up under the pressure of big competition. Be patient with yourself and allow enough time for practice. The biggest mistake made in mental toughness training is the failure to practice sufficiently.

Where to begin? If you want to train the mind of a champion we must first begin with your mind. What kind of thoughts do you regularly have bopping around in your head before, during and after you perform? Your thoughts (what I call your “inner coach”) significantly effect how well you perform. If your inner coach is negative, i.e. “what if I choke”…”last time you blew it”…”you’re not as good as them” then your play will be negatively effected. Negative self-talk kills your confidence, tightens your muscles and distracts your concentration from the task at hand. Positive self-talk or “inner coaching” does the opposite. It keeps you calm. Loose and feeling good about yourself.

So if you’re serious about beginning to develop the mind of a champion here’s some homework for you. Review 2-3 really good performances from your past. Think back to where you were, who you were performing with/against. Specifically try to recall what you were thinking and saying to yourself before and during the performance. What thoughts did you have when/if you messed up? If an opponent beat you for a score, what did you think and for how long? When you made a great play what did you think? Write all these “inner coachings” down for each one of the performances that you picked out.

Next do the same for 2-3 really bad performances where you played much worse that your capabilities. Include all the self-talk for mistakes, setbacks and bad calls that may have happened during this performance. If you blew an easy shot on goal, double faulted or struck out, what kinds of thoughts came just before this happened? You want to try to discover how you “coached” yourself throughout this game/match.

Once you’ve finished this compare your inner coaching for both kinds of performances. Can you see any differences between the two? Usually good and bad performances have very different self-talk associated with them. Becoming aware of the negative self-talk that you feed yourself will be the very first step you need to take in order to develop mental toughness. Remember! Awareness is the foundation of change. If you think you’re a mental midget right now, you can’t start building up those “mind muscles” without first getting to know what’s going on “upstairs” today.

One other strategy that you can try to help you develop this awareness is to begin to keep a “practice & performance journal.” In it you record all your thoughts and self-talk related to practice and competition. What did you think about before practice? Once practice started? When the going got rough? When you messed up or the coach got on you? Keeping this kind of journal for a few weeks will help you speed up the process of awareness and ultimately help you build a strong foundation of mental toughness.

#Topic #1 Why are so many parents out there saying and doing such crazy things?

I just got back from a 12 & under travel basketball tournament. My ears are still ringing from the parents behind me who were screaming bloody murder the entire game. They didn’t like what their daughter was doing, they hated how her teammates handled the ball. They were cursing the coach’s decisions. And, according to them, the referees were terrible, biased and used Braille to make most of their calls.

As an added bonus for me, I’m indebted to these parents for teaching me how a basketball game really should be called. Funny, these parents were so skilled in their officiating that they caught every single mistake the referees made, many of which I didn’t even see. Let’s not forget that these parents also did a far better job coaching their child and her team than the actual coach did, (at least that’s what you’d be led to believe listening to them chatter endlessly and inanely from the stands.) It made me wonder what would have happened to their kid’s game if that child actually listened to even a 1/4 of their distorted “wisdom.”

The other thing that really freaked me out is that right before the end of the first half their daughter drove hard to the basket, collided with another player and crashed to the floor with a loud bang. Suddenly the gym fell silent and all that could be heard was the painful screams of this little 12 year old girl as she lay on the floor writhing in agony. Her parents, sitting behind me, made absolutely no move to go to her side. Her mother laughed and said something intelligent like, “Oh there she goes again, always making a big deal of these things!” Her father sat there and yelled something empathic and understanding like, “C’mon! Get Up…will ya just get up!” Unfortunately this little girl couldn’t move. She wasn’t play-acting. Wasn’t trying to get anyone’s attention. She was quite simply very badly hurt. Her mother finally figured this out and then went over to her.

Unfortunately these aren’t just isolated incidents. It’s as if there’s an epidemic out there where “adults” seem to be losing control and forgetting how to act appropriately. I got a recent email from a soccer coach on the east coast who told me of an incident where a father of a 7 year old boy physically threatened the 14 year old referee because he didn’t like the young ref’s call that went against his son. The police had to be called in and the man was banned from his son’s games for the rest of the season. Then there’s the two mothers at a 14 and under soccer match who began to physically fight with each other because one said something demeaning about the other’s son. What a scene it was to see all 22 players and the refs standing in a circle around these two “grown” women as they rolled around in the mud trying to pull each other’s hair out! Such fine role models for our young children!

