Fear can be a great motivator. Often analogized with mental toughness, fortitude, or grit, a sense of fear often means something important is about to happen, presenting an opportunity for growth. In a perfect world, your athlete will stare these moments in the eye and take the challenge head on. In reality, most are constrained by fear. Waiting until Game Day to address this, or even worse, ignoring this factor entirely, digs a mental hole an athlete may never escape, regardless physical abilities.
Fear: it can bring the noise, or change men to boys
Fear is a physical response often confused for thoughts and emotions. From this phenomenon, two kinds of athletes emerge: fear-response and fear-thought.
Fear-response athletes leverage the instinctive fight-or-flight response for heightened senses and increased energy bursts to empower their performance. They not only raise their level of play but also everyone else’s, garnering praise for leadership and fearlessness. This would not be possible if they allowed thoughts of fear to block their ability to listen to their body.
Fear-thought athletes allow fear to control performance. These individuals pose greater threats to team performance than to themselves. Short term, they cannot execute their responsibilities. Long-term, their succumbing to thoughts of failure is contagious. Defeatism has plagued many a coach: players think trying harder increases risk of failure, so they lower expectations, finding nobility in self-inflicted mediocrity (1).
To prepare for competition, a coach must take athletes to places they don’t want to go, but more than that, they must also show them how to learn from the experience. Dragging them to proverbial hell just to….leave them there? Makes no sense. Be their tour guide, not their bus driver (@Cali, write that down!).
A Power Coach embraces the fear-response and empowers athletes to conquer fear-thoughts. Power Coach: Fear will show you how.
Two coaching styles contribute to defeatism and fear-thoughts:
1) The 5 Star Hotel: catering to an athlete’s every need
2) The 5 Star General: kill ‘em all – let God sort ‘em out
The 5 star hotel: Cater your performance
Here, the coach changes the environment to suit the athlete, even going so far as to stop the session at first sign of athlete discomfort (physical, emotional, whatever).
I grew up with the constant threats of Coach Atwood’s size 9 boot up our asses, complemented by wildly frill-less DIII recruiting trips. Individualizing post-workout shakes, blasting the perfect blend of Metallica, Christopher Cross, Boogie Down Productions, and Selena Gomez (in the right order, no less) for the starters, and safeguarding the thermostat at 68.8 degrees for the all-stud seems counter-productive.
Maybe they’re trying to ‘get the most’ out of the athlete, but is the athlete getting the MOST out of the training? Forget the metrics. How prepared are they when something (or everything!) goes awry?! To me, they’re breeding environmentally-specific success that cannot adapt. In sport, we call that weakness.
Green Bay’s defensive tackle Henry Jordan (‘59-’69) said it best when describing his ole ball coach, “Coach Lombardi is very fair. He treats us all the same – like dogs.”
The Fix: Embrace the suck
There is an inverse relationship between logic and stress, especially come Game Day. Fatigue, opposition, and/or unforeseen scenarios negatively affects an athlete’s ability to evaluate, estimate, and react. A clear mind allows them to seamlessly and effortlessly navigate problems to make snap decisions.
The stress of fear-thoughts not only constrains problem navigation, but also initiates a vicious cycle of created negative scenarios. If an athlete’s fear-thought is conscientiously justified via a misstep in practice/pre-game/in-game, a not-so-glowing competition preview article, or a teammate’s defeatism talk, this fear-thought becomes real.
Recall from Power Coach: Self-Esteem: actions, feelings, behaviors – even performance – are consistent with self-esteem. An athlete with an accurate portrayal of themselves can successfully reign in constraining thoughts. Neglect the tools from Self-Esteem, allow fear-thoughts to creep in on Game Day, and you’ve got a disaster waiting to happen.
How do you fix this? Combine Self-Esteem practice with these 4 steps:
1) Acknowledge they Exist
Athletes underestimate themselves while overestimating the nature of difficulty. If the athlete has been applying the Self-Esteem actions, they will know the difference between successful visualization and fear-thoughts (i.e. imagined failure that feels very real). An athlete who does not have any fear-thoughts before a big competition is a rare breed. Help them be honest with themselves – masking it with tough talk is not a solution.
2) State the Facts
Identify the facts (down and distance, scoreboard, weight on the bar) not feels (how opponent did against someone else, what warm-up weight felt like). This allows for a true representation of the environment or situation the athlete fears.
3) Uproot the Thoughts
Have the athlete ask themselves, “Why?” – “Why do you believe you can’t?” – “Is this belief based on an actual fact or on an assumption – false conclusion?”
4) Redirect into Action
Show the athlete how their fact-less thought has sold themselves short. Arouse indignation and anger to liberate them from the constraining factor. This is true motivation! Redirect back to fear-response to transform them into chip-on-your-shoulder underdogs (my personal favorite, “He-Hate-Me”!).
