Mental Toughness Digest for Sport & Performance.
Five Questions for Coaches
By Chris Pomfret (PSY0000966671)
One of the great professional delights for us here at Condor Performance is the opportunity to work with coaches across all sports and levels of competition on improving both their mental toughness as well as their mental coaching skills (quite commonly mistaken for being one and the same).
Ultimately we regard ourselves as expert mental coaches and so the process of collaborating with coaching staff provides a range of challenges and rewards distinct from working directly with athletes. It’s immensely satisfying for us to help coaches redirect some of the vast amounts of time and energy spent on their players back into improving their own performance and enhancing enjoyment of their role.
Increasingly at the elite level of many major sports there is a trend for coaches to take off-season trips abroad (typically to North America and Europe) to ‘pick the brains’ of franchises and college organisations in order to bring new perspectives back home. Study tours are fascinating exercises with a host of educational benefits; however they’re not exactly cheap and may not be too high up the list of priorities for those wrestling with the competing demands of work, family, coaching commitments themselves, and that thing called ‘life’ which can sometimes get in the way of our sporting pursuits.
At Condor Performance we help coaches to teach mental toughness skills to their players for skill execution on and off the playing arena. This particular edition of the Mental Toughness Digest, however, is concerned with strategies to help coaches develop their own mental toughness in their role as a coach. Please note that when it comes to the practical application of coaching tasks and responsibilities it is the coaches themselves who are the experts, not us as sport and performance psychologists. We become involved to provide mental skills training to the coach, not to start developing game plans or overhaul training regimes! We regard coaches as experts in their respective fields and we are fortunate to learn from these experts on a daily basis.
Below you will find five key questions for coaches directed at their own performance, not that of their athletes. Keen-eyed readers of the Mental Toughness Digest will recognise that these questions fall along the lines of the five pillars of sporting performance – please refer to previous editions for further information on the five pillars, or even better please contact the author via firstname.lastname@example.org.
HOW ARE YOU PERFORMING OUTSIDE OF THE PLAYING ARENA?
Before we discuss the mental side of your coaching performance, let’s take a moment to look at the bigger picture. Improving your performance in areas which don’t at first appear to be directly linked to the ‘nuts and bolts’ of coaching will in fact directly benefit your work with your athletes. Attending to ‘off-field’ matters will help to increase your physical and mental energy for your role; sharpen focus when coaching; enhance your enthusiasm for your duties; promote enjoyment of your role; contribute to your general wellbeing; and help to address burnout in the long term. The major targets for improvement for any coach, from a lifestyle perspective, are:
- Nutrition. No doubt you’re encouraging your athletes to put the right fuel into their bodies, and while you may not be running around on the court with them it’s important that you do the same. This isn’t just necessary for general health but also for enhancing your mood and improving your concentration. Taking care of your nutritional needs seems fairly obvious at first glance but that’s why it often takes a back seat to other tasks which seem more urgent at the time.
- Sleep. Unfortunately this is not an exact science and a great night of shut-eye can’t be guaranteed. There are various factors which can get in the way of sleep and so anything you can do to increase the chances of a good night’s rest will have flow-on benefits to life and sport. Taking basic steps to plan for and implement good sleeping habits sounds sensible enough; however, like nutrition, sleep can be one of the forgotten components in the grand scheme of coaching performance.
- The Other Thing I Want To Be Excellent At. Having something else in your life which provides challenges, interest, a sense of reward and forces you to switch off – at least for a while – is good for you and also helps to put your best into your coaching. TOTIWBEA may be a hobby, travel, study, work-related, or family-focused. It doesn’t have to be completely separate from your sport but many coaches prefer this.
- Fun. Don’t let life get in the way of a good time… make sure you enjoy yourself wherever possible! Enough said.
WHAT DOES MENTAL TOUGHNESS LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?
The mental qualities you hope to see in your players are easy enough to picture, but what does mental toughness actually look like for you personally? What are the skills you’re seeking to keep improving upon in order to perform at your best? Below are some points regarding the ‘Big Five’ mental targets for your consideration:
- Motivation. What are your reasons for coaching and wanting to do it well? The immediate response to this may be that you love your chosen sport – which is great to hear – however it’s helpful to clarify this passion further. Why exactly does coaching appeal to you and what are the rewards which you get in return for your efforts? Knowing what matters to us in terms of our chosen sport means that we can keep these values as non-negotiable aspects of our sporting lives.
