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Off Season & Pregame Mental Preparation
A New Dimension
By Jeff Connors M.S., CSCS, H.F.I.
Published: Winter 1996

As professionals in the field of strength and conditioning we constantly strive to find the right combination of variables to gain an edge in performance enhancement. We fly all over the country hoping to enrich our personal knowledge of training technique, methods of testing and evaluation and new research. We put forth great thought and effort toward the specific physical needs of each athlete and the development of corresponding programs. Our profession has made great strides in speed training, agility, power development and several other areas in a short period of time. This was particularly evident in the recent comments of several Olympians regarding the value of their physical training in the quest for gold.

The most interesting comment I heard regarding the value of training came from four time Olympic Gold Medalist Al Oerter.  Al stated at the NSCA opening ceremony to the National Conference in Atlanta that the most significant aspect of his personal training occurred "between the ears".  That comment really hit home with me because I spend so much time in the off-season and during game week attempting to contribute to what takes place in the minds of our football players. 

We have a lot of players on our football team that have been blessed with great talent just as in every Division-I program.  A higher baseline of talent enables us to produce higher levels of physical performance but does not gaurantee a productive state of mind in each athlete.  There are always athletes who come from tough single parent environments in the home, negative peer involvement or unstructured high school programs.  You can pick up a paper any day of the week and read about a collegiate football player charged with a felony.  In fact, we hang these articles in our locker room for our players to read.  We also have a sign in our locker room that reads; IT HAS BEEN       DAYS SINCE AN OFF THE FIELD INCIDENT.

The reality is that whatever the talent level of the athlete, they can possess a weakness in what we refer to as the "heart" or the innermost part of the mind.  It should be a very satisfying feeling for every coach who supervises player development to know that you have the potential to build an athlete from the inside out.  Collegiate strength coaches should ask themselves this question.  What coach has the responsibility of maintaining and developing accountability, discipline, work ethic, trust and team unity on a daily basis for 3.7 years out of an athlete's 5 year career?  Now look in the mirror.

Defining the Heart of a Player

Coaches have traditionally referred to players as either having or falling short of possessing the quality of "heart".  Usually this refers to whether a player is willing to catch in traffic, stand in the pocket and throw, seek contact or pass a conditioning test.  This intangible quality  was the reason people came out to see the Rocky movies and still visit places like the Alamo.  Some people believe that this quality can be developed, conditioned and changed.  That is, a player can become better prepared through strengthening what I like to refer to as "success values".

Anyone who has ever read the book "The Edge" which contains a wealth of motivational quotes from famous athletes and coaches, can recognize that the same qualities of success have been established in every winning organization throughout the history of athletics.  Athletes who have been required to function within a system that requires them to exercise principles of success in their daily life as a scholar athlete will be better mentally prepared.  Internalizing success values strengthens the fuel that drives the competitive spirit.

The Conditioning Factor

In our program, we combine principle centered teaching with tough physical conditioning as our formula for mental development.  It is a foundational component in developing what Stephen Covey refers to as "primary greatness".  This development is very deep and long lasting once it has been acquired.  It's the same type of development that prevents a captured soldier from giving in to torture.  Conditioning reveals the "heart".
     I think I've always been appreciative of and tuned in to all the scientific information on overtraining.  That's why I eliminated the traditional mile run test that was implemented here for football before I came to ECU.

I do feel however, that there is a place for frequently challenging mental stamina during the summer months in the pre-season phase.  If that challenge occasionally falls outside of the sacred science of proper anaerobic training, I don't get too upset.  I know that it takes more at times to challenge the limits of the mind.

The story of the inception of Delta Force, the elite military force started by Colonel Charles Beck which serves as a great example of the development of mental strength  through physical stress.  A group of soldiers overcame great physical challenges to become part of that unit.  They were given progressively more difficult missions over mountainous terrain which weeded out those with marginal commitment.

Obviously, we aren't going to ask our players to be subjected to that type of stress, but we can ask them to withstand specific physical challenges that strengthen the will to presevere when extreme physical stress occurs in a game situation.  If you don't have great depth in your roster, you may need eleven marines on both sides of the ball to get you through a season.

Once a week, in our summer program we run 300s.  We usually run up to five to six reps with 30 second rest periods.  Last summer a group of our skill players decided they wanted to push to 10 x 300 with the same rest period and run them in .55.  They wanted to establish the "Ironman" award for anyone who achieved that level.  We also established standards for the other position groups.  This summer we had 46 "Ironmen".  This achievement was not mandatory, it was a matter of personal pride and team unity.

If you pick up any of the works of Zig Ziglar you will quickly recognize the importance of establishing high levels of self-image with any group of people who have a common set of goals.  In his words "Expanding self image expands the possible".  I have to believe that knowing that you are very highly conditioned provides great self confidence during the course of a competitive event.

The Power Of A Collaborative Pre-Game Strategy

Strength coaches are all aware that their effectiveness is directly related to the support they receive from the head man.  On the other hand, I know in our program that I can be an effective asset to the head coach in acting as an extension of his beliefs and goals for the team.  Many strength coaches enter a state of isolation once the season starts.  The offense meets, the defense meets, you wait.  Stretch, condition and "get back" can be unfulfilling after a summer of intense involvement with ninety players.

