With Indoor Track Season up and running across America, we thought that it would be fitting to discuss ways to build your team’s mental toughness. Now, many coaches may will tell you that the best way to become tougher mentally is to beat the hell out of your athletes in practice, make sure they know how important it is to dominate your opponents, and let them know that they are not worth a damn because they have to earn their coaches respect through ‘acts of toughness.’ And if you are an athlete, you may have more examples. If you are a coach, you may have even more.
But, this two-part series, we hope to bring an end to the negative [and unfortunately, sometimes abusive] type of metal and physical training that takes place way too often that does nothing but make athletes more frustrated, and coaches bigger pricks.
Before you start reading - know that none of what we are going to share with you is hard to implement, it just matters if you care about training the mind or not. I think it’s pretty important, especially in indoor track and field where events can last anywhere from a matter of seconds to over twenty consecutive minutes. If you as a coach have done nothing to train the mind, then you are selling your athletes short and not doing your job. Sorry to be so blunt, but part of your job is to be skill developers, truth tellers, and truth seekers. The more honest we can be with our athletes, the better that they are going to be. So don’t just think that a few seconds of chatting before an athlete gets into starting block practice is gonna solve the problem. You need to train them on how they can communicate positively with themselves, quiet their minds, and get them to execute in the presence of pressure for themselves, not just for you [as their coach] or their team.
So here is How you a build the Mental Strength of your Track Team
Help Them First Find Out Who They Are
Just because you work with recruit an athlete and then spend hours of time with them on the track, does not mean that you know what they really are. You probably have an idea what their goals are and what they want to do after leaving your tutelage. However, do you know what their values are? What drives them as a person? Are they willing to take risks? Do they have high levels of Grit? Now again, you may think you know all of this, but odds are you don’t. The more you know about your athletes emotions and mind, the better you can communicate with them and the more invested they will become in you because of your interest in them.
Learn What Thoughts Go Through Their Head During Competition When Things Get Tough
Every coach is looking for ways to increase their athlete confidence. But very few understand where confidence comes from: it come from how an athlete speaks to themselves. When things get tough in a race, when a bad throw or jump takes place, how do they speak to themselves? To them, is the competition over? Are the next 2 jumps just throw aways? With most novice track athletes, the answer would be yes. However with elite athletes, they have a way of recognizing their self-talk and moving on to the next step in the race, jump in the series, or throw in the flight without it affecting their entire effort. Talk to your athletes about this and see what they say after failure - then adjust accordingly.
Give them skills that will last their entire life, not just the blink of an eye you have them as an athlete
We have only have an athlete for 4 years to work with and train. However many coaches only give them skills to become ‘good’ for the time you are working with them. That’s irresponsible. The mentally tough athlete is constantly getting skills that will help them improve their life not just for the upcoming meet, but years down the road. Just as much as you are thinking ‘I need to get this kid ready for the conference meet,’ think also, ‘I need to get this kid ready for life.’ When those skills have started to bare fruit, that is when you start to have athletes that are mentally tough.
Start Treating Practice With The Same Routine You Do as Meets
Most track practices are pretty relaxed. They show up, they shoot the breeze, stretch, talk a bit more, workout, joke a bit more, cool down, and go home. If you are looking for your athletes to perform on meet day, you should be creating an environment that prepares them for meet day. This does not mean that you need to me so intense that they feel undue pressure each day at practice. However, the importance of the workout should be stressed, just as a meet would. The importance of the warm-up should be stressed, just like it would in a meet. Just think - if your team warmed up and worked out with the same intensity and purpose that they did on meet day, wouldn’t that make your team better? I think it would.
Start Teaching Mindfulness
In the later part of 2016, we discussed how important it is to start teaching your athletes meditation or mindfulness techniques. This is a concept that is starting to be utilized in baseball, football, and basketball, but yet has not made its way into track and field circles. It’s time that comes to an end. All mindfulness training does is makes athletes more aware of how they are communicating with themselves [as skill we spoke about earlier] and how they can react in a positive way to where their emotions are taking them. If you have an athlete who is getting ready to take a jump or a throw, it is only rational that you want them in the best mental space possible. That is what meditation and mindfulness training does. And you can do these trainings a few times a week for 10-15 minutes. Take the time and starting doing some breathing and meditation before, during, or after your practices. Not only will you see them become more self-aware, but their ability to control their emotions and just compete will increase significantly.
Teach Your Athletes How to Breathe
When pressure starts to mount in an indoor track race, breathing starts to play a vital role in whether or not that athlete is going to succeed or not. If they start to panic, their breathing becomes shorter, the heart rate increases, and oxygen flow throughout the body dissipates. No athlete ever won a race, thrown a PB, or jumped far while holding their breath. The best weapon an athlete can have on the track is their breath. It makes them more aware, calms them down, and lowers their heart rate - even if it is already racing. Discuss this with them before they practice and make it a skill that they should have. It will start to pay off big time in a manner of minutes. Here is an simple way to teach your athletes how to breathe more effectively.
Introduce a Routine with Purpose
Everyone has some type of routine. They may jump around, say a prayer, whatever it is. The problem is that nearly all routines in track are without purpose. Everything you should be doing should have a purpose. So before an athlete takes a throw, jump, or gets in the starting blocks, they should have a routine that does three things:
ANALYZES Their Body & Emotions
They should be checking in with their body and mind. Are they tight? Where are their thoughts? It’s just a simple thought that most athletes don’t give themselves. Just a few seconds can make a world of difference.
PREPARES Them to Compete
A deep breath, like we spoke about earlier, is the best way to prepare your athlete to compete right before their race, throw, or jump. A breath through the nose and out the mouth will calm the mind, slow their heart rate, and is their check in system saying ‘I’m ready to compete.’
ATTACK The Event
This does not mean attack with tightness. This means it’s time to compete. The are committed to the plan you and them have spoke about, they are willing to respond to competition, and they are ready to give their best effort in that moment.
Tomorrow, we will discuss some event-specific techniques that can be used with indoor track athletes that will help them continue to build their mental toughness, along with how coaches can implement these over and over again with success. This is not a 'quick fix' program, these are skills that if implemented right, can have a lasting effect on your team and teams in the future to make sure that when you step on the track this season, you and your team are the most prepared that they can be.