The truth about elite performance: Why physical conditioning, skill, and talent are only a piece of the puzzle

There’s an interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed throughout my career as a mental performance coach.

When I first start working with coaches, teams, or athletes, most initially agree that training for competition is 90% physical and 10% mental. But as we begin working together, and as I introduce them to the idea of “mental conditioning” with specific strategies, a shift occurs.

They begin to acknowledge that when game time rolls around, this 90%/10% relationship between physical and mental conditioning suddenly swaps places.

In the heat of competition—at the moments when peak performance is most crucial—they realize that performance becomes 90% mental and 10% physical.

As I begin to help them identify the gaps in their mental performance, and then address those gaps by implementing a specific, intentional mental conditioning system, the lightbulbs start going off.

And they come to me, saying, “BRIAN, this whole mental performance ‘piece’ matters—BIG time. How have I left this up to chance until now!?”

I just nod my head and smile.

I smile because they’re starting to see the transforming power of mental conditioning. They’ve just tapped into a treasure-trove of power unlike any other.

I smile because they GET IT. And I know, from now on, their life will never be the same.

And seeing others have that “ah-ha” moment. Seeing an athlete step forward where they’ve failed so many times before with confidence and say “Damn right, I just did that”…

THAT’S what I live for.

Too often, the mental game is tagged as rah-rah motivation hoopla, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. When you learn the ART of mental performance coaching, it has a real, tangible, measurable impact on the performance of those you coach.

Today, I’d like to give you a taste of what can happen when you add this skill set to your coaches toolbox.

ELITE PERFORMANCE: WHERE PHYSICAL AND MENTAL CONDITIONING MEET

As coaches, we’ve all been there. We train hard. We practice hard. We’re thorough in our preparation.  We’re constantly searching for ways to become a more knowledgeable, skilled coach in our respective sport or industry.

Yet despite our best efforts, when the stakes are highest, things fall apart.

… The athlete who appears unstoppable in practice, then, when the pressure of a real game hits, falls apart, performing nowhere close to what you’ve seen they’re capable of.

… The client who’s FIRED UP to take back their health who loses steam after the initial excitement wears off, struggling to find any traces of motivation.

… Or maybe it’s one bad game or one missed workout that leads to a complete meltdown, as you sit by helplessly watching one “failure” spiral into more and more struggles.

It’s not fun to think about, is it? But if we’re being honest, it’s something we can all relate to.

Have you ever wondered… What’s really going on when this happens?

Have you ever stopped to ask… WHY does this athlete perform so well in practice, but struggle in competition? WHY do some people lose motivation when they appeared to be so ready for change at the beginning?

And most importantly: Are these things we as coaches just have to accept… or is there something we can do about it?

Questions like those are what started me into what has become a career as a mental performance coach.

Because when I finally had the guts to ask those hard questions, I started to find answers that forever changed the way I view elite performance.

THE MISSING PUZZLE PIECE IN ELITE PERFORMANCE (OR, WHY THE SIX INCHES BETWEEN YOUR EARS IS JUST AS IMPORTANT AS THE SIX FEET BELOW)

It’s an unfortunate reality that most athletic programs leave mental performance to chance. Many coaches think their players will either figure it out or they won’t. That those they coach either have it together between the ears or they do not.

These coaches believe there is nothing they as the coach can do to help enhance the athlete’s mental performance.

And it’s a shame. Because performing your best when it means the most is as much about the six inches between your ears as it is the six feet below them.

And athlete who dedicates an equal amount of vigor toward developing their mental performance capacity as they do toward the physical side of things will always come out on top.

It’s not a matter of “if”; it’s a matter of WHEN. And this is true for those competing at the high school level all the way up to the pros.

So when it comes to elite performance, mental performance isn’t a “nice to have if you can fit it in.” It isn’t a novelty that only applies to professional athletes.

It’s right up there with skill, talent, and physical training and conditioning.

If we can agree that mental performance is a piece of the puzzle, the next obvious question is this: Then why in the hell are so many coaches leaving it up to chance? Why are so many coaches failing to intentionally train this crucial side of performance?

My take? It’s not that most coaches don’t recognize the importance of mental performance; it’s that they don’t know how to intentionally and systematically integrate into their coaching.

They see the “gaps” in performance that are clearly related to the mental side of performance… but they’re not sure how to address it.

Today, that’s about to change.

THE MENTAL PERFORMANCE ADVANTAGE: PINPOINTING YOUR BIGGEST WEAKNESSES SO YOU CAN FIX THEM

I often get the question, “Brian, when you work with professional athletes, college programs, or high schools, what do you teach? What exactly does a mental performance coach do?

