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 to