Fear’s performance effect depends on how the athlete processes the data against their goals. Embracing the environment trains for comfort in chaos, producing a situational awareness that will carry over to Game Day and beyond. Breaking down thoughts, stating facts, and liberating minds to focus on performance will optimize their capabilities, play after play.
The 5 star general: Kill ‘em all – Let God sort ‘em out
Many coaches inadvertently create the very fear-thoughts they are trying to eradicate. The prototypical yelling, demanding, disciplining coach actually feeds the defeatism dynamic, reinforcing the desire to rebel and heed thoughts of fear (1). Unfortunately, they think this default approach will build mental toughness and camaraderie.
Throw someone in the water and they might learn to swim, but throw someone else in, and they may drown. Building mental toughness and team camaraderie via conditioning, early AM practice/lifts, and, (face palm!) simulated military training will not work universally. One or two leaders may emerge but the others are overwhelmed.
You’re thinking, “something is better than nothing.”, but misapplying random physical challenges does not develop thick skin. If anything, more damage is done in the form of training injuries, ill feelings towards the sport coach, and most costly, rifts among teammates.
the fix: Be A Part of Something Bigger
Athlete selfishness helps many succeed, but at the same time, cause more to fail. Most athletes suppress fear-thoughts, more afraid of teammate opinions than anything else. A team must be a support network that refocuses a flustered athlete on the goal.
Getting a group of individuals to buy into the support system concept is challenging, especially in light of balance. Excessive praise and rewards spoil a group, while heavy-handed punishments and discipline lead to rebellion and defeatism. Moreover, it is impossible to force camaraderie on a group. Wearing the same jersey isn’t enough.
The secret is to rally athletes to fight together for a worthy cause greater than themselves. If you’re able to direct the attention of the athlete, you’re able to direct their emotion.
Apply these 6 steps for building brother/sisterhood:
1) Unite the team around an idea
Connect with your athletes and set goals that are progressive, realistic, and team-centric. This now becomes the single focus and mindset of every weight room session.
2) Keep their bellies full
The strength coach should guide, not demand. Help the athletes select performance goals, assign them accountabilibuddies, and direct their action towards success. This changes the spirit of training (focused, workmenlike) and promotes performance ownership at an individual and team level.
3) Show them how to hold a standard
Morale is contagious, so set the tone. Relax, this doesn’t mean training with them every day or giving regular chest bump speeches. Show confidence in how well the team is doing towards a limiting factor they are addressing. Demonstrate your excitement for their daily opportunity to be in school, training, and playing a sport (things they would normally lament). Finally, talk as if they are winners. Eventually, they will emulate your attitudes.
4) tears for fears: Play to their emotions
Let the sport coach be the asshole. Be the person with whom they connect. Get them to laugh or cry at something unrelated to their sport or stress. Tell a joke. Emotions are contagious – they unify and bond.
5) Mix harshness and kindness:
A Power Coach must control their emotions and communication. Apply calculated criticisms of effort, leadership, and respect, and they will try harder to live up to your high standards. I recommend tracking this to avoid overplaying this hand.
6) Build Team-Esteem
The teams with the highest morale are those who are battle-tested. The good news is, not all battles have to come from Game Day. Get some of that out of the way during training. Mix up training racks for RM’s, have competition days with shuffled teams, and put the group through chaos training. This facilitates team problem-solving on a smaller, less stressful level. Allow for failure, and DO NOT miss a teaching a moment.
speaking of team building…
Some sport coaches demand standalone team-building efforts, which usually involves bringing in unqualified professionals to apply S&C practices on your athletes, potentially exposing them to risks for which YOU will be held accountable.
Stand up for your athletes. There’s no need to create a separate activity (which incurs additional risks AND costs, by the way). Demonstrate how you can implement team-building with a comprehensive S&C program like Field Strong or The Basics. Become stronger, faster, and more athletic while building morale. Get more done in the same amount of time for less money. Two birds, one stone. Multi-tasking. Whatever buzzword floats their boat.
Empower Your Performance – Believe to Achieve
A Power Coach must create a vision for the novice athlete and provide the opportunity to see it through. Individual visualization evolves to a group envisioning successful team achievements. Fear becomes an afterthought, and their focus moves from general tasks (like squatting) to hitting real victories. They go from betting on themselves to believing in each other. A team identity is accomplished the moment the group adopts vision as truth.
Is this building fearlessness? No, you’re reinforcing self-esteem built on experiences of success to raise confidence to the team level. An individual with a goal and situational awareness is not enough. Empowerment comes from developing the courage to act with faith in the person next to them. Only by actions can goals and beliefs be translated into realities.
1) Greene, R. (2006). The 33 Strategies of War. New York: Viking. Pgs. 79-94
John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.
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