Recently, I had an interaction with a student here at the university. I was asked to help out with his sports psychology assignment. That assignment asked some questions that happened to be extremely relevant to me as a coach and mentor. I appreciated these questions because they forced me to examine my approaches. I pride myself for having a “why” for every piece of my program, something that was ingrained in me early on thanks to my early coaching mentors. Even still in this profession you must be better than average in so many realms (especially in my case with 5 different sports, 7 different teams). The wide array of responsibilities you are tasked with blurs the lines when it comes to knowing exactly how you came to adopt certain strategies in the first place. That is never truer than with how I developed my approach the mental side of coaching. Before we get to my approach let us go back and reflect on my journey.
In the beginning of my coaching career I was just trying my best to apply what I have learned up to that point in my career. Starting out was akin to a being outside in the middle of a hurricane. You have, up to this point, learned so much and now it’s time to implement it…all of it…at once. Overwhelming would be insufficient at best in terms of describing the situation. My first obsession was with learning proper technique, so that I could show people how to perform the lifts. This was a natural progression for me because I had always loved training, so learning how to do it properly was an easy ask. Then you quickly realize that just being able to do and show someone is far from all you need to be an effective coach. You really must be an artist of sorts, which can paint a picture through words so well that an individual can recreate the desired movement based off of just a few perfectly chosen words. Even so, some may not respond to words and may be more sensory based and you may need to manually help them get into the proper position. Some may have physical roadblocks that prevent them from getting into the proper position even if they knew how and you are tasked with identifying those roadblocks. In my situation, and many others across the country, you must figure that all out in a room full of 15+ individuals in many times under and hour…Ready Go.
Now let’s talk about another hurdle called programming. It takes a good amount of time to get a good handle on the art of programming of sets and reps for all aspects of athletic development (strength, speed, power, conditioning) in real situations with all the outside factors that never seem to rear their head on the drawing board. To be honest this is still a challenge for me at times given certain situations. There is nothing like programming for real people in real-time, with real world problems to solve. When programming, did you anticipate the athlete who is constantly under-nourished, under-slept, and over-stressed? I will tell you one thing. You don’t learn that one in class and even if you are exposed to it in your internship each situation requires a different solution because we train individuals, a fact that makes my work so fun and so challenging.
Word of advice: You only get better by doing! Beginner coaches out there; stay in the books, but also get out there and train people. I was a personal trainer all through college and before that I would make programs for my friends. You often learn by failing so don’t fear it. This helped me immensely in my journey!
All that said, and this is only a snapshot of what goes into what I do. I wanted to paint a picture for you, so you could see how detailed the job of a strength coach can be. Often these details are left out on the job description. Many people only have a very basic understanding of what we do. It is not just reps, laps, shouting and whistles. It is up to us to educate people if we want them to have a deeper understanding of what we really do. Hopefully this piece can help out in that regard. Of the many hats we coaches must wear the “psychology” hat is the most challenging. Here is a look inside my thoughts on the subject in the format of responses to the questions the student presented to me:
- How prominently are mental factors involved in your work with physical activity participants?
I would say that mental factors need to be the focus even before the athlete is selected to be a part of the program or team. Without the proper mental foundations the athlete will struggle to handle the rigors of training and often detract from the performance of the team. When recruiting, coaches need to be very cognizant of these factors. Most importantly mindset, will-power, determination, perseverance, etc. The navy seals seem to have the best model for this at the moment.
Once the athletes are selected it is then my job to put them in stressful situations early and often, but in a semi-planned manner, so as not to overwhelm them with more than they can handle (i.e. periodization). In these situations teaching points arise and this is where I am sure to pay deliberate attention to the mental muscles that we must develop for a successful season/career.
- What psychological objectives do you have for those with whom you work (e.g., increased self-esteem)?
It is highly important for them to increase or improve the following tactics or abilities:
Evaluate and analyze the current situation– This could be during a strategic endeavor or simply in a scenario outside of the sport that demands mental accuracy. As they say we are not what has happened to us but instead we are how we react to what has happened to us.
Motivation, Self-Confidence (Esteem) etc. – Belief in self is paramount. I have a HUGE impact here, as a stronger athlete is also a more confident and motivated athlete!
Coping– Athletes must be able to develop perspective. Things may very well be tough, unfair, etc., but I once heard a great coach say “when feeling this way think…compared to what?”
Example: I did poorly on my test and I got pulled over my life sucks.
Compared to what?
The guy who got into an accident and is fighting for his life.
Re-framing makes things not feel so horrible, thus you can move on.
Other objectives that I work on with my athletes are:
Communication, Teamwork, Focus/Concentration, Discipline, Perseverance, Mindset, etc. – these aren’t directly psychological, however I feel they have a huge mental element.
- How do you motivate those with whom you work?
My motivation techniques vary from person to person and team to team. My techniques also evolve the more I study and learn. I have recently been reading books dealing with psychology; one called DRIVE, and a few others from various authors including Tony Robbins. What resonated with me was attending to the 6 basic human needs:
- Certainty– Create a safe place that has high expectations without baseless judgment.
- Variety– Spice of life right!? It’s ok to have fun. You must battle staleness and boredom
- Significance– Making athletes feel unique, important and needed! Catch them doing good and broadcast it.
- Love/Connection– Overused, but very true… “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”
- Growth– The improvement of capability. When an athlete is done with me I hope that I have shown them that they can accomplish what they once thought to be impossible.
- Contribution– Every athlete, starting or not, needs to know and feel their contribution to the team. It is part of my job to communicate and recognize this.
- What are the major psychological problems you encounter in working with physical activity participants?
There are a few that come to mind:
False sense of confidence– This seems prominent in this generation. There is often a confidence that is not backed by consistent hard work or drive to accomplish something greater than oneself (TEAM). Even when this drive is present, it is often fleeting in this “20 second attention span era”. Consistency seems to be the best lesson here.
Lack of knowledge or belief in the power of Mindset– A positive outlook is paramount to success in just about anything in life and the sooner I can convince athletes of this the quicker I can get them to improve themselves and the team. Just as a poor attitude is contagious, so is a positive one.
I would like to thank the student who presented these questions to me (Thanks Cody). In retrospect have done much of the above organically and some of it has been direct and intentional practice after learning. I appreciate the challenge to sit and reflect on my methods. Reflection affords an opportunity to know oneself a bit better and I am grateful for that. As always I hope this has been insightful.
– Be your best you