What is wrong with us? Are we as parents really this deranged? Are we crazed, egomaniacs who have to live out our own frustrated lives through our kids? Why do so many parents seem to lose sight of the fact that kids are just playing, that a kid’s game or match is not larger than life! It’s just a game! Kids are not pint sized pro’s and their athletic contests are supposed to be for fun! Winning and losing at this or any level is not larger than life. So what’s the deal?

I’m an optimist. I truly believe that like me, you as a parent are relatively sane and want two things for your children. First you want your kids to be happy. You want them to have fun with what they do and enjoy their life. Second, you want your children to be successful…maybe even REALLY successful and to achieve both of these ends you’re willing to sacrifice your time, energy, money, and even your sanity driving your kids everywhere at all hours. Wanting these things by themselves isn’t wrong. It’s fine to want your child to have the best opportunities, develop good skills and have success as an athlete. What may be wrong however, is how you go about doing that.

A lot of well intentioned parents, sometimes distracted by the Olympic theme that continually plays in the back of their head, say and do things in relation to their child’s sport that actually backfire and have the opposite effect than they intended. They want their child to have a dream, set big goals and be more motivated yet they inadvertently kill their child’s motivation by hounding him/her and getting too caught up in the goal setting process or the kid’s sport in general. They want their child to play better under pressure and make the right decisions yet mistakenly say things that actually cause the child to fall apart at crunch time and mess up. WHY?

Because this is America, a land where sports are larger than life. Sports is a religion for too many of us, yours truly included! And the primary denomination of the religion of sport is the professional model where winning is both everything and the only thing. Pro sports defines success and failure for its athletes, coaches and franchises by one word, winning. In professional sports it’s this black and white. If you win you’re a winner and if you lose you’re a bum and you’ll soon be out of a job. Nike’s commercial from the 96 Olympics sums up the pro model nicely: “You don’t win silver….” the commercial states with a lengthy, dramatic pause, followed by an emphatic, “you lose gold!” So the implication here is obvious. Silver and bronze medalists are bums. Interesting concept. I never knew that. I must be naive. I always thought that being an Olympian, never mind actually medalling, was a great honor.

Stupid me! Or how about those Buffalo Bills getting to the Super Bowl and losing four years in a row. Shall we consider them to be a consistently great franchise? Hell no! The media and quite a lot of fans viewed them as the “super losers” that they are, rather than one of the best teams in the NFL at the time. The problem for all of us is this pro sports model trickles down into college, high school and youth sports. Youth sports coaches therefore over-focus on winning as the most important thing. Parents mistakenly judge the effectiveness of their coach by his/her won-loss record. This is a big mistake on a number of levels. First, winning by itself does not make you a winner and it certainly doesn’t make your kid’s coach a good coach. Winning does not guarantee that you’re a success. I have a lot of tennis trophies from my competitive career and many of these represent some of the sorriest, ugliest tennis I’ve ever played in my life. Matches where I was seeded #1 yet so afraid of losing that I played tentatively and poorly…. I may have won. I may have gotten some shiny hardware for the “victory”, but trust me, I was not a winner!

In a similar fashion, losing or coming in second, third or even last place does not mean that you’re a failure. I don’t have any trophies to represent the best tennis of my career because I got my butt kicked in the first or second round of those tournaments. But I was thrilled with how I played. I was a winner because I achieved a level of personal excellence.

Can you help your child understand what it truly means to be a winner. Winning is all about participating. Being a good sport. Being a team player and supporting/getting along with your teammates. Winning is about knowing how to handle success and failure. It’s about trying and doing your best. Giving a full effort. Listening. Practicing. Winning is about setting personal goals and struggling in the process to achieve these. It’s about moving towards your fears, taking risks and trying new things. It’s about wrestling with the process of being a beginner. Most important, winning is about having fun and enjoying the activity. To define your child’s sport and winning in terms of “being number 1” is both too shallow and limiting.

