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What is Mental Toughness – Coaching and the Zone

February 21, 2013

Football Coach Talking to Two Players

If you’re a sports fan, you have certainly witnessed a coach seemingly losing his mind on the sidelines.  He’s yelling at his players, he’s castigating officials, or he’s just throwing a tantrum.  Why do some coaches behave this way?  Does this behavior motivate players?  Does it help them play better?  Does it help them get in the zone?  And what is the job of a coach anyway?

Coaches are teachers and in the world of sports, the subjects that coaches educate athletes on are numerous:  sport specific skills training, strength training, speed & balance training, mental training, strategy, etc.  Of course, the goal is to get the athlete or team to play its best in every performance.  Prepare them and then assist them during the performance.  The coach should be all about getting his or her athletes into the zone.  So does yelling at players help them play better?

Before we answer that question, let’s review what it feels like to be in the zone.  When we are playing our best, our performance feels automatic and flowing.  There is no worry or doubt, and in fact we feel in complete control and have high confidence.  It’s fun and our energy is high.  Physically, we’re loose.  Mentally, we’re calm and focused.  It’s important to understand these characteristics as this state represents a specific body chemistry for each person, and while we’re competing, we want to do things that can help us achieve this body chemistry.

Coaches can have a tremendous effect on the body chemistry of their players in both a good and bad way.  When a player makes a mistake during an event, and a coach immediately screams at him, what do you think happens to his body chemistry?  Does it get closer to being in the zone or does it move away?  In all likelihood, it moves away.  Being yelled at instills anxiety and fear in many athletes which will induce the body to release stress hormones to deal with the threat.  Were fear and anxiety in our list of characteristics of the zone?  No, they certainly were not because those things don’t help you play better.  Stress hormones reduce our ability to make good decisions and they also affect our ability to control our motor skills and balance.

So why do some coaches yell or deliver harsh criticism to their athletes?  In my opinion, I think there are two reasons.  Number one is that they are trying to teach and motivate the athlete, and for some athletes this is fine.  They are able to use the coach’s anger and turn it around in a way that says “I’ll show him what I can do.”  However, for many athletes this doesn’t work because they become afraid of making another mistake, and when an athlete plays with fear, he’s lost.  Confidence drops, more mistakes occur and body chemistry is nowhere near the zone.  The second reason that I believe coaches yell is that they believe it’s all about them and not the athletes.  They want to show the world that they’re tough and they’re “coaching”, and somehow acting like a lunatic is a demonstration of that.  We should remember that those we teach do what they see, not what they are told.  How would that coach react if one of his players acted in the same manner?

As coaches, we have to realize that every interaction we have with our players affects their body chemistry, and if we want our athletes to perform their best, we must begin to tailor our style and messages so that we can help them bring out those great performances.  We need to help them to discover their true motivation.  We need to help them to learn to deal with mistakes and failure in a constructive way so that they can learn and improve.  This is the job of a coach and it takes a lot of patience and courage.  It’s easy to lose your temper when you think it’s all about you.  Always remember that you are there to serve your players and make them better.

I’ll conclude this post with a quote from Lao-tzu on the job of a coach as I think it speaks to the service aspect of our profession.

What is a good man but a bad man’s teacher?

What is a bad man but a good man’s job?

If you don’t understand this, you will get lost,

However intelligent you are.

It is the great secret.

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4 responses to “What is Mental Toughness – Coaching and the Zone”

  1. Tom Bauman says:

    I have coached and taught tennis for 35+years. I was watching a college women’s match USF vs Syracuse, coached Bt Luke Jensen. I have never seen a coach so positive with his players and team. I truly believe they will be better players and people from his positive approach. I wish I could be half that positive. Great job Luke!

  2. BLomax says:

    Thanks, Tom. We can certainly learn a lot from coaches who are positive like Luke Jensen.

  3. Thanks for sharing. I appreciate somebody taking their time to write about this. There are many athletes out there with great potential that get beaten down by their coaches. I believe a lack of ability in the coach leads him/her to yell and scream criticism as they find no way to help the athlete succeed and get it right and therefore end up frustrated. As coaches we must take it upon ourselves to figure out how to help each and every student/athlete/player succeed. It’s our responsibility. A player that isn’t succeeding is a motivator to go home and do some research or studying to improve your coaching ability.

    • Brian Lomax says:

      Thank you for the comment, Cathrine. You touched on an important topic – coaches improving their own skills. As coaches, we are constantly trying to help our athletes improve, but what are we doing ourselves to improve our ability to serve these athletes? The best coaches invest time in becoming better at what they do. In my career, I try to read and/or listen to audio that is instructional or inspirational for 30 minutes a day. What do you do?

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