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Coaching With a Purpose: Mixing Mental Lessons With Physical Ones

In just the last two decades, coaches are finally realizing the tremendous impact they can have on their win/loss record and the respect of their athletes by coaching the mental game.

There are still plenty of old-school coaches out there who ignore the reasons why such brilliant coaches as Phil Jackson, Bill Walsh and Tommy Lasorda were so successful. These coaches—and every other wildly successful coach—understand human psychology and how to get the most out of their human athletes.

The problem with old-school coaches is that in the back of their minds, they know they have an unlimited source of athletes ready to take the place the place of any athlete that just doesn’t fit with “my way of doing things.” The old-school coach may even have some success at some point and think, “That’s what I should repeat for more success.” And then the coach gets a whole new set of players who don’t respond to his rigid methods.

Wisdom is always an overmatch for strength.
—Phil Jackson, Basketball’s “Zen Master”

What I recommend to coaches is to have a simple structure or framework for mental lessons that can easily be taught and referenced when working on physical skills and in competition. Make up your own or feel free to use mine:

Mental Toughness is: focused, confident, determined and resilient, especially under pressure.

Start your season by introducing your mental game structure just like you do for your physical training. Have a mental game meeting and just talk about Mental Toughness to get buy in and a basic understanding. Then, in a practice when you see mental weakness, you can highlight it and give the player a thought or technique to work on it. Because you introduced your mental training at the beginning of the season, touching back on that philosophy throughout the season will come as no surprise.

For example, a coach watches a player in practice get too angry after making a mistake. The coach could say:

“Mary, what if you got that angry/frustrated in the beginning of the game after making a mistake? Would you be able to play your best for the rest of the game? Which of the mental principles we talked about do you need to practice right now?”

If Mary can’t remember, simply remind her and give her a mental technique just like you would a physical technique. This is what practice is for: catching our mistakes and working to improve our skills, physical and mental.

I’ve observed that if individuals who prevail in a highly competitive environment have any one thing in common besides success, it is failure—and their ability to overcome it.
—Bill Walsh, West Coast Offense coaching legend

Old-school coaches give short shrift to the mental game and therefore set themselves up to all sorts of problems with their players that only show up in competition because they have not been practiced in advance.

The quote from Bill Walsh above is such common sense that it needs no explanation, yet old-school coaches just figure athletes need to do this on their own, and if they don’t, well there’s another person waiting to take their place.

These coaches are throwing away amazing talent every season.

Managing is like holding a dove in your hand. Squeeze too hard and you kill it, not hard enough and it flies away.
—Tommy Lasorda, “Baseball’s Goodwill Ambassador”

If you, as a coach, are not incorporating some kind of mental game training and lessons in your program you are simply handicapping yourself—there’s no way around it. Your competition knows the value of teaching players how to shape their mind and master their emotions to be in alignment with winning. In the past generations, there were no sports psychologists or mental game experts and so coaches who figured all of this out on their own, like Vince Lombardi, had a huge edge over everyone else. Today, it’s a necessity.