Don’t Choke: Optimizing Performance Through Mentality & Goal Setting

Mind GymA veteran teacher always knows when she is losing her students. They make noises that are borderline rude, their eyelids droop, or they shift in their seat, gathering their stuff up early. Some look at the clock and sigh, although now they can surreptitiously check their phones. The brave ones will raise their hand and ask, “How do you know this? Why do we have to learn this? I can‘t imagine ever needing it.”

This is my first column on mental toughness and I am including the caveat that I always use in these situations, whether I am talking to a class, my team or running a clinic:

“I did not come up with this stuff. I am not a psychologist. I know it works because I have seen it work repeatedly with different teams and different athletes in different sports. It may even help you with challenges in life. Just give it a try.”

I read a lot, particularly since I retired from teaching, although I still haven’t joined an official book club. (I spent too much time running “hostile” book clubs in my 20 years as an English teacher.) Much of the non-fiction that I read has to do with building a strong competitive mind. A few friends also like these books and some of us are currently reading Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink. Last summer we read Relentless by Tim Grover and Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success by Phil Jackson.

But most of what I know about mental toughness comes from Dr. Alan Goldberg, a sports psychologist from Amherst who helps Olympic and professional athletes with their mental game. He worked with the boys’ varsity team at Amherst Regional for about 15 years and he has also spoken at the Ultimate Coaches and Players Conference and National Ultimate Training Camp. On his website, he even has ultimate listed in his “Choose Sport” drop-down menu.

Being part of a team that is mentally tough means that you are trained to perform under pressure. That is all it is. Your team can train physically for months, but, if you underperform consistently in tournaments, your work is only half done.

Your team most likely needs to do some mental training if:

– You start slowly and consistently have to dig yourself out of a hole.
– You are often unable to hang onto a big lead.
– You expect to beat teams, or lose to teams, based on past performances.
– Your players check out, get angry or fake injuries when the pressure increases.
– Your players focus on things they can’t control, such as weather, format or opponents.
– Your team focuses too much on winning.

Building an effective mental toughness program is similar to how you would build any part of your team. If you want your team to improve on handler defense, you most likely would start with the mark. If you want your team to become stronger mentally as the season progresses, you want to start with your goals. All of these pieces are part of the foundation of a tactically strong team.

Outcome Goals

I am not going to spend much time on these types of goals for there is not much to say about them; most athletes focus on them for much too long. Outcome goals are the distinct, quantifiable results of the season. They can be a championship title, an improved RRI, a W-L record that is over .500, a first appearance at Regionals, or a move up to another Triple Crown Tour flight (although, I confess, I don‘t really know how that works.)

Outcome goals are fine to discuss in a first team meeting, but after that, they should be ignored and never be part of a team discussion. Everyone always knows what they are and there is nothing you can do about outcome goals, except carry them around and distract your team from the task at hand.

Process Goals

The task at hand is to have each individual player improve; the best way to do that is to focus on process goals. The job of every player is to identify and reach their process goals. The coach may oversee the work, but players have to be committed to and responsible for their own improvement.

I suggest each player fill out an index card with the skills they want to improve. These skills should be specific and observable.

Some examples of process goals that do not work:

1. Be faster.
2. Throw the disc farther.
3. Get lay out blocks.

Here are some examples from past players that do work:

1. Stay on my toes when marking; don’t get caught on my heels.
2. Step out farther and throw break throws to space with more snap.
3. Make better moves toward the disc as a popper.
4. Stop dancing on handler cuts; be definitive.
5. Talk constructively on the sideline.

The differences in these goals are obvious. The first group is far too broad to be useful; the second contains targeted, actionable items. The more you can focus on your specific process goal, the more you are working toward the success of the overall team.

Assume that one of your process goals is #2. You do not need to wait for a team break mark drill to work on this. At the beginning of practice, when everyone is arriving, ask two teammates to help you with this skill. (Chances are that they need to work on it too.)

Set up your own break mark drill and complete 10 really good throws. Next practice go for 20. This mini-practice will serve you well and there is no need to involve the entire team and coach. As this skill improves, and you can replicate it in a scrimmage or game, take #2 off the list and add #6. You can see where this is heading. As you approach the critical part of your season, each teammate should have a messy list, with lots of cross-outs, that shows the genuine progress they have made.

And for the coach who thinks that they have to micromanage every player, take a look at these cards. You will see that each athlete has a pretty darn good idea of what they need to work on. They are also helpful when you have one-on-one meetings and you will know how to design practices if one skill or concept shows up repeatedly on their cards.

Staying In The Moment

The more you can focus on Process Goals, and the more you can stay away from Outcome Goals, the easier it will be to embrace the most important tenet of mental toughness: staying in the moment.

This is very easy to explain and very difficult to do.

Whether you are warming up or drilling or competing on Sunday afternoon, you and your team need to only focus on the immediate challenge: that catch, that mark, that sideline instruction. Nothing else matters. Leave the past in the past. Do not let your mind drift into the future.

Of course, this is impossible. Everyone’s mind will wander. The trick is to come back from this mental drift as soon as possible so you need to train yourself to be aware. If you are in a close game with questionable calls, you still need to let go and focus on the basics of the game.

Other verbal indicators that a team is focusing on the past or future are:

“They are cheating just like last time.”
“We should crush this team by ten!”
“We need to win by four or more in order to get a good seed next weekend.”
“I hope the wind doesn’t pick up.”
“Let’s take half! All we need is two more points.”
“Let’s just get the next one.”
“We’re down two breaks.”
“Let’s win this!”
“Just finish it!”

None of these statements are helpful and, indeed, are often indications that the team is poised to collapse. Focusing on the past or future is a trap and the team that is trained mentally will have the skills to recognize and avoid that trap, and others, no matter what the pressure.

One final caveat. Implementing a mental toughness program takes time, commitment and faith, much like anything else you do for your team. If any of this resonates with you, or intrigues you, please do some more research.

The more you educate yourself, and talk with others, the more you will realize how much sense it all makes. Even if you try to alter your mental approach a little bit, you will find immediate benefits. You will find you and your teammates focusing on the right things and not the things you can’t control. And, the irony is, the more you try to not focus on winning, the more games you will actually win.

Reading Suggestions

The Inner Game of Tennis by W.Timothy Galwey

Playing Out of Your Mind by Dr. Alan Goldberg

Sports Slump Busting by Dr. Alan Goldberg

Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior by Phil Jackson

Mind Gym : An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence by Gary Mack and David Casstevens

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall

Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court by John Wooden and Steve Jamison

Website: Dr. Alan Goldberg’s Competitive Advantage

  1. Tiina Booth
    Tiina Booth

    Tiina Booth is the founder and director of the National Ultimate Training Camp, as well as an assistant coach for the University of Massachusetts women. She founded the Amherst Invitational in 1992 and co-founded Junior Nationals in 1998. In 2006, she published a book about ultimate with Michael Baccarini, entitled Essential Ultimate. She has coached teams to numerous national and international titles. Her ongoing passion is running sports psychology seminars for coaches and players, mainly through the Global Ultimate Training School, which she founded in 2020. More info can be found at was inducted into the Ultimate Hall of Fame in October 2018.

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