What is the best way to achieve peak performance and Building Mental Strength in athletes?

To answer this question, we wanted to share with you Bob Adrian’s tips and strategies for coaches. Bob trains coaches on “Best Coaching Practices”; and in this article offers many great ideas and suggestions on how to cultivate an attitude of mental toughness…

Quite often coaches lament about their teams when they are struggling to compete successfully by saying that their team lacks mental strength. Even Boston Celtics coach, Doc Rivers, called his team ‘soft’ after a number of “mediocre performances” early this season.

What do your coaches and trainers actually mean when they are talking about mental strength or peak performance? Do the players actually understand the concept? Is it possible to train young athletes to build mental strength; when many of them are accustomed to instant gratification from being able to tweet, text and post instantly?

Quite often military metaphors permeate athletic competitions. Invariably in their inspirational pre-game speeches, coaches will characterize the upcoming game as a battle to be won. Phrases like ‘It’s going to be a war out there’; ‘We have the weapons to get it done’; Whose warriors are going to be left standing?’; ‘We’ve got to out tough the enemy!’; are quite often quoted in pre-game pep-talks.

Some of the sports do demand physical strength, but an athlete can only be as tough physically as he is mentally. Retaliating against an opponent in front of the referee, for example, is a sign of mental weakness (and emotional)..

It is not easy to teach the complex concepts of mental toughness. Before we teach athletes to be mentally strong, we need to understand its various interrelated components.

    • #1: Grit

Grit is the combination of passion and resistance. It demonstrates an athlete’s and the team’s tenacious and indefatigable determination to reach their goal. It also maximizes peak performance.

    • #2Will or Resolve

Will or resolve is the unswerving commitment each athlete makes [to do whatever it takes] to bring out the best in their team. A strong willed team or athlete will understand that it is not about the ‘need’ to win, but about the ‘will’ to win, that matters the most. Such ‘resolves’ can easily be sustained throughout any athletic competition. Thus, individuals and teams are capable of ‘sealing the deal’ by closing out competitions, resolutely.

    • #3: Ambition

Ambition is an athlete’s ability to channel personal desires into larger team goals. Athletes should focus on what they can do as a team rather than what they can get from being a part of the team.

    • #4: Resilience

When an athlete has the courage to risk failure; the willingness to learn from his/her mistakes; and the confidence to confront adversity and use it as a motivation to grow and develop; then he has resilience.

    • #5: Equanimity

The ability to maintain composure, poise, and mental calmness in situations of pressure and stress in order to be successful is equanimity.
youth sports athletes

    • #6: Intensity

When equanimity leads to a state of extreme concentration, then an athlete is said to be intense. An intense athlete is not ‘tense’ but instead, ‘relaxed’.

    • #7: Self-discipline

When an ‘athlete learner’, acquires the knowledge and understanding, along with the qualities of self-control and self-restraint, then it is called self-discipline. Such an athlete knows what to do, when to do and how to do it; and can contribute to the team’s collective self-discipline and performance. Improved self-discipline means improved self-confidence.

    • #8: Accountability

An accountable athlete has the ability to ‘look in the mirror’ and own responsibility when things do not go well; and at the same time, ‘look out the window’ and credit others when things do go well in a team’s performance. Mentally tough athletes should be able to hold themselves accountable for what they can alone control in their performance. They need to set controllable goals and well-focused strategies to achieve those goals.

    • #9: “Awake-ness” or Focus

A focused athlete realizes the importance and power of being in the present. Of being able to be ‘in the present moment’ and let go of every moment as it passes, good or bad, to move onto the next moment. Life is indeed ephemeral, and it is easy to miss out the present moment to get better by clinging to what happened in the past or what could happen in the future.

With distractions (from within and without) abound, the mind wanders amidst the ‘clutter’. A mentally strong athlete is completely ‘awake’, that is, they have no division between the self and the experience (shooting a free throw, serving a tennis ball, navigating a slalom gate, striking a ball on goal, knowing where to move on a zone press, etc.) at each moment that experience is taking place.

Complete focus breeds confidence.

    • #9: Selflessness

An athlete’s humility and trust (in coaches and teammates) that allows them to abandon their ego and ‘surrender’ to the team; in order to become a better player and to improve team performance, is called selflessness. Selfless athletes are more ‘awake’ and focused along with being more self-disciplined, self-confident and self-motivated.

    • #10: Pursuit of Excellence

As Jim Collins argues in his seminal work, Good to Great, that ‘good is the enemy of great;’ a mentally strong athlete recognizes the ‘curse of competence’.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? With Practice, practice, practice… of mental toughness. Even after achieving the pinnacle of success in his profession by winning three Super Bowls, New England Patriots quarterback, Tom Brady used to say that he approached every practice as if he were “trying out for the team”.

To put it in another way, if you know you have to walk 100 miles, then you should reckon that 90 miles is halfway.

