Handling the Pressure of the Playoffs

How are the playoffs different from the regular season mentally and emotionally?  What sport psychology techniques can athletes and coaches use to best prepare for the rise in intensity, anxiety and nerves that happens in the postseason?   Check out Brian’s interview here on KUIK radio 1360 am.

Baxter Sport Psychology radio interview

It’s 90% Mental! Workshop on February 28, 2016

Come join us at Evolution Healthcare and Fitness in SE Portland on February 28th at 5pm for a mental game workshop.
(Click here to register)

How many times have you heard someone tell you what a huge component the mental game is in your particular sport? Well, they were right!

You spend hours each week training your body to perform at it’s highest level. But how do you prepare your mind? The mental game often separates the good athletes from the great ones, and the great ones from the elite. This workshop will address confidence, mental toughness, focus, and more, to help you perform up to your potential when the pressure is on.

As the Director of SPINw here in Portland, Brian works with athletes and teams of all ages and skills levels on the mental game. He is excited to bring these sport psychology techniques to the athletes at Evolution! Copies of his workbook for athletes, The Sports Mindset Gameplan, will be available at a discounted rate to participants.
(Click here to register)

A New Year’s Resolution – lay off the refs!

I’ve got a New Year’s Resolution for us all – Lay off the referees, enough already!   I’ve heard all the excuses, and I’m sure you have too:  “We didn’t win because of that one bad call!”   “They are always biased against our team.” After a while, I all I hear is “Blah blah (excuses) blah blah (not my fault) blah blah (must blame someone other than myself) blah blah.”

I have coached soccer in Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, California, and Oregon. Guess which state has the worst refs? It depends where you live!  Because those living in each state will claim it their referees are the worst.  How about some perspective?

Read any message board comments section about a controversial call or a “bad game” by the officials – the fans rarely ever agree on good calls/bad calls, and that’s with the benefit of slow motion replays from numerous angles!  Even with the advent of instant replay in the NFL, there are still arguments.  How about some perspective?

In sport psychology, we teach and train athletes on mental toughness – how to build and maintain confidence, and how to re-build confidence over the course of training and competition. To do that, athletes must be focused on things that they can control over things they cannot.  And the referee is a big factor that is out of your control (others include the weather, field conditions, opponents, etc.).  Athletes need to know this, coaches need to know this, and sports parents need to know this. And we all need to act accordingly.

Do referees make bad calls? Of course they do.  Is it okay to be upset about it?  Yes it is.  How long is it okay to be upset about it?  That’s the key point!  The best athletes are able to let go and move on to the next play.  The best coaches are upset but do not blame the refs.  The best sports parents take “bad refereeing” as a part of the game, not something to rail about afterwards.

Do you make mistakes while playing or coaching?  Definitely.  Is it okay to be upset about it? Yes.  How long is it okay to be upset about it?  Not long! The best athletes are able to let go and move on to the next play.


The most mentally tough athletes get distracted from time to time, and even angry at referees. However, the ability to regain focus and concentrate on the right thing is an essential mental skill to perfect. Go into games knowing that all the calls are not going to go your way, and use a re-focusing cue to get your mind back where it should be. One re-focusing cue is to have a mantra (for example, “It’s a great day to rise above!” – once a perceived bad call is made, you may be angry, but use your mantra to re-focus your attention to a more positive mindset.


The video below is meant for parents, but I think we can all agree it’s applicable to coaches too.  The best coaches prepare their athletes for bad calls. They build a culture that includes expected behavior on handling things.  They lead by example.  Now, coaches often do have a right and maybe even an obligation to speak with referees during the game.  However, if a referee is ruining a game for you, you need to be able to handle this as well, otherwise you will reap what you sew in your athletes’ response.

sport psychology parents and refs

Sports parents can really help their athletes take responsibility for their actions and ownership over their performance by not giving them ready-made excuses – the refs being the main example of this.

On the sidelines, it’s okay to be a fan and to cheer and get excited.  I think it’s even okay to express a little frustration when a call goes against your team.  But for how long?  I suggest after a groan or “aw, come on!”, that you quickly re-focus your demeanor to more of a “nice try!”, “keep working hard!”, “you’ll get it next time!” type of communication.  That way, you help change the attention away from whatever atrocity has been perpetrated on you athlete, and on to how he or she can handle it.

After the game, do not bring up the referees.  If your athlete does, allow them to vent, but then gently steer the conversation back to things like how the player handled the situation, what could they do differently next time, and in the scheme of the game there are probably ten other things in their control that they can focus on.

