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Coach Speak: Mental Toughness with Tiina Booth

How to approach the mental side of the game.

Host Jody Avirgan talks with National Ultimate Training Camp founder and UMass men’s coach Tiina Booth about how to teach mental toughness.

Coach Speak: Mental Toughness with Tiina Booth

Got a story about a coach you want us to discuss in our bonus episodes? Or anything else you want us to know? Email coachspeak@ultiworld.com. Follow Jody Avirgan on Twitter @jodyavirgan and find his other podcasts at jodyavirgan.com.

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The transcript of the show is available below.

TIINA: How is the sound?

JODY: It’s fine. Yeah, you can hear me.

TIINA: Yep.

JODY: Cool.

Welcome to Coach Speak from Ultiworld. My name is Jody Avirgan. I’m reaching out to some of the top coaches in the game, my chance and yours to sit across from some of the best minds in ultimate.

Um, you wanna just dive into this? Do you know what we’re doing here?

TIINA: Yea, I do! It doesn’t really matter since we’re all gonna die anyway.

JODY: This is the legendary Tiina Booth, founder of the National Ultimate Training Camp, UMass Ultimate for the last while. For decades, the force behind Amherst Regional High School. Many, many roads of ultimate greatness lead through Tiina booth. She is someone I’ve played against, been coached by, coached with for a long time and someone I’ve been genuinely influenced by on and off the field.

Um, it’s always very fun to chat with you. We’ve been chatting for a long, long time.

TIINA: A long time. Jody, I’ve known you. What? Since the first year you came up to the Amherst Invitational?

JODY: Uh, when I was a freshman in high school.

TIINA: And you guys beat us.

JODY: That’s right. We did beat you. The first time I ever played Amherst, I beat Amherst and then never again, but you know, you always have that one.

TIINA: That’s a short list, I think

JODY: I had to sneak that in there. Anyway, each episode of coach speak begins with me asking my guests about their least favorite coaching, cliche,

TIINA: A win is a win.

And I know that that is the most annoying because my team says it at the end of games, when we play poorly. And I am giving them a hard time in the huddle and they’re like, well, T, a win is the win! And I don’t know if I need to explain it, but that’s just a limiting way to look at the competition. An Ugly win it’s an ugly win, I get that, and if you have an ugly win in the finals, that’s cool too. But a win where there’s cheating involved, I have a hard time with that.

JODY: Oh, sure. Yes, that’s true.

TIINA: But other than that, I mean, Lord knows we’ve seen enough ugly finals in our lives.

JODY: Oh, yeah. And we will again on ESPN. Yes. But anyway, that’s another topic.

This episode’s focus is mental toughness. Something I first learned about and began to take seriously because of Tiina. And I think there are a lot of people in ultimate who can say the same. She’s been coaching the mental side of the game longer than anyone else. So she’s got lots to share. Here we go.

I’m going to ask you the hardest, most complicated question right off the bat, which is, do you think you can teach mental toughness?

TIINA: I absolutely know you can teach mental toughness and I’m kind of into the mental resilience phrasing these days just because when people love to misinterpret what mental toughness is, and they’re just like just going to grit my teeth and just play really hard. And I’m sure I’m mentally tough. I mean, that’s not what it is. And I think resilience reflects a truer definition.

JODY: Right. You know, where do you come down on this balance of some people are just wired with a kind of grit or determination or fearlessness? Which I don’t think you would dispute. And then with others, you can kind of nurture it and grow. And whereas I guess this is a nature versus nurture type question.

TIINA: Haha right. Well, first thing I was going to say, so I’ve probably taught hundreds of kids, young men, mostly, how to play ultimate, if not, maybe in the thousands. And of all of those, I think there are fewer than five who are naturally mentally resilient.

JODY: Really?

TIINA: Yeah. I don’t see it that often. I don’t see that often in club ultimate or against opponents that we play. I think it is a very rare athlete who can just consistently stay in the moment and play to their best ability. And for those folks, you know, maybe I will give them the language so they understand what they’re doing, but for the other hundreds of players, sure, I think I can make them better and I think I can make them better competitors. And then to balance out those five at the top, I think there’s probably, I don’t know, maybe 50 or so players that I’ve taught that just do not want to learn it or think it’s bullshit or just can’t embrace it. It just goes too much against their identity as an athlete.

