Where do you spend your mental time on the field? Focusing on what you don’t want to accomplish or manifesting your vision through positive mental thought processes? What we used to call positive mental attitude has been overshadowed by focusing attention (or fear) on what we don’t want to have happen. Many coaches mistakenly believe that good coaches spend their energy making small technical corrections or adjustments to improve player or team performance. In fact, those adjustments translate into minimal positive on-field improvement yet have the unintentional side effect of creating player uncertainty and self-doubt. When the needed change can be communicated to the player through positive affirmations done by focusing solely on what the coach wants the player to accomplish, then positive mental imagery or visualization will lead to the desired outcome. And that, after all, is how a coach is judged to be effective or not; by demonstrating positive results with coaching techniques that motivate players.
This simple concept is one of the leading reasons student athletes who enter high school with exceptional talent later struggle to live up to expectations their senior years. As these natural athletes progress through their system, coaches feel the need to make small adjustments that negatively affect player self-confidence and create self-doubt rather than using positive coaching methods to motivate players. Whereas players were once encouraged to make plays, swing the bat, and have fun, they are now coached at what not to do, thus creating a vicious cycle of self-doubt and apprehension that is difficult to break.
It’s a shame so many coaches do not realize their day-to-day player and staff verbal and non-verbal communication (shaking heads, crossing arms, smiling, clapping, etc) determines the long-term success of an athletic program by instilling player confidence and positive focus or creating negative thoughts. A simple question we frequently ask coaches is “when the game is on the line, what is going through your players’ minds moments before execution?” Responses range from “Please, God, don’t let me miss it” to “give me the ball, I will make it”. Programs that focus on positive outcomes have winning cultures and traditions much like the Duke Basketball program, with one of the most positive coaches of all time.
Regardless of the sport: golf, football, basketball, baseball, softball, swimming, track, etc., the individual players’ focus at the exact time of execution will almost certainly determine the outcome of any particular play. How important is this? Consider the following: the most successful baseball players fail at the plate 7 in 10 times at bat!. Pete Rose, who holds the record for the most hits in baseball, was asked how many times in a game he thought he was going to get a hit. He answered “every time.” Did he get a hit every time? No, but his belief that he would greatly increased his success. Who holds a record for missed shots in the NBA? Michael Jordan. “I’ve missed over 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot…and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” In addition it is a good thing Mike didn’t give up as a result of his JV coaches’ negative belief in him or we would have missed seeing the best player in NBA history. The lesson learned from all of this is that you will accomplish what you focus on so if you focus on the negative you will accomplish the negative but if you focus on your goals, you will achieve them.
An often heard cliché in sports is ‘lack of player focus’. We believe what coaches really mean to say is ‘lack of player confidence’. The lack of confidence is a direct result of the negative focus or negative thoughts going through a player’s mind that are often created by a coaches’ own doubts. Yet, time after time, we hear coaches and their coaching techniques unwittingly impregnate negative thoughts into their players’ minds
Within about 15 minutes of watching a team we can almost always tell what kind of team culture and player motivation exists; a team that believes in itself playing with confidence or a team playing with reservation trying to avoid mistakes. I’ll bet you can guess which one has more fun and wins. The teams playing with reservation focus on what not to do on the field rather than on achieving positive results. They just try too hard. All too often, the negative thoughts turn into a negative consequence, resulting in more negative thoughts, leading to another negative consequence, becoming a cycle that grows like a snowball freefalling down a mountainside. The cycle is contagious to other athletes on a team and is extremely difficult to break. I can’t tell you how many teams I have witnessed run after games or during practice for a lack of focus. I always want to say “Hey, Coach, it wasn’t lack of focus; your players achieved exactly what you had them focus on”. We know that when we change the focus to positive comments, affirmations, and direction of what to do in alignment with our goals, the team has fun, which translates into more positive outcomes. Instead of the freefalling out of control snowball gaining negative momentum, we redirect the energy into positive outcomes.
When Doug Krueg and Ed Oakly worked with Mike Ditka and the Chicago Bears in helping to turn around one of their more painful seasons into a Superbowl run, they did so by having the coaching staff ensure every corrective action was stated in a positive tense. Doug and Ed were not experts in football X’s and O’s but were experts in creating positive corporate culture and found athletic teams to operate no differently. Doug and Ed had found the Bears to be so full of negative affirmations and thoughts, that it was impossible to work their way out of a funk. After a few days observing the team, they met with the coaching staff and made their suggestions for improvements. Their suggestion basically came down to communicating with players with positive affirmations of what they wanted to accomplish and eliminate the negatives. It was that simple, and as the team started experiencing on-field success, morale increased and performance continued to improve. The negative snowball had been redirected into positive energy. A simple example of daily player communication that changed was a defensive line coach telling his defensive end during practice, “Don’t let the running back get outside” (focus on what not to do). Instead the coaches redirected the communications into the result they wanted to achieve, “force the back to the inside where there is more support”. As hard as it is to imagine, this simple redirecting of team focus throughout the organization turned the season around for the Bears.
We won’t get into all of the universal laws of physics that apply to these concepts but consider that for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. The more you focus on the negative the more negative outcomes you will attract. The more you focus on positive outcomes, the more positive results you will attract. A common theme I lived by as a coach and repeated several times throughout the game to my players was “You just have to believe”, a famous quote from former New York Mets pitcher, Tug McGraw. This simple quote allowed us to win more games with less talent, and created a fun, positive winning culture that could not be beat. This brings us to our next law, the universal law of attraction and how this can benefit you as a coach which we will cover in our next article.