Officials, umpires, referees – they are as Phil Jackson once said (half-jokingly, I assume) “a necessary evil.”  I ask players sometimes what would a game be like without referees?!  They are a part of the game, and how we as players, coaches, and parents handle them, is a crucial skill.  Let’s make 2016 the year where we lay off and handle it the right way?

Bonus – Here’s a video behind the scenes of MLS referees. It will give you a new perspective on how seriously referees take their craft.


Gratitude and Performance

Thanksgiving coming up. As we all know, it’s a time to slow down, gather with family and friends, and give thanks for all that we have. It’s a needed time of the year, because during the daily grind it can become easy to be more focused on what we don’t have!  So a time of the year to give thanks and be grateful. In other words showing, “Gratitude.”

Sport Psychology Portland Gratitude (1)
What does this have to do with sports performance?  The pressure, the intensity, and the daily grind can change an athlete’s perspective over time:  The enjoyment can be replaced by timidness and dread, the opportunity replaced by obligation.  When this happens, performance is likely to suffer.  In the past couple months, I have seen this concept has come up a lot with my athletes.  Deliberately and mindfully taking the time to show gratitude during training and competition can improve performance by returning the feeling of perspective, control, and enjoyment.

So how do athletes “give thanks” and how does that help with performance?  Again, it’s a matter of perspective.  Giving thanks to the situation you are in, not being stressed about it; being thankful for the opportunity you have and not dwelling on what you don’t have or wish you had.  Here are a couple of examples from SPINw athletes:

A highly rated high school baseball player I worked with was having a hard time living up to his own expectations. There was some external pressure to be sure, but nothing that outweighed the pressure he put on himself.  To introduce gratitude for this young man, part of his pre-game routine became to step out on the field before anyone shows up, and be thankful that he’s playing. A short giving of thanks that he’s choosing to play the game and grateful for the opportunity. This young man did end up earning a scholarship to play college baseball.

sport psychology portland baseball

Another athlete is a college golfer, a natural athlete and fierce competitor.  Over time she has become used to get all bent out of shape over bad shots, being disappointed with failure and unable to recover, sending her game into a tailspin. We worked to have her approach every shot as a challenge to be embraced and enjoyed, and not look at it as such a huge mountain to climb. One idea she had that she has stuck with ever since is to write the word “Gratitude” on her glove. That way she can prepare for each shot with a clear mind.  Her performance is steadily improving as she re-gains control over her thoughts and emotions through gratitude.

Working with a sport psychology consultant was a great way for these athletes to examine their mindset and change perspective to one of gratitude rather than worry. A good coach can also help in this regard. By leading and communicating in a positive way, coaches can instill confidence in their athletes.  Legendary UNC basketball coach Dean Smith was famous for his ability to instill gratitude into his players.

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sport psychology portland dean smith book

Check out this book for more!


“Isn’t this fun?”

Coach Smith’s former players consistently recount stories like this one:

“It seemed like everything we’d work on in practices, at one time or another, would pop up in the game. I remember in tough situations when we needed a last-second shot or the fans were yelling in the huddle and we couldn’t hear, Coach Smith would always lean over and… he would tell us in those tight games, ‘Isn’t this what you came to Carolina for? Isn’t this fun?’ That’s how he was in every huddle. He used those as an opportunity for us to showcase our skills and what we had learned and worked on throughout the year in practice.”

By changing perspective to one of gratitude and being in the moment, Coach Smith would get the most out of his players. And so have the SPINw athletes who actively worked on changing their perspective and approach to stressful situations.

With that, the SPINw team wishes you a Happy Thanksgiving!

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What to do about abusive coaches

Coaches are teachers, motivators, amateur sport psychologists, and parental figures. A great coach can teach life lessons that go on well beyond the playing field, while a bad coach can make a young athlete hate sports and quit playing altogether. I was like many young athletes, figuring that the leap from a high school level to the collegiate level would mean not only higher competition, but better coaching, and wow, was I wrong about that.  A recent Sports Illustrated article details some disturbing stats about how collegiate athletes are treated by their coaches. (This podcast echos the article and is worth the listen).  In one study cited in the article:

“39% of women’s basketball players strongly agreed that “my head coach can be trusted.” 61% of these athletes do not trust the person who is suposed to be their biggest ally and advocate?  The article also goes on to say:

“Even more alarming, athletes have never been more psychologically vulnerable, reflecting a trend among all college students. The ACHA assessment found that 41% of athletes had “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function” and 52% had “felt overwhelming anxiety,” with the figures for women jumping to 45% and 59%, respectively. Further, 14% of athletes said they had “seriously considered suicide,” with 6% having attempted it.”