At ECU we've developed a three prong approach to building up our players mentally for a game.  Head Coach Steve Logan, offensive coordinator Doug Martin and myself develop a theme for each game.  Some examples of topics from previous years included The Player-Coach Relationship, Destroying Discouragement, Unleash Your Personal Power, Preparation of the Heart, The Value of Killer Instinct, etc.

After we choose a topic, Coach Logan begins to plant some mental seed in his post-practice talks throughout the week.  Steve is a very intelligent coach and has a very effective method of defining the rationale behind a group of objectives.

Doug does our pre-game devotional.  Whatever the topic, Doug always finds scripture or a biblical story to give strength to our theme.  All principles of success have a strong origin in scripture and a very large number of our players believe that and respond to it. 

As we approach the game, I continue to research the topic and it quite frankly takes up a lot of my time throughout the week.  It gives me a real sense of purpose and emotional input.  It is more satisfying than anything else I've ever done in the profession because I know that I am contributing to the long lasting inner strength of these young men.

The presentation I provide for the team takes place on game day just before we board the bus to go to the stadium.  I attempt to always choose material that has a "building" effect on our players and at the same time stimulate their emotion toward the upcoming tasks.  I've brought in Vietnam veterans, former players and coaches and anybody else I might think will add something to what I have to say.

I've recognized that the presence of high emotion toward a football game has had mixed evaluation throughout coaching circles.  A lot of people feel that emotion is short lived and should be limited to a high school pep rally.  Other coaches seem to hang their hat on the presence of passion in some form or at some level on game day.  I personally feel it's a little different for a quarterback than a defensive lineman.  A quarterback has to remain poised and focused while a defensive lineman is involved in intense physical battle every play.  That requires a little different preparation.

You don't have to bite the head off a frog or castrate a bull to develop an awareness toward the desired passion for a game.  At ECU it's been easy to stimulate emotion because we've been an underdog and received very little respect in many situations.  It's easy to get passionate when you feel disrespected.

I think it's important to direct passion toward important points relevant to the game at hand.  For example, when you play at West Point, you need to understand that you are facing a team with great discipline, conditioning and intelligence.  You've got to have you team prepared to dominate those areas before you can utilize your own strong points.  There would have to be strong commitment and passion generated toward minimizing mental mistakes.

Each game situation brings forth a new and unique focus because no two games are the same.

The Dog Soldier

Probably the most significant pregame presentation that I've prepared was when we were at a point of needing an extreme commitment from many of our players, particularly of defense.

There is a very interesting story that was passed on to me about the Cheyenne Indian warriors known as the Dog Soldiers.  These warriors were the best fighters and most fierce among the tribe.  They rode in the front of the others who went into battle.  They wore a red sash and a long piece of rawhide wrapped around their waist.  At the end of the rawhide was a stake.  When things got tough they would dismount and drive that stake into the ground and defend that territory to the "death".  Thus the name "Dog" Soldier.  This is where the phrase, you can "stake" your life on it probably originated.

Since football is a territorial game, particularly on defense, this story fits well with the type of commitment we were looking for from our players that week.  We put red tape on the back of every helmet for that game to symbolize the type of agreement we had toward that commitment.

That little story grew into printing DOG SOLDIER bandannas for last year's Liberty Bowl and a life size painted model as you enter our locker room.

Young athletes need a lot of direction every step of the way.  Coaches should make every possible attempt to build the mind as well as the body.  We have a lot of players who I can say are strong, fast and explosive.  It's more important for me however, to now be able to say that we have a lot of players who are respectful, committed, loyal, hard working, unselfish, coachable, mentally tough, kind, disciplined and most importantly possess great "heart".  Our collaborative system of preparation has brought us together as coaches.  Every day in this program is special to me because I know that as a staff we are attempting to do something special for our players.  Our staff is more concerned with what we can do here than where we're going next.

Every strength and conditioning professional can achieve great benefit and fulfillment through developing the dimension of the innermost part of the mind of the athlete.  It's worthwhile.

Editor's Note: I asked Head Football Coach, Steve Logan, about it being unusual to let a strength coach participate in motivational Pre-game Strategy, let alone taking part in it.  "Jeff and I are very close personally," answered Coach Logan.  "He is very emotional where I am not.  Jeff is a real motivator and he has a special way to give our theme an emotional spin.  I would not attempt to duplicate this someplace else unless I felt an almost blood kinship with my strength coach.

"I believe in strength and conditioning more than in X's and O's.  I am with Jeff constantly in the weight room during the off-season.  When I am not recruiting, I am with Jeff.  I believe that you can test character in the weight room.  I hate fat.  We want people who are lean.  I want to be able to strike a match on them.  I would rather have a rock-hard, lean 220-pound linebacker than have him twenty pounds fatter with a 700 pound Bench.  I am into how far can they run fast!

"Strength coaches spend way more time with players than do position coaches.  That is why I value Jeff so much.  Through our strength and conditioning program, we find out in a hurry about the truth of a player.  I don't want to find out about a man's character or lack of character in the 4th quarter of a game.  I find out if he will quit or continue in our strength and conditioning program.  I never talk about winning or losing.  I talk about playing hard and I can tell you that we always play hard.  We don't ever tackle to the ground in practice and we don't put on full pads until Saturday.  But, I will assure you that come Saturday we will play hard.

"I have heard that at some schools the players don't like their strength coach.  That is sad. A strength coach should be a valuable resource.  Our players love Jeff Connors and they would run through the wall for him."




Return to Winter 1996 Articles

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