- Concentration. How well are you able to focus on what is most relevant and useful in your role as a coach? It is equally important to improve your attention in preparation as well as in competition… are you prioritising one over the other at present?
- Confidence. This can most simply be defined as knowing you can do something before you attempt it. Confidence is something we prize in athletes but it can seem elusive or intangible at times for ourselves. What evidence are you collecting that gives you a solid foundation for knowing that you can achieve what you want to achieve before it happens? How do you maintain or increase this confidence if results aren’t going your way?
- Communication. How well are you able to get your message across to others? How well are you able to receive and interpret messages from others? How effectively can you get messages across to yourself? Communication is a hugely underutilised skill, often due to lifelong habits which we have developed in everyday interactions, and even minor modifications can yield powerful changes in tasks such as teaching biomechanical skills or managing different personalities.
- Emotions. How well are you able to manage your emotions? That term – manage – is used deliberately and is not a result of the growing ‘business-speak’ in modern society. Although the term ‘control’ is thrown around freely in sports, we cannot control our emotions as we cannot guarantee them. What we can guarantee is the choices that we make in response to our feelings. Developing competency in recognising and better understanding one’s own emotions – and the impact of these emotions on performance – benefits the coach in their work and enables the coach to teach their athletes similar skills.
DO YOU HAVE A PLAN TO DEVELOP YOUR SPORTING IQ?
Out on the playing surface, tactical wisdom refers to knowledge about the sport: decision making skills and knowing ‘when’ to or ‘why’ to do something. There is an enormous difference, for example, between ‘how to’ shoot for goal (technique) vs. determining if a shot or a pass will most likely result in a goal (tactics). Developing decision making skills is something which the vast majority of coaches I’ve encountered have revelled in: helping to teach their athletes how to become smarter and to read the play… being proactive rather than reactive, and thinking rather than simply acting.
Off the playing surface these same principles apply for coaches. We want to encourage them to continue learning, to seek new knowledge, and to gain deeper insights into their sport. Tactical wisdom for coaches isn’t restricted to coming up with new game plans. Instead, tactical wisdom is looking at the bigger picture and planning how to acquire and utilise knowledge for the benefit of your athletes. This can occur through many means: observation, mentoring, workshops, study, accreditation courses, scientific journals, lessons from other sports, or planned trial and error. As a coach, if you can recognise what your strengths and weaknesses are knowledge-wise then you’ve immediately begun a process of filling in any gaps and strengthening the existing foundations.
IS YOUR BODY GETTING ENOUGH ATTENTION?
Improving the strength, fitness and flexibility of athletes is of course a key consideration for any coach on any given day. I daresay the health benefits of exercise will not be disputed by readers of the Mental Toughness Digest and it goes without saying that attending to attending to your own strength, fitness and flexibility will enhance quality of life and help to alleviate the stress of your role. However, we are talking about coaches here and the risk with this group is that enhancing the physical capabilities of athletes will always take priority over your own needs. Taking the time to plan specific goals for improving your physical capabilities and implementing weekly effort towards these goals will benefit your work with clipboard and whistle… and may even help you to come up with some new ideas for punishing your athletes with torturous fitness drills!
ARE YOU REFINING AND UPDATING YOUR TECHNICAL SKILLS?
When discussing technical consistency with an athlete, we would be talking about their ability to execute movements and apply skills the way they want to over and over again across all conditions in competition. That is, ‘how to’ do something. One of the primary concerns of a coach is to help teach athletes these skills, and so in order to improve your performance as a coach it is worthwhile considering ‘how to’ teach your charges. It’s one thing to demonstrate to a javelin thrower the method for launching that piece of equipment; it’s another to be passing on that knowledge in a way that is effective and of most benefit to that individual athlete. As with the mental target of communication, it’s hugely useful for coaches to break from habit where possible and review how they go about executing their skills in their role as a coach. How effectively are you teaching your athletes and how satisfied are you in your current ability to pass on skills/knowledge/information to others? As with all the previously mentioned pillars of performance, ongoing improvement in the ‘how to’ of coaching players is the goal here regardless of which technical elements are areas of strength for you as an individual.