JODY: So, you know, we’ve been circling a little bit around a definition of what we’re talking about here. When we say mental resiliency or mental toughness, what is your thumbnail definition of this aspect of a player?

TIINA: It is the ability to stay in the moment. And since you can’t obviously do that a hundred percent, when you drift, you recognize as quickly as possible that you’ve drifted and then you are back in a moment. And I think that part about recognizing when you drift is probably the most teachable. Staying in the moment is really difficult. And you don’t really have to, as long as you can keep coming back.

JODY: Well, part of it is an acknowledgement that even the best athletes and the best competitors are going to drift.

TIINA: Right. You know, I don’t know those famous athletes that well, but the ability to perform under pressure and just remain cool and always wanting the ball in your hands. I think that’s a sign of someone who can stay in the moment fairly well.

JODY: Yeah. Where does responding to adversity fit into all this? You know, you started talking mostly about focus, but whereas kind of when things go haywire and how you respond, how does that fit into the course?

TIINA: Um, so when things go haywire, It’s important to re… um, it’s such an annoying word, this uncontrollables…

JODY: Well, I think you’re responsible for putting that in the lexicon, I will say but yes.

TIINA: I stole it from Dr. Goldberg and it does work though. So you have to figure out why things are going haywire. So let’s say the wind comes up, so you cannot necessarily just keep playing the same way. So if that were the case, I would try to either talk at halftime or in a huddle, identify how the wind has changed, which direction its now coming from and how we are going to change the way we’re playing – playing offense or defense. Or if we are finding out that there’s a player that we cannot contain running deep, that feels a little bit more controllable. You can change that by a strategy as opposed to the other team is flipping out because they think you made a bad call.

JODY: Right.

TIINA: So you really gotta be able to categorize, what’s going to be a strategic change and what’s going to be a mental change.

JODY: But there’s also adversity. Like, you know, thats a little more on the personal level. Like you drop a disk, right? How do you coach someone through a moment like that when, you know, there’s this combination of pressure and adversity and self doubt and loss of focus and all those things crashing together.

TIINA: Yeah. So that’s something you can teach in practice. So if a bad thing happens, it’s the team’s responsibility to not respond with a, Oh my God. I can’t believe they just did that.

JODY: ‘Cause people take their cues from their teammates kind of?

TIINA: Right. Right. And we have people drop the disc at practice and I’ll bring them in and say, Okay, so and so, you know, feels crappy. Why are we going to continue to make them feel bad? Let’s just move on. Like we’re really big on moving on, moving on, moving on. So sometimes during practice, we’ll have a game to three where if we blow a whistle, it’s immediately a turn. And a lot of times we like to do it where, you know, we’ve swung the disc, it’s moving beautifully, it gets to our major deep thrower and we blow the whistle and say, Oh, too bad. You just dropped that. And so we try to recreate it. It’s not perfect, but people know if they drop the, just in a tournament almost, everyone’s going to say, Hey, no big deal lets go. So, you know, I think practice is a time to kind of discombobulate them and then by the time you get to a tournament and the practices leading up, you try to put them back together so when they go to a tournament, they’re recreating, not the discombobulation, but the, we support each other, we’re great teammates. Let’s go.

JODY: How do you coach people and how do you help people think through kind of like on opponent, right. As someone who’s getting in their head, someone who… I mean, I think a lot of us, I played this way, I thrived on kind of like, one-on-one like, a little adversity, but then now you’re also playing with fire there because you can then kind of end up with someone in your head or something.