Second, when a coach or parent overemphasizes the importance of the outcome they add unnecessary pressure onto the athlete which inevitably leads that child to choking, performance problems and supreme underachieving. Most of the performance slumps and blocks that I see and work with as a Sport Performance Consultant come from situations where the athlete is being overly pressured by parents and/or coaches. In addition to causing an athlete to tighten up, an overemphasis on winning has an even more detrimental effect. It distracts the athlete from focusing on what’s important in the performance. Ironically the things that parents say to their kids before and during competitions which they mean to be a performance booster, instead sabotages the child’s performance.

How’s this for some pre-game motivation. “Now listen honey, Ya gotta beat Nancy today. I know you can do it so just go out there and let’s win!” Or maybe you like what this grossly overweight soccer mom kept yelling to her daughter, “C’mon Sally move! Go to the wing! Go to the wing! Run! How many times do I have to tell you that!” Excuse me mom…how about if you go to the wing!

For athletes to do their best they must keep their concentration on the task at hand. They must be relaxed and “on automatic”, i.e. not thinking about what they are doing but just doing it. Parents who offer “helpful hints” pre-game and during the game are interfering and distracting that child from paying attention to the things in the game that will help them do their best. You think it’s helping your child but trust me. It’s having the opposite effect! This is not how to help your child excel!

As a parent you should enjoy your child’s sport. Enjoy their participation in it and their chance to learn new skills and have fun. Be supportive of your child. Be their “best fan.” Love them whether they play well or stink the place out. Understand that if they play well and are the superstar, that doesn’t make you a better parent. You are not your child’s performance. And they are not their performance! If they play badly, that doesn’t mean that you have reason to be humiliated. Sport is supposed to be an arena where your child can learn valuable life skills and have an opportunity to feel good about themselves. Don’t take it upon yourself to push your child. Critiquing or criticizing your child’s poor play after a game will NOT make him/her feel better and most certainly will not make them play better. Even on the off chance that you actually know what you’re talking about! What it will only do for them is kill their enjoyment of the sport, make them feel badly about themselves and cause them to lose respect for you in the long run.

If you want your child to excel, support, don’t coach them. That’s not your job. Let the coaches do the motivation, critiquing, pushing, etc. This is not your job. But don’t take my word for it. Let’s ask the experts. What kind of parent do you think you have to be to insure that your child goes all the way in his/her sport? Let’s ask some Olympians. The many Olympic athletes I’ve talked to always say the same thing when describing their parents’ role in their sports. Their parents were very supportive and unobtrusive. They weren’t over-involved. The majority of these great athletes had parents who waited supportively on the wings without screaming “Go to the wing!” This is exactly how Jonty Skinner, resident team coach for United States Swimming at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs described the parents of “the vast majority” of his athletes. SUPPORTIVE & UNOBTRUSIVE!

Do your child a favor! Help them feel like a winner by supporting them unconditionally. Love them no matter what! Let them enjoy their sports experience and they’ll grow up happier and healthier. And one final piece of advice. Develop another retirement plan that doesn’t involve you depending on your child’s signing bonus and TV deals when they finally make it in their sport! Just kidding!


Topic #1 May 15, 1999
Are you a “good” coach? What makes a good coach?

In our “crazed with winning society” all of us have a bit of a tendency to get too caught up with defining our success and personal excellence in terms of winning and the outcome. In pro sports, as a coach, you get to keep your job as long as you put up enough W’s. If you don’t win enough what you can be sure of is that sooner rather than later you’ll be joining the out-of-work on a quest for a new job! Similarly, a professional athlete will lose his/her starting position and job if he/she doesn’t win enough. This same standard of measurement holds true at many colleges and high schools. In this model, if you win as a coach, then you are considered to be “good,” and most likely “better” than your colleague with the losing record.

A simple example. ASCA (American Swim Coaches Association) awards 5 levels of coaching certification. The major requirement to get to become the highest or level 5 rated coach? You have to “produce” (or be lucky enough to have such an athlete on your team) a senior national swimmer. The assumption in this case is that only the best coaches “create” the very best swimmers.

