Coaching The Coaches

Sport psychologists Coaching The Coaches is becoming more and more normal as competitive sport finally start to understand what we do.

Coaching the coaches

One of the great professional delights for us here at Condor Performance is the opportunity to work alongside sporting coaches. We are privileged to work with coaches across many sports and levels of competition. Most of this consulting is 1-on-1 whereby we help them improve both their own mental toughness as well as their mental coaching skills. Of course these two areas are related but are far from one and the same. So coaching the coaches really means coaching the coaches mentally.

The process of collaborating with coaching staff provides a range of challenges and rewards distinct from working directly with athletes. It is 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. That’s right, coaches are performers too even if they don’t actually strap on the boots.

An Unlimited Appetite for Learning

Increasingly at the elite level of sport there is a trend for coaches to take off-season trips. The idea is to ‘pick the brains’ of other 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 that thing called ‘life’ can get in the way.

We are huge advocates for these study tours but accept they will not be possible for most coaches. Luckily there is a workaround. Start working 1-on-1 with a qualified sport psychologist or performance psychologist from the comfort of your own home.

Of course when it comes to the practical application of coaching tasks and responsibilities it is the coaches themselves who are the experts, not us. But we become involved to provide mental skills training to the coach, not to start developing game plans or overhaul training regimes.

Five Key Questions

Below you will find five key questions for coaches directed at their own performance, not that of their athletes.

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. It will sharpen your focus when coaching. It will enhance your enthusiasm for your duties. Furthermore, it will promote enjoyment of your role and contribute to your general wellbeing. Finally, it will help to address (prevent) burnout in the longer 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 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. 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. Like nutrition, sleep can be one of the forgotten components in the grand scheme of coaching performance. See this great PDF for more details.

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 that keen-eyed readers will recognise fall along the lines of the Metuf model. These are all areas we often discuss when coaching the coaches.

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. 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.

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 are the actions that we pick 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.

Thoughts

Do you spend the majority of your time worrying about aspects you have little or no influence on? For example, your opponents? Food for though, no?

Unity

How well are you able to get your message across to others? Are you able to receive and interpret messages well from others? How effectively can you get messages across to yourself? Communication is a hugely under-utilised skill. Normally this is due to lifelong habits which we have developed in everyday interactions. Even minor modifications can yield powerful changes in tasks such as teaching biomechanics or managing different personalities.

Focus

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?

DO YOU HAVE A PLAN TO DEVELOP YOUR SPORTING IQ?

Out on the playing surface, tactical wisdom refers to knowledge about the sport. It’s about decision making skills and knowing ‘when’ to or ‘why’ to do something. There is an enormous difference between ‘how to’ shoot for goal (technique) vs. determining if a shot or a pass is best goal (tactics). Developing decision making skills is something which the vast majority of coaches I’ve encountered have revelled in. I enjoy helping them to teach their athletes how to become smarter and to read the play. How to be proactive rather than reactive.

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. 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. 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. It 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. So in order to improve your performance as a coach it is worthwhile considering ‘how to’ teach your charges. It is one thing to demonstrate to a javelin thrower the method for launching that piece of equipment. However, it’s another to be passing on that knowledge in a way that is effective and of most benefit to that individual athlete. 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.

If you are a sporting coach and you’d like some info on how we can work with you please contact us via one of the below.

Mental Skills Etc.

Mental Skills are often confused with the methods aimed to help improve mental toughness. One of our sport psychologists sets the record straight.

Mental Skills
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Mental Skills?

The term mental skill (or mental skills) is one of the most misused in elite sporting circles. In fact, it’s used incorrectly almost everywhere in my experience. And here’s why.

The skills are the outcomes not the processes yet most people accidentally refer to them as the latter.

When we talk about an athlete who is technically skilful we are referring to the amount of technical skill (ability) they already have. We are not referring to how they became skilful only that they are skilful. So with the technical side (engine) it’s quite easy to seperate the outcomes (ability) with the processes (how).