TIINA: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. And I think particularly with my experience, coaching college men, that is the Kool-aid they love to drink and love to be propelled by. And there’s a number of ways to do it. First of all, we talk about, playing angry. And a lot of people say, Oh, I’m really good when I’m angry. The problem with anger is it can come and go and it isn’t something that you can harness. Okay? So it’s kind of all out there. So that’s when you see people kicking cones and all that kind of stuff. What I would rather have than anger is like incredibly intense focus and you are going to shut your person down. And in that way, I think intensity versus anger is something that you can parcel out and people can help you with. Also, I think it’s important to remember that there’s nothing wrong with having someone that’s in your head if thinking about that person makes you work harder at practice or out of practice. Um, Dr. Goldberg calls it the Russian Wrestler. He’s got a big anecdote about that. So I think that’s fine. I think when you get to a tournament and you’re lined up against that other person, if they’re too much in your head, that’s not good. And that can get you to play poorly. Playing angrily or, you know, letting someone getting in your head during competition. Physiologically, what happens is if you are panicked, you are worried and breathing hard and really thinking too much about the wrong things, the blood in your body goes to your heart and your lungs. Okay? And leads your extremities. And that’s why you see people quote, unquote choking. It’s not like, so for example, if you’re watching March Madness, if we ever get to watch that again, it’s over time, someone has a free throw and they almost always miss short. Because they don’t have enough blood in the ends of their fingers and they’re not able to give it enough oomf. And you start running more slowly and you drop a disk and you turf it. And that’s why you see that at the end is because people are not staying in the moment. They’re into the future. They really want to win. They want to skip steps and their body is not responding the way they want it.

JODY: It’s a nice reminder that really at the end of the day, it’s like who can do the most simple, basic things at the highest pressure moments is really the difference.

TIINA: So true.

JODY: I’m curious how explicitly you talk about this stuff with your team, or is it the kind of thing where you want to kind of coach mental toughness without ever actually pointing at it?

TIINA: That’s a really good question. So this is my seventh or six and a half years with UMass men this year. And I have done it poorly for the first four years, maybe, where I tried to just like, kind of give a little lecture and send them some notes and they were just not having it. Now Russell and I do maybe one lesson, a practice during the fall or early part of the spring. And the first one usually is uncontrollables. You know, we are not a team that complains, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And you know, it shows up in the spring. Like, if someone comes out and is like, Oh, this rain sucks. People are like, shut up. You know, we don’t care. We’re a team that likes playing in the way. So I think parceling it out has been my experience that it works better. Now, it’s so much part of our program, I feel like I have to teach it less. I mean, there’s always an outlier. There’s always authoritarian. I get that. But in general, you know, it’s kind of like it’s common sense. Now.

JODY: I mean, you say it’s common sense now, but I’m sure it wasn’t when you started to teach this stuff, especially in high school at ARHS. So was there a moment or a player or a team when you felt like, Oh, this stuff is really starting to sink in and it’s kind of starting to give us an edge?

TIINA: Um, yeah, it was a tournament at Amherst college and we had had a game, it was a college tournament, and then we were playing Dartmouth second. And so we had already warmed up, which I love. And this is when Darvin’s was playing a lot of DI teams and was at a certain level that I don’t think they are at right now and we beat ’em. And it was fantastic for us, devastating for them, and now that I coach college, I understand how awful it is as a college team to be beat by high schools. But really they were not taking us seriously and we just threw in cards.

JODY: Right. So a lot of what we’ve been talking about is kind of related to just being in the zone. And I’m curious if you have a definition of what it means to be in the zone as a player.

TIINA: Yeah. So when someone is in the zone and playing in the zone, it’s almost like everything slows down and they’re just able to see everything so clearly.

So, you know, let’s say they have the disc. Not only can they see the cut developing, but they can figure out maybe what the next cut is going to be and where they could possibly be. You know? And all of this is unconscious. It’s not, I will go to point A and point B and point C. This is why I’m not a big fan of scripted plays. And just everything becomes easy and they don’t think, Oh, okay. If I position in here and the disc goes up, I will be able to lay out and get it with my left hand. They just do it. And a lot of times when people are learning how to lay out, they learn how to lay out first, I think, on offense and they do it for the first time, they’re like, Oh my God, like I just did it because they didn’t think about it. So, you know, this thing is, “Knowing is fast, thinking is slow”. And that’s another one of my least favorite things, like, think about what you’re doing. No, don’t think about it what you’re doing!