This seems to be a rather simplistic, narrow and generally inaccurate way of measuring coaching excellence. Sure it takes a certain degree of skill as a coach to train athletes and teams to be great. However, sometimes with the luck of the draw and blessed with a group of tremendously skilled athletes, even a chimpanzee could coach them to a winning record. Unfortunately, far too many sports measure the success of their coaches by how “good” their teams and individual athletes are and by how much they win.

When I first started this article in March, I was working with the University of Connecticut Huskies men’s basketball team as they went through March Madness in hopes of qualifying for their first ever Final-Four berth under 13th year coach Jim Calhoun. There were many “experts” out there who were putting up the argument that coach Calhoun wasn’t that “good” because he hadn’t yet gotten his team to a Final-Four. These critics forget the fact that Jim Calhoun had built an incredibly successful and consistently excellent basketball dynasty from absolutely nothing. In addition, a fair number of Calhoun’s players have ended up in the NBA, not to mention the minor fact that his athletes respect the man and love playing for him.

Of course since UConn made it to the Final Four and shocked the world by beating Duke, this point is now moot. However, it’s a trap to get into the collective nuttiness of defining your success and failure as a coach by your won-lost record. If you happen to coach a winning team this does not automatically make you a good coach. Just as if you coach a team with a losing record doesn’t automatically make you a less effective coach. I know too many coaches with winning records who regularly use fear, and physical & emotional abuse as their primary teaching tools. They play head games with their athletes, are disrespectful to them and frequently leave them feeling badly about themselves. In my mind these kinds of coaches aren’t winners. A narrow focus on winning at any cost means that you are missing your primary job as a coach. It’s not just how well your team plays that is a judge of your success. It is far more complicated than that. Good coaches build significant relationships with their athletes. They treat them with respect. They build, rather than tear down self-esteem…(make a player feel crummy about him/herself and that player will consistently under-perform for you.) Good coaches have winning and losing in perspective. (It’s a known fact that the more emphasis you place on the outcome of the game or match, the less chance your athletes have of reaching that outcome.) They understand that their primary job is to teach athletes how to be good people as well as skilled performers. If you build a trusting, caring relationship with your players they’ll go to the “max” for you. You’ll get to winning far faster by teaching your players “silly” concepts like commitment, honesty, caring, mutual respect, teamwork, sportsmanship, etc. And the primary way you teach these things? By who you are and the relationship that you build with each and every one of your athletes. Do you want to be an incredible motivator? Then build solid relationships with your athletes.

Coaches who get too caught up in winning and who fall into the trap of measuring their own self-worth in relation to their athletes’ performances and team’s won-loss record end up causing their athletes to choke and fall apart under pressure. Too much emphasis and emotion attached to the outcome will send your athletes’ games down the proverbial tubes. This is because winning is a paradox. That is, the more focus that is placed on winning, the less likely you’ll be to win. Winning happens all by itself when the athlete or team focuses on what’s important in the contest. If you need your team to win too badly so that you can feel worthwhile as a coach, then your players will pick up on this underlying pressure from you and will respond negatively. You have to feel good enough about yourself so that when the game is on the line, your ego is NOT! Do you have the strength to measure yourself and your worth as a coach in other terms besides your won-loss record?

Let me leave you with this one question to ponder. How many “coach-of-the-year” awards are given to the coach with a mediocre record who is adored by his athletes because he is honest, respectful and teaches his players how to feel good about themselves, how to be better people, how to play well together as a team, how to effectively handle success and failure, the importance of having character, a positive attitude and good sportsmanship? I know, these seem like such “minor” lessons when compared to winning and losing…

I’m not naïve and I don’t live in a vacuum. I understand the big business involved in big time college (and sometimes high school) sports. I know full well what kind of intense pressure that a D-I coach is under to produce a winning team. I know this pressure is clearly evident at almost every level of college and high school sports. However, your challenge as a coach is to not get yourself so caught up in this “winning is everything” mentality that you lose sight of what’s really important and what a truly successful coach is. And the funny thing about this is that the less your ego is caught up with winning, the more you’ll end up winning!

#1 The power of the “now”

Athletes choke all the time and frequently can’t understand why. One of the biggest causes of poor performances is what I call “mental time travelling”. When you leave the “now” of the performance you’ll always get yourself into trouble and significantly under-achieve.

