What I’ve Learned After 200 Hours

coaches confidence focus goals mental skills mindset parents performance resilience Mar 02, 2020

When I sat down to do my weekly log of clients I’ve coached, I realized I’ve hit the 200-hour mark since I started Top Mental Game. Wow. That went fast. 

About half of those 200 hours were spent with Division-I athletes/coaches and the other half with elite high school athletes/coaches. 

I’ve been in front of approximately 500 student-athletes from 15 different teams in a variety of sports - golf, baseball, football, hockey, soccer, basketball, swimming, volleyball, wrestling, and softball.  

And I’ve worked one-on-one with athletes from California, Texas, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Spain, and Italy. 

So here’s 5 things I’ve learned.

1. Many college and high school athletes lack the mental skills needed to cope with the pressures of competitive sports today. 

Even the most physically talented ones.

When I think about youth sports today compared to when I was a kid, there have been so many improvements - better facilities, better equipment, better coaching, more opportunities to play against better competition, and better nutrition, recovery, and strength and conditioning techniques. 

These improvements have also come at a cost. They have exponentially increased the pressure on athletes to perform at a high level at younger and younger ages. But as the expectations and the pressures that accompany them have risen, we have failed to provide athletes with the commensurate mental tools needed to deal with them.

And we know the results. Increased mental health issues (depression, anxiety, panic attacks) with high school and collegiate athletes. Promising young stars burning out before they reach high school. Tantrums and breakdowns on the bench, or worse...during the game. Frustrated coaches who cannot understand why their players are “soft” compared to when they played. Helicopter parents breaking down when their kids fail to perform up to unrealistic expectations. 

And yet, ask yourself how many programs at the collegiate or high school level have a mental skills coordinator on staff?

With the exception of the Power-5, not many.

In comparison, consider how many of these programs have a strength and conditioning coach? Every one of them.

As a society, we have prioritized physical improvements over mental health. Something has to change.

Some may counter, well, my college or high school has a psychologist on call, isn’t that good enough? Look, having a psychologist on call is great, but I’ve seen how they operate, and they are not the answer. They are most definitely needed, but they are a backstop.

The day-to-day work that performance and mental skills coaches do with teams and athletes is not being done by the school psychologist. (And for the record, we cannot do the work of a clinical psychologist - I’m not a mental health professional). My experience is that the school psychologists are almost always reactive rather than proactive, meaning they are often only called when there is a problem. 

But why wait until there’s a problem to work on the athlete’s mental game? It’s like saying, I don’t have to take my car in for an oil change and a regular tune-up because I have a mechanic on call. Why not do preventive, routine maintenance rather than waiting for a breakdown? 

Or better yet, why not continuously make your car’s performance even better?

At Seton Hall University, I have had the privilege of working very closely with two teams - women’s golf and baseball. I bet I’ve had more contact hours with student athletes in the past 6 months than the school’s sports psychologist has had in the past 2 years. And unlike the majority of the players who are referred to him, all of my athletes come to me voluntarily...and they keep coming back. Oh, and they also experience unprecedented success, which leads me to...

2. Mental skills training enhances performance. 

Given the increase in pressure, it should not come as a surprise that many of today’s athletes struggle to cope. It is easy to get messed up in the head. Obstacles are everywhere, and social media makes us feel as though everybody’s winning except us.

But when you give athletes the tools to properly set goals (process vs. outcome), perform under pressure (through self-talk, visualization, and imagery), and remain resilient in the face of adversity (staying neutral, mistake rituals, consistent approach), they flourish. That’s why every single athlete I have coached has improved their performance. Most have achieved personal bests. Many have set school records. All have improved.

You may have seen my recent post on the Seton Hall women’s golf team. This is perhaps the best example of what I can do because it is the closest I’ve ever worked with a team. 

The best part? The same skills I teach athletes to perform under pressure are the same skills that help students perform well in other areas of life - test-taking, public speaking, and goal-achievement.

