As you start your S&C career, you’ll work with many different amateur teams and athletes and will be exposed to what is deemed best practice. This can often be grueling, army-style workouts in the name of mental toughness, “penalty boxes” for athletes who make mistakes during training—where you as the strength coach are designated the punisher—or the constant search for perfection in training.
Unfortunately, this is prevalent at both the amateur and professional levels, so the level of competition doesn’t seem to affect this military-style approach. These are a collection of my thoughts from the past several years, when I originally noted these points down. Surprisingly, they all link together.
Mental Toughness Is Not What You Think
War analogies, army boot camps, “hell week”—as S&C coaches, we are all likely familiar with some form of military influence on the sports teams we’ve worked to train. These elements are generally used in the name of developing “mental toughness” or to see which athletes are “mentally tough.”
But what is mental toughness? Even in the wake of college football “miscalculations” (such as hospitalizations from endless push-ups and burpees, not letting players drink water during heat waves, and in some cases, even athlete deaths), toughness or mental toughness is still a term many coaches use to describe their coaching programs.
Joel Jamieson gives one of the best explanations of mental toughness and why some players don’t “show” it on the field while being driven through mindless, mental toughness sessions:
“It comes down to how much the brain values the work being done.”
Or, “It’s about the prediction of the reward.”
If the athlete doesn’t see the benefit in that particular task, why would they give the extra effort? Sure, you want to see athletes put 100% into everything they do—but when training doesn’t serve a purpose to make the athlete better at their sport, it doesn’t stimulate them to a great extent. Especially the ones who understand that 3 a.m. wakeups and then running 10 kilometers while holding tires isn’t beneficial to their sport performance.
James Steel has some great thoughts on mental toughness, echoing a sentiment similar to Joel.
“It didn’t take me too long to realize that you could be a teacher and offer constructive criticism and the player responds better to that than making them exhausted and mentally torturing them.”
“If you think that 6 weeks of running at 5 am and making them puke and belittling them in front of their peers takes the place of 18 years of life and lessons that made them who they are as a man today, you have a screw loose.”
Coaching is teaching. When the athlete understands the WHY behind the exercise or program, pushing through something difficult has a purpose. And that purpose is what will drive the athlete to give their best.
Mental Toughness Is a Myth
The way mental toughness is portrayed by coaches in sport is a myth. Mental toughness is seen as obedience or doing anything the coach says, regardless of the outcome. It involves an athlete not stopping during a mindless punishment drill, or those players who relish “hard conditioning.” In my opinion, it doesn’t exist.The way mental toughness is portrayed by coaches in sport is a myth. Mental toughness is seen as obedience or doing anything the coach says, regardless of the outcome, says @jdelacey01. Click To Tweet
James Smith of Global Sport Concepts explains this myth of mental toughness well with this analogy: A Navy Seal and the CEO of a large company are both considered mentally tough, but if one were to do the other person’s job (most likely poorly), would they now be considered as failing to possess the mental toughness they displayed in their profession?
The simple answer is they are not prepared for the rigors of the other profession.
In essence, mental toughness could be rephrased as “Are you prepared?” Preparation covers every aspect that will relate to your game performance.
And that comes down to teaching or coaching. Physically, this means preparing athletes to sustain the highest outputs over the length of a match, not “lactic baths” of unrelated exercises with no water breaks.
Technically and tactically, that means having a large toolbox of skills the athlete can pull from to solve the problem that is in front of them accurately and quickly. What is often viewed as mental toughness during a match is the athlete making the right decision quickly, under pressure, at crucial times.
Some athletes may possess many of these qualities but lack the ability to show it in competition. A lack of knowledge and application of mental skills can be a factor here. I’ve known players who were fully prepared physically, technically, and tactically, but on competition day, their legs went out from under them.
While outside of the scope of this article, mental skills such as controlling arousal level, visualization, and pre-match routines are all something that can help an athlete rise to their full potential during match play.
By exposing players to many different scenarios during training, we can help prepare them for what they see in front of them during competition. You know how to stifle this development? By using exercise as punishment and creating robotic athletes.
Why Exercise-Based Punishment Is Stupid
If you have Netflix, I would recommend watching Brené Brown: The Call to Courage. You may wonder, what does this have to do with the sport or coaching?
Brené Brown states that creativity and innovation need a vulnerable culture where you are allowed to fail.
“No vulnerability, no creativity.”
“If you’re not willing to fail, you can’t innovate.”
“If you’re not willing to build a vulnerable culture, you can’t create.”
How does this translate to sport? It means creating the right environment for the athletes to play and express themselves without the repercussions of perceived failure (penalty boxes, extra running for dropped balls, etc.). Courage cannot happen without vulnerability.
