As a professor in sport psychology/leadership and a longtime consultant for programs such as USC and Texas, I have seen firsthand the different mindsets required to be consistently good in a sport.
While being “perfect” all the time sounds nice in theory, a mindset that’s more adaptive in nature can help athletes remain confident and resilient in the times of adversity which are all but unavoidable. I’ve noticed that athletes who are consistently good in their sport tend to exhibit the following:
Being good every day instead of being great some of the time
Being open to learning and trying new things
Adhering to a training mindset during training
Adhering to a match/game mindset during competition
Let’s dive into this a little deeper to see how they can help an athlete weather the storm and be good every single day.
1. Your Good is Good Enough
We have a saying with the University of Texas women’s volleyball program: “Our good is good enough.”
This comes from one of the more consistent teams in Division I sports, as evidenced by their 10 conference titles in the past 11 years plus their eight appearances in the NCAA championship “Final Four” over that same span. This mindset is one predicated on having daily goals or intentions for the day, giving yourself credit for the little victories (improvement areas), learning from mistakes, and not judging one’s play during the action. Knowing the game plan and your roles within it becomes critical.
Constantly beating yourself up for not being perfect can torpedo your performance. But being good every day is a lot more realistic, and when every member of a team does it, the results can be truly special.
2. Growth Mindset over Fixed Mindset
There are innumerable articles, blogs, books and videos dedicated to Carol Dweck’s growth (learning) versus fixed mindsets, so it is mentioned here only briefly. Here’s how the two definitions fit into a sports scenario.
Individuals with a growth/learning mindset believe their intelligence and talents are not innate but rather dynamic in nature which means they can be further developed and trained. There is always room for improvement so these active learners value improvement and strive for continued achievement. They try new things and allow themselves to be coached.
Individuals with a fixed mindset believe it is their talent level that breeds success, and that their talent level is largely innate and incapable of being changed. They’re driven to be the best player out there but also believe you “either have it (talent) or you do not.” These players feel they have all the skills they need (it’s what got them here) and are less open to coaching.
John Wooden, the legendary former UCLA men’s basketball coach, stated, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” The sooner players realize there is always something new to learn and apply, the closer they will be to having a more process-oriented approach, and the more consistently good they will become.
3. The Training-Trusting Mindset
Being consistently good every day also entails trusting that what you are learning and doing (your training) will be there when you need it in competition. The Director of Mental Conditioning for the MLB Pittsburgh Pirates, Bernie Holliday, was one of the first people I saw present on this particular topic. Athletes can “train to trust” by:
Giving themselves credit for improvements made from day-to-day
Allowing themselves to “just compete” during competitive drills
Analyzing their play betweens reps, during water breaks, when being coached, or after practice, but NEVER during execution
Practicing like they compete by simulating match conditions
Learning and trusting skills enough to become automatic, meaning, ideally, you can simply play or react to situations instead of consciously thinking through every aspect of play
4. The Match-Trusting Mindset
Holliday refers to the match mindset as the “trusting mindset.” This mindset is branded by “trying easy” and playing hard but not thinking or judging during play. The mental approach is one of conviction, acceptance of one’s skills, and even a reckless abandon of taking risks while playing to one’s utmost.
Athletes can “train this match trust” by:
Truly trusting their training and having confidence that you can “let go” of conscious thoughts and simply play
Allowing their play to be automatic
Responding and reacting in the moment to what happens and not focusing on the outcome
Disregarding all expectations for outcomes—focus on the process and the results will take care of themselves
Having performance/improvement goals on a daily basis, like how you want to “be” when you perform
Adhering to the game plan and the coaching cues specific to the opponent and how best to play against them
Dr. V’s new book, Mental Toughness Training for Football (2nd ed.) (Coaches Choice Publishing), is now available for purchase. For more resources, go to https://drvleads.com. Dr. V has recently teamed with Joe McNamara’s IMPACT, a leadership development company who does incredible work with scholastic/collegiate teams and leaders. Joe is a decorated Marine Corps Officer who led many combat deployments on multiple tours. Contact him at https://www.impactthepace.com. Portions of this article are based off of Dr. V’s United Soccer Coaches’ Soccer Journal (Mr./April, 2018) article.