Action-Oriented to Improve Mental Skill Sets

Gretchen Miles, Head Coach at Washington High School, Washington, IN

Over the past few years, we (and when I say we, I am talking about our staff, please don’t think that I am talking for all coaches) struggled with kids being so robotic, not just in flow of a game, but carrying skills in a drill over to a scrimmage setting, or kids verbally thinking through different concepts. We have a non-negotiable in our coaches office, if you come in with a complaint or an issue about anything, you better have a solution, or we don’t want to hear it! We had to be more Solution Solvers. Here were our concerns:

  • How do we get kids to not be robotic and just think the game?
  • They don’t watch or read about the game of basketball.
  • How can we carry over drills to games or scrimmage settings? (You know, when you do a passing drill and you are concentrating on staying in a stance, be strong with the ball and PASS FAKE. You then go into a scrimmage situation and the first pass caught, the player is standing straight up and down, ball over their head, and throws the pass RIGHT into the hands of the defender.) We began telling the kids, “Don’t do the Drill, Play the Game.”

This is where Action-Oriented came into play – because if the research says 90% of the game is mental, then WHY are we not spending as much time as we are training the physical aspects of the game, and do the same for the mental part. This is out of our comfort zone because we didn’t know much about it, but just listening to kids and reading books has helped us a lot! This goes with the old saying: “Your actions are so loud, I can’t hear what you are saying.”

What actions are we taking to model what we emphasize? Remember: 90% is mental (We think 100% is mental, you are always thinking!).

As we replayed and discussed what the practices looked like:

  • How much are we talking AT kids, and how much are we talking WITH kids? 
  • How much are we really concerned about getting through the practice plan? 
  • When we throw out phrases and slogans, how much is sprinkled in our practice plan everyday?
  • The players did what we said to do for the entire practice, like Robots! We felt good about practice, but the kids weren’t growing and developing mentally.
  • How much do we MODEL and TEACH non-basketball skills?

And we wonder why they struggle to think on their own in the games!

This is where the foundation started – CONNECT – Build their trust.

#1 Non-Negotiable with our coaches is to Commit to the Kid: 

  • Know the kid first and then a basketball player second.
  • Learn the learner.
  • Build a positive relationship with every kid.
  • Talk to each kid every practice and every game about something NOT basketball related.
  • Attend events that the kid is involved in: other sports, 4-H, academic awards ceremony, etc.
  • When something has happened; taken the SATs, won a big game, is up for an academic scholarship, pick up the phone and call. Again, this helps with kids feeling comfortable to have a conversation with you, not just one or two word responses, and they know you care about them outside of basketball. We don’t text our kids, they don’t text us. If they get sent home from school for being sick and won’t be at practice, they call us. Their parents don’t call or text us, the player calls us. It is amazing how they struggle to leave messages if we are not available. We have had to have players come into the office and we PRACTICE leaving messages! (I’m serious) 
  • 1 on 1 conversations (our favorite) – These are powerful. You really see and hear what the kid is thinking when we as coaches just shut up and listen. We have 2 scheduled meetings each season to go over performance and just how life outside of basketball is going. We used to do all the talking, the players nod, they agree and then they leave the office (ROBOTS!). NOW we give the questions and LISTEN to the player. We need their honest thoughts to know how to develop and grow the player, not just as a basketball player. We meet with kids every week, whether it’s while they are shooting free throws, getting a drink, standing in line, or even as the varsity is watching the JV on game day. Honest conversations, not just us talking AT kids; we talk WITH kids. We are getting better at this so it just flows within the practice. This was super important to us, so then we MADE time for it. Some conversations are tough to have with the kid, but it is done in an honest way because of the respect we have for each other due to Committing to the Kid, and they use the information to get better. The more we have the conversations, the better the conversations become. The kids have a hard time being honest because they don’t want to make us mad. Conflict is good when used to help people grow and develop, that means coaches and players. They have a difficult time coming up with honest answers because most of them haven’t been asked tough questions about their attitude, performance, ability, or other characteristics. They just show up and play. They haven’t had to think for themselves.
  • As much as the kids are together during the basketball season, they are mainly at practice and games, so it is important for us to do things with the team to get them away from basketball and just hang out or give back to the community. All teams grades 5-12 do a community service project during the season that the PLAYERS choose. Again, player-led and NOT Robotic! The coaches are also involved so that the players can see us as human beings who also like to have fun.