As a sophomore on the University of Massachusetts varsity tennis team I played #1 singles. At the end of the year, at Conference Championships I was placed in a draw of all the #1 players around New England to see who was the best in our conference. Playing well throughout this tournament I fought my way to the finals. In this championship match I was paired up against a player from New Hampshire who had easily beaten me in a dual match two weeks before. He was about 6-4, had a big booming serve and played a very aggressive game.

When the match started however, I was in another world. Call it the zone. Call it “being on automatic.” Call it walking on water. I was playing out of my mind. I was relaxed, loose and completely focused on the task at hand. After all I had absolutely nothing to lose. Isn’t it interesting that you will always play your very best when you have nothing to lose. As the match progressed I kept my mind in the “now” on one point at a time, one shot at a time. After one point ended I would then mentally focused on the next. I was concentrating so well, in fact, that I didn’t even know what the score was.

Playing this way, I was virtually unstoppable. I just couldn’t miss. I won the first set 6 games to 3 and was up 5 games to 2 in the second and final set. The good news: It was my serve and I would be serving for the match. My opponent had not been able to handle my serve all afternoon. I had close to 15 aces to that point.

One thing about tennis you may not know and that is you always change sides after every odd game. Since 5-2 was an odd number we began to switch sides. As we did this I noticed that the tournament committee was setting up an awards table just off the first court where we were playing. On this table was my first place trophy for being the Yankee Conference Champion. For the very first time all match I started to think. For the very first time the entire match I mentally left the “now.” Cruising into the future I began to bask in the anticipated glory of being the Yankee Conference Champion, and only just a sophomore! One of the leading causes of choking in any sport is when the athlete leaves the “now” and goes into the future, dwelling on the outcome.As I stepped up to serve I was thinking in the future, “You’re only 4 points away from winning the Conference! Go for an ace.

Hit it hard!” What’s interesting to note is that I had been crushing my serve all match without having to “coach” myself in this way. I hope you realize that as an athlete thinking will get you into big trouble. You will always perform to your potential when you’re on automatic and not thinking.

Now some people might disagree with me here and think, “Hey, what’s the big deal! Future smuture! You’re so close to winning it doesn’t really matter.” Well go tell that to PGA professional Scott Hoch! In 1989 Hoch was over a 23 inch putt for The Masters title. Golf pro’s make that shot over 94% of the time. Hoch’s final thoughts before he pulled the trigger were future focused, “this is for all the marbles!” He missed the putt and for years had to endure jokes like, “Oh yeah Scott Hoch, rhymes with choke!”

At the line I’m thinking big serve, big serve…and then I crushed my first serve 6 feet out! That got my attention just a bit. However, I didn’t know enough to get myself out of the future and back in the “now.” Still thinking about winning I hit my second serve into the net. Double fault! Love-fifteen. My mind continued to race as I thought about going for the win and a big serve. My next serve went 4 feet out and then I double faulted a second time! Now it’s love-thirty and I’m starting to sweat it. More performance enhancing future thoughts rush through my head like, “Oh My God! What if I choke? What if I lose now?” This was followed by a really intelligent line of thought…”remember what happened two weeks ago.” Why would anyone in their right mind conjure up clear and painful images of their past failures?

Well, needless to say I got myself so uptight that I hit this tentative cream puff of a serve, the kind that takes a half an hour to get from one side of the court to the other. My opponent, who by this time was getting a sense that I was beginning to choke, came in and crushed the “serve” by me for a winner to go ahead 40-love. To make a long and very painful story short, he then tied up the match at 5 games apiece, won the second set 7-5, and beat me 7-5 in the third. My mistake? I left the “now” of the match and went into the future. It’s the best recipe that I know for choking.

The secret to your performance success is quite simple. Learn to stay in the “now” when you compete. If you find yourself “time traveling,” quickly recognize that you’re drifting and bring yourself back to the “now.” The “now” is the only mental time zone where you have access to all your skills and training. The “now” is your doorway to the zone.

Are you consistently underachieving? Struggling with a performance difficulty? Call me today, I can help!

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