For some reason, people are confused about the how of mental performance coaching. In reality, effective mental performance coaching is just like any other aspect of coaching.

Think of it this way…

Let’s say that despite playing well and even being in the lead for most of the game, your team is still losing a lot of games. After closer observation, you notice that when the fourth quarter rolls around, there is a clear, distinct decrease in energy and hustle across the board.

Put simply, your team looks exhausted near the end of the game—and it’s resulting in decreased performance, and ultimately, losing games you should have won.

With this information, it becomes clear: Your team’s conditioning needs to be improved.

So what do you do? You find conditioning methods that train the specific energy systems used in your sport and integrate them into your coaching.

You do what every good coach does: Identify a weakness and implement specific strategies/methods for improvement.

Coaching mental performance is simply a matter of identifying which of these 10 crucial skills need to be developed — and implementing a mental conditioning program to produce the desired effect.

That’s EXACTLY how you coach mental performance. You actively search for “gaps” in performance that can be attributed to the mental side of things and then integrate a mental conditioning program that will lead to improvement.

Now, even though this is simple in theory, the idea of coaching mental performance is still a new concept to many. So to help bridge the gap from theory to application, I’ve included a specific example below.

The goal is to illustrate how you can move through the coaching process to:

  1. Identify a mental performance weakness.
  2. Implement a mental performance conditioning strategy to address the specific weakness.

Let’s do this!

Mental performance gap: An athlete performs well in practice, but falls far short of their potential during competition.

One of the most common struggles I hear from coaches.

We’re quick to blame lapses in performance on a lack of mental toughness, concluding that an athlete who struggles with the pressure of competition just doesn’t have “what it takes.”

NOT true. In reality, there are specific, fundamental skills an athlete demonstrating a struggle to perform in high-pressure situations needs to master. And there IS something you as their coach can do to help them.

Here’s how we could address this particular challenge:

Step #1: Assessment.

First, we need to figure out why this is an issue for this particular athlete because it’s not always the same. How do we do this? Start by simply asking a few targeted questions:

To athlete: I’ve noticed you’ve been performing really well in practice so far this season. I’ve been really impressed with the improvements you’ve made since last year. You’ve clearly put a lot of time and effort into the off-season. But one thing I’ve noticed is that during games you don’t seem to play with the same focus and freedom. In practice, you’re in the zone, but during games, you seem more hesitant. You have had some REALLY good games this season, but there’s been a number of games where you look like a completely different player. Have you noticed this? Any thoughts you might have as to why this is happening?

Athlete’s response: You’re right—that’s definitely something I’m struggling with. In practice, I feel free to just play the game. But when game time rolls around, I get all nervous, and I end up playing really rigid because of it. I just need to be mentally tougher, I guess.

**IMPORTANT NOTE: Notice what we’ve uncovered here. First, we’ve confirmed the problem and identified what might be at the root of it. We now know that being “nervous” is affecting performance, masking this athlete’s true ability during competition. But we’re not done yet, because we don’t know WHY they are nervous—understanding this is important for providing the right mental performance coaching strategy. We also need to address the limiting belief that this is simply an issue of “mental toughness.”

To athlete: I’m sure that’s really frustrating for you. I know it may seem like this is a matter of becoming mentally tougher, but mental performance is a skill you can develop just like getting better at dribbling a basketball or getting stronger in the weight room. I’m confident that you can overcome the struggle of feeling nervous and how that’s negatively affecting your performance, but we need to dig a little deeper. What exactly are you nervous about during games?

Athlete’s response: I’ve struggled with this for a long time, but if you say we can find a way to make it better, I’m in. It’s really frustrating because no matter how much I practice, it doesn’t seem to help. I’ve been putting in extra time on my own, too. But like you said, some games I’ve played really well. I don’t know why I play good sometimes, and bad others.

To athlete: I didn’t think this was an issue of discipline, because like you said, you practice hard—even putting in extra time on your own. There has to be something else at play here. When you think about the games where you’ve felt rigid or nervous, has anything been different compared to the games where you played really well?

Athlete’s response: Now that you mention it, there is one thing I’ve noticed. Before games, I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself to perform really well. I don’t to let anyone down—my parents, my teammates, and you, my coach. Often, right before games, my mind will start running through all the bad things that could happen—I could come out and airball my first shot, forget where to go on a play— those kinds of things. Then, if that actually happens at the start of the game—or anything bad happens—I just fall into this state of being nervous and play really rigid, afraid to make more mistakes.

**IMPORTANT NOTE: BOOM! Fireworks should be going off in your head right now!

Here’s why the assessment process is so crucial:

You’ll notice that at face value, this may have seemed like an athlete simply lacking mental toughness. Many would write this off as a kid who just doesn’t have “it”, that killer instinct.

