Mental Training (part 3/5 Inside the Mental Game of a State Champion)

Having a built-in expert in sport psychology is rare and is something that not many teams, let alone high school teams, have. But just having access isn’t enough. Coaches traditionally like full control of what goes on with their teams, and have trouble trusting an outside source to teach and implement new skills that they may know little to nothing about. Fortunately for the Franklin HS boys soccer team, Oregon Coach of the Year Ty Kovatch trusted me enough to allow me the time and freedom to implement the mental training plan I have always dreamed of putting into place.
Coach Ty and Brian

As the assistant coach, I did my best to support the vision the coach had for the team. I was a basic assistant coach: supporting practices, running some drills, training small groups, and more. Within each of these, I tried to bring an element of mental training in the area of focus, positive mindset, communication and more. For the pure mental coaching piece, we did regular classroom sessions and various activities throughout the year.

Positive Culture is essential to Mental Training

A strong mental game starts with a strong, positive culture and positive coaching as I wrote about in Part 2. To have a strong culture though is to actively embody it.  We hve to live the traits we espouse. And part of that was having the right mentality. Here are some of the mental training elements that were essential to our run to the state championship.

1) Process over Results

Just about every team’s goal at the start of a season is to win a state championship, but only one gets to achieve that goal. So it’s important to set process and performance goals and not just set the outcome goal. I asked each player during the preseason what their goals for the team were. As I mentioned in Part 1, we knew we had enough talent to go deep into the playoffs, so not surprisingly the most common answers were: State Championship, PIL Championship, beat Cleveland (our rival who has historically pretty much owned the series), and to go 14-0. 

This is a good starting point, but again, most teams have these goals at the beginning. In sport psychology, the outcomes they listed are considered out of your control. What’s in your control is how hard you work, your attitude, your preparation and other things. So, to not to let the goals just sit in outcome mode, my next questions were “How? How are we going to do this? What is the focus day-in-and-day-out that will get us those results? What are the things we need to be and do ‘No Matter What’?”

The photo below shows the process the team decided to follow and the results they hoped to achieve.
sport psychology process goals outcome goals

2) Apex Soccer Journal

Consistency throughout a season is crucial especially the mental game.  Throughout the season players used The Apex Soccer Journal to set personal goals each month and each week. We had them check in on their goals regularly to stay focused and self-motivated. The book served as the perfect tool, and the players were expected to have it with them at all times like any other piece of equipment!

Apex Soccer Journal sport psychology

After each game, the journal guided the players through a self-evaluation and also an evaluation of the opponent they had just faced.   This helps by making sure they learn from as many details as possible throughout the season. Not only that, but we ended up facing three teams in the playoffs that we had seen in the regular season.  Because of this, the players had an extra bit of preparation as they could read over their own notes about that opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. In the regular season we were 1-0-2 vs those teams. In the playoffs we were 3-0.

3) Team Building

We did team building in two ways.  The first thing we introduced was 6am Saturday practices. No teenager wants to get up at 6am on Saturday. It makes them miserable. But nothing brings people closer quite like being miserable together. Several players I spoke with admitted as much: ‘we hated that you made us do that, but we all saw the results’.

The second thing we introduced was road trip challenges. On our bus trips, instead of just allowing the kids free reign, we implemented structure and reserved the first 30 minutes as time without phones or music.  The goal was to get the kids talking and interacting, to ensure cliques didn’t form over the course of the season, and to talk face to face without screens and without distractions. During that time we created collaborative and competitive challenges to complete.  These activities helped the players not only get closer as the season went on, but to stay focused on those long road trips. As a result, we only lost one game on the road all season.

4) Visualization

During the season all the players had access to the Sports Mindset Audio program.  They could listen to these at anytime on their phone. As a team I led various types of visualization exercises throughout the season. Before games we might do skill building visualizations like seeing themselves making a tackle or scoring a goal.  After games we often did recovery visualization to allow dedicated time to process mistakes and dwell on positive things they did in the game. Before training we sometimes did a few short mindset visualizations: to transition from a school mindset to a soccer mindset.  All of this practice culminated in a 10 minute visualization in the locker room at Hillsboro Stadium before the championship game that got everyone calm, confident, and on the same page. There’s no doubt that that final mindset shift helped tie everything together.

So there you have it – a general view inside the mental game of a state championship team. The consistency and attention given to the sport psychology training did not make these soccer players great, but it did allow them to have a certain freedom of mind in the most pressure-filled situations.  The next two parts of the series will focus on adversity and “living up to the cliches.”

