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.”

Sport Psychology of Shot Put

SPINw Consultant Eric Bergreen was a national champion shot putter at UCLA. We recently asked him to comment on this article discussing Michelle Carter’s mental training. Here’s what he had to say:

As a former shot putter I was thrilled to see Chris Chavez of Sports Illustrated interview Michelle Carter

to discuss her success after the 2016 Olympic gold win. The shot put might not be glamorous to many

but it is far from “playing fetch with yourself.” To be the best you have to have great technical talent and

the ability to manage high pressure situations. I think you might agree that the Olympics is about as high

pressure as it gets for an athlete. Michelle Carter, daughter of Michael Carter, not only has tremendous

physicality in her genes, but understands the type of physical and mental training required to be her

best. In the interview she discusses utilizing a sport psychiatrist to help her learn how to max out her

mental strength. She uses techniques such as Imagery and self -talk to control the chatter in her head

that often leads to ineffective thoughts.

She visualized her competition and normalized the experience stating “I throw against these girls all the

time. She visualized the setting she would be in, the feeling of the stadium and the intensity of the

crowd. She visualized being in a calm energetically balanced state of being. This type of mental rehearsal

can train the mind to experience upcoming events as if you have done it a thousand times before. That

leads to amazing confidence. Michelle has a fantastic ability to keep her mind on the controllable factors

and stop thinking about the problems she may face with her competition. With self-talk she was able to

keep her mind from going into overboard fight or flight, reminding herself that the “Olympics was just

another track meet” with all the faces she has seen several times before. These energy management

techniques help her to stay on the good side of nervousness and keep the jitters down.


One of the last competitive skills she discussed was something I’ve tried to teach athletes many times in

the past. There is a time to train and a time to rest. That is an incredibly wise mental skill to possess. To

get to the high levels of athletic competition requires tremendous hard work. I often see athletes

become so focused and driven to push themselves that they don’t take the time to let their body heal

from all the stress and strain it’s been put through. I watched one of my teammates in college, the

hardest working man I know, wear himself down, and break himself down through over training. The

result was injury and sickness resulting in a missed opportunity at the NCAA Championships.

To get to the big competitions you have put in the time and perfect your physical body, lots of hard

intense work outs. To get through the big competitions and reach your potential you have to learn how

to get the mind into the mental zone state of being energetically balanced, focused, and confident.

Michelle Carter is mastering those skills and I love it!

What does US Soccer’s new mandates mean for you?

The implementation of US Soccer’s 2015 Player Development initiatives is right around the corner.  There has been lots of discussion on the topic, but few concrete answers, which is leaving many involved in youth soccer a bit confused and unsettled about what these changes will mean for players.  These initiatives are changing the youth soccer landscape completely, so there are a lot of unknowns for parents, coaches and players alike. The bottom line is, what’s best for the kids? Do these mandates help or hurt?

Here in Oregon, youth tryouts for club soccer are taking place May 9-14.  In this article we will take a closer look at the changes coming up, give our take on them, and what they will mean for the youth soccer community.

{SPINw is hosting Tryout Prep Mental Game Workshops to help players go into tryouts focused & confident}  -Click on the link below for more information and to register-

SPINw Soccer Tryout Prep Workshop 2016

First off, why all the changes?  Why now?

Click here for a video explanation from US Soccer

According to US Soccer, here’s the reasoning behind the changes:

Despite the increased popularity of soccer and the success of our national teams, the youth soccer landscape at the entry level needs to be improved.
Our soccer culture at the youth level focuses on winning and results rather than focusing on developing the skills of individual players.
The concept of a team outweighs the importance of players having fun and developing to the best of their abilities.
As a country, we need coaches and parents to spend less time caring about wins and loses, and more time devoted to teaching individual skills.
Part of this initiative is to educate and empower coaches and parents to change the way we look at the sport.
One example of this is U.S. Soccer’s new online F License, which is designed for coaches working with players ages 6-8.

Our take:  Hard to disagree with the reasoning behind it. Player development over winning titles, especially at the younger ages, is common sense (although sadly, not so common, which is why some changes are needed!) In sport psychology, we strive to have athletes focus on the process, improving skills, and growing as a player over results. So this logic fits from a development perspective. There is nothing wrong with wanting to win, and learning to compete, but it should not be more important than technical and tactical player development.

First initiative – Small-Sided Standards

Basically, the size of the field and the number of players on the field start smaller and progress as players get older (see chart above). Here’s the why according to US Soccer:

Fewer players on the field means more touches on the ball and more involvement in the game, which helps develop more individual skill.
Players who are more skilled may become more confident and comfortable when in possession of the ball.
The ratio of players to field size is designed to assist players with making the right kind of decisions and improving their awareness.
As players get older, and numbers increase on bigger fields, this approach builds on itself.
And as players get older, the building block approach also allows them to better integrate into a team model where they develop partnerships with other players that make up the team.
Overall, the standards provide for an age appropriate environment where players can achieve these objectives.

Our take:  Love this one, no problems here.  For player development it’s great, and should have been done long ago!

