Help yourself & help your team all at the same time.
You know those moments you have as a coach where one of your hardest working kids finally has a breakthrough performance?
How awesome does that feel?!
It’s like all the hours, all the sacrifice and all the nonsense we sometimes have to deal with as coaches just falls away and you get this amazing feeling of pride and satisfaction… Man, nothing in coaching beats that!
I just had a senior on my team like that.
This kid was not a great natural athlete and not a great wrestler. He had a losing record all through high school. He hadn’t won a single match in our Sectional Championships at any point in his career going into his senior year.
Any one who’s ever had anything to do with wrestling can tell you this is not easy. Wrestling can be so physical and so personal most kids can’t take the continual losses that add up year after year and eventually leave the sport.
Not this kid though.
Here’s what he did have going for him. He’d show up every day. Every practice. Every match. Every day. And he’d just focus on improving. Little by little. Day after day. Painstaking bit by painstaking bit.
Every conversation with him was about how he was focusing on improving his technique, improving his conditioning, improving his strength. Even when he was going into matches - he was locked in on his own efforts. It like he was in his own world and everyone else was just an “extra.” I don’t think I ever heard him talk about winning or losing.
This kid was focused.
But it was always a focus on the process. Never the outcome. Every match he’d come up to me before he took the mat and say “Coach, I’m just gonna stay aggressive and get to my attacks.”
And it ultimately paid off for him.
He managed to qualify for our Sectional Tournament, despite never having won a match there in his career, and wrestled his way into the quarter finals.
And then he lost.
He lost to a kid that beat him pretty badly earlier in the season and he found himself in the consolation bracket, one loss away from the end of his wrestling career. He could still take 3rd if he kept on winning, but, hey, he’d already come further than he ever had before.
I watched him warm up for his next few matches and you’d never know “his back was against the wall.” You couldn’t see any pressure on his face. Same routine. Same focus. Same “I’m just gonna stay aggressive and get to my attacks.”
It kept on working. He rattled off three decisive wins to find himself in the 3rd place bout against the same kid who pinned him earlier in the season. The same kid who knocked him out of the quarterfinals was the opponent he’d be finishing his wrestling career against.
So here we were, biggest match of his career, and he warms-up looking like it was any other match. No pressure, no stress. This is such a great kid that I personally want nothing more than to see him win. Now I’m feeling stressed. Inside I’m sorta freaking out. Him? Calm as can be. And what happens?
He goes out, “stays aggressive and gets to his attacks.” And he wins. 11-4.
So proud of this kid. He had come SO far. And there he was. He sure didn’t look like anyone’s conventional vision of a mentally tough warrior, but you couldn’t question that he was.
Thinking back on his career, what really made the difference for him was his unwavering focus on “process over outcome.” What makes this even cooler is that we taught that kind of focus. It didn’t come naturally.
Finding ways to get our kids to focus on the process instead of the outcome has been such a huge part of our success in building mental toughness.
Here’s exactly how we did it in our program, step-by-step…
Let's start with what we actually mean when we talk about mental toughness. My simple definition:
Mental toughness is the ability to perform at, or close to, your highest potential consistently, regardless of circumstances.
Now before we move on from here, for these mental toughness strategies to really work, we need to lay the foundation.
I'll tell you right now, without a solid foundation in place, you won't get the results your kids are capable of! With the right foundation, though, your kids will constantly surprise you by just how resilient they can become!
So what is this foundation?
Building a positive culture of deep caring in our program.
Too much to talk about here, but if you want to really understand why this is so important, and how you can make it happen in your program step-by-step get on the WinSmarter insider email list and I'll show you.
Get on the list here and get your FREE tactics to build a Championship Culture today!
Once that foundation is laid (and once we understand why it’s so important!) we can really start using our other “pillars” of mental toughness to make a huge difference. The first one we always focus on is “process over outcome.”
What we really mean by this is finding strategies to get our kids to stop thinking about their “outcomes” (things like wins & losses, scoring, stats, playing time, etc.) and replace those thoughts with a singular focus on their “process” (the actions they can take on a daily basis to help make their desired outcomes a reality).
When you break it down to your kids (and to your parents and to you coaching staff!) it really starts to make a lot of sense why this is so critical.
Think about this way: some of the biggest enemies of mental toughness (consistently performing at, or close too, your highest potential, regardless of circumstances) are stress, pressure and anxiety. These “big three” often combine to take kids out of the zone, to choke and to play tight - pretty much guaranteeing they won’t get the outcomes they’re looking for.
So the million dollar question is: what causes these negative emotions?
When our kids are focused on an outcome, like winning, for example, it’s easy for them to become stressed about it because they don’t have full control over the result. They want something badly, but are uncertain whether they'll achieve it or not. The reality is our opponents (and sometimes the officials!) have a say in the matter too.
When our focus is on a result that we don’t control, we inevitably feel stress about it. That stress leads to anxiety. And that anxiety causes kids to put pressure on themselves to perform, which then causes more stress - a never-ending vicious cycle that inevitably hurts performance.
But what if there’s a different point of focus we can give to our kids?
What if we can get them to focus on things that are 100% in their control? Not the outcome, but actions that, we, as coaches, know, will maximize their chances of achieving that favorable outcome. Suddenly, the stress, anxiety and pressure melts away. The weight is taken off them because they know they are now 100% able to dictate whether or not they meet the objectives they’re focusing on. “Success” is completely within their control.