Developing a High Performance Lifestyle (part 1)

Developing a High Performance Lifestyle (part 1 – avoiding burnout)
By Jimmy Yoo, MA Sport Psychology

As a mental skills coach at SPINw, I help athletes attain a consistent high performance mindset through sport psychology techniques like focus, goal setting, visualization.  A high performance mindset is not something that is turned on one minute and off the next.  It is more consistent than that.  Therefore, I help athletes dedicate everyday to a high performance lifestyle, both on and off the field.  Lifestyle can be defined as “the typical way of life of an individual, group, or culture.” It’s basically your habits – how you do things under pressure.

Some of my athletes are professionals, who make a living at playing sports.  But most are only part-time athletes, who are also students, parents, performing artists, doctors, teachers, etc., and often many of these.  It’s good to bring your “A-Game” everyday – not necessarily that you will win every time at everything, but that you consistently perform at a high level.  Anyone can benefit from developing a high performance lifestyle, both on and off the field.

This doesn’t mean perfection: that in every moment of your life, you are competing to be the best at everything you do, like being being the best student, athlete, or employee at all times.  This type of focus is not ideal because you are constantly comparing yourself to others.  This type of focus is out of your control. If you are too focused on comparing yourself to others, being the best, being perfect, you are not focusing on the necessary skills and strategies to effectively perform the task at hand.  To achieve a high performance mindset each day, it is important to focus on the little things that help you in the present moment or on the things that you are able to control right now.

As a professional ___________________(fill in your job here), it is easy to move from one task to the next without stopping or taking a break.  There can be a tendency to concentrate and stay focused on things till we become mentally and physically exhausted.  As a result, habit becomes “work till I can’t work anymore” or work till my body forces me to take a break, like when you just fall asleep doing a simple task.  The more this happens, the more risk of experiencing burnout. To prevent this, I work with athletes on comprehensive goal setting plans that include “planned breaks” as an essential part of high performance over the long run.

Burnout can cause us to react with negative emotional responses.  For example, a director of a non-profit that I work with recognized she was experiencing burnout and decided it was time to talk to someone about it.  For purposes of confidentiality, I will call this person Josie.  Josie was a former collegiate athlete and still liked to play sports as a means to stay active.  For the past four months, Josie had not been able to play sports or even find time to exercise due to the demands she had at work.  Her goal was to find a way to get back into playing sports and exercising.

When we met, she mentioned that she was experiencing emotional highs and lows that would result in her snapping at employees when they did not perform a task to her expectations, or making sarcastic remarks to customers that she felt were being rude and obnoxious.  She was also feeling angry and sad because she did not feel supported by her boss and others in her life, like family and friends.  She knew she was experiencing burnout, but did not know how to change things.

During one of our sessions, Josie came in feeling really angry.  She stated that she really hated her co-workers that smoked.  She felt as though they were always leaving the office to go outside and take a smoke break.  Even worse, she hated the fact that there were two or three of them that would always leave together to have a cigarette.  In that discussion, she recognized that she wasn’t mad at them, she was actually jealous of them because they were able to take time, be it every hour or every few hours to take a break, talk with colleagues, and just get out of the office to get some fresh air.  While she had no desire to start smoking cigarettes, she decided it was time that she started taking “Cigarettes Breaks” of her own.  She made it an expectation to take a 10-15 minute break every few hours, and do something active like take a walk in the building or outside depending on the weather, or just go talk to a colleague and keep the conversation to things not related to work.  She also made it a point to physically leave her desk to eat lunch.  She found that leaving her mobile phone at her desk, as well, made it more of an enjoyable lunchtime because she could either eat peacefully by herself or spend time with co-workers, just talking to them rather than texting or looking at things on her phone.

Josie admits that forcing herself to take a lunch break and frequent breaks throughout the day was extremely challenging.  But, once she was able to do it, she started to feel less stressed and more energetic at work.  This small shift to her daily routine also helped motivate her to leave work at a reasonable time so that she could start playing sports again.  In the end, Josie realized that making small changes to her day helped her to find more balance in her life, which in turn, allowed her to develop her high performance lifestyle.

Like Josie, you can also take a step toward developing a high performance lifestyle by identify things that you can different each day, like getting more sleep at night, eating better, taking breaks, and finding a life balance of work, exercise, personal relationships, recreational activities, and just taking time to unplug from technology so that you can enjoy a moment of peace and quiet.  Taking the first step is always challenging, so if you need some extra support, find a buddy that you can start doing things with, or schedule a session with us at SPINw!