They’d shrug it off, thinking “Some people have it, some don’t.” What a HUGE mistake that would be!

Through a series of simple questions, we uncovered not only what the problem is, but WHY it is happening. By digging deeper into what triggers the nervousness, we are able to identify which of the 10 Pillars of Mental Performance Mastery we need to focus on for maximum impact.

Now we can implement specific mental performance coaching strategies to help this athlete overcome this struggle and tap into their TRUE potential—all the time!

Which brings us to step 2…

Step #2: Train the mental performance skill needing improvement.

During the assessment, we discovered that the reason this athlete goes into games feeling nervous is that they create a mental movie of all the things that could go wrong.

THAT’S the root cause of their nervousness—and that’s the first thing we need to address to turn things around.

To do that, we’re going to work on developing the mental performance skill of “mental imagery.” Here’s how this could look…

To athlete: I think what might be happening is that you’re allowing these negative thoughts about how you’re going to mess up before games create the very thing you want to avoid DURING the game. You’re so focused on what might go wrong, that you go out and play to try and NOT make a mistake, rather than just focusing on the game an relying on your preparation. Does that sound accurate?

Athlete’s response: Definitely—yes. Before I even step on the court, I’m already thinking about how one mistake at the start of the game could ruin everything. And then I just keep playing those negative scenarios out in my head.

To athlete: The good news is, we can change the thoughts that you focus on before games to be more positive, and with practice, you will notice that this positive focus carries over to the game. So instead of walking out there worrying about making a mistake, you’ll be thinking about what will go RIGHT, giving you the freedom to JUST PLAY.

Athlete’s response: That’s sounds great, but how can we do that?

To athlete: We do that by developing what’s called a “mental imagery script”, which is really just a fancy way of saying that before games, you’re going to intentionally focus on creating a mental “movie” of exactly how you want to perform—including how you will respond to mistakes and adversity that might come up.

From here, you would work with the athlete to develop a mental imagery script that will set them up for success before games, instead of focusing on what might go wrong.

This could include:

  • Picturing exactly how you want to take the court/field before the game. Tell them to picture themselves walking onto the court with positive body language— head up, shoulders back. They’re dialed in and focused. Perhaps they even repeat the mantra “I got this!” or a similar positive verbal affirmation over and over as they take the court.
  • Picturing yourself performing exactly how you want to at the start of the game. Create vivid mental images of everything going right—making all of your shots, communicating with teammates, being “in the zone.”
  • Picturing adverse challenges that may arise—and exactly how you will respond positively. No one can play perfectly all the time, we all make bad plays, miss shots, etc. Have the athlete picture these moments of adversity and create a mental image of them letting it go and moving on to make the next great play.

These are just some ideas to get you going. This is where the ART of coaching comes in, and you get to use specific knowledge (and on-going assessment) of your athletes to implement the best strategies for that individual.

WHAT TO DO NEXT

Notice what we did today. We:

  1. Identified a specific challenge that was negatively affecting performance.
  2. Dug deeper to identify the root of the issue through an assessment.
  3. Implemented a specific strategy to address the mental performance skill that will have the most positive impact.

The point I want to reiterate again is this: Coaching mental performance follows the same process you already use in so many other areas. It’s simply a matter of taking what you already know about coaching and applying it specifically to the development of mental performance.

While we covered just one common mental performance struggle today, there are dozens and dozens more that your athletes face every day, masking their true level of performance, limiting their success.

And if you’re not intentionally learning how to master and teach the mental skills those you coach need for success, they will continue to struggle.

That’s not judgment. But it IS reality.

If you read through the example above and thought, I see how powerful coaching mental performance can be… but it’s such a new idea that I’m not sure how to piece it all together…

THAT’S exactly why I created the Mental Performance Mastery Certification!

YOUR NEXT MOVE: IF YOU WANT TO TAKE YOUR COACHING TO THE NEXT LEVEL, YOU NEED TO MASTER THE MENTAL SIDE OF PERFORMANCE

Knowing the what, when, and how of coaching mental performance—and trying to fit all of the pieces together on your own—can be burdensome.

That’s why I created the Mental Performance Mastery (MPM) Certification. Inside the MPM Certification, I’ll teach everything you need to add this crucial skill set to your coaching toolbox.

You will learn how to help your athletes and clients overcome mental barriers that trip them up and build the habits, mindset, and behaviors they need to be at their best when it matters most.

Not only will you develop a deep knowledge of the ten most valuable mental skills needed for peak mental performance, but you’ll also have a proven method for consistently and predictably developing these skills in those you coach.

The MPM Certification will open to new students for a limited time on May 28th, 2019. Join the free Insider’s List below to save $200 on the certification and be the first to know when it goes live.