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July 8, 2014 • Coaching

10 ways coaches can train athletes to trust

team huddle

Trust is the ultimate goal of all peak performance training. Whether it’s an individual athlete attempting to perform to their potential, or a team working together to achieve a common goal, trust is the basis of peak performance.

Individual athletes must learn how to trust themselves and their talents — especially in pressure situations — so they can perform to their potential. Team-wise, trust is the emotional glue that binds teammates together to create team chemistry. Without trust in teammates and coaches, there’s sure to be conflict, dissension, cliques and hurt feelings. Because trust is such a critical component of peak performance, coaches and athletes must continually look to build and maintain it.

On an individual level, trust occurs when an athlete allows his or her body to naturally react to the situation, without deliberately trying to consciously control their movements. They allow themselves to play on instinct and feel. Their mind is relatively clear and they feel connected to the activity. They put themselves on “automatic pilot” and experience a sense of rhythm, synchronicity and flow. They simply allow their body to do what they have trained it to do.

For example, a softball hitter experiences trust when she sees the ball early and clearly from the pitcher’s release point and lets her hands naturally react to the pitch instead of overanalyzing and guessing. A basketball player experiences trust when he catches and shoots in a rhythm instead of worrying about his form, a previous miss or whether the coaches or teammates think he’s taking a bad shot.

Helping your athletes trust themselves, their talents and their preparation is the key to success. With trust, athletes confidently and aggressively look to make plays that help your team be successful. Without trust, athletes second-guess themselves into making mistakes and missing opportunities.

Because trust is so important, you must teach and train your athletes how to trust themselves. Here are 10 drills and ideas you can use to help your athletes learn how to trust.

1. Trust monitoring.

Next practice, have your student-athletes monitor 10 repetitions of a particular skill. Following those 10 reps, ask them to notice how many of the reps they experienced jamming (overthinking), how many they aimed (excessive preoccupation with a target), how many they guided (controlling movements instead of trusting them) and how many they trusted. This exercise helps your athletes become more aware of when they are trusting themselves and when they are not.

2. Trust repetitions.

During practice, coaches often have players focus on their technique and mechanics in an effort to improve them. This conscious focus on mechanics is an important and necessary part of learning and improving sport skills. However, come game time, athletes will be in big trouble if they consciously focus on their mechanics rather the trusting their skills.

The problem is that players seldom get to refine trusting themselves during practices. They spend all of their time consciously working on their skills during the week, then are expected to trust themselves come game time. Just as players must practice skills, they also must practice trusting their skills. Thus, have your players execute some repetitions where trust is the main focus.

For example, you can have athletes focus on their mechanics and technique for the first five reps. Then, for the second five, encourage them to let go and trust themselves. Increase the ratio of trust reps as your athletes start to perfect their skills. You should also increase the ratio of trust reps the closer you get to game day.

3. Close your eyes.

Depending on the nature of your sport, one of the best ways to encourage your athletes to trust themselves is by having them perform their skill with their eyes closed. I once worked with a golfer who had a difficult time trusting his putts. After lining himself up correctly on the putting green, I had him close his eyes. I then encouraged him to trust his stroke and putt with his eyes closed. He was amazed by how much more accurate his putts were with his eyes closed than when they were open. Closing his eyes forced him to trust his body, rather than overanalyzing and thinking too much.

4. Keep it simple.

Besides being one of the world’s nicest people, former Arizona softball player Alison (Johnsen) McCutcheon is college softball’s all-time career hits leader. What did McCutcheon focus on to get herself into the trust mode as she stepped into the batter’s box? She simply told herself, “Just put a good swing on a good pitch.” This short phrase helped her to keep things simple and to trust her talents. She transformed the complex art of hitting into a simple act that she trust.

5. Take care of the process.

Too many athletes stress themselves out over outcomes that they have little control over. Instead, help them to focus on the process. Former Arizona kicker Jon Prasuhn nailed the last kick of his college career to beat the rival Sun Devils and keep them from going to a bowl game. Instead of guiding, aiming, forcing or jamming, Prasuhn reminded himself to “take care of the three yards in front of you.”

By focusing on the process, Prasuhn trusted himself and his abilities to come through in the clutch. Remind your players to trust themselves to take care of the process, and the outcomes they want will take care of themselves.

6. Letting go of outcome.

Another way to help your players focus on the process is to keep a “solid contact average.” Instead of focusing on batting averages, which causes many players to obsess over outcomes, some teams opt to keep a solid contact average.

A solid contact average is based on the quality of an at bat instead of the quantity. Thus, if a player has a great at bat and lines out to the shortstop, they are actually 1-for-1 in their solid contact average even though they are 0-for-1 in the box score. Similarly, if a player gets a cheap, bloop hit, it will be scored as a hit in the official scorebook, but they will be 0-for-1 in the solid contact average category. With some creativity, you can adapt this process-based stat to virtually any sport.

7. Hum a tune.

Trust is a difficult yet critical skill for all athletes, especially gymnasts. A simple misstep for them not only causes them to lose tenths off their scores but could cause serious and permanent injury.

Some gymnasts become so afraid of skills that they “balk” and refuse to do them. The balking is a perfect example of jamming due to fear. One of the best ways to get gymnasts and all athletes to trust themselves has been to encourage them to hum a tune while they are performing. Humming a tune gets the right side of their brain going, which has been linked to trust. The humming shuts down the cognitive left side of the brain, which causes the paralysis by analysis. The humming also calms and quiets the mind, allowing the athlete to have more trust.

8. Positive visualizing and video.

Having athletes visualize or watch highlight videos of successful performances is a great way to encourage and ingrain trust. When athletes are struggling, I often have them visualize a past great game or, if available, watch a tape of it. As they replay the game, I ask them about what their mindset was like. They inevitably mention that they trusted themselves and played with a relatively clear mind. Build on these past successes as you encourage them to adopt the same mindset for future games.

9. Develop a mental routine.

Perhaps the best way to help your athletes trust themselves is to have them develop a consistent mental routine. A routine is a short series of thoughts and actions controlled by the athlete that is designed to get him or her into the trust mode. Ken Ravizza, a professor of applied sport psychology, has done some great work with routines and encourages athletes to use the following three steps:

  • Control: The athlete should make sure that they are in control of his or her self before performing.
  • Plan: The athlete scans the situation so that they can come up with the proper game plan.
  • Trust: The athlete transitions from thinking to doing and has trust in executing their plan.

This simple, three-step routine will cycle continuously throughout a game to ensure your athletes are in the trust mode when it comes time to perform.

10. Coach’s feedback.

Finally, the type, frequency and quality of your feedback to your players either fosters or destroys trust. Coaches who use a generous ratio of positive feedback, pointing out players’ strengths, successes and improvements create players who trust themselves. Coaches who jump on players when they make mistakes, harp on their weaknesses and play mind games with them create tentative athletes who fear failure.

Also be careful about the frequency of your feedback. Too many coaches have a tendency to “overcoach,” which overloads and overwhelms your players causing them to experience jamming. Keep your game day instructions short and simple.

Lastly, give your players specific feedback so they can learn why they are doing well or exactly what they need to change. Unspecific and general feedback can lead to confusion.

Be aware of the barriers to trust and invest the time to teach your players how to trust themselves in practice. When your players are in the heat of battle, you’ll be glad you did.


For more info on helping your team win championships, visit www.JanssenSportsLeadership.com.


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