This is Your Brain on Sports – book review

Brain on sport psychology

“We’ve spent the preceding chapters trying to make the case that there are rational underpinnings for all the supposed craziness and unusual behavior that sports seem to trigger. That is, that “your brain on sports” is really just your regular brain acting as it does in other contexts.”

Sound interesting?  This is how Wertheim and Sommers sum up their latest book, This is Your Brain on Sports. From a sport psychology perspective, it’s a great book in the same vein as classics like “Freakonomics” or “Outliers.”   The authors take common ideas and phenomena in sports and put them under the sociological and psychological research microscope to explain certain peculiar behaviors and that are common not only in sports, but in life in general.

Each chapter explores a unique idea from sports, examines the research, and relates it to real life.  Beginning by promising answers to Why questions: “Why Hockey Goons Would Rather Fight at Home” to “Why We Need Rivals” to “Why Our Moral Compass is More Flexible than an Olympic Gymnast” these chapters offer excellent insights into how the mind works, how people relate to each other through the prism of sports, and uncovers why things that seem bizarre are actually quite common..  The conclusion is that sports isn’t so much different than life.  Although, they do go on to explain:  “…sports and athletic competition are fertile ground for scientists across disciplines to test their hypotheses about basic aspects of human nature.”

There’s a lot in here to relate to sport psychology and the mental game.  For instance, popular theory says that sport psychology was founded in 1898 by Norman Triplett, who noticed that he rode his bicycle faster when he was with other people.  In the chapter “Why We Need Rivals,” the authors explain how Triplett created a “competition machine” to test in a lab setting if people did in fact ride faster against someone else as opposed to against the clock. His theory proved to be true, and was used in further studies by other psychologists on how athletes compete against rivals – something that seems to make sense, but now backed by research.

One of my favorites was the chapter that was in essence about goal setting.  “Why Running on a Treadmill is Like Running a Business.”  In it the authors talk about “the power of the finish line” and how very important to performance setting milestones is.  In my experience at SPINw, one of the reasons goal setting fails is that there are not enough measurable milestones on the way to a long term goal.  There is some compelling anecdotes and evidence here explaining why this is the case.  This chapter, like many others, should prove to be a powerful tool for athletes and especially coaches, to use goal setting for motivation and increased effort.

Overall, there is something for everyone in this book, whether you are an athlete, a coach, a sports fan, or even someone who is just interested in psychology and how the mind works.

Click here to check it out on Amazon.


Top Waterskiier uses The Sports Mindset Gameplan to reach his goals


sport psychology skiing

Tom Carey credits SPINw book with helping him become a top 10 slalom water skier in the US

January  22, 2016, Portland, OR . . . It’s not often that a $20 book can transform your life, career and propel you to the top of national rankings in a sport. But for champion water skier and Oregonian Tom Carey, that’s exactly what reading “The Sports Mindset Gameplan” did for him. An athlete since the age of five, Carey had competed in various sports, and at age 60, he decided to take a different tack for competing at the 2014 U.S. National Water Ski Championships. Although he was always ambitious, he had never gotten the results he wanted while competing at the annual championships. This year, he committed to doing more than showing up.

The winter before the competition, a few copies of “The Sports Mindset Gameplan” showed up at his Beaverton facility Bio Force Youth Fitness. He grabbed on and went through it in meticulous detail, page by page, using it as his workbook. By the end, his goal was set to place in the top 10. And so, at the age of 60, when most people are seriously settling in to the thought of retirement, Carey competed and emerged in 6th place in the men’s slalom event.

“The Sports Mindset Gameplan,” written by Portland sports psychology consultant and SPINw director Brian Baxter, MA. It’s an interactive workbook designed for all athletes, from beginning to recreational to elite, and puts the mental focus back into physical training and performance.

“This is exactly what we had hoped the book would do—to transform good athletes into great ones, simply by taking the necessary steps of asking yourself the right questions and propelling people to strengthen their mental focus and goals and to make the most of their sporting experience.”

Said Carey: “Although the book speaks a lot about team sports, I was amazed that it’s also great to use for individual sports like water skiing. I had the motivation and ambition to win—this book helped me put the proper steps in place to set my sights on achieving my goal to be in the top 10.”

So what’s next for Carey? Place in the top three? Different competitions or open the playing field to international competition?

“That’s a great question,” Carey says. “I’m relying on Brian to help me flesh out my next steps and goals. Now having read and worked through the book, I have ultimate faith in what the SPINw team says, and now I just need to get those goals in focus.”