Bonus part of this initiative:  The Build Out line.  This one hasn’t been talked about as much as the others, but we love it.  Basically, the build out line forces teams to play out of the back. The keeper is not allowed to punt the ball, and defenders must give a little space and time for the defense to start the play.  This will be in effect through the U10 age group (7 v 7).


Second initiative – Birth Year Registration

2015 Player Development Initiatives 21

This is the one that’s caused the most ruckus. Here’s why, according to US Soccer:

Not only will this change align our players with the international standard, but it will allow us to be better informed to combat relative age effect when making teams for youth players.

According to wikipedia, the relative age effect is:

“The term relative age effect (RAE) is used to describe a bias, evident in the upper echelons of youth sport[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][1] and academia,[2][3] where participation is higher amongst those born early in the relevant selection period (and correspondingly lower amongst those born late in the selection period) than would be expected from the normalised distribution of live births. The selection period is usually the calendar year, the academic year or the sporting season.

Our take: This is pretty ill-conceived, and the cons outweigh the stated benefits. The relative age effect doesn’t magically go away by making this change. It just shifts to a new birthday.  In the best-seller Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell describes the relative age effect in hockey where a majority of high level older players are born in January, February and March.  Is this change really going to help the US produce the next Lionel Messi or win a World Cup?  It seems highly doubtful.  This mandate flies in the face of the stated objectives. The real objective behind this is to prepare players to become national team caliber players, meaning a fraction of a percent of players will see any benefit from it.

The negatives – There are several, but here are the top three as we see them:
1) Teams that have been together for years will be dismantled –
2) Teams will not be primarily based on school grade level – for recreational teams especially,  this mandate doesn’t make sense. A big part of the fun of playing soccer is playing with your friends and classmates, and this basically takes that part of youth soccer and makes it more difficult.
3) Rising 8th graders and high school seniors may have limited options for a team or worse, left without a team.

Our overall take:  So there are some clear cut plusses and minuses with the new changes.  And some major uncertainty.  But don’t fear, our take is this – The next 6 months or so will be rough and chaotic, but after that we will forget it ever happened. Sports is like life, in that change is the only constant.  We want our young athletes to learn, grow, become resilient, be problem-solvers, and be able to handle adversity.  That’s how to build confidence.  So if you look at it that way, it’s not that big a deal in the long run.  It’s up to the adults to keep that in mind as we head toward this unknown territory in youth soccer.


What would you do? Sport Parent edition

portland sport psychology what would you do

Most of us have seen the ABC show What Would You Do?  For those who haven’t, it’s a hidden camera show where actors act out pretty inappropriate conversations and actions in public.  Then the show captures the reactions of normal everyday people to see how they handle these super uncomfortable situations.  Host John Quinones then comes out of hiding to interview the unsuspecting citizens.

Sometimes, as a soccer parent, I’m left wondering where the cameras are hidden because I can’t believe I am watching adults act the way they are acting.  Of course, most of the games go on as they should – with supportive parents and family members cheering on their sons and daughters as they compete.  But there are others where the parents berate 14 year old referees, 10 year old players from the opposing team, and each other.  Those times when things just get way out of hand.

As a sports parent, most of us behave ourselves.  Maybe occasionally we’ll let a “come on ref!” slip out, but for the most part we keep it together, keep it respectful, and display positive sportsmanship.  But do we stand up when the bad apples act up?  Have we ever left a game thinking “I really should have said or done something!” when another parent got out of control?  It can be a really tricky situation, talking to a stranger, or even someone we know, about their behavior.  It can be uncomfortable!

So my question is, What would you do?   Here are a couple situations I’ve witnessed or heard about.  I’m sure you have witnessed or heard about stories like this to.   Did you have success with it?  Share your “what would you do” moment to help other parents who find themselves in the same situation, but are unsure what to do.

Situation 1
A group of parents from another team in the league, waiting for their kids’ game to start, sits a few yards behind you.  From that moment until the end of the game, you feel like you are in a middle school cafeteria with all the gossiping and trash talking.  This group of parents does on and on: “that is the dirtiest team in the league” “they are always diving” “oh look the ref is favoring them like always”  “their parents are awful” “they never shut up.”   They are talking about your kid’s team, not knowing you are affiliated with them.

What would you do?

Situation 2
Your kids are warming up and in the game before theirs, between two U-10 teams, a questionable offside is not called and a goal is scored. A parent from the team who got the bad end of the call goes completely ballistic at the referee, who appears to be about 13 years old.

What would you do?

Situation 3
A parent from your own child’s team gets down on his own kid, constantly berating him to work harder, constantly coaching her from the sidelines.

What would you do?

Most sports parents have encountered these scenarios. Sometime we act, but mostly we don’t.  Share your past experience on how you handled your situation, to give other parents and idea on what to do.  Because, odds are good that it will happen again, and you don’t want to regret that you did nothing.


Mental side of Coaching

by Glen Coblens, MA

Most coaches agree that sports are more mental than physical. Yet most athletes focus more on their physical skills. Coaching is the same. In addition to working on game strategy and skill development, coaches should focus more on proper breathing techniques, communication, preparation and goal setting. How do successful coaches stay in the moment, be calm during tense competitions, make strategic decisions and clearly communicate to their teams? The time and effort they put in way before working with their athletes will provide them with a strong base to rely on.

