MPM Coaches Certification

Build the ‘awareness muscle’ to stay calm under pressure, fight through adversity, and make better decisions (even when it’s hard)

by Brian Cain, MPM


In the 1973 figure skating world championships, Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev were midway through their routine when the music unexpectedly stopped.

Even if you’ve never watched the sport, you can probably imagine the importance of music in a figure skating routine. From providing cues and synchronizing movements to the rise and fall of the beat, the music is as much a part of the routine as the people on the ice.

Having the music stop mid-run would have unraveled most, causing them to lose focus, maybe even stop.

But not these two.

The partners were so engrossed in the present moment of their routine that this adversity didn’t faze them. They continued on without missing a beat. The pair successfully completed their program in silence and went on to earn the gold medal.

The way two people can respond to a similar situation in very different ways is a funny thing, isn’t it?

One athlete thrives on the pressure of the game; the other falls apart. One client finds joy in the challenge; the other caves, giving into a continuous cycle of self-sabotage.

Take a moment to think about an athlete, who, despite some effort, ability, and coaching by you… ultimately failed to reach their goals or develop to their full potential.

As coaches, we’ve all had people like that.

And every time they come to mind, there’s a nagging feeling that there must have been something more we could have done to help them succeed.

There is.

And in today’s article, I’m going to talk about one of the biggest reasons athletes fail, and give you some tools to do something about it.

When things go wrong: worst case scenario or par for the course?

In coaching, “perfect” doesn’t exist.

As much as we like to play the highlight reel of athletes who burst through our doors every morning at 6 a.m., eager to smash another workout…

… Or athletes who calmly step up to the free throw line and sink two buckets to win the game with Steph Curry-like composure…

More often than not, that isn’t reality.

For every athlete overflowing with energy who follows their plan flawlessly, there’s a (couple) dozen who make the same self-sabotaging mistakes again and again, struggle to stay motivated, and fizzle out.

Nine times out of ten, our job isn’t as easy as coming up with the right game plan or fitness program and happily sending people out there to execute; our job is to help imperfect humans, often caught up in less-than-ideal situations, still find a way to get the best results possible.

We have to figure out how to help folks who are stressed and tired make decisions that align with their goals when it’s the last thing they “want” to do.

When things go wrong—and they WILL go wrong—it shouldn’t be some shocking situation we didn’t see coming.

Adversity and distraction are landmines paving the path to success. Landmines we should see coming, or at least expect.

Don’t think for a minute that people who succeed are free from challenges. They run into obstacles just like everyone else. The difference is that they’re able to overcome them because they developed a skill set that allowed them to refocus and move forward.

If we expect these things, plan for them, it’s not worst case scenario when things go wrong, it’s par for the course. Something we CAN help our clients and athletes navigate successfully.

Just because an athlete falls into self-sabotaging behavior today, doesn’t mean they are stuck that way.

And just because an athlete cracks under pressure today doesn’t mean they’re doomed to trip up in the same situation.

With your help, they can develop the skill set needed to display a highly-trained level of present moment focus and self-awareness so they can perform consistently, navigate the adversity and distraction that’s coming, and reach their goals.

That’s GREAT news!

The coaches who figure out how to train these mental skill sets are the ones who will set themselves apart and experience the satisfaction that comes from seeing people meet—and even exceed—their expectations.

THAT’S the opportunity here.

Focus, Awareness, and Skateboarding Dogs in Sunglasses

You have to train the “focus and awareness” skill set to help your athletes:

  • Become more resilient to distractions
  • Make decisions that align with their goals
  • Defeat self-sabotaging behavior
  • Stay calm under pressure

Focus is your ability to zero-in on the task at hand. Awareness is your ability to recognize when you’re getting off track and refocus back on what you set out to do in the first place.

Think of it like this:

You hit the gym to get a workout in. It’s been a long day, and you need all the motivation you can get. As you grab your phone to tune up your go-to pump up song,, you notice a text from a friend.

You swipe over to view the message, and…. ten minutes later, you’re on Facebook, watching videos of a skateboarding dog doing a 360 Kickflip.

In this example, focus is your ability to zero in on the task at hand (working out). Awareness is your ability to recognize when anything that distracts you from completing that goal starts to creep in. (And in this example, you did a terrible job of being aware of distraction).

As a general rule, most coaches are pretty good at addressing focus. We recognize the importance of helping athletes direct attention to a relevant object, thought, or feeling.

But as we’ve covered, that’s only half of the equation. No one can be 100% focused all the time. That’s where awareness comes in. There is a TON of untapped potential in the awareness “muscle.”

Someone with low awareness:

  • Tends to fall apart as pressure builds. This manifests in many different ways, but common examples include: Performing poorly in competitions, despite excelling during practice; Consistently letting one ‘mistake’ (missing a workout, eating junk food) spiral into a series of negative decisions; tending to self-sabotage as they get closer to a goal.
  • Allows outside influences to dictate energy/focus, displaying unpredictable performance in practice/competition/workouts. (One day, they’re dialed in and at their best, the next they’re easily distracted and seem to “not have their head in the game.”)
  • Often focuses on things outside of their control and blame outside influences (others’ opinions/expectations, circumstances, etc.) for their lack of success.