Goal Setting: Making your own Syllabus

by Brian Baxter, MA Sport Psychology

Most of the athletes I see come through SPINw are high achievers. They are high level athletes who are dedicated, self-coaches, and know how to push themselves. They don’t accept mediocrity. It’s these quality that get them to a high level in sports. but it’s also this quality that can make the overwhelmed and frustrated.

More often than not, these high level athletes are also high achievers in the classroom. Early in my career it was amazing to me how many 4.0 students come in to seek mental game training; now it’s just commonplace.

A collegiate cross country runner I worked with not to long ago was one of these high achievers in the classroom and on the field. A 4.0 student and talented runner on scholarship, she’d been struggling in her running for about a year, culminating in her refusal to run in an important event due to stress and anxiety. After a strong freshman season, she struggled with injury and sub-standard performances. She was beginning to question her abilities, her training, and herself as a runner.

I asked her to explain the difference to me between sports and academics. She said basically, for school, everything is spelled out for her: the professor gives a syllabus at the beginning of the year, and all she has to do is work hard, follow the steps, ask for extra help if needed, and do well on tests. But for athletics, there were too many factors she couldn’t control: injury, pressure from her teammates and coaches, and not meeting her own standards (“I’ve always been kind of a perfectionist,” she told me).

Goal setting is a great way to get the athlete to focus in on the small steps. For this athlete, I had her create her own “syllabus”; a goal setting plan she could use to feel more in control. At first she had trouble defining her long term goals outside of “I just want to do the best I can… run up to my potential.” So we started her “syllabus” by defining the long term goals – to be consistently on varsity and make a national event. Then we laid out the steps to get there, including Monthly Goals (to see the trainer twice a week for to prevent injury), Weekly Goals (run a set number of miles), and Daily Goals (keep a running log with positive focus, and use circle breathing for relaxation).

Now her focus is to trust in the process – her “Syllabus” – to regain her confidence and run up to her potential.

Goal Setting –> Goal Achievement: A success story


by Jimmy Yoo

In the last newsletter, we spoke about setting resolutions / achievable goals early and using everyday challenges as motivation. For example, instead of waiting til the end of the holiday season to stop eating sweets, use the sweets as a reward.

For many of us, waiting till the last second is what we do. There was a high school athlete I once met with who also took this approach. This high school athlete, whom I shall call Jen, to respect this athlete’s confidentiality, had tried out for her high school basketball team. She felt she was prepared for the team tryouts because she had taken the time to stay in shape, mainly by playing another sport in the offseason; and she had participated in a majority of the captains’ practices in the off season as well. Therefore, she felt she had put in enough time to prepare her for the season.

When it came to the tryout week, her expectation was that she would easily make the varsity basketball team: one, because she was a junior in high school; two, she felt she had put in the time on the team to earn a spot; three, she felt she was in good shape; and four, she felt she had worked just as hard as a lot of the other players in the off-season.

To her surprise, three days into the tryouts, she was cut from the varsity squad and placed on the JV team. The head coach had pulled her aside that night and told her if she worked hard and had a good attitude, she could easily move up to the varsity team at some point in the season. At first she was crushed and felt that the coach had just picked her favorite players. In particular, she felt that the coach had chosen some freshmen players just because they were taller than she was, not because they were better. Once she was able to vent her frustrations concerning the tryouts, she was then able to admit that she was amazed at how the freshman on the varsity team seemed to be better shape, and their basketball skills seemed to be more developed than her skills at this point in the season. With that said, she was able to identify that it would take at least a month of hard work before she would be ready to compete for a varsity position.

This was a good starting point. Not only was she able to admit that she had not spent enough time in the off season working on her basketball skills (shooting, dribbling, offensive and defensive footwork), but she was able to recognize how long it might take her to catch up. Instead of deciding to quit the team or settle with the idea that she would be on JV the rest of the season, she made it her goal to make the varsity team by the last 1/3 of the season and be ready for playoffs.

Jen felt that the first thing she needed to work on was improving her foot speed so that she would be quicker on defense and quicker when she initiates drives to the basket. As a result, she decided that she would jump rope 5 minutes a day to improve her quickness and agility, and 20 to 30 minutes either before or after practice to shoot baskets and practice her drives to the net. Secondly, because two JV players were asked each week to swing up for varsity games to serve as emergency backup players, she made it her goal to be one of the swing players each week.