A similar article was written 5 years ago, but it doesn’t seem like much has changed, despite the assertion that:  “That shift has forced coaches to adjust. Abuse simply won’t be tolerated.”  But it still happens.  Within those 5 years we’ve seen Illinois football coach fired, video of Rutgers basketball coach throwing balls at a player while berating him, Florida football coach Jim McElwain curse out a player on national tv, and a high school football coach order his players to assault a referee during a game.


What is going on here? Have times changed? Are the athletes of today simply a product of the self-esteem generation, where everyone gets a trophy and helicopter parents control their lives?  I think there may be some truth to that, but it’s on a case by case basis.  In the Jim McElwain case, he apologized and publicly stated that his 94-year old mother admonished him on the phone, while the player on the receiving end of the outburst, Kelvin Taylor, said: “I understand exactly what Coach Mac was doing,” Taylor said this week. “He was just in the moment. He was fed up. He’s just trying to discipline us. That’s what the whole team needed. That’s going to make the team better.”

But many other cases are very real, and coaches take the negative motivational tactics too far. College coaches are playing for their jobs, and under tons of stress.  Many of them are simply coaching the way they were coached back in their day as athletes.  And some are just power hungry people who like to use their position to intimidate and get their way. In consulting with athletes over the years, I’ve had multiple collegiate female athletes tell me their coach called them “fat” in a very derogatory manner, in a pathetic attempt to motivate them – how they think this is going to be effective, I’m not sure. I have had more youth athletes than I care to count come into my office where the coaching or the overall team environment is so bad that they don’t even want to go to practice.  The very activity that is supposed to be an escape from the stressors of life, where you can lose yourself in the moment, work out and be physically healthy, bond with teammates, and learn valuable life lessons, can become stressful and overwhelming obligations.

So, what can be done about these abusive coaches?  There is a fine line between tough love coaching and abuse. And whereas in the past, that line was determined by the coach, more recently that line is being defined by the athletes, for better or worse. While there can be some debate about what is abuse, there is no debate that things need to get better.  No matter what position you are in, there is a role for you to enact change.  SPINw can help your school or program make sure that coaching abuse doesn’t happen for your athletes. Here are some ideas:

Athletic Directors – ADs and administrators can help by making sure their program has a clearly defined culture, complete with a Vision Statement, Mission Statement, and Core Values.  Provide continuing education for coaches a couple times a year – after all, the best coaches are striving to learn, grow and improve,  just like they expect their players to.  Finally, consider having a sport psychology consultant or mental game coach on staff, or at the very least develop a relationship so that your athletes have access to this service.

Coaches – Follow your program’s aforementioned Vision, Mission, and Core Values – that is the “process” to follow in order to achieve the results you want. When the goal is winning, you can motivate your players just as well through positive tactics as negative ones. Set clearly defined goals, standards and expectations for your players, and include rewards/punishments for adhering to them or not.  And finally, communicate, communicate, communicate with your athletes!

sport psychology portland oregon lacrosse

Parents – As your athletes grow, make sure to empower them in their relationships with their coaches. Don’t jump in and save them at any sign of trouble, but be there to support and problem-solve. There are sure to be ups and downs in sports, and the best parents help their kids to understand that they aren’t entitled to much in life, and earning something is the best way to build confidence, character, and self-esteem. As athletes begin to get older, it’s also fair to let them know that the potential exists for overbearing coaches, but they have some control over the situation.  Finally, consider having your athlete work with a sport psychology consultant to bolster their mental game.

Linus 1 Linus

Athletes – Athletes can work on recognizing the difference between tough love coaching, criticism, and negativity vs. out right abuse.  In working with athletes I teach them to listen from a different perspective, to be able to handle criticism to help make changes and improve performance, not to take everything personally. For example, a young athlete may feel like the coach is singling them out for negative attention. But on further examination, that coach treats most athletes the same way, that’s just his or her style, which they have been doing for years.  In this case, the coach isn’t going to change, but how you choose to listen and take the information is in your control, and therefore changeable.

Interested in having an athlete work with a sport psychology professional?

