7 Ways To Develop Tough, Resilient, and Focused Athletes

competition resilience Sep 24, 2019

Great athletes are not coddled and celebrated into greatness; they are forged through rejection, fatigue, failure, and doubt. Toughness, focus, and resilience are qualities that must be challenged before they can be strengthened. So how do you develop athletes that can hold their own on the court, stay focused when it matters most, and recover from failure without losing steam? We’ve combined our research of mindfulness training, positive psychology, and mental training to come up with 7 tried-and-true ways coaches can develop tough, focused, and resilient athletes.  We’ve consolidated the following tips into a simple, clear, downloadable coaches cheat sheet to act as an easy reference. Read the blog, and download your copy of our Coaches Cheat Sheet: 7 Ways To Develop Tough, Focused, and Resilient Athletes.

1. Teach Athletes To Breathe.

When athletes are stressed or anxious their reflex may be to tighten up and stop breathing. When you stop breathing, it sends a fight or flight trigger to the brain that leads to a series of damaging repercussions. These repercussions are cumulative and can affect everything on-and-off the field. Remember in athletics, nothing is quarantined; stress from school and home makes its way into practice, and stress from sports makes its way into life outside of sports. Make your team a safe haven, and a place where athletes are encouraged to pursue self-care. Even though it seems like a small action to take, encouraging athletes to breathe during practice, before games, and between plays at a game can make a big difference in the long run and help them keep stress from showing up on the playing field

Action plan:

  • Educate athletes in self-care.
  • Remind athletes to breathe to relieve tension and reset. 
  • Lead them (and join them in) team breathing exercises as part of your practice and pre and post-competition routines.

Not sure where to start? Check out our training program: The Mindful Competitor Project.

2. Celebrate Failure And Risk.

"It is better to throw a poor pitch wholeheartedly than to throw the so-called right pitch with a feeling of doubt.”

- Sandy Koufax, Hall of Famer, Dodgers

When leaders celebrate teamwork and progress over winning, they allow room for failure. Athletes that play it safe, fail less often. But athletes that push themselves and take risks are the ones that will ultimately move your team forward. Celebrate athletes that take risks and try hard enough to fail.  Reframe failure on your team by talking about the ways it produces new learning and set an example for your team of someone who acknowledges their own failure with pride and perspective on how it pushed you forward. 

Action plan:

  • Celebrate teamwork and progress over winning.
  • Talk about your own failure without shame.
  • Do practice drills that athletes will likely fail, and talk about them.

3. Encourage Positive Self-Talk In An Actionable Way.

Practicing positive self-talk is an impactful way to build strong confidence and rebound after failure; it takes practice and repetition.  Olympian, Courtney Thompson has this insight, “One of the most powerful ways to influence our inner belief is by controlling the voice in your head”. Positive Self-Talk can change how we perceive our team and ourselves.

Help your athletes forge acute self-awareness by asking them, “When you failed at that drill, what were you saying to yourself?” Then, help them self-correct by asking, “What would have been a more helpful thing to say to yourself?”. 

For more on how we help athletes improve their self-talk, check out our blog: 5 Ways Self-Talk Will Help You Now.

Action plan:

  • Teach athletes how to self-correct negative self-talk by encouraging them to talk to themselves the same way they would talk to a friend.

4. Don't Pretend Losing Shouldn't Hurt, Focus On Improvement.

When your team loses, talk to your athletes about how proud you are that they fought to win, and talk about moments in the game when they showed fearlessness and took risks. Focus on how the actions they took today can benefit them in the future. When you win, talk about moments when they played it safe. Get on them if they didn’t really push themselves. When giving feedback after any game, talk to them about their performance in regards to teamwork and progress.

5. Teach Positive Affirmations And How To Visualize Realistic Goals. 

Positive affirmations are positive, first-person, present tense statements that you say to yourself that remind you of your vast capabilities. These affirmations help you visualize your strength, motivation, and integrity as a player. Here’s an example of a positive affirmation:

  • “I am a strong, capable player who hits hard and leaves it all on the court.”
  •  “I attack the goal, shoot straight, and follow through.”

Talk to your athletes about their goals as a player. Ask them what they want to accomplish in their sport, and create an accountability plan.  Have them write their goals down, and use them as an anchor by which to base their daily actions.

Action plan:

  • Help athletes write positive affirmations.
  • Have athletes make personal goals, and create an accountability plan.

Tell athletes about your personal goals and plan for accountability. Even if your adult goals don’t seem relevant to their own lives, it’s good for them to hear how you’re growing, stretching, and dreaming.

Not sure where to start? See step 7 for information about our 5-minute focusing exercise, the BRAVR Method.

6. Help Athletes Create A Mistake Ritual For Failure (Especially In Competition). 

When athletes fail, it’s easy to fall victim to, “fight or flight mode”. This makes athletes tense up, mentally spiral, and lose control of their fine motor functions. This can lead to a whole chain of failures, each one compounding on the last.  Great athletes know how to re-set after failure to regain composure and compete at their best. In our training, we teach athletes to use a mistake ritual to recover from failure. Mistake rituals can be comprised of a breath, a phrase, and/or a short visualization. Here are a few examples of mistake rituals:

  • (Inhale) “I am strong”. (Exhale) Tap closed fist to chest
  • (Inhale) “I am focused”. (Exhale) Visualize a wave coming in and going out.
  • (Inhale) “Be present”. (Exhale) Make the ”OK” hand sign and release. 

The phrase should be meaningful to the athlete, and the action should be able to do quickly in their sport (aka. Don’t choose a hand sign for a catcher because it’s hard to do while wearing a glove). If it’s difficult to do a hand sign in the middle of a competition, help them come up with a quick visualization exercise that represents their intention. 

A mistake ritual acts as an anchor, and the key to creating a beneficial one is habit and consistency. If athletes practice their mistake ritual in practice and in competition, they will become better and better at recovering from mistakes in the moment.

Action plan:

  • Help athletes create a mistake ritual to reset after failure.
  • Encourage athletes to be consistent in using their mistake ritual in practice.

To learn more about how mistake rituals can help, and how to implement mistake rituals on your team, join us in our Free Coaches Masterclass, GameFace: Inside The Minds Of Great Competitors.

7. Teach Them To Visualize, And Do It Together As A Pre-Practice Mental Warm-Up.

Help your athletes get focused together by doing a mental warm up before practice. Getting all your athletes together to do a mental exercise before practice helps athletes focus from the beginning of practice so that they can get the most out of your time together.

Mental warm-ups do not have to take a lot of time but can help your athletes be more focused and motivated for practice, center their minds, visualize what they want to achieve, and let go of any unproductive thoughts, emotions, and stresses. A focused and prepared team is a team that is ready to work hard and improve, right from the start of practice.

Don’t have a pre-practice mental warm up? Use ours! Our popular, 5-Step BRAVR Method is helping teams around the nation get more out of practice by uniting the team in 5 minutes or less. Click the link for more information on the BRAVR Method.  

Note: If you download the free Coaches Cheet Sheet, you'll get a special, exclusive offer for the BRAVR Method! 

For our printable PDF Coaches Cheat Sheet: 7 Ways To Develop Tough, Resilient, and Focused Athletes, click the link for our concise, one-page poster!

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