Freeing Your Team From Mental Traps

Falling into mental traps can be easy, but there are ways to avoid them.

Fury's Anna Nazarov. Photo: Alex Fraser -- UltiPhotos.com
Fury’s Anna Nazarov. Photo: Alex Fraser — UltiPhotos.com

Many moons ago, before I descended into the NUTC vortex, I wrote “7 Mental Traps Your Team Must Avoid.” I wrote it after College Nationals, where most of the Men’s teams had a difficult time maintaining consistency throughout the tournament. I suspect that many of you have made yourself at home in these traps during the summer. With the Club Series close at hand, and the college season starting, here are some suggestions on how to extricate yourself and your team from these 7 Traps:

1. “This Team Sucks and We Can Work on Stuff”
2. “We Beat This Team Before and We Don’t Have to Try Hard”
3. “Let’s Watch This Team During Our Bye and Talk About How Awful They Are”
4. “We Can Beat This Team But We Are Still Annoyed About Our Last Game”
5. “We Are in Consolation This Sucks I Am Checking Out”
6. “We Can’t Believe We Are Up 2 Breaks When Will They Come Back?”
7. “We Only Need One More Point So Let’s Lose Our Collective Minds”

The Sports Psychology 101 answer to all of these traps is to have no expectations, stay in the moment and, when you find yourself drifting, return to the task at hand. If it were only that easy. Mental toughness is simple and difficult. And your team can’t start practicing it during quarters on Sunday, but needs to be reinforced every time your team convenes.

Promoting Energy At Practice

“I can’t believe how consistently strong our effort was at practice today. Everyone was committed to working hard. The three hours just flew by,” said no one ever.

An experienced coach has lots of gimmicks to increase and maintain team energy. I try to make practice challenging and fun, by varying drills that work on the same skill, developing different scenarios for scrimmaging, and keeping things moving at a game pace. If practice starts at 4, I do my best to call everyone in exactly at 4. If the weather is terrible, we acknowledge it briefly and move on. And if some players clump together to distract each other, I stand right next to them.

Why do you need energy during a practice? The same reason that you need a clear offensive plan, options on defense and strategy for whatever you will encounter at a tournament. You cannot produce what you do not practice. Energy is the glue that allows a team to be its best, wherever they are.

Sometimes it is advantageous for the coach to stop being a cheerleader and let the team flounder in its lethargy. I hate when I start sounding like a parent in a Peanuts cartoon. If they want a long, slow, boring practice, let them have it. If they leave practice feeling dissatisfied and annoyed, good. Imposing your will on the team will only work for so long; each player needs to be responsible for your team’s competitive culture.

Another strategy is to “catch them doing something good.” When you have a moment during a drill that is focused and intense, let them know that this is what is expected: “This is exactly the level of energy we need. Keep it up!” A quick moment of praise can work much better than nagging.

The more you practice your energy, even if you have to manufacture it, the easier it will be to recall during games.

Writing A Team Narrative

Everyone likes a compelling story, particularly if it is about themselves. The entertainment value of legendary team stories cannot be overstated, however, if the narrative about your team’s competitive performance becomes stuck in the past, it will hinder a team’s growth and development.

I like to have short debrief sessions after games or tournaments. This isn’t always possible with our college team but I think they are valuable if you know what you want to cover. I like to process both the good and the bad from the tournament and then develop a plan for moving forward. This is an informational meeting, not a team rant. Rants have their place, usually at Olive Garden or during the drive home.

Ask the team for concrete, fixable observations about its play at the tournament. For example, someone says, “Our downfield defense struggled during our first two games on Saturday.” Have a brief discussion about why this was true and then put it on a “Needs to Improve” list. This may be something you work on at next week’s practice or it may go on the back burner for awhile, depending on where your team is in its season.

Do not allow this observation to become part of an inflexible team narrative. Weak defense on Saturday morning may reinforce a team-wide belief that “our team always has a slow start. That’s just who we are.” No. It is not who you are. It is what you did during a couple of games.
Other detrimental narratives are:

“We always manage to close it out when we need to.”

“We can’t play well if …our superstar is hurt, it is windy, the seeding was unfair.”

“We are just a second half team.”

“We never play well after a bye.”

“We always play well once we reach bracket play. Pool play doesn‘t matter.”

You must stay away from both results and predictions when telling a story about your team. During every second of every game, your team has the opportunity to redefine who it is. Being saddled with expectations from past performances, even positive ones, can hurt the game you are currently playing. Russell Wallack told his campers at NUTC, “It is all about the story you decide to believe.”

A team narrative should be about who you are as a team, not how you perform. And, for goodness sake, never let another team, or an online commenter, write your team narrative for you.

Resisting Overcoaching

It is an insidious disease, this desire to jam as much information as possible into a player’s brain during competition. My favorite mantra these days about overcoaching is: “It doesn’t matter what you say. It’s what they hear.”

For those of you who have been teaching for awhile, you know this is true. As a first-year teacher, I was always surprised, and a bit annoyed, when I collected papers that were nothing like what I thought I had assigned. Eventually I figured out how to present the information in a variety of ways, on paper, on the board and in one-on-one meetings. You have to do the same as a coach. Everyone learns differently and at different times and the players on your team are no different when it comes to learning new concepts.

I have said this before and I will say this again: The time to teach new things is at practice. The time to quickly remind players of something can perhaps be during a game. I hesitate to even say this, as most coaches say way too much in a huddle, but a brief reminder can be helpful.

“The front wall needs information from the sideline” can work.

“We practiced zone all week, didn’t we? The front wall is too static and they have no idea who is behind them and the disc keeps going through the middle and the wings need to talk more and the deep can’t get flat-footed and the wind is dying so we probably shouldn’t be playing this much zone anyway” is clearly ridiculous.

Thinking is slow and knowing is fast. If you ask a player to think more during a game, they will slow down and most likely not be able to do what you want. If you spend practices challenging them to think and then trust that they will know what to do in a game, you are giving them important tools for success. Trust your players and their training and let them play.

I do understand the panic that coaches feel when a game appears to be slipping away from them. But less is more has never been more true. If your internal panic translates into external blather, then you are doing more harm than good.

If your team is prone to falling into these traps, I encourage you to try some of these suggestions. Choose one trap, one that has been plaguing your team for awhile, and see if a few tweaks can make it less potent. Try this a few times.

If your team resists then, back off. They are not ready for it. They are, instead, primed for Trap #8: “We don’t need mental toughness because physical toughness is what really matters.”

Line up.

  1. Tiina Booth
    Tiina Booth

    Tiina Booth is the director of the National Ultimate Training Camp and a co-coach of the University of Massachusetts men. 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 sports psychology, and she offers clinics to coaches of ultimate and other sports. Tiina will be inducted into the Ultimate Hall of Fame at USAU Club Nationals in October of 2018.

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