The mental game is just as important to success as the tactical, technical and physical elements.  But ask most athletes and they will tell you they put the least amount of work into the confidence, focus, and emotional control.  To work on technique, put in extra time with a coach or supplement training with private lessons.  For tactics, you can read books, watch game film, and ask coaches. Physically athletes can train with a strength and conditioning coach or see a nutritionist.  But how do athletes, coaches and teams go about deliberately improving the mental game?  That’s where sport psychology comes in.  It’s not just a reactive measure for athletes who are struggling, either.  See the spectrum below.

SPINw Mental Game Performance Spectrum



Insights for sports parents heading into the new school year

Whether it’s your daughter’s first season of kindergarten soccer, or your son’s senior year at linebacker, parents can have the same nervous-wracking/exciting feelings the kid has as the season approaches. Throughout the season, you are bound to experience a wide range of emotions: joy, exhilaration, frustration, bewilderment, and anger. You will witness amazing displays of sportsmanship, jaw-dropping incompetence, and uncomfortable moments of conflict.  But it’s nothing compared to what your young athlete will go through, how they will experience it all.

Throughout it all, the main role of the sports parent is to know the Big Picture.

For kids, each game will be the most important event in their life!  You know that it’s just a blip on the long-term radar.  For kids, tryouts can make or break the whole year. You know that no matter how it goes, they will learn from it.  For kids, bad calls, disagreements with teammates and coaches, and bad bounces, might be proof that the world is against them. You know that all those things are a part of life, and how you deal with them is much more important that the situation itself.

But sometimes we parents can get caught up in the moment. Sometimes as parents we forget. As you approach this season, here are three important facts to help you remember to see sports in the Big Picture context of life.

1) A very small percentage of high school athletes will play in college. An even smaller amount will earn a scholarship to play in college. And an even smaller percentage will play in the pros.  Check out what the NCAA has to say about this.
If your child has college or professional aspirations, great!  Encourage them and support them, just don’t make those dreams your own. If a player is going to make it there it will take hard work, a great attitude, sacrifice, athleticism, and yes, a little luck.  None of these are traits you can force on your kids, but they are all things that you can emphasize and encourage.

2) Playing sports is highly beneficial for whatever goals a young person has later in life. Many in the business industry, such as Forbes, the BBC , and others note that the discipline, sacrifice, and teamwork are the obvious reasons athletes succeed later in life.  But maybe even more importantly is that sports gives you a chance to fail, and learn how to fail, how to get up and keep going, how to adjust your attitude quickly, and learn how to handle pressure and high expectations.

As this video says: “There are over 400,000 NCAA student athletes, and almost all of us will be going pro in something other than sports.”

3) The most successful athletes are not a product of being pushed relentlessly by their parents or coaches (the teacher in “Whiplash” had it all wrong!).  Sports Illustrated recently ran an article about former NBA star Rex Chapman.  This part about his dad, himself a basketball coach, really hits home:

“On one of the few occasions when he saw his son play, Rex recalls scoring more than 40 points and grabbing nearly 20 rebounds. He came home thinking his dad would have to say something good about him. Instead, when he asked Wayne what he thought, his father replied, “I want to know when you’re gonna take a f—— charge.”

The article is sadly about Rex’s drug abuse and theft arrest, and how he is re-building his life.  Read up on other similar tales in Todd Marinovich, Andre Agassi, Cody Hawkins, and other athletes whose parents drove them too hard, and for too long.  On one hand, they made it, on the other hand, they are now suffering from it.

The Big Picture: Sports helps keep kids active, healthy, making relationships, learning, and developing life-long skills. So go out there, have fun, cheer, and get into it! But also sit back and enjoy the process, the growth, and the learning.

SPINw consultants work with athletes and teams to achieve peak performance on a more consistent basis though building confidence, positivity, and controlling emotions in sports.  We also work with coaches and parents so that they can help their athletes succeed in the mental game.

Sport Psychology Works!

When I tell people that I have a Masters Degree in Sport Psychology and that working with athletes is my full time job, they usually say something like, “Cool! I have never heard of that, didn’t know there was such a thing.”  When I talk to former athletes about the field of sport psychology, they usually say something like, “Man, I could have used someone like you back when I was in college/high school/competitive athletics!

How do we know it works?

1- Because of the high level of success in our athletes – About 75% of our athletes find us through word of mouth referrals! It’s common for us to hold a workshop for a team or group and then have some athletes come to see us individually afterwards.  All of our consultants have playing, coaching, and parenting experience so we really relate to each athlete. The majority of our athletes report improvement in confidence, control, focus, performance and more after meeting with us.