When you give athletes the tools to be more confident, motivated, focused, and ready to overcome adversity, they perform better. Everywhere. Period. It’s not an accident. It’s not a coincidence. 

You don’t have to be sick to get better.

3. Coaches need help on the mental game. 

When Seton Hall’s baseball coach Rob Sheppard called me last summer, he knew he needed help. For those that know about baseball in the northeast, you know the Sheppard name. His dad was a legendary coach at the school, and young Coach Sheppard served as an assistant coach for his dad for many years before taking over the program in 2003. The Sheppard name is Seton Hall and baseball royalty.

“We need to improve our mental toughness,” he told me over the phone.

At the end of the 2019 season, he and his assistant coaches recognized that the team needed help in this area. They had heard about my work with other Seton Hall athletes, and asked if I would work with them. 

I have been around a lot of players and coaches, and Coach Sheppard is one of the most mentally tough people I know. And even though I was a former D-I baseball player and an assistant coach at Army, Coach Sheppard has forgotten more baseball than I know. But it is one thing to be mentally tough; it’s another to know the best ways to make others mentally tough. Coach knew he needed help.

And he was willing to invest in the time needed to work on the mental game. if there’s one thing that coaches value more than anything else, it’s practice time. So when he asked me to do four 1-hour sessions during the Fall season on the mental game, I knew he was serious. Then he asked if I could do three more sessions before their first game this spring.

When I talk to coaches today, I keep hearing some common refrains. One of the most common is that today’s players are not as mentally tough as they used to be. Today’s players are bigger, faster, and stronger than ever, but coaches will tell you today’s players struggle with the mental game. 

A second complaint is about focus. In an instant-gratification world full of distractions, coaches find it difficult to get players to lock-in, especially in the first  20 minutes of practice.

Why? Because we ask our student-athletes, whether they are in high school or college, to instantaneously go from student to elite athlete with a flick of a switch. Coaches always ask their players to physically warm-up their bodies and stretch before a practice, but how many coaches get their players to mentally “stretch” before a competition. Wouldn’t it be great if there were some tools and exercises to get every player on the same sheet of music and mentally prepared for the rigors of practice or competition?

Those exercises exist, and performance coaches like me help provide coaches with those kinds of tools to give their teams a competitive edge.

It is unrealistic to expect coaches who grew up playing in a different time to understand and intuitively know how to arm their players with the mental skills necessary to thrive today. 

However, working with a mental skills coach, coaches and players can all get on the same sheet of music, work from a common framework, develop a common lexicon, and communicate in more effective ways. They can learn to develop daily routines before, during, and after practices/games that increase their team’s mental toughness and ability to perform under pressure. 

Finally, a mental skills coordinator can be a valuable resource for coaches. Not only are we able to teach the mental skills needed to improve their team’s mental game, but we are also there to help their own mental game. 

Sometimes coaching can be a lonely business. Sure you have your assistant coaches, but like the teaching profession, you don’t always have a support network that is “in the know.” A mental skills coordinator can help fill that void. 

As a former D-I player and coach, I’ve been in their shoes. As someone who sees their players more than anybody else other than their assistant coaches, I have a unique perspective on their team and on what’s going on. I sometimes know more about how their players are thinking, feeling, and reacting to what’s going on than they do. And as an honest broker who is there to help the team succeed, I can be that bridge, that grease for the gears, that helps the whole machine run smoothly and more effectively. 

If coaches can find that person who has the trust of both the players AND the coaching staff, who can provide honest feedback, bounce ideas off, and inject critical input, it will be of enormous value to your program.

4. Parents need help on the mental game

Parents want the best for their kids. We want them to have better opportunities than we had. And that’s why parents these days spare no expense to give their kids every advantage. 

From my experience, parents who do not have high school, college, or professional experience often think the solution to their child’s athletic success lies in improving their physical talents. They can have unrealistic expectations for their child’s development and are quick to hire specialized trainers to work on specific skills (footwork, agility, shooting, hitting, pitching, strength, speed). And because some of these parents are vicariously living through their kids, they often are unwittingly part of the problem, placing even more pressure on the ones they love the most.