Let’s take a soccer (football) player as an example and consider the skill of dribbling the ball. If I compare myself with Leonel Messi you’ll see what I mean. Messi’s ability to dribble the ball is far better than mine. He has far better skills in this technical aspect of soccer than I do. But we can’t say the same about the methods (processes) that each of us use (have used) to work on this skill.

Because the most common way to become better at dribbling is by actually dribbling a ball then the skill and the process got mixed up along the way.

But dribbling is not the only way to become better at dribbling.

As I explain in this recent visualisation video I created imagining yourself dribbling can be just as effective. So what we end up with is a variety of “methods” that can be used to better our skills. And these skills are not limited to technical skills. The can and should include physical skills, mental skills and tactical skills.

The main reason that the term mental skill(s) is useful incorrectly is it is often used to describe the methods when it should be describing the outcomes.

Let’s All Use The Correct Terms

If I were in charge of the “sports science dictionary” so to speak I would insist on the following. All processes (activities) should contain the word ‘method’ and all outcomes (abilities) should use the word ‘skill’. So for example catching a baseball is regarded as one of the technical skills of baseball. But there might be dozens of method that good practice coaches use to hone this particular skill.

How This Plays Out For Mental Skills

There are two main reasons why this doesn’t happen for mental methods and mental skills as much. First, the mental side is less visible and less tangible than the psychical and tactical engines. Second, it’s a much more recent participant at the performance enhancement top table.

At Condor Performance we regard the five most common mental skills of performance as being motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus.

Think of emotions as being rather similar to dribbling a soccer ball. You are either very good at handling your emotions or very poor or somewhere in the middle. And of course, regardless of how good you are, you could always get better.

So emotional management (intelligence) becomes the focus of the endeavours. If you Google ‘mental skills’ you’ll find furphies all over the screen suggesting that goal setting, visualisation and mindfulnesses are all common mental skills used in sport and performance.

They are common, but they are not mental skills – they are mental methods (processes).

The area of sports science that does the best job of separating methods from intended outcomes is the physical side.

Try to finish these sentences off by just using what comes to mind …

  • I could improve my flexibility by …
  • To improve my cardio fitness I could …
  • I could improve my upper body strength by …

In these three examples, the word in bold is the target – the thing you’re aiming to improve. Therefore the methods or processes need to be added at the end. For example:

I could improve my cardio fitness by running, skipping, rowing, walking, cycling and/or swimming.

One target with many physical methods.

Now let’s see how you go with the mental side of performance (also known as mental toughness). 

  • I could improve my motivation by …
  • To improve my handling of emotions I could …
  • I could improve my thoughts by …
  • To improve the unity of my team I could …
  • I could improve my focus by …

Not Quite So Easy Is It?

Remember motivation is the mental skill here. So the question is what processes might help improve or maintain desirable levels of motivation?

Our old friend goal setting might be one and we recently wrote an entire article on the mental method that some people call goal setting which you can read here. Crucially goal setting is just one of hundreds of ways to target motivations. Just in the same way that skipping is just one methods to improve fitness.

How about the mental skill of emotional intelligence? Very Simple Mindfulness is a ‘hum-dinger’ and we recently created this free VSM audio file that anyone can download.

What about thoughts and thinking? I bet you never thought of thinking as a skill, did you? The best method in my professional opinion is simply knowing the amount of influence you have on common performance factors. For example, do you instinctively know that you have more influence on your effort than your sporting results?

How about the mental skill of Team Unity? I would suggest doing some research into someone called the 10 R’s for more on this one.

Finally, the mental skill of focus otherwise knows as attention or concentration. How is it possible to vastly improve your focusing abilities (skills)? In my career so far as a sport psychologist I have had huge success in helping my clients improve their focus with the use of routines.

If you’d like to develop these ideas further then there a couple of options. First, you can reach out to us and ask about the process to work 1-on-1 with one of our sport / performance psychologists. Our hourly rate varies a little depending on location and monthly option but is roughly AUS$ 200 (US$ 150) and hour. If this is beyond your budget then consider doing one of our online Mental Toughness courses instead.

