Adding daily mental skills practice into your practice routines can be beneficial. Believing in the power of practicing those mental skills will be a game changer for your program.
The mental game is given a lot of emphasis by many great coaches. From Coach K of Duke University to Phil Jackson of the Bulls and Lakers to Joe Madden of the Rays and Cubs, these coaches have implemented daily mental skills practice into their daily fundamental practices. Of course, they have the luxury of having great players who value working hard and getting the most out of each practice. It is more than just writing down “4:00pm to 4:10pm Mental Practice” and having the team be quiet for 10 minutes. It is the coaching staff’s belief that those initial 10 minutes out of a 120 minute practice will lead to an enhancement of the last 110 minutes of practice – and permeate their mental game.
Many years ago, advances in sport science proved to us the value of warming up our bodies, so now we all efficiently utilize the time before practice begins to warm up our bodies and get prepared to move, which benefits that day’s practice, as well as, future performances. There are still some coaches who downplay and de-emphasize warm-ups. They possibly think they are a waste of time- and may not even be present during warm-ups, which can give the players a sense that they are not important, which may lead to an inconsistent warm-up routine which leads, to at best, inconsistent performance and at worst, injuries. These same developing coaches will look at those initial 10 minutes of practice (before or after warm-ups) and find a “better” use for it than mental skills. But, as I am here to describe (and highly encourage) that focused daily mental skills practice is the best use of that time, for that day’s practice, as well as, future performances.
Have a Seasonal Plan
Similar to sport specific skill acquisition and retention, coaches plan practices based on the team’s development and progress throughout the season. For example, in basketball, coaches will practice simple “press breaks” at the beginning of the season, and as the season progresses and players become proficient in that, coaches will move forward to teach new and more advanced ways to breaking full-court presses. If a coach is not adequately trained in mental skills, there are plenty of resources (books, websites, mental skills consultants, etc), that can highlight and explain a productive season long program. For example, during preseason practices, team can work on their sport-specific mental routines, as well as, understanding what is controllable and not in their sport. As the season progresses, players would progress to various focus exercises and ways to control emotional intensity.
Prioritize Mental Skills
We have all been on teams, where the practices consisted of primarily “scrimmage games” where the losing team runs or picks up the equipment. This gave the team an underlying message of game performance is everything, individual skill development is minimized, and outcomes are the most important part of sports. Similarly, if a coach does not properly prepare players for daily mental skills practice; does not participate in mental skills practice; and does not try to implement new mental skills, then the players will know that the coaching staff does not value mental skills nor that part of their development. Players will not invest their time and effort either and will not get the most out of that part of practice. If the coaching staff does value this important part of the practice- based on their effort, implementation, and feedback loop – then the players will benefit from this practice time and their performances will improve.
Be a Role Model
Coaches who understand and value mental skill development will exhibit those mental skills. Players watch and take cues from the coaching staff on what’s ‘really’ important to them. When a coaching staff focuses a pre-game speech on uncontrollables (such as winning, opponent’s injury report, officials, etc), then the players will be conflicted and distracted. They have practiced mental discipline but the coach is highlighting external events as a focal point. However, when a coaching staff stays true to the development of the players and continues to focus the players’ attention on their own thoughts, emotions, and actions, then the players will be free to perform confidently and without restriction.
As you can see, daily mental skills practice plans and how they are implemented can really enhance certain aspects of players’ and teams’ development. Warm-ups before strenuous work-outs are proven to enhance performance- now and in the future. Daily mental skills practice is also proven to enhance performance- now and in the future. Elite teams and coaches not only schedule mental skill development into daily practices, like warm-ups, but they prioritize it and model it for the team. I encourage every coach, from volunteer youth coaches to highly paid professional coaches, to prepare, schedule, and value daily mental skill development. It will pay off tremendously during the current practice and throughout the season.