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Athletes perform best when they learn how to effectively handle competitive pressure. This is most evident in defining moments of important competitions when the consequences of mistakes are highest. Failure in these moments can often be traced to a lack of confidence, resulting in poor decision-making.
The most successful performers aren’t shackled by fear of failure or self-doubt. They embrace challenges and thrive when the pressure is on because their coaches create practices that regularly expose them to risk and failure. Coaches like Urban Meyer, who after leading college football teams to three national championships shared that “if it doesn’t challenge you, it will not change you.”
For example, Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all-time, recently came out of retirement and overcame widely publicized performance and personal failures to qualify for his fifth Olympics. The process he followed to overcome the challenges and achieve this unprecedented feat was based on a rigorous training program that emphasized training under high pressure conditions to build mental toughness.
In the past month I have had the opportunity to teach and learn from world-renowned coaches and athletes, and this experience has only reinforced what I believe to be the best way to coach mental toughness. Stops on the journey included multiple high performance training centers such as Red Bull headquarters in California (home base for preparing record setting athletes such as Felix Baumgartner), UCLA (113 national championships, most of any college sport program), and the Canadian Pacific Sport Institute (training grounds for Olympic and Paralympic medalists). Also, mid-way along this journey I was given a copy of distinguished swim coach Bob Bowman’s new book The Golden Rules. The strategies he used to coach Olympic champions such as Michael Phelps confirmed what I was learning from the other championship coaches and performers.
From these collective experiences, I have identified five key components to coaching mental toughness:1. Design practice environments that stretch athletes just beyond their comfort zone. For example, Red Bull takes the world’s best athletes to performance camps. At these multi-day training camps athletes are put under constant mental and physical pressure. The key is to keep athletes in situations that Dr. Andy Walshe, Director for High Performance at Red Bull, describes as ‘high perceived risk / low actual risk’. Coach Bowman describes it as putting athletes in ‘unusual environments’. Some reports suggest that placing athletes in activities that are 4% beyond their current skill level is just the right amount of ‘stretch’.
2. Ensure the proper amount of stretch by making workouts what athletes describe as ‘hard fun.’ A hard fun practice includes novelty, unpredictability, and complexity, and strikes the right balance between an athlete’s current skill level and demands of the training activity. Training that includes these characteristics prevents complacency, boredom, and off-task thinking and behavior. Spending more time training in such ‘rich environments’ accelerates skill development and builds mental toughness.
3. Arrange high failure, pressure training conditions that increase athletes’ pattern recognition and decision-making ability. It is normal for athletes to fear failure. Yet, it is widely recognized that failure is a normal and critical ingredient for achieving long-term success. The most successful coaches deliberately create training environments where athlete failure is inevitable. Teaching athletes how to learn from failure will improve their ‘situational awareness’, described as the ability to quickly and effectively assess challenges, and respond with confidence. Steven Kotler, who provides a detailed summary of the science behind situational awareness in his book The Rise of Superman, aptly refers to it as “the ability to keep cool when all hell breaks loose.”
4. Support and encourage athletes through the struggles they will face in a very challenging training environment. Simply putting athletes in unpredictable, high failure training activities without a clear plan for providing strategic feedback will only lead to heightened anxiety and frustration. Before placing athletes in high pressure training situations, be sure to plan for how and when to provide feedback and support. The simplest and most effective way to recognize small gains and athlete effort is to give regular and immediate feedback. For coach Bowman this means giving feedback on the spot when he notices an athlete performing well or making a good decision in training. Coaches must also regularly pause to recognize and celebrate small gains and athlete effort. Some clever examples I have witnessed include a t-shirt with the team’s core values printed on it or a team artifact such as a construction hard hat, a superhero shield, or a silly homemade trophy passed from one award recipient to the next.
5. Counter-balance high pressure ‘rich’ practice environments with fun and predictable activities. The path to excellence rests equally on ability and durability. The gains achieved from training under pressure will quickly be lost unless practice activities also are included that allow athletes to recover and prepare for the next challenge. Coach Bowman inserts joyful and less intense practice activities into training to prevent the loss of spirit that can come from the routine of rigorous high pressure practices. For example, he has offered his athletes ‘Friends Friday,’ when swimmers were allowed to bring a friend to practice to workout with them. The newcomers provided a regular and much-needed spark, raising everyone’s energy level while rekindling their excitement for swimming.
Coach John Wooden once said that “the person who is afraid to risk failure seldom has to face success.” The surest path to athlete success is regular training in novel, high (perceived) risk practice environments. This type of rich practice environment will best prepare athletes to effectively cope with failure and perform well when the pressure is on. This strategy works best though when coaches provide frequent and supportive feedback, and complement high pressure training with playful and fun activities.
Bowman, B., & Butler, C. (2016). The golden rules: 10 steps to world-class excellence in your life and work. New York: St. Martin’s.
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IOC News. (2016, July 4). Michael Phelps is ready for the challenge in Rio. Retrieved from https://www.olympic.org/news/michael-phelps-ready-for-the-challenge-in-rio
Kotler, S. (2014). The rise of superman: Decoding the science of ultimate human performance (p. 72). New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Marshall, J. (2013, December 5). How to be mentally tough. Excelsior. Retrieved from http://excelsiorgroup.co.uk/blog/how-to-be-mentally-tough/
Meyer, U., & Coffey, W. (2015). Above the line: Lessons in leadership and life from a championship season (p. 60). New York: Penguin.
Pavlus, J. (2016, March 7). Why we love the games that enrage us most: The psychology of intrinsic motivation and “hard fun” could improve education and, naturally, the next generation of video games. Scientific American. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-we-love-the-games-that-enrage-us-most/
Red Bull. (2012). Felix Baumgartner breaks the speed of sound in freefall. Retrieved from http://www.redbullstratos.com/the-mission/world-record-jump/
Ruddock, N. (2016, July 4). Beware of ‘cotton wool coaching!’ sports coach UK: Connected coaches. Retrieved from https://www.connectedcoaches.org/spaces/10/welcome-and-general/blog/NickRuddock/243/beware-of-cotton-wool-coaching?utm_campaign=CWS_685+-+SCUK_CoachTalk_170616&utm_source=emailCampaign&utm_medium=email&utm_content=