What Is Mental Toughness?

What is mental toughness? What is it not? Is there a best practice way to improve it permanently? These are the main topics that are addressed in this article.

What is Mental Toughness? For us, it’s a bit like one of the engines on a four engine plane.

No Agreement At This Time

It is important to state from the very beginning that there is currently very little agreement within the sport psychology community about what is really meant by mental toughness. In fact many researchers and psychologists working in sport and performance don’t even like the term mental toughness. Some don’t like the actual label whilst others don’t believe it should be a seperate concept to mental health. With this in mind the below assertions are just my professional opinions. Not surprisingly they are shared by my colleagues at Condor Performance.

Defining Sporting Mental Toughness

What is mental toughness? What is it not? Is there a best practice way to improve it permanently? These are amongst the main topics that I will address below. Please use the comments sections at the bottom to let me know if you agree or disagree and why. And don’t forgot the why.

Mental Toughness Is Not The Same As Mental Preparation

Is the pursuit of more clarify we need to clear up the most common furphy first. Mental Toughness is the target, the outcome, the ‘thing(s)’ we’re trying to improve. Mental Toughness is not a process. Mental Toughness is the cake. It’s not the beating of the eggs.

A more accurate but less appealing label for mental toughness is actually ‘the mental aspects specific to performance’. But in the same way that you’d sell less Advil if you called it only by it’s scientific name (ibuprofen) mental toughness is both punchier and more appealing to the consumer. If you want to see the importance of getting the label right have a look at this.

Furthermore, mental toughness is the umbrella terms for ‘the mental aspects specific to performance’. What this means is that is refers to a complex interplay between a number of very different mental aspects. It works the same way as intelligence. Intelligence is now known to be made up of different types. So saying some is intelligent or not is less than usual. First up, it’s too black and white – where is the cut off? But more importantly it ignores the fact that someone can be high in visual-spatial intelligence and low in verbal-linguistic for example.

So a much more relevant question is what are the subcomponents of mental toughness? What are the common psychological outcomes we’re looking to improve as psychologists working in sport? After we have agreed on that, we can focus on the best methods, processes for improving them.

The Aeroplane Analogy

At Condor Performance we an use an analogy that the competitive athlete is like a four engined plane. This is best explained via this 15 minute video below.

Most human beings do not require super fitness, amazing physical strength nor excellent flexibility in order to function, thrive and be good at what they do. In fact, only relatively small amounts of physical activity may be needed in order for most people to experience the day-to-day benefits of exercise on their wellbeing. 

But if this person happens to be an athlete – and in particular an athlete of a physically demanding sport then these small amounts of psychical activity will not be sufficient. Especially if they want to go as far in their chosen sport as possible. 

If the purpose of the aircraft is simply to go for short 20 minute flights as part of a hobby group for amateur fliers then it still needs to function but the efficiency of the engines is less critical compared with an aeroplane that wants to fly as far as possible (safely).

After 15 years of helping mostly athletes with mostly their performance mental toughness, I believe that it is best broken down into these five key psychological subcomponents:

  • Motivation (towards training and competing)
  • Emotional Agility (before / during training and competitions
  • Thought Shaping through values
  • Unity (Team cohesion)
  • Focus on demand

Be Careful Of Synonyms!

Most of the other labels that you’d expect to be here are either synonyms of one of these words or a type of one of the subcomponents or a combination of the both of these. For example, the words concentration and attention are both synonyms of focus. I know from some of my academic contact that some don’t agree with this. In other others focus and attention are not actually the same. To them I say this. They are close enough, let’s not overcomplicate things just for the same of it.

Confidence, pressure. fear and feeling relaxed are all types of emotions. Flow, one of the most common words in modern-day sport psychology, is really just a blend of high focus whilst executing tasks that are not too easy nor too hard.