Jen’s hard work and determination paid off. For a majority of the weeks during the season, she was chosen by the coaches to swing up for varsity games. While she sat on the bench for most of those games, she kept a good attitude and made sure to take note of things she was doing well and things she still needed to improve on, like dribbling with her off hand and getting confident taking layups with her off hand. By the end of the season, one of the varsity players had sprained an ankle during a game. Jen was asked to come off the bench as part of a platoon of players to fill in for that injured player. As it turned out, she played solid one-on-one defense and forced a key turnover that allowed her team to take the lead during the final minutes of that game.

From that point on, Jen would become one of the primary players to come off the bench to fill in for the starters. She recognized that hard work and determination are important, specifically, practicing with purpose rather than just going to practice each day and comparing her effort to the rest of the team (i.e., “I feel like I worked harder than most of the team today”). She also learned that setting goals and communicating those goals allowed her to set an expectation and have others helped her to prepare for success.

“The New Year’s Resolution“ How to set Effective Goals

Have you ever wondered why New Year’s Resolutions so seldom stick? The New Year’s Resolution is about changing human behavior, which is no easy feat. (Trying to change it in the days after staying out all night and having a little too much champagne doesn’t make it any easier!)

The New Year’s Resolutions is a form of goal setting. In sport psychology research, literature, and practice, goal setting is the most consistently proven factor in facilitating peak performance. However, when goals are not set properly, they are not as effective as they could be, and can even be counter-productive.  This is almost always the case with the New Year’s Resolution.

Whether setting a New Year’s Resolution, or just a goal in general, here are the main reasons for failure:

1 – Too general

2 – Too hard or unrealistic

3 – Doesn’t account for unexpected events

4 –  No consistent check in

5 –  Lack of support system

Let’s take a common example of a New Year’s Resolution that is well intentioned, but destined to fail.

Goal: “I want to get in better shape this year.”

Sounds good, right? who wouldn’t want that? But, as is, this goal is destined to fail because it is 1) too general. What does that goal mean? How is it measured? If you go running 1 time in 2012, compared to 2011, when you went running 0 times, you have accomplished your goal! However, I doubt this is what you had in mind when you set that goal. It is too general; so let’s make it more specific:

Goal: “I will get in better shape this year by running every day.”

That sounds a little better, but will most likely fail because it is 2) too hard or unrealistic. Most people do not run everyday, and missing 1 day will serve as a de-motivator, making it easy to say the next day: “Oh well, I have already failed, there is no way to accomplish my goal, so what’s the difference if I run or not today? So let’s adjust to make the goal more realistic:

Goal:  “I will get in better shape this year by running 3 times a week.”

More specific? Check. More realistic? Check. This goal is pretty good as set. But there are a few other factors to consider. 3) Does this goal account for unexpected events? What happens if there is a weeklong blizzard? What happens if you turn an ankle and can’t run for 2 weeks? These are the kinds of rhythm-breaking events that can derail a goal fast and permanently. So what adjustment can be made to this goal to account for the unexpected? Have a back-up plan so that running can be expanded to other exercise: yoga at home, a Pilates class, and basketball or swimming at the gym are some examples.

Goal: “I will get in better shape this year by exercising 3 times a week.”

This goal is infinitely better than it was in its first iteration, and more likely to be attained. Now let’s consider a couple extra points to solidify this goal further; into a life changing plan. The first point is that, with 4) no consistent check-in, many goals can just drop off your radar (due to the factors already mentioned). A couple ideas can help with this. The first is to make sure you write it down and put it in a place you can see it. Or if you like to write, try journaling on your goal. Even better yet, you can break your goal down into smaller pieces:

Goal: “I will get in better shape this year by exercising 3 times a week in January. I will set a new goal for February.”

Last but not least, make sure there is no 5) lack of support system. Goals tend to move along better with someone there to support and push you in your goal. It might be a family member or a friend or a trainer at the gym. No matter whom you choose, it has to be someone who is not afraid to call you out when you are slacking, and tell you the truth. This person can also help with the consistent check-in.

It can be helpful to set this goal with a friend or family member (“I will get in better shape this year by exercising 3 times a week with Bill.”) or by making sure it is in a class (“I will get in better shape this year by taking a yoga class 3 times a week.”) or with a trainer (I will get in better shape this year by exercising at Bob’s Gym 3 times a week.”)

The New Year is a traditional and natural time to make changes, to improve yourself and your quality of life. Athletes know that this needs to be done more than just once a year. Give yourself the best chance to succeed in the changes you want to make by setting goals properly. The New Year’s Resolution is a good place to start!

Need that support system, or interested in working with a sport psychology consultant on your goal setting plan? Contact SPINw to set up an appointment!