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Getting Your Mind Right for a Better Coaching Season

BY Phil White

Coaching athletes requires many skills and excellent communication. Developing a healthy mindset for yourself provides a solid foundation of leadership.

Guiding athletes has a lot to do with mastering the coaching craft, understanding the nuances of physiology, and being able to adjust on the fly. But if your mind isn’t quite right, then you’re going to struggle to make the most of the experience. In this article, I’ll share a few things I learned from writing The Leader’s Mind with sports psychologist Dr. Jim Afremow to help get you mentally ready to be your best as a coach and enhance your leadership.

As self-actualizing as coaching athletes might be, if you can make it more about what they get out of the process than yourself, it will benefit everybody. This is why it’d help you to adopt a servant leadership mindset, in which you derive pleasure from seeing others succeed and do whatever you can to elevate the people you’re entrusted to lead. It doesn’t mean that you never issue instructions or make decisions, but rather that you’re always putting the needs of your training group above yourself.

The Significance of Servant Leadership

An excellent way to demonstrate servant leadership to new athletes is to show them that no task is too small for you. In our book, Jim and I interviewed Tammie Jo Shults, the pilot who successfully landed the stricken Southwest Airlines flight 1380 after an engine exploded in midair. She told us that one of the ways she demonstrated leadership was by going back into the cabin before takeoff to help the flight attendants pick up trash. This created a bond between them and made them more likely to follow her lead when the plane was in the air. What could you do to show your athletes that you’re among them, not above them?

Another thing Tammie Jo did to improve her relationship with the rest of the crew was to bring them snacks and drinks before each flight and then to go around and ask each of them a little about themselves. It demonstrates the connection before the correction principle. If people trust you, they’re much more likely to allow you to Sherpa them wherever they need to go when the time comes.

One way to do this is to ask each of your athletes — especially if they’re new to your training group — to write down three things you should know about them as a person. Then you do likewise and exchange lists. It’s incredible how often coaches don’t know much about their athletes and vice versa. It’s not that you must become best buddies with everyone, but rather that the more common ground you can find, the more progress you can help them make.

One of the other commonalities among the leaders Jim and I interviewed was that they model the behavior they want to see. For example, if staying calm and composed under pressure is one of their core tenets, they make sure to retain a neutral facial expression and keep their tone of voice level when things get difficult. It’s a component of mental toughness, which Jim defines as “Staying positive and proactive in the most adverse situations.” If you’re a paragon of poise when something is going awry — such as one of your athletes falling behind or taking a tumble early in a race — they will notice this and feed off it to regain their sense of equilibrium.

Lead Yourself, Then Others

It will also be mutually beneficial to you and those you’re leading if you can make sure you’re sleeping and recovering well. The old adage, “You can’t lead others until you learn how to lead yourself,” applies here. To be the best coach possible to serve others optimally, you need to be sharp and engaged. This won’t be easy if you’re not well-rested and emotionally stable. I also like the analogy that Stanford women’s soccer coach Paul Ratcliffe shared, which is that if you’ve emptied your well, you’ll have nothing left to pour into other people.

There’s a powerful connection between the mind and body, and plenty of research proves this. The studies show that if you get sufficient premium sleep consistently, you will be better able to control your emotions and actions and are less likely to struggle with anxiety, depression, anger, and other mental health struggles. So, as you’re advising your athletes to do the same, make sure you’re truly prioritizing your rest, recovery, and sleep so that you’re refilling the well every night.

You’d also do well to reexamine your guiding principles. In The Leader’s Mind, Jim and I found that one of the keys to the championship-winning success of Steve Kerr, when he went to the Golden State Warriors, was his relentless pursuit of the “core four” values that his friend and mentor Pete Carroll encouraged him to identify. These are joy, mindfulness, compassion, and competition. Once he had these down, Kerr got team leaders Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson to buy into them, and then made sure the team was acting in a way that jived with the core four.

What do you stand for, and what do you want your training group to aspire to? If you can nail down a few of your tenets, tie them to goals, and then share them with your athletes, you’ll be well on the way to creating a productive, positive, and principle-driven culture that’s built for perennial winning.

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About Phil White
Phil White is an Emmy-nominated writer and the co-author of The 17 Hour Fast with Dr. Frank Merritt, Waterman 2.0 with Kelly Starrettand Unplugged with Andy Galpin and Brian Mackenzie. Learn more at www.philwhitebooks.com and follow Phil on Instagram @philwhitebooks.

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