Mental Preparation is Critical to Building a Championship Mindset In the Weight Room

About the Author: Adam Reed is the associate editor of AFCA Magazine. The American Football Coaches Association is the only national organization dedicated to improving football coaches through ongoing education, interaction, and networking. The AFCA and Hammer Strength have teamed up to provide insights into the coaching profession, elite athletic programs, and more.

How athletes respond in the confusion and emotion that takes place during critical moments of the most important games is a dividing line between those who will become champions and those who won’t.

Some athletes seem to have ice in their veins, always impressing in the biggest moments. Champions like Tom Brady, Michael Jordan, Serena Williams, Tiger Woods and countless others have long been admired as those who are cool under pressure, and more often than not deliver the types of performances that bring home the hardware.

Then there are other athletes. Those famous for making mental mistakes that cost their team dearly down the stretch. Mental lapses clearly illustrate the importance of instilling a championship mindset in every athlete.

Matt McCool, the athletic director at Allen D. Nease High School in Ponte Vedra, Florida, thinks a lot of programs have fallen victim to a lack of mental preparation.

Matt McCool “As the athletic director, I'm not involved in the drills and different things that they do per se every day, but I go around and I just kind of evaluate and watch, and you see kids on glide,” McCool says. “How do you fix it so everybody is challenging, not just each other, not just the coach is motivating the team, but athletes are challenging and motivating themselves on a daily basis?”

Every coach has seen an athlete just going through the motions. No matter the reason for the athlete’s lack of focus, it is the coach’s job to make sure everyone has their brain, and not just muscles, engaged on every rep.

McCool recommends that coaches use drills and scenarios to keep their athletes engaged. Every scenario they may encounter during a season should have already been confronted in their mind, and an appropriate response established.

“You can never prepare for every moment, but I think that as a coach and a mentor you have to sometimes make up scenarios,” McCool says. “Not that you're lying, but create a thought process of, ‘If this happens, this is our response.'”

Most mental lapses aren’t a result of arrogance or incompetence, but rather, a lack of proper mental preparation. Drilling how you will respond to every situation is important, not only because athletes need to have the proper skills when the time comes, but also because they need to be able to access those skills and employ them on their own, and in a matter of seconds.

McCool encourages coaches to talk about the scenarios they drill as if they are currently happening or about to happen. Making them real to the players adds a level of responsibility. Coaches should be honest with athletes and tell them their success and failure depends on their response. Improper responses will cause them to fail. What more motivation could they need?

“We have to try and train their mind on all of the things that happen, because something that's catastrophic to you, might not be to me, and vice versa,” McCool says. “It's when these things happen, and it's not if it's going to happen. We want to prepare them for when it does, so that it’s not a fantasy land type of preparation. You're going to have the confidence to deal with it because we're preparing you for it. It's not going to be exact when it happens, but these are the things that could be coming into play, and these are some of the things that we know are going to work, and we're going to give you for your toolbox. And you need to make sure you compartmentalize, so that you can handle it just like you would in a game.“

Coaches will never achieve 100 percent consistency in their athletes’ training, and even the best-coached make mistakes sometimes, but there is no excuse for any player to not be equipped for something that happens within the rules of the game. If they fail to respond in the correct manner it should be their human fallibility, and not a lack of proper preparation that is to blame.

More importantly, athletes who have these basic mental preparation techniques will be better equipped for life. Ultimately, McCool, and thousands of other athletic directors, are trying to prepare young people for a world where you can’t predict the scenarios you will face.

“No matter what it is that we're working on, it should be to prepare us to be better for society, and that's what we want to do is breed a champion, and a champion in everything that we do,” explains McCool. “It's not about championships. It's about the championship mindset in life. Every day is an evaluation.”

Nease High School Weight Room