Coaching the Mental Game

A year ago when Chris Snyder spoke at Collegiate, his audience was blown away by the passion and energy with which he preached the gospel of mindful, thoughtful, impactful coaching.
Today, when the director of coaching education for the United States Olympic Committee visited again, it was clear that in no way has he missed a beat.

This time, he brought his colleague Nadine Dubina, the USOC’s coaching science coordinator, a doctoral student in coaching and teaching studies at West Virginia University, and a young woman also possessed of passion and energy for her calling. They delivered two presentations, first to an assemblage of varsity and JV athletes, then to members of the coaching staff. Their message, in its most basic form, is that success in sports is attributable to mind over matter.
Just before they took the stage, they spent a few minutes talking about their work, their mission, and their lessons they hoped to convey.
What do you hope to teach our athletes?
Nadine: How energy management and mental training can help control energy levels in practices and in competition. Taking physical and emotional energy and making sure they’re matching up so you can perform optimally and not have one of those things draining to hinder performance.
How do you do that?
Nadine: By focusing on what they’re doing in their day-to-day training. By being mindful of both the physical and emotional. When practices are really good, where am I? Looking at some of those key areas that are specific to each athlete and having them be mindful of what works by giving them examples of what works for other athletes.  The mind is so powerful. It really comes down to your mind telling your body what to do and when to do it and when to do it optimally. Sport is so controlled by the mind. Sometimes, we don’t focus on that aspect. The mind is so important and has so much to do with every aspect of the game, whatever sport it is, whatever skill it is. Your mind is the starting point, the foundation.
Chris: Most of our high school athletes haven’t had a lot of chance to really understand the difference between existing in the moment and actually participating and controlling the moment. That’s the adjustment we’re trying to get the students at Collegiate to understand. When you’re in that moment, you can’t always have that playlist to get you so pumped up that you’re the best warm-up player ever, and you’re exhausted when the game actually starts. You have to understand about controlling the moment and understanding what you need in those situations. If athletes take a few small things we talk about and put them into practice, they can use them for the rest of their life.
How do you measure success when you’re talking about intangibles?
Nadine: That really comes down to knowing your athletes and seeing if they can perform more consistently in pressure situations. If they can start games with energy and calmness, that will (carry) them through. You have to be creative so it’s not going to be a statistic, necessarily, but something where a coach and an athlete set performance goals. You’re constantly rechecking to see what happened or what didn’t and how we can make it better next time so we have consistent performances.
Chris: It works into coaches’ reflection and mastery. How do you actually reflect on your practices and competitions on a regular basis and hone in on those critical performance factors in your sport? A lot of people say, “Oh, we talk as a coaching staff. We discuss what went right, what went wrong. But we don’t have a way to really record it and track how things go.” A couple of quick tips and ideas that we can give everybody will help them sit there and say, “Well, mental training is such a big deal. Energy management is a big deal.” The differences will show between a first place and gold medal and fourth place and no medal. How do we constantly remind ourselves and check in? Did the athletes really use these (mindfulness techniques)?   How can they get better? And also, helping the coaches learn that they need to help the athletes reflect?
Both of you exude excitement. What lights you up about your calling?
Nadine: Performance and excellence. Competition is really at my heart. It’s where I thrive. It’s pressure situations and knowing that, when you’re under pressure and it’s on you, you can deliver every single time. And helping other people, coaches and athletes, reach their full potential.
Chris: At the Olympic Committee, we’ve really tried to focus on (reaching) athletes in high school or those 7th or 8th graders coming up the food chain. The quicker they understand that the mind controls the body, the body doesn’t control the mind, the quicker they can maximize their potential. Whether you go on to be an Olympian or not, it’s something you can use for the rest of your life, not just to be a great athlete, but to be a great person.
         -- Weldon Bradshaw
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