JODY: Well thats the catch 22 at the heart of all of this is like, we’re doing all this thinking, all this talking, all this work to get to the point where you basically stop thinking

TIINA: Exactly.

JODY: I’ve had moments in my playing career where I have felt like, I’m in the zone and I know what it feels like, and there’s just a sort of quiet and a calm. But that’s the classic like, oh, wait, I thought we were down two or I thought we were up two, or I didn’t even realize it was double game point. And you hear players say that every once in a while, and I think that’s actually a sign that you’re just focused on thing in front of you and just taking care of competing the thing right in front of your nose.

TIINA: To me, that is one of the highlights, that’s one of the sweet spots of coaching. And when our charge as coaches is to make most of your team be in that place in the correct time in the season, everything becomes easy. You’re kind of on autopilot. An analogy that I like to use is, you know, sometimes when you’re playing, you just have to grind it out. You’re just going to grind and it’s going to be tough. And then there’s some times when you’re on autopilot as a team and it just gets better and better and things are easier and easier and even though I tell them not to focus on the other team, you look over and they’re yelling or they’re fighting or they’re stomping off, or the captains are in a huddle with the coach and, you know, I’d be a liar. If I didn’t say there’s some small joy in that.

JODY: Um, you let yourself go out and for just the second level in someone else’s misery. Yes. I understand that, yeah. Um, one of the first things I kind of learned from you, and I think a lot of people have talked about, but it’s just the sort of roller coaster of energy that a lot of teams go through over the course of, often, a game and the idea of don’t get too high because then you might end up getting too low. Do you still subscribe to that?

TIINA: Yeah, I do. The ideal silhouette is you start the game you play consistently, and then you end the game. And anything I may have changed is that you go up, you’re consistent and then let’s try to get a little bit better. It also matters where we are in the season. So in the early games, we may not go up that high because we’re still newish, but I still want us to maintain consistency. And yeah, I mean, at the end of a lot of the games, I’ll have my score thing and I’ll say, you know, we were up eight-five, and then they tied it and nines coming out into the second half and then we pulled away or, you know, and I will actually diagram it. I am particularly concerned about how teams don’t come out well in the second half. And then they tell themselves the narratives, Oh, we’re not a second half team, or we’re not a Saturday morning, first team. You know, any of those narratives are self-defeating.

JODY: When you feel like people are really taking leaps in terms of their mental side. Is that something that’s happening in practice or is that something that is happening mostly in big games?

TIINA: I can see it happening in both. I think it’s really important that the concept of a big game is seen as the myth that it is because you can’t do in a game what you don’t practice. I mean, every once in a while, someone will get lucky, but if you have a very low energy practice and people are showing up whenever they want, and they just want to scrimmage, et cetera, et cetera, it’s silly to think that you can do more when you get to a tournament. So we really encourage players to have something called a big practice and all that it means is that. They are doing their best to be focused if they drift and they come back and they are able to self assess. And at the end of practice, I’ll say who had a big practice who had a good practice and who had a struggle practice? And sometimes I’ll stop practice in the middle and say, okay, who’s having a struggle practice? And six guys will raise their hands and I’ll say, okay, change it now, you know, just cause you’ve had bad hour, let’s change that. And I think that that kind of teaching translates well into competition.

JODY: I do want to ask if we can get a little more specific about drifting, you know, are there particular techniques that you try and instill for people to recenter their focus? I mean, I’m thinking a lot here about, I know a book that has mattered to both of us a lot, but you know, the inner game of tennis and Timothy Galloway’s whole thing is, just giving yourself very simple language that centers you, and it’s often language thats not even directly about the thing that is quote, unquote broken or that you’re trying to improve, it’s just, a mantra, it’s just sort of mindfulness and it’s just something that lets you crowd out everything else. But like, are there specific techniques that you’ve come to like?