How Do We Improve Mental Toughness

As mentioned before trying to improve mental toughness as a whole thing is a waste of time. Much in the same way that trying to improve intelligence is. Once you start asking yourself the question how do I improve motivation or emotional agility then the magic start to happen. First, common sense and/or experience will produce a few ideas.

Try this experiment with kids. As them to brainstorm way to improve mental toughness. See what happens. Now repeat and ask them to come up with was to improve group unity. Bam!

If you type the word ‘motivation’ into Google Scholar you get 4,270,000 results. We know a lot about motivation and how to improve it. If you type ‘mental toughness’ in you get a mere 18,400 results. That’s more than 200 times the amount of knowledge on motivation compared with mental toughness.

If you are not happy with common sense alone then turn your attention to the research. Or better still start working with someone who has gone through all the research on your behalf. At Condor Performance I am blessed to have an amazing team of psychologists who do almost of the consulting. This allows me the time to get my geek on and consume performance psychology like a bear coming out of hibernation.

If you’d like to find our more about how to work with one of our team on your mental toughness then get in touch now.


Two Weeks of Fishing – The Power Of The Process

This article by sports psychologist Gareth J. Mole is about the beauty of having an unwavering commitment to the process (effort) regardless of the outcome (results).

Young boy fishing with his father.
The young fisherman is more focussed on the process of fishing rather than his results – the number of fish he catches.

The best examples of Mental Toughness happen well away from the spotlight – it’s just we rarely hear about them. Even as sport and performance psychologists the bulk of the time we spend with our sporting and non sporting clients is focussed on their potential mental improvements not so much their past mental achievements.

So you can imagine my delight when at a recent social event I was part of a conversation that contained one of the best examples of a Mental Toughness “cornerstone” I can remember in a long time; the unwavering commitment to the process regardless of the outcome. 

The father of a five year old boy told of his son’s sudden interest in fishing having watched some Netflix fishing shows. So the father decided it would be a great idea to take young Thomas fishing despite neither of them knowing nothing much about the sport. After buying some basic equipment and getting some tips from the guy in the tackle shop the plan was to head out the very next day to see what they could catch.

So the father and the son woke before dawn and headed out to the fishing spot suggested by the guy in the tackle shop. All day they fished, improving their casting technique and enjoying each other’s company as the hours ticked by. But no fish were caught that first day. So they decided to try again the following day but once again they were not able to pull any fish from the water. This continued for 14 days straight. On each day they’d wake before the sun came up and tried their best to catch fish (actually, anything alive that lived in the water) only to return home empty handed.

When the father finished telling the story the obvious question had to be asked “how did you maintain your enthusiasm / motivation day after day despite catching no fish”. The father thought about this for a while before explaining that Thomas seems to be almost entirely motivated by the actual process of fishing (sitting on a river bank holding a fishing rod with his old man) rather than the outcome of task at hand (the number, size and type of fish successfully caught).

There is an incredible lesson to be learnt here for those in both sport and performance situations. Although “results” are important and probably spoken about like they are the most important aspect of high performance if you’re not enjoying the actual process then ultimately you’re not going to get very fast. The reason for this is rather simple, results are only influenceable (imagine the number of factors beyond your control in trying to get a fish to bite a tiny hook or to get a small white ball into a four and quarter inch hole in the ground) yet your enjoyment of the process can be controlled / guaranteed (with the right approach).

Australia is currently learning this the hard way as it approaches the end of a 10-year high-performance sporting model called “The Winning Edge” which obsesses about results. Yet ironically, the outcomes of the program are well off the benchmarks set eight years ago. Their goal for the 2016 Summer Olympics was to come in the top 5 yet Australia finished 10th on the medal table. The Winning Edge’s benchmark for the recent Winter Olympics was to come in the top 15 but when the final medal tally was produced Australia was a lowly 23rd.

Those in charge of the next 10-year high-performance sporting cycle in Australia would do well to replicate young Thomas the fisherman’s mindset if they really want results. And if you’re reading this and concerned about how to implement this across an entire club, sport or even nation – head straight to Metuf Online.