  1. Just like athletes, learning proper breathing techniques can help coaches. Circle breathing, where you take deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth can lower your heart rate, help you think clearly and focus on the task at hand.
  2. How coaches communicate with their athletes is just as important as what they communicate. Athletes want to feel validated in their thoughts and feelings. The goal is for each athlete to reach his/her potential and if it is a team sport for the team to reach its full potential. Coaches who make the effort to value athlete’s comments and provide clear and constructive instructions in return have greater success in achieving this goal. In addition, coaching is about developing relationships and helping athletes grow and develop as people. When an athlete feels validated, they are more likely to increase their effort, “buy into the game-plan,” feel better about themselves and perform at a higher level.
  3. Sports provides lessons for life and preparation is the key to anything in life. Successful coaches are good at focusing on what is needed and preparing a plan to accomplish it. Plans can include a slogan such as “Win the Day” (former University of Oregon and current Philadelphia Eagles football coach Chip Kelly) to motivate athletes and teams. Knowing your athlete’s strengths and weaknesses is vital to preparing a successful game-plan. “Work on your weaknesses but play to your strengths” is a saying that may help coaches improve their preparation.
  4. How does your physical body know what your mind expects from it if you do not set a goal? We instruct athletes to set goals all the time, but coaches need goals as well. Whether it is a season, practice, competition, individual athlete or overall team goal; document your goals, read them aloud and refer back to them often. Use trigger words to remind you of your goals and help you stay relaxed and focused throughout the season, practice or competition.

Mental training is not just for athletes. For the same reasons why athletes benefit from mental strength, coaches will benefit as well. If you want to help athletes improve, have more success in competitions, improve your self-esteem and self-confidence take time to practice the skills outlined above. After all, coaches are developing tomorrow’s leaders. The better we lead today, the better they can lead tomorrow.

SPINw consultants work with coaches individually and in groups. Contact us for more information.
Additionally,  check out our Psychology of Coaching Workshop coming on May 4th, 2014.

Athletes – Get Your Winter Sun!

Can’t play at the top of your game if you have poor sleep, down moods and/or constant illness.

Getting your winter sun connects with all of these!

Physician, Dr. Brent Barlow states “Melatonin, a hormone that helps improve
the quality of sleep is produced in highest amounts on days when the body was
exposed to optimal levels of UV radiation. Therefore, you may sleep better after
days where you had been exposed to natural UV radiation from the sun.”

Additionally, “I recommend all my patients get at least 20-30 minutes of direct
natural UV exposure on a daily basis. The beneficial rays of the winter sun
penetrate through the cloud layer so you don’t have to wait for the sunshine in
order to get the benefits of natural UV exposure.”

Don’t let your tough workouts go to waste by not treating your mind & body
correctly. Getting daily sun exposure, even through the cloud layer, is key for:

  • Staying alert in games
  • Maintaining focus on the court
  • Sleeping well before competitions
  • Staying positive

Finding the Beat in Your Pre-Performance Routine

As our U.S. athletes prepare to take center stage at the London Olympics, one is to wonder how they are able to mentally prepare and to keep focused on their performance. Many world-class athletes are seen wearing headphones and listening to music as they walk onto the court, swim platform, or track. Listening to music during an athlete’s pre-performance routine can help them to:

  1. Concentrate on their pre-game routine and to keep focus on their upcoming event.

  2. Help them to relax if they are feeling nervous or anxious before competition.

  3. Or, it can help them to psych up for competition.

  4. It can also help them to refocus when they are feeling distracted.

Interested in learning more?

Take a look at this blog: Musical Pre-performance Routines: A look at Michael Phelps

Interested in working with Jimmy or one of our SPINw consultants?  Email info@spinw or call 1-888-885-5570

Ask a Sport Psychology Consultant

We had our first online “Ask a Sport Psychology Consultant” session in June.

Here is one of the questions submitted, and how Brian answered it:

Question:  Do SPINW psychologists accompany athletes to watch their performances in a real-world setting? If not, how can they possibly get a complete assessment of the athlete’s mental weaknesses and required remedies?

Brian’s answer:  While it is not a normal part of our consulting, we do offer observation as part of our services in different packages.  Most athletes/teams rarely ask for it though.  I agree with you that observation could be beneficial, however, in my experience, I have found that a majority of my athletes have had a high success rate without observation.   Similarly, I don’t have to be familiar with the intricacies of specific sports to help athletes’ mental game.  For instance, my main sports are soccer, basketball and football, but I have successfully helped athletes from sport such as moto-cross, competitive cheer, distance running, and horse-back riding.

Sometimes I request athletes bring video of themselves so that I can see their body language, or have them explain a specific technique to me.

In my opinion, the reason observation is not 100% necessary is that most athletes who are determined to improve and get past mental blocks are very open with their thought and emotional patterns in their performance.  I ask athletes to commit to at least 6 sessions – that way I can get to the heart of the issue through questions and counseling, and determine which techniques to teach and help ingrain into the athletes’ second nature over time.

Do you have any questions you’d like to ask?  email them to

“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!