It’s pretty easy to see how much better our athletes will perform when there’s no stress, no anxiety, no pressure, and their focus is completely on themselves, not their opponent.
So we’re talking about coaching our athletes to let go of outcome-based thinking and turn their focus to actions that they’re in control of. Makes a lot of sense, right?
Great, but the reality is we, as coaches, can’t control what our athletes think about. Trying to do that makes us just as guilty of focusing on outcomes as our kids can be!
Here’s the part where we need to take our own advice!
Let’s focus our efforts on the actions that we are in control of to help guide our athletes towards process based thinking.
Here are some suggestions that have worked great for us:
A little strategic thinking goes a LONG way
Preaching to our kids to “focus on the process” was not particularly helpful and, at the end of the day, didn’t end up improving our outcomes until we took the time to get really strategic and specific about what we were asking them to focus on. Without doing this thought work ahead of time, we can just be spinning our wheels.
As a coach, you’re an expert in your sport. (And if you’re not, I’m sure you know some people who are!) Take a few minutes to think about the specific, controllable actions you can ask your athletes to focus on in each phase of your sport that will have the largest possible impact on a successful outcome.
Let me break that down a bit so it makes more sense.
Creating a culture of commitment
Process-based goals can make such a huge difference for your team when you use them in a competitive setting, but figuring out how to make the most of them on practice days can have even crazier results.
Think about it this way: doing the “right” things in practice day after day is what really prepares your athletes to confidently execute on their process goals on game day. It all come back to goal setting and getting your kids to understand the difference between Outcome Goals, Performance Goals and Process Goals.
To really understand how you can apply this, check out this post on why Goal Setting doesn’t have to suck.
One of the major ideas for you to take away from this is that to create a culture in your program that stays focused on the process, instead of getting stressed about outcomes, we need to get kids thinking about processes on a daily basis. It’s all about chunking down.
Here’s how this might apply to a wrestler:
To really make this both easily understandable and “sticky” for our kids, we substitute in the term “Commitments” instead of “Process Goals.” Basically, their Process Goals in practice are the daily habits they're willing to commit to maximize their chances of ultimately achieving their big, aspirational Outcome Goal. Using the word Commitments has really underscored for them that this is all about consistency of practice. When we involve them in the process, we don’t ask them “What will be your Process Goals each day?” Instead, we say to them “What are going to be the daily Commitments you’re willing to make to achieve your long term goals?”
It’s amazing the difference that changing a word or two can make!
What are you talking about?
So the last piece of advice I’ll give you here is really letting you in on a little secret:
We practically never talk about winning in our program. Not winning individually. Not winning as a team. Not winning in the post-season.
And if I’m being completely honest with you, this was HARD for me. It still is. I’m about as competitive as they come (still can’t play a board game with my wife, without one of us getting angry at the other - but that’s a story for another day!), so removing the conversation about winning and losing is never easy for me.
Here’s what we’ve found: our kids are athletes. They’re competitive too. They are very aware of records, rankings, standings, winning and losing. They do not need me to remind them of that stuff.
I know that if we want to win I need to get them performing at or as close to their highest potential as possible (Remember our definition of mental toughness?!).
To make that happen I need to get them focused on the process, not the outcome, so I had to realize I needed to be the one who took their mind off the outcome instead of piling more outcome thoughts on top of them and adding to their stress, anxiety and pressure.
Sometimes I’m not great at keeping my mouth shut, though (again, you can ask my wife about this one!), so rather than just stay quiet, I decided to replace my outcome talk with process talk.
It made a huge difference.
Whether it’s in practice, during our pre-competition warm-ups, or any other time, our coaching staff is constantly talking to our athletes about their effort, their attitude, and controlling the things they can control.
We constantly remind them of their “specific and controllable” performance cues. And we’re constantly publicly praising kids who follow through their cues and their commitments. There’s a “double whammy” effect going on here too: because we’re praising controllables, it’s just as easy for any kid on our team to earn praise - not just the top performers who are already winning anyhow.
Now a newer, less experienced kid who’s not as skilled, doesn’t get as much playing time or isn’t winning can earn praise, stay motivated, work harder on their “commitments” and keep getting better! This has been huge in keeping kids fired up and engaged and coming back year after year!
Make YOUR life easier too
Practice what you preach!
Even with all the positives we’ve talked about, I’m not gonna lie to you, probably the biggest benefit in all of this is what’s it’s done for my own stress level and satisfaction as a coach.
I told you how competitive I am. I hate losing. I probably hate losing more than I like winning. So what does a competitive coach do? They focus on winning. Well guess what? We have even less control over whether we win on any given day than our kids do!
I was setting myself up for constant disappointment, frustration and stress.
Forcing myself to change was hard and it still is, but what a difference it’s made!
I spend the bulk of my time now focused on the process rather than the outcome. Controlling what I can control. Maybe the best example of this is our practices each day.
I know I can’t control who gets the win on game day, but I do have 100% control over how effective and efficient our practices are. So, now I throw all my effort and energy there. My goal is to squeeze every bit of potential out of our kids by keeping practices fast-paced, fun and productive.
It’s been a blast challenging myself to get better at this every week and every year. And it’s made a huge difference.
Hope it can for you too!