The more we know and understand our kids as people first, the more they allow us to challenge them to develop and grow physically and mentally. They will be honest with us. 

Think about the following phrases/slogans and if they are an important part of what you emphasize with your team and you think are important. How much time during practice or team events are these modeled and taught? We have a focus before every practice that we want to emphasize the entire practice. Sometimes the players come up with what they think our focus should be. Some of those focuses are listed below:

  1. Be a Great Teammate – When you have a player that does not play very much but we expect all the players to be great teammates, how do we model and teach that concept? When we played sports, we probably rarely came off the court or field, so it is difficult to relate to someone who does not play much, but we need their best every day on the floor or the bench or in the community. Possible solutions: (1) Discuss with the team when they have seen someone being a great teammate; (2) Bring in a current athlete or past athlete that their role was not playing time, but it was still being a great teammate and making their teammates better every day; (3) Again, having a conversation, not talking at kids, where they just nod their heads. This also goes towards the players that play a lot. Being a good teammate is not a correlation with playing time.
  1. Next Play – Getting over mistakes. Are we vulnerable enough to share with our players when we have made mistakes, failed or fallen and what were our reactions? Guaranteed when we played, we did not always get over our mistakes like we would like our players to. Great book on that is Mindset by Dr. Carol Dweck. The Fixed Mindset vs Growth Mindset – If you have a fixed mindset, they can’t see failure as an opportunity or how effort can lead to results/success. How do we get ourselves first and then our players to the growth mindset way of thinking? How much do we stop in practice and show next play? What do your players think when they make a mistake, or do we model and show how a player got over a mistake and make a positive play on the other end of the floor?
  1. Concentrate/Focus – We say this a lot, but do players know when they are not focused or do we just say this during the games? Can players say or label a drill or situation when they are not concentrating or when they had a high level of concentration? How do we model this?
  1. Mental Toughness – Kids can probably give an example of what this means, but how many are mentally tough or can make a tough play? If someone takes a charge in practice, do the players know that it’s being tough, sacrificing for your team? Can we bring in outside speakers to talk about being mentally tough in their jobs and what that looks like?
  1. Do Your Job – To explain to your players what their job is on the team, you have to know each kid physically and mentally. We need to know from the players what they think their strengths and weaknesses are, and then that helps us to help them to define their roles. Sometimes we must have conversations about what we think “realistically” their strengths are. They may not always match up with the player, but it is interesting to listen to how they think they will help the team every practice and game and what they need to work on. Can each player verbalize what their role is on the team, or do we assume they should know? They don’t know what they don’t know! 

When you think of quotes, slogans, or phrases we use a lot as coaches, look through the lens of a 14-18 year old and how would hearing that phrase improve their mental skill set? And then think, if we were more Action-Oriented and players could show, teach, verbalize, and label what these slogans mean, can they then be less robotic and more effective? They would be thinking for themselves instead of everyone in their life thinking for them (ROBOTIC!).

But it starts with us. When we set standards, we have to remember WE ARE THE STANDARD.

I will conclude with this. I heard this from a podcast with Dr. Colleen Hacker, mental skills coach for a variety of Olympic teams and is a sports psychiatrist. When babies first learn to talk, they label everything: mom, dad, bottle, toy, etc. Can your players label when they see, feel, talk about being a good teammate, or getting over mistakes, or what does it mean to be mentally tough and what does that look like? The more we know how our players think, the more we can help them grow and develop. 

Model, Model, Model. Show, Show, Show. Action-Oriented.

Kids don’t care how much you know until they know you care about them! Be intentional with your actions. 

When we share our stories and are vulnerable, it is amazing how much more comfortable the players are in sharing their stories and thoughts. They need to know we are not invincible or perfect; we are human and were once a high school student-athlete.

Please reach out if you have any suggestions on this topic. We are always looking for new ways to get into the minds of our kids to help them grow and develop.

Thank you Feel for the Game guys. Your time and organization has been greatly appreciated. Thank you for growing the game!

Gretchen Miles


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