You’re a coach (or a parent) interested in developing a strong mental game for your athletes, right?

First off, let’s define that so we know what we’re talking about here. I define it as:

Focused, Confident, Determined and Resilient, especially under pressure.

You also know that if your athletes were to play with more of that, then they would bring their “A” game to competition like you get to see in practice regularly.  If you’ve coached  athletes for any significant amount of time, you know that performance anxiety and fear of failure are a huge obstacle to playing their best.

What do you do about it?

coach punishing athleteWell, for starters, if you are interested in teaching mental toughness, what you don’t do is punish players for momentary lapses by pulling them out of the game. Yes, I know that some coaches will respond to that by saying something like: “I want them to think long and hard about that mistake.”

As if the athlete doesn’t know he/she screwed up and thinking long and hard about it is going to get them to fix the problem.

All you’re doing is increasing the anxiety and hurting the athlete’s ability to perform the next time. You’re training the athlete into fear instead of confidence.

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”  
H. L. Mencken

Yes, coaches, I know that you’ve got a game to win, and a player that’s just not performing well needs to come out and someone else given a shot. I get that. What I’m saying here is to wait until after the obvious mistake has passed a little while so that the athlete doesn’t associate being pulled with the mistake.

What you will be doing is giving the athlete the opportunity to build resilience from the mistake, to learn that they can always come back after a mistake.Athlete building resilience

This is how confidence is built and a “come back attitude” developed for the vast majority of athletic minds.

When you pull the athlete right after the mistake, you are instilling a huge fear of making that mistake again! This punishing mentality that too many coaches are using these days actually sabotages the whole team and not just the player who made the mistake.  Everybody on a team knows what happened and gets the same fear beliefs installed.

I have been preaching this to coaches for a decade now:  “Stop throwing away your talent

The problem with the whole sports world is that for every athlete, there are 2 more on the bench or at the lower level wanting to step up and replace those that fall from the coach’s grace.

Too many coaches treat athletes as expendable.

The time to teach mental strength is right after an athlete makes a mistake or chokes under pressure, yes, for sure.  What you as a coach (or parent) do with your athlete, at that time, is the key to whether it will hurt or help them.

For the sake of the other side of the argument, I will admit that sometimes, some athletes will rise to the challenge of coming back from being pulled from the game. That is true. If you are aware enough about the psyche of your athlete to know for certain that tactic is going to work, then go ahead and do it.

Mentally weak athleteI’m here to tell you that it doesn’t work for most athletes and if you do it regularly, you are only hurting yourself by wasting a grand opportunity to create a mentally strong athlete who will pay you back for believing in him/her.

Listen, I get it that coaches want wins and great performances.  Did you notice that I didn’t really appeal to your sense of wanting to build life skills in your athletes.  I’m here to tell you that it is in your best interest, even if you are a hard core coach (or parent) who cares mostly about a winning record,  to study sports psychology for coaches and stop thinking that just because you had a winning season somewhere that your tactics work for every group of athletes you get.

“A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment.”

John Wooden (10-time NCAA Championship Coach)

Keep your mind open. Flex with different tools for different athletic personalities.  Always ask yourself:  “What is the best way to build this player’s confidence right now?”

You know that a player with confidence will outplay one without it, right?  You have the ability to inspire that, use it!

Let’s do this,

Craig Sigl
Mental Toughness Trainer