2- Because of our relationships. We have been working for numerous years with organizations like University of Portland, Wilson High School baseball, Windell’s Academy, Tualatin Hills United Soccer Club, and the Portland Timbers and Thorns RTC program.  These organizations highly value the mental game for their organization, teams, coaches, parents, and of course their athletes, and have included SPINw as a key component of their success.

3 – Because we are seeing it more and more in the pros, as I wrote about last year. Performance in sports can be broken down into 4 main “pillars:”  Technical, Tactical, Physical, and Mental.  Players must be proficient in each area to perform at their maximum.  As the level of play rises, the differences between them become smaller and smaller, and in most cases, the difference between being a good player and a great player is in the mental game.  Be on the look out in the next month reading the sports page or Sports Illustrated or watching ESPN, and notice how often “Mental Toughness” or “an emotional win” or “mental mistakes” come up.  Sport psychology works because it gives athletes the tools to gain an advantage in this area of sports.

Let SPINw work for you!  Contact us to talk about how we can help your athlete, coach, team, or organization today.

Sport Psychology Portland Oregon

Sport Psychology Interview with Isaac Byrd

Recently I was interviewed by ex-NFL player Isaac Byrd on his Unlocking the Minds of Athletes podcast.  Isaac does great job interviewing professionals in the field, and I was honored to be a part of it.

Check it out here.

Quote: Henry Ford…Anything being possible

2 things to listen for: 1st, Brian talks about the importance of having awareness that a strong mentality is just as important as a strong body and 2nd, he mentions 3 key components to be aware of that will immediately help your mental-game.

Scenario: He details certain techniques athletes can use to keep a strong and positive mindset when dealing with a major injury.

Training Round: He talks about a technique he teaches his athletes called ‘Filtered Listening’ and he goes into great detail about what that is and how you can use it in any sport.

Brian Baxter sport psychology Portland interview

Sport Psychology is not just for sports

The vast majority of our clients have been athletes.  High level performers who have high aspirations, push themselves to train hard for extended periods of time, and who sacrifice so much in their lives to achieve their goals. From team sports like soccer, basketball and baseball, to individual sports like cross country, tennis and golf, there are probably more similarities in the mental game than differences.  Pressure, stress, dealing with failure, inconsistency in motivation, lack of confidence, mental fatigue, and struggles with concentration are some of the issues we see no matter what the sport.

But not only across sports, this is across life too. Think of your life outside of sports, whether it’s work, a job interview, taking a big test, or simply paying your bills in any given month.  These issues come up in many areas of life where you have to perform to a high level to achieve your objectives.

While most of our clients are athletes, we have also worked with students, business people, stock traders, and military, among others.  The qualities needed to perform are the same:  confidence, focus, motivation, dealing with pressure and anxiety, controlling emotions, and more.  Check out our sport psychology services page to see if what we provide athletes could help you perform to your best in your field.

sport psychology us armyMental Skills Foundation for US Army


Sport Psychology Skills beyond sports

by Dr. Eric Bergreen

Years ago I had to take a big test, the biggest of my life. This was one of those tests where the odds were Not in your favor. ARG…….PRESSURE! I thought to myself, what’s the difference between BIG Test pressure and trying to make the game winning free throw? Nothing, absolutely nothing. As they say “it’s all in your mind.” I created a pre-performance routine to get me in a confident mindset. Next, I created a refocus routine for when I hit those tough questions that make me think more about the consequences of failure than the actual question. I was nervous, but the skills I learned from Sport Psychology really helped me beat that test.

So, if Sport Psychology is not just for sports, where else in life do we experience a desire to succeed and
often find ourselves tested? The answer is everywhere! Because others could see it’s not about “Sports” it is about “Performance”, I recently had the opportunity to work with the United States Army. Consider a Soldier who is fresh out of high school and facing training that will determine the ultimate version of success and loss. Consider an Army Ranger who is at the top of his game but still wants that split second edge when push comes to shove. They both need to reach their potential in the critical moment. The skills of composure, focus, confidence, and mental agility were needed in every part of their life.

It was enjoyable to take the exact same mental skills I have taught to athletes and let the Soldiers tell me all the applications in their world. And yes, they taught me some amazing skills as well. The brain doesn’t care what you’re doing it only perceives threat. Threat can be a bullet rushing past your ears, it can be your Drill Sergeant yelling in your face, and it might even be a fight with your spouse. The rules and functions of the brain are still the same. Like Einstein’s simple little equation of E=MC², the brain perceives threat and we get: Thoughts + Emotions + Physiology = Performance. Use that knowledge to your advantage.