We are at the beginning of a new sports season and this is my last sports season of high school. I am both happy and sad. I will be exiting high school sports as a parent and we are looking forward to watching our daughter play her sport in college.
I began my coaching career before I had a teaching position in 1995. I was appointed as a JV high school softball coach at my alma mater. It was a new program that year when the powers that be decided to have ninth and tenth-grade girls not be on the Varsity team so they would develop properly as players. From there, I coached over 10 years on the softball field or on a volleyball court while I also worked in the realm of education. I have watched sports evolve for over 24 years as a coach, educator, and parent.
Every week, in our area, the high school stats come out in the paper. I know the small buzz that this creates on a high school team. Stats and numbers are very important in our world. We are led by data everywhere we turn. But do the numbers paint the entire picture when we are looking at a student, let alone a student-athlete?
There is one stat that you will never see in the paper, yet, it is the most important stat of all. The mental strength of the player. Athlete development becomes much more than knowing drills and skills. Underneath every play on the field is a scope of mental skills that an athlete must practice at various levels and situations. This mental toughness is shown by displaying resilience, focus, drive, confidence, instant decision making, and the management of physical and emotional pain.
As a coach, I learned to plan my practices around competition. Every drill was an opportunity to compete for points. This put the athletes in the arena of competition daily. As a parent, I knew it was my job to also help my daughters become mentally strong and that didn’t just happen in practice, that happened in our home as well. Mental strength can be developed in every player no matter what their athletic skill. Isn’t that one of the main goals of sports?
“Win well. Lose well.”
Winning is easy. Losing stinks. Game night at our house was intense. We actually had an “I Kicked Your Butt Board” and wrote out the wins and losses. But ultimately, you learn more when you lose than when you win. Teach your child from an early age to learn to lose well. Losing well means learning why you lost. Losing means not calling yourself a “mistake” but learning how to learn from your mistake and growing your weaknesses. Losing shows you what you need to work on and it not only grows your athletics but your mental game as well.
“Your Language Matters”
The game is won or lost in your head. It plays out before you even step on the field. What you say to yourself matters. Mentally tough athletes do not quit mentally or physically. They train and perform at the upper range of their ability no matter what the circumstance. Athletes that consistently perform at high levels have an attitude that says, “I will.” You play how you practice. So, if you practice at 50%, you will play at 50%. If you mentally quit in practice, you will mentally quit in a game. Athletes can change their language in their head.
Instead of thinking: Begin to think:
I am not… I am…
I can’t….. I can…
I do not…. I will…
It all starts in your mind. Your language matters.
“Rise Out of Discomfort”
This is a hard one. What do you do with discomfort? Do you quit? Do you rise? Mentally tough athletes are the scientists of their own bodies. They know that their minds cannot always dictate what their physical body can do. It is overcoming your mind in the sense that when you want to quit, you do not because you can do more physical work than you think.
We have a saying in our house that developed when we were dealing with my husband’s health issues and the girls were learning to lift weights in the basement. We say, “We push through the suck.” This is a physical analogy and it correlates to life. When things get hard, we do not quit. When you push through mentally and physically hard obstacles, that is when you get stronger. If you are tired when you are running and quit at the first “feeling” of being tired, you will not get stronger.
I know in life that numbers matter in order to prove yourself in a ranking system. As an adult in my child’s life, I need to focus them on the effort and mindset behind those numbers. I never know the stats of my kids. To me, it doesn’t matter. Did my kid hustle? Did my kid improve and learn from the last game? Did my kid pass the ball? Did they have a no-quit attitude? Were they coachable? Did they adjust their play if they were having a bad game? These questions matter in building the mentality of a player and if you focus on that, the rest will take care of itself.