What these parents fail to understand is that their kids are perfect candidates for mental skills training. That’s because these kids are often more susceptible to burnout, more likely to base their self-esteem on status and statistics (e.g. am I starting or getting the most playing time or not), and less likely to handle adversity.

Parents without sports experience would find that their kids are more likely to achieve their ultimate potential (not to mention become happier, more resilient people) if they worked more on their mental game - growing self-confidence, focus, and resilience - than through another round of one-on-one personal instruction to enhance physical skills. 

But even parents who have experience playing sports at the collegiate and professional levels find it difficult to teach their own kids the mental game. I know because I’m one of them. My child thinks I don’t know anything. As every parent knows, sometimes it is the voice of a respected third-party (and not the parent) that gets through to your child.

Interestingly, an overwhelming percentage of my individual client’s parents have experience playing in college or the pros. Of all people, they understand the importance of the mental game, and they don’t leave it to chance. They know they need help.

 5. Mindset matters. A lot. And it can be taught.

You may never be able to play like the greatest of all time. But you can most definitely learn to think like them.

You can learn how really successful people set goals. You can learn the difference in how average people talk to themselves and think about problems, and how high-performers do it. You can learn how to control the controllables, put all your focus on the things that matter, and employ a growth mindset when adversity inevitably strikes. 

I have the great fortune to work with really talented athletes who are genuinely interested in becoming the best possible versions of themselves. I love seeing them performing at a high level. But my absolute favorite part of working with high school and college athletes is seeing them use the mental skills I taught them to bounce back from adversity. 

After all, it’s easy to have a great mindset when things are going well and you’re playing great. It’s when you stumble, when things are not going well, and when doubt creeps in ... that’s when mindset matters. 

Without a doubt, my most memorable moment in the past 200 hours of working with athletes occurred when one of my clients had a disastrous day. Paige, a competitive high school golfer in Texas, was at a prestigious tournament where she shot an 86 during the first day. After parring the first 5 holes, she recorded a 12 on a par-4 hole. Not the kind of start to a round when you know college coaches are watching.

In the past, this kind of catastrophe would’ve derailed Paige. A self-proclaimed emotional golfer who used to ride the highs and lows of the game, Paige learned how to stay neutral, control the controllables, and remain present. She had to apply those techniques for the rest of the round in order to escape with an 86. 

When we corresponded later that night, she had an un unbelievably positive attitude. In fact, it was a tutorial in the perfect mindset. She was able to laugh off the 12 and focus on the positives that day. She told me that her swing felt good, she was confident in her game, and she just knew that Round 2 was going to go well for her. 

The next day, Paige shot a 73. It was the second lowest round posted in the tournament, and 2 strokes behind the eventual winner. And that monster hole from Rd 1? She parred it. Or in her words, “I only played that hole once today.” That comeback also caught the attention of college coaches who saw the impressive turnaround. It was proof positive that mindset matters.

When it comes to mindset, I use the following definition of mental toughness. Mental toughness is the knowledge, ability, and the discipline to play at your best, regardless of the circumstances.

In other words, do you “know” what it means to play at your best? Are you capable of doing it? And do you have the discipline to do it regardless of the circumstances. Regardless of the weather. Regardless of the score. Regardless of the competition. Regardless of whether you have your A game or you B game (or worse)? Regardless of whether you’re starting or coming off the bench. Regardless if you get along with your coach or not.

This is easier said than done, but it is the foundation of developing a winner’s mindset. And it can be taught.

Final Word

After 200 hours of working with top college and high school athletes and teams, I’ve learned a tremendous amount. I feel like this is what I was meant to do. As a former D-I athlete, I know what my clients are going through. As a former D-I coach, I know what coaches are going through. As a parent, I know what parents are going through. And as someone who has served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and testified in front of Congress - I know what it’s like to perform under pressure. 

If you’re an athletic director, coach, parent, or athlete looking to take your program, team, child, or game to the next level, please contact me at [email protected]



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