Someone with high awareness:

  • Shows up for practice/competition/workouts on time and ready to go.
  • Takes OWNERSHIP of the energy they bring to practice/competition/workouts.
  • Brings consistent focus and energy to their workouts, despite what’s going on in other areas of their life.
  • Is able to consistently recognize when negative self-talk, self-sabotaging behavior, etc. is starting to kick in and refocus on the task at hand.
  • Recognizes—and focuses on—what THEY can control.

It’s obvious which kind of athlete is easier to coach and more likely to be clutch when a game hangs in the balance.

Next, I’m going to share my favorite strategy for training the awareness skill set so you can begin coaching your athletes to greater success.

Recognize your signal lights: What running red lights can teach you about developing better awareness

The goal of developing the “awareness muscle” is to help your athletes consistently take in relevant information to make an intentional decision about how to proceed.

In other words, we need to help them develop a plan for staying on track when things go wrong and when they find themselves in less-than-ideal circumstances.

One of my mentors, Ken Ravizza, taught the concept of awareness by using a traffic light analogy:

If you’re driving your car and come to a green light, you GO. There isn’t any thought process, you just go. But if you’re driving your car and come to a yellow or red light, you slow down and STOP.

Now, if you are reading this chuckling to yourself about the time you ran a red light and didn’t cause an accident or get caught by the police, know that this type of behavior behind the wheel is just like your athletes’ performance.

They can get out of control emotionally and still have success at a certain level. Yet, make this a habit and they will crash and burn just like they would if they continually ran red lights.

Performance awareness is similar to driving a car. When you have green lights (positive, confident, specific, and aggressive thoughts and feelings) you are in control of yourself.

When you encounter yellow lights (hopeful, uncertain, vague, and timid thoughts and feelings), which occur when something negative happens, this takes you out of a “green light mentality” and shifts you into a yellow light.

If your yellow lights are not recognized, and the cause of that adversity is not addressed, then you will often find yourself in red lights (negative, dejected, apathetic, and destructive thoughts and feelings).

The easiest way for you to think about your signal lights is:

Green Light = You are in control. You are giving yourself the best chance for success.

Yellow = You are losing control. You are starting to lose the focus and mentality conducive to optimal performance

Red = You are out of control and are beating yourself in performance.

How can you use this concept to coach your athletes to better awareness?

Step #1: Explain the concepts of green, yellow, and red lights and have your athlete describe what their “signal lights” look like in challenging situations by identifying four key characteristics:

  • Body language
  • Focus
  • Self-Talk
  • Physical feelings

By having athletes Identify what they feel in various circumstances, they become better at recognizing the signals that indicate when they’re losing focus. Most people are running through yellow and red lights, not recognizing they’ve lost focus and given into distraction until it’s too late.

Becoming better at recognizing the signs of distraction is the first step toward warding off it off.

Step #2: Train “the pause.” Once you’ve helped your athlete identify signal lights in various challenging scenarios, coach them to pause anytime they encounter a yellow or red light.

It sounds simple, but the act of pausing anytime you recognize you’re losing focus can have an incredibly positive impact on performance and making positive choices.

So we simply coach athletes to pause anytime they recognize a yellow or red light situation and ask, “Based on this situation, what’s the best decision I can make to achieve my goals/perform my best?

When an athlete has missed 5 shots in a row and hears that voice in their head, saying: “Here we go again. You’ve missed five in a row. You’re just off today. You’re letting everyone down—your parents, your coach, your teammates”… they pause, replace that negative thought with something positive, and move forward.

This process helps them:

  • Return to the present moment
  • Identify distractions they need to remove
  • Intentionally choose how they respond
  • Focus on controlling what’s in their control

This is why recognizing signal lights is one of my favorite strategies for helping athletes wipe their mental slate clean and get back in the game.

What to do next

Now that I’ve outlined how the awareness skill set can help you clients and athletes perform at a higher level, it’s your job to put what you’ve learned into practice.

The best place to start is by downloading the “Signal Lights” worksheet, if you haven’t already, and give it a try with at least one athlete this week. (Here’s that button again to download the worksheet.)

This activity will start building your athletes’ awareness muscle so they can recognize when they’re losing focus. From there, reinforce the concept of “the pause” to help them refocus and get back on track as soon as possible.

Like any new practice, building this skill takes patience and consistency. My advice is to make this a regular part of your coaching.

Each time you meet with an athlete, ask them if they faced any yellow or red light situations, and if so, did they pause and respond in the best way possible?

Remind your athletes to be aware of the situations they’ve identified as challenging, be on the lookout for yellow/red signal lights, and refocus anytime they notice distractions.

With time, the process of identifying signal lights and automatically refocusing will become just another thing they do—and the payoff in their results and performance will be well worth the effort.

Master and teach the mental skills your athletes need to turn their mindset in to a strength—instead of a liability

I’ve been hard at work, putting everything I know about mental performance into a system you can use to master and teach the mental skills your athletes need to succeed.

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