Five ideas to help athletes reach their potential
In any sport, there’s an opponent athletes have to defeat before they can claim victory. But most times there are two opponents — the other team/player, and the athlete’s own ego and expectations. That’s when the path to reaching one’s potential becomes more obstructed with various roadblocks along the way.
I have a few concepts I’ve used throughout my tenure in athletics that have proven to be effective when it comes to motivating student-athletes and teams in reaching their potential. Despite what most probably think, these tactics have nothing to do with the physical — it’s all mental. The hope is that coaches can adopt and apply some of these with their respective teams and players.Journaling
Asking players to journal throughout the season allows them an incredible opportunity to become more aware of themselves and their processes during competition. It provides a platform for them to be as transparent as they want with their performance.
I’ve asked players to send an email to the coach after competition detailing their takeaways. It’s through the whole self-reflection process that they learn how to become more aware of not only themselves individually but how they fit into the system that we’re using. Introspection is not something that athletes these days are accustomed to, largely because of social media, so we should jump at any chance we can to encourage it. This practice helps prepare them for challenges inside and outside athletics.
One preseason, I was opening a couple cases of balls to transfer into the cart for our first preseason tryout/practice. The whole time, I was trying to brainstorm some outside-of-the-box theme that we could use throughout the season with our girls.
As I tossed the empty can into the air, I had an epiphany: a time capsule. The girls are going to get an empty can on the first day of practice, and it will be theirs alone to decorate and keep throughout their journey. The only instructions we gave were to also use it as a journal. They were asked to store any takeaways from their time together inside of the empty can. It provided them an engaging way to self-reflect, and it gave them something tangible to look back on at the end of their journey. The girls brought their time capsules to the season-ending event and shared them with one another, bringing the journey full-circle.
During one preseason, I was asked to spend a couple of days with a college soccer team. I brought each of the players a small piece of sandpaper and proceeded to ask them questions about it. What did it feel like? How can they relate something like this to their upcoming season or life in general?
They talked about how it felt rough and gritty. They said it reminded them of the grind of a college season. Some related to how it felt smooth on one side and coarse on the other, which represented the type of balance they would need during their time together on the soccer team. Something so small as a piece of sandpaper was now going to be the symbol of their identity and their season.
The team ended up making the playoffs, and the head coach was named the conference’s “coach of the year.” It’s amazing what a group of individuals can do when they’re connected to each other beyond just sharing the field together. Every single player could relate to the sandpaper and what it symbolized. It was a symbol that brought out their best every day.
Player-specific pregame notes
Before soccer games, I take some time to write up a few words of encouragement and specific instruction to every single player on the team. For example, for one of my strikers, I might say: Be first, work rate on and off the ball, look to be aggressive and physical early on, the ball finds energy.
What this does is allow the player to get locked into their specific role and responsibilities during the game. As a coach, for as much as we talk to the whole team in terms of strategies, it’s also critical that we’re able to connect with each player as individuals. A striker’s job description is much different than a defender’s, which is vastly different from a midfielder’s role. It’s important that we don’t assume that every player knows what we want out of them. During my 20-plus years of coaching, I found that this keeps things simple. If the players do their individual jobs, it tends to give the collective team the best chance of succeeding.
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At our season-ending banquet, I had a graduating senior give me a framed collage with all of her individual write-ups over the years. Something so small can go a long way when it comes to connecting with players as individuals and as a team.
After most matches, within a day, I post the roster outside of my office with a number between one and 10 next to every player’s name. Next to the number, there are a few short lines about that player’s effectiveness throughout the match. This is an opportunity to be player/position-specific when it comes to direct feedback. Here’s an example:
“Sophia (8): Fantastic instincts on your first goal. Did well to create a lot of turnovers with your work rate and physicality. Can still get better at communicating and timing of your runs, but showed the composure and poise in front of the net that we’ve become accustomed to.”
At first, the girls were not enthusiastic about the idea of having something like this outside of my office, where anyone can walk by and see it. But after a short amount of time, they started to embrace it. It’s now at a point where if the ratings are not up by lunch the following day, I hear about it. Obviously, players will look at other player ratings to see where they stack up, and that can be a double-edged sword. We remind them not to compare themselves to their teammates, but if it creates an opportunity to fire up some players who want to do better and give a little more, it only helps the team in the end.
Travis Kikugawa is the associate athletic director and head of soccer and tennis operations at Viewpoint School in Calabasas, California. He’s also a sports performance coach who works with athletes and teams on discovering how to become the best version of themselves.
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