“Vulnerability = uncertainty, risk, emotional exposure.”
Taking the risk of failure for something that might pay off for the team in front of thousands of fans, management, and potential future employers shows huge vulnerability and courage. Courage is measured by the amount of uncertainty in the outcome.
And in sport, it is also likely measured by the risk and emotional exposure that may occur, positive or negative. For those reasons, a creative play with two minutes left on the clock to try to win the game is seen as more courageous than the identical play performed two minutes into the game.Courage is measured by the amount of uncertainty in the outcome. And in sport, it is also likely measured by the risk and emotional exposure that may occur, positive or negative, says @jdelacey01. Click To Tweet
Coaches use the “penalty box,” or make athletes run the number of laps on Monday by the score difference the squad lost by, because they think it will deter the players from making mistakes and push them to win matches. I’ve yet to hear a player say they need to win so they don’t have to run laps on Monday.
While much of this is starting to encroach on sport coaching, I believe the gap between S&C and sport coaching is slowly closing. In most sports, the S&C coach must have strong knowledge about the technical/tactical aspects of the sport; especially when it comes down to interpreting stats such as GPS data. Physicality and physiology aren’t strong differentiators at the elite level in most mixed sports.
For pure endurance sports, while technical elements are still important, physiology is a strong predictor of performance. In mixed sports, technical prowess and tactical awareness are what separate individuals and teams.
Which brings me to my next point.
Athletes Are Not Robots
In their podcast episode together, Steve Magness and Jon Marcus encapsulate what sport and training really are, and that’s art. While directed at track athletes, there are numerous takeaways in the discussion for other sports.
Magness and Marcus talk about how, as coaches, we have this love affair with the idea of “mathematical exactitude”; meaning, if an athlete hits “x” time for a certain run during a training session, it will translate to “x” race time on competition day. The issue they raise with this is:
“Why are we creating painters in practice, when we should be cultivating artists? Competition is a work of art.”
The painter and the artist analogy is drawn from Charles and Jackson Pollock.
“Everyone’s heard of Jackson Pollock because he was an artist. He took risks. He did something wildly different and a lot of his stuff failed and did not work but some of his stuff did work and it was so new and innovative that people took note. Charles Pollock was taught how to classically paint. He was taught by a master. This is the style. These are the constraints. You need balance. You need this. You need these types of tones etc. All he did in his career was paint portraits. It wasn’t art because there was no risk.”
“The problem with the painter is that they have their whole race planned down to the split times. If they don’t hit that split time, the story they tell themselves is self-destructive. They are thinking more about the clock than the actual race. Then they miss the opportunity to make art.”
The same can be said for team sports that are stuck in a rigid tactical structure. Regardless of what happens in front of them, they need to play the coach’s game plan—otherwise, they face repercussions.
When we create a perfectionist culture within our sporting teams, are we really doing our best for the athletes? For example, planning out the exact structure and moves the team must play during a match or only using drills that allow for perfect movement.
But what happens if that’s not working?
In a perfectionist culture, the team loses playing the same structure and strategy, as no player wants to be seen as a failure by the coach for playing “outside of the game plan.” As Christian Thibaudeau stated on the Just Fly Performance podcast, athletes who display this kind of behavior (playing outside of the set game plan through creativity that works better) are seen as non-coachable because they’ve now found something that works, so they don’t listen to their coaches.
As Paddy Upton, previous Head Coach of the Sydney Thunder Big Bash T20 Cricket team states: “In sports teams, people don’t actually have a fear of failure as much as they have a fear of repercussion from the failure, whether it is from the media, from the coach, from the fans. When coaches reprimand, shout, gesticulate when somebody makes a mistake, when a captain gesticulates on a field at someone who misfields or drops a catch, the player then becomes terrified to make that same mistake. And when you have become scared of making the same mistake, you actually put yourself in a [state of] physical readiness to make that mistake.”
Give Your Athletes a Blank Canvas
To allow athletes to be creative on the field, to come up with solutions and problem-solve on the fly during a high-pressure match, they must have the blank canvas to create their own art. Or a vulnerable environment that allows them to show courage through being creative and innovative, manipulating what is going on in front of them to try what they think will work.Perfectionism does nothing but stifle creativity—no creativity equals a one-dimensional sports team, which play in a predictable nature that creates robots rather than athletes, says @jdelacey01. Click To Tweet
Perfectionism does nothing but stifle creativity—no creativity equals a one-dimensional sports team, which play in a predictable nature that creates robots rather than athletes.
Let your athletes be artists. Let them play. Race each other rather than the clock. Create fun competition in training. Create challenges they have to figure out their own solutions for. Provide a canvas for athletes to create art, not a set of rules.
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