Mar 22, 2002

Mental Conditioning

March 22 “Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so." —Douglas Adams


At the recent 2002 National Strength & Science Seminar in Blaine, Minnesota, Nicole Black-Lavoi, Ph.D. Student at the University of Minnesota, gave an informative seminar of preparing the athletic mind for top performance. She emphasized

that the prevailing myth that the use of imagery is NOT sports psychology. Rather, sport psychology should be thought of as finding the most efficient means to motivate an athlete.

Intrinsic motivation, (the self-determination that an athlete uses to push them self), claims Black, burns deep and lasts longer than any form of “pep talk.” Find out what that athlete desires from athletics and fuel the fire. She addressed the following points that coaches can use to develop intrinsic motivation from their athletes.

  • Tip #1: Define success as a process not the outcome. Tom Osborne, the legendary Nebraska football coach, addressed this basic element in his book, “Faith in the Game.” He was afraid that if players were to set their goals on such things an an undefeated season or winning a national championship that an early season stumble would ruin the next 3 months. Osborne guided his team leaders to focus on setting goals that focused on the process of a successful season not the outcome. These goals would include measurable outcomes of a weekly game such as controlling the time of possession or turnover ratio. In this manner, win or lose an athlete can re-focus and “get-up” for the next game.

  • Tip #2: Make it FUN! In a survey of college athletes asking what was the most effective motivating tools their coaches used having fun was #1. Contrary to most coaches, winning wasn’t even in the top 10. Find out what your athletes think is fun and apply it to your program. In the weight room, we may assume that getting stronger is fun. But in reality it’s hard work for young Johnny. Some programs incorporate “game-time” into their work-out sessions. Following the work-out you take the kids into the gym, divide up and play dodge-ball. Invest in a tug-o’-war rope, or have a water balloon fight. These activities may seem trite to the coach but if it’s fun to be at the work-out session Johnny might come back tomorrow.

  • Tip #3: Encourage self-comparison. This is along the lines of developing that intrinsic motivation. Stress to your athletes that ”how much weight they lift" is not as important as lifting more than last week. You will find that the self-confidence this breeds in your mediocre to lower contributing athletes will turn them into productive and important members of your program. (I love to talk about these kids, because they are the ones who are impacted by sports the most. I’ve seen it happen and transform young men. It is with these kids that I have developed my best relationships, not the star athletes.)

  • Tip #4: Engender feelings of control. This may be a tall order for many coaches. However, athletes want to feel important and that their opinion means something. The old-school idea is “My way or the highway.” The trend however is leaning toward the only one hitting the highway is the coach. Give kids a sense of ownership. This can be as simple as picking out the team shirts or team goals.

  • Tip #5: Encourage athletes to set goals. I personally was never a big Dallas Cowboys fan however, Emmett Smith made a comment in a Sport Illustrated article that blew me over when I read it. “A goal is just a dream until you write it down”. An athlete needs to be bombarded with his own goals on a daily basis. Hand out index cards and they’ll the athletes to tape them to their bathroom mirror. This is another way to help athletes develop that intrinsic motivation.

  • Tip #6: Give feedback, especially to novices. Human beings must be affirmed for optimal success. Athletes many times have an ego problem, either too large or too small of an ego. A coach should find a way to give feedback in a positive manner to all athletes but especially novice athletes who may need affirmation or just need some guidance. This is where a coach, regardless of technical knowledge can build lasting relationships with their athletes.

Black gave several other examples of athlete motivation but these were the ones that I felt were the most applicable to strength coaches.

She made a great point is saying,
“You coaches have sat here all day discussing ways to develop the body without paying a single moment of attention to the development of the mind.”

I concur. Coaches, this is an untapped element of many athletic programs, imagine a weight room full of excited athletes who are intrinsically motivated to getting stronger. Wow! That would be a fun place to work.

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