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By Anthony Lanzillo

Coaching athletes means spending a lot of time focusing on their physical conditioning and training. From stretching to practice drills to weightroom work, you want to make sure that each athlete is physically prepared to perform. It's all about getting the athletes' bodies ready to play and compete, and to make sure that they can make every move or maneuver in the team’s playbook.  

Yet, no matter how physically strong and talented your athletes are, if they aren’t mentally conditioned, they won't play up to their potential. Also, they won't be able to successfully respond to and mentally rebound from the various challenges and obstacles they will face.

To get athletes mentally prepared to play and compete, the success of any mental conditioning program rests on one pivotal point—whether or not they believe in themselves.

Coaches often find themselves working with athletes who are resistant or refuse to do any kind of mental training or conditioning. They don't want to give the impression to their teammates or coaches that they need help with anything going on above the neck. And if any of these athletes are struggling with negative beliefs about themselves, they aren't going to raise their hands and announce it.

Instead of waiting to see if any of your players may be struggling with mental preparation, I would highly recommend that you take a proactive approach. From the first day that the team begins practicing, talk to the players about the importance of building a strong belief system and its impact upon one's self-confidence and being a successful athlete. You want your players to know and appreciate that their beliefs about themselves as athletes, and their perceived ability to play sports, is at the core of any mental conditioning or mental skills training.

Here is one exercise you can present at your practices to effectively engage and educate the players about believing in themselves:

At a team practice or meeting, get all of your players together. First, ask them what they do when they go to a store and find something they want. They will say that they would buy it. Then ask your players what they would use to buy that item. The players will mention credit cards and money. 

From there, explain that it's the same thing in sports. If they want to get the most out of their experiences, then they have to "buy in" to what they are doing.

Next, hand out blank pieces of paper the size of a dollar bill to all of your players. Ask them to take that piece of paper and write down two things. On one side, they should write this question: "Why am I an athlete and why do I play this sport?" On the other side, you want their answer.

Tell your players that if they are going to "buy in" and give their all to be the best players they can be, they need to be clear about why they're playing on your team. They need to know the why before the what, when, where, or how. It will fuel their desire to play and their devotion to the game. It will directly impact every facet of their preparation and performance. It will set the tone for how they approach their training and conditioning. It is at the core of who they are as players.

Here are some examples of what an athlete could write:

"I am playing this game for my father who always supported me."

"I love coming out every day and challenging myself to become a better player."

"I play sports because it helps me feel better about myself as a person."

"I wanted to be an athlete so that I could become mentally and physically stronger."

"I love my teammates and coaches, and feel like I am part of something bigger then myself."

"I am playing sports so someday I can give back as a coach to younger athletes."

Ask the athletes to share what they write with you and their teammates, if they are comfortable doing so. It's important for the players to hear what their teammates are saying so they can support each other. It may also help some of the athletes to "fine tune" or be more focused with their own answers.

Tell them that once they have answered that question, they are to hold onto the piece of paper like it was a thousand dollar bill. The bill will serve as a constant reminder of who they are, and what inspires and motivates them to be who they want to become. It will sustain them on the good days and revive them on the bad ones.

 

A mental health professional for over 20 years, Anthony "Tone" Lanzillo has more recently been exploring how athletes can use mental skills in their practices and games. He works with athletes in such sports as softball, boxing, field hockey, football, soccer, basketball and lacrosse and writes for FirstDown Playbook, Coaches Training Room, Ultimate Hockey Source, Lax Playbook, Online Soccer Coaching, World of Basketball, Lacrosse All-Stars, Coaches Clipboard and Coach Book. More information on his ideas and services is at: http://www.thementalpeak.com/.

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