July 13, 2015 • Athletic AdministrationCoaching

10 strategies to help coaches and athletes defeat adversity

It’s frustrating for athletes when they’re running on fumes, feeling like they have nothing more to give and that no matter what they do there is nothing left to push past a seemingly insurmountable wall. They can feel hopelessness, discouragement and defeat knocking at their door.

Whether the exhaustion is physical, emotional, mental or a combination of the three, we have all experienced what it’s like to “hit the wall.” While the wall is definitely not a good state to be in, there are two important facts we must remember for our own sake as well as that of the groups or teams we lead or coach.

cognitive-behavioral cycleFirst, athletes must understand that these moments can be overcome. They do have more in the tank if they grind it out. Second, when we don’t quit and we overcome these walls, they serve as a catalyst for growth and potentiate future success in a way that we, and our teams, would otherwise never experience.

In overcoming personal and professional walls, as well as helping athletes and teams overcome their walls, I have developed a very practical list of strategies over the years that I trust can assist both you and your teams to overcome obstacles.

Here are 10 ideas you can use with your own programs.

1. One step at a time.

A popular sports cliché is “one game at a time.” This mentality is imperative for individuals and teams to succeed. When we hit walls, the finish line can seem very distant and the goal, which started out as a motivating force, can instantly become overwhelming and even demotivating.

We must remember that the emotional and physical tank is already running low when the wall comes into the forefront, so the time to focus on the big picture is not now. For this reason, it is imperative to just take the next small step, whichever it may be.

One more action stripped down to the most simple of levels allows us to regain momentum toward the direction we set out when we began. Once you complete that next step, the focus can move to the following step and so forth. Before you know it, you have overcome the wall by taking several small steps forward.

2. Positive self talk.

The power of our internal dialogue is well researched and documented. There is no other moment as important as this to use this cognitive skill.

When you or your team struggles, the battle has to be waged and won inside the mind. The cognitive-behavioral cycle above helps explain how our thoughts give birth to every result we experience.

Every thought is a seed that grows into an attitude or mindset. Our attitudes in turn guide our actions or behaviors, which then yield consequences or results. Our results reaffirm and strengthen our thoughts and the cycle goes on.

If we want to have a different outcome, we must first change our “mental playlist” from negative, defeatist thoughts to positive, conquering ones. The use of cue words and affirmations both silently (internally) and out loud (externally) does indeed begin to energize us towards overcoming the wall and allow us to push past it, thus creating a different result.

The key is to remain positive, even in the midst of difficulties and challenges. This is the choice we, and our teams, must make.

3. Help one another.

The beauty of being part of a team is critically important during the difficult moments. The accountability, encouragement and synergy that come from others pushing you forward should never be underestimated.

A relevant metaphor is “iron sharpening iron.” The positive voice of someone with whom you have a good relationship can be an energizing force to propel you past the wall. We must teach and encourage our teams to do this for each other. When you combine the use of positive self-talk and encouraging, uplifting communication, you create a contagious force that builds positive momentum.

4. Visualization.

Photo: Kevin Hoffman

This is another very effective technique. At its most foundational level, visualizing simply means seeing yourself in the place you want to be. It is taking our positive thoughts and using our imagination to paint powerful pictures in our mind’s eye. By imagining ourselves successfully overcoming the challenge and believing that we can do it, we unleash the inner power inside our minds to fill our bodies with the belief necessary to continue our climb.

A quote I heard in grad school is, “Belief is the mother of all reality.” I would add that belief followed by action leads to the new reality we are seeking. Visualizing oneself and our teams being successful sets the stage for the materialization of success. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true.

5. Mental strength.

There is no substitute to sheer will power, desire and the determination to see things through to their completion. Whether this is innate doesn’t really matter as much as the fact that any person can indeed develop and strengthen this kind of grit.

As leaders, we must assist our teams in the development of this skill by setting up challenging tasks for them to overcome. Mental strength, like a muscle, must be exercised and built little by little. It is forged only when we come face to face with walls — maybe small ones at first — and successfully overcome them.

The more we and our teams will ourselves to not give up and quit, the more mental strength we develop, allowing us to take on steeper challenges.

6. Past achievements.

Whenever doubt kicks in and thoughts of quitting start to circle our heads, one quick way to evict these is to recall and focus on instances where we have successfully overcome past challenges. It may be the same or a similar experience, but focusing on previous successes and the positive feelings and emotions associated with them gives an instant boost of confidence, energy and motivation to keep going. Because the wall is a place of doubt, we must help our teams remember triumphs of the past in order to regain the confidence needed to experience success in the present.

7. Minor victories.

This goes hand-in-hand with the first strategy of taking one step at a time, but the emphasis here is on the importance of celebrating a successful step in the right direction or an approximation to the desired outcome.

There is much research on the power of positive reinforcement and rewards, but the most practical concept I have seen and used on the matter is “catch them being good,” as explained in the book with the same title by Dr. Colleen Hacker and Tony DiCicco.

Simple yet very specific and genuine reinforcement related to an athlete’s effort and achievements goes a long way and helps build momentum.

8. Push past the pain.

When we reach that point of wanting to give up or surrendering to the obstacle, we must push ourselves past our discomfort and pain. Much like a runner’s high produces instant gratification and a release of endorphins, pushing past the pain barrier creates the same kind of euphoric high, which serves as fuel. This mindset also propels our teams from bad to better, from good to great, and most of all, into their personal and collective best.

9. Focus on the why.

The “what” is the goal, the “how” is the process, but the “why” is where the secrets lie. It’s important to distinguish that the “why” is not the goal itself but the reasons why we pursue a goal to begin with.

We must help our teams find and define their “why” long before the moment when the wall stops our forward momentum. The “why” gives purpose, and it’s the reasons behind the mission and the vision. Therefore, our job as leaders is to help define the team’s joint “why.” If the “why” is not clear, people won’t fight, won’t push and won’t persevere.

When the “why” is clearly communicated and defined, it serves as a force that pulls our teams toward the goal and past the walls they face.

10. Reward yourself and the team.

The final step is to simply stop and smell the roses when the goal is achieved. I discovered that when this is done in a tangible and meaningful way, it serves to recharge both emotional and physical energy needed for the next challenge.

One suggestion here is to find ways to commemorate and symbolize big achievements. Whether it’s an autographed ball, a photograph or something more intricate, memorializing a triumph has a way of both acknowledging past victories and motivating for success over future walls.

A final thought to leave with you has to do with attitude. We, and our teams, must not allow for an outlook of fear and trepidation toward facing walls and obstacles. We must instead develop a mindset and culture where walls are looked at as not only opportunities but embraced as a blessing, as something meant to be overcome, and to bring out the best in us.

In the short film “The Butterfly Circus,” featuring Nick Vujicic, a quote that resonated deeply within me envelops what our mindset ought to be toward any wall we may face: “The greater the struggle, the more glorious the triumph.”

I wish you and your teams the struggles necessary to bring forth the memorable triumphs.

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