The virtue of practice lies in the opportunity for individual development, team building and especially trust building. It is the creation of a team culture that ‘leaves no doubt’ about a team’s identity, and a selfless, relentless commitment to pursuing greatness.

Keeping these components of mental strength in mind, what can we observe from mentally strong soccer players? Here are a few examples players that are strong mentally.

  • The forward who works tirelessly off the ball to create space for teammates, and who does not complain when not receiving the ball after all the hard work.
  • The players, once in the starting “11”, now on the bench, who nevertheless remain steadfast supporters of those who are on the field.
  • The same players who, rather than complain about playing time behind the coaches’ backs, continue to compete by pushing those ahead of them during practice.
  • The player who consistently arrives first to and leaves last from practices to work on free kicks or corner kicks or other aspects of technical development.
  • The forward who understands that team defending begins with the first layer of pressure, and who knows when, where, and how to apply that pressure based on the team’s defensive tactics.
  • The senior, star player, who, with the team trailing by a goal with 10 minutes to play, does NOT succumb to trying to do too much on his own while worrying about the chance of the team being eliminated from the tournament, thus ending his career.
  • The player who consistently plays the next moment, avoiding the distraction of a poor or missed call from the referee, and without feeling the need to whine or retaliate.
  • The goal scorer, who after tallying the winner against an archrival, shows respect for the opponent by neither taunting nor drawing attention to himself.
  • The captain who realizes the lack of intensity and focus in practice and who, without coach direction, brings the team together to take stock and insist upon change .
  • The senior player who, holding himself accountable for his effort and performance during a practice (or game), has the courage to hold his teammates accountable, thereby cultivating a sense of trust within the team.
  • The player who, though having a “bad” day at practice, seeks to pick himself up both by picking others up who might be struggling and by applauding the efforts of others.
  • The players who take care of themselves off the field to consistently put the team in the best position to play hard, to play together and to play well. To wit: getting enough sleep, eating the right foods, observing training rules, and adhering rigorously to rehab in cases of injury.
  • Those players who understand that success in next year’s soccer season begins right after this season ends with a commitment to goal setting for improvement during the off season (getting stronger, etc.)
  • Cultivating and sustaining a culture of mental toughness has always been a challenge for coaches of competitive sports, now even more so in working with the “millennials,” student-athletes born in the 1990s.

    An ESPN “Outside the Lines” program highlighted today’s “trophy generation,” where everyone at the youth level gets a trophy and is prevented from failing and learning the lessons of losing.

    Moreover, so-called “helicopter parents” hover over their children beginning with youth sports and extending into college. In essence, as one coach put it, “The path has been prepared for the child rather than preparing the child for the path.”

    Along the way, young athletes are not able to fully develop the strong mental qualities. For some athletes, a sense of entitlement emerges as well as a need to know instantly why coaches do everything they do.

    Coaches that are successful today, are able to cultivate various aspects of mental strength in their players; of course, not without considerable challenge. These coaches model strong mental abilities every day, in the way they display their craft during practices and games. They are, as Hall of Fame Football coach R.C. Slocum states, “demanding but not demeaning.”

    They attend scrupulously to detail, hold athletes accountable, discipline them, and offer effective feedback, so that the players will gradually learn to demand more of themselves and each other. They make athletes hold themselves (and their teammates) accountable, persist in getting the ‘little things’ right, develop trust, become more self-disciplined and self-confident, and be able to self-prompt and self-assess their performances in practices and games.

    Providing effective feedback looks forward and involves athlete engagement.

    For example, the coach might ask the player, “Given what you (and/or we) were trying to accomplish, what might you do differently to make it happen next time?” Cultivating confidence among players necessitates modeling constructive versus destructive criticism.

    Instead of saying, “You guys can’t finish anything today; I’ve never seen such a talented team miss so many shots,” a frustrated coach might offer, “Our goal was to create more scoring opportunities by focusing on getting more guys into the box, and we are doing just that, so keep it up. It’s only a matter of time before we break through.”

    Great coaches design practices that mirror game-like situations, so that players can have the best chance to transfer what they have learned to the game. Their practices are simplistic, competitive and often harder than games; and, why not harder? After all, which team will possess more players who, when real fatigue sets in, can dig deeper and ‘get the job done”?

    Finally and not significantly, as psychologists, the best coaches recognizes that each player brings a different ‘story’ to the team, and therefore the coach learns to get to know all of the players and what makes each tick.

    Great coaches learn what “buttons to push” to make each player and thus the team mentally stronger as the season progresses to ensure peak performance.

    What are some of the ways you help your team get mentally tough? Let us know in the comments below…

    youth sports athletesBob Andrian taught history and coached soccer and baseball at the secondary level for three and half decades.

    Currently, he teaches in the lifelong learning program at Keene State College and works with coaches and players at the college level. He lives in Marlborough, NH and is working on a book on best coaching practices. He can be reached at rkandrian03@yahoo.com.