TIINA: Yeah, Russell and I are very much into that. We do a lot of different visualizations. We offer a lot of different types of visualizations, hoping that one will stick for a player. So you’ve seen us, we may have everyone lie down and breathe, et cetera, et cetera. That might not be something that players want to embrace, but we will give them a, you know, by Friday we want to hear it or what your mantra is. It doesn’t have to be to everyone, it doesn’t have to be a big team thing, but I’m going to ask you what it is. Or we ask them to think of a place where they can put their brain and we want to know what that is. And then, you know, we also have them do a greatest highlight reel on offense and defense and they can run it through their brain. They can add music. And I think it’s really important, it doesn’t have to be big plays. It can be just going hard out and then coming under for a 25 yard pass. That, to me, is what good ultimate is made of. I mean, the theatrics and fireworks are a blast and I love that. But when you put together a team, you want it to be fairly simple or I want to be fairly simple

JODY: I mean the simplicity of all this is really important. Like when I played and I often played O so I was often standing and waiting for a disc to get pulled and I would always just do three tuck jumps. I would just do that on the line for 20 years every single point I played. I did three tuck jumps at the top and it was just a little centering thing. And then the other one that I noticed was whenever I felt like I was playing well and was like, just focusing on the moment, I’d had the same little tune running in my head over and over and over. I know a lot of players, like if you’re ever in a really good ultimate game, it’s a fun thing to do, it’s like you look around and you’ll notice people are just like humming to themselves or muttering to themselves, or just saying stuff under their breath over and over. It’s like, everyone’s just finding their own little centering technique.

TIINA: Yeah and I love that. I think that giving a player, the autonomy to reset their own mind is really a gift that keeps on giving.

JODY: Yeah. Those lessons extend well beyond the field. For sure.

TIINA: For sure.

JODY: So we’re going to wrap up here and now you got a chance to talk about what your favorite coaching cliche is.

TIINA: Okay. That was pretty much a very easy one for me. My favorite coaching cliche is there is no such thing as a neutral teammate. And I think that the way it can manifest itself in the negative is many young athletes think, I don’t have to buy in. I can do maybe 70-80% of what I’m asked and I’ll get enough playing time and I’ll feel like I’m, in the upper part of the culture, whatever that means, and that’s how I’m going to be neutral and whatever. When in reality, if you are trying to be that person, you are hurting your team. You’re not giving a hundred percent. There’s being a contributing player and being a player that hurts the team. And there’s just no neutral lands you can walk. I just do want to reemphasize that having a program of mental resilience that you teach is how you get to be more competitive and more committed to how well you can play. I think sometimes that gets lost in translation,

JODY: Right. I mean, it’s all in the service of doing the thing that we’re out there to do, which is compete and have fun and try and win and et cetera. Yes. It’s not this like onerous side project. Um, but alright, so Tiina, yeah, this was really fun.

TIINA: That was just really fun.

JODY: I’ll talk to you soon.

TIINA: Okay, take care.

JODY: Tiina Booth of UMass Amherst Regional High School and of course the National Ultimate Training Camp. NUTC is marking its 20th year. I think I was a counselor in year three or something, but like a lot of things, it is not happening in person this year. It is however happening online. So if you are listening to this before August 8th and 9th, it is not too late. You can join the first ever National Ultimate Training Zoom. It’s a coaching and leadership conference taking place entirely online, a bunch of presentations for players, coaches, and more. Some top players and coaches names you’ll recognize like Claire Chastain, Jimmy Mickel, Angela Zhu, of course, Tiina will all be there. So check it out at NUTC.net. That’s August 8th and 9th at NUTC.net.

All right, thanks again for listening to Coach Speak. Our producer and engineer is Claire Bidigare-Curtis. Special thanks to Charlie Eisenhood and everyone at Ultiworld. And a reminder that starting next week, we’re going to be doing bonus, subscriber-only conversations on the Ultiworld site. These are going to be built around your stories of your coaches. If you got a Tiina Booth story or any other notable story about coaching, email us at coachspeak@ultiworld.com. That’s coachspeak@ultiworld.com. We’ll be back with two more episodes next week and every week in August. My name is Jody Avirgan. Thanks again for listening and we’ll see you soon.

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