The Mind Matters

Coaches know that the most successful athletes have mastered the mental aspects of sports. But do they know how to teach them? A written curriculum can help.

By Mitch Lyons

Mitch Lyons is an Assistant Coach for Men’s Basketball at Lasell College. He is also the President and founder of, Inc., a nonprofit Massachusetts corporation.

Athletic Management, 16.4, June/July 2004,

In most programs, coaching is more of an art than a science. Every coach has his or her own strategies, style, and methods of motivation. The common understanding is that there is no "one right way" to coach a team, and if you’re like most athletic directors, you allow your coaches a lot of leeway to run their teams the way they see fit.

One area of coaching, however, could benefit from a lot more structure: the mental side of sports. Have you ever wondered why some of your teams consistently focus better than others, why some days teams exude confidence and other days they don’t, why some of your coaches feel the need to yell to motivate their athletes, even after you’ve asked them to turn down the volume?

"Thinking to win" has been researched and written about by sport psychologists for many years. However, it is rarely implemented in a structured way so that each coach is teaching the same skills—possibly it seems too confusing or time-consuming. Yet, teachers are asked to follow a written curriculum in our academic classrooms while still maintaining their own style. Why not ask coaches to do the same thing? Instead of having all your coaches teaching something different, you would have one program for all your teams.

For the past five years, I’ve been developing a more structured method of teaching the mental aspects of sport. The program’s benefits extend to several areas. It teaches student-athletes how to use their minds in a different way. It teaches coaches how to stop being negative and start teaching athletes in a more positive manner. And, it helps teams win. I’ve used the program with teams at many different levels—youth, high school, and college programs—and I’ve watched these squads consistently give the most effort they can, have a good time, and perform better than anyone thought possible.

Mental Tools
The program is based on the idea that the more your players know about ways to think to succeed—how to employ the mental tools needed to improve—the better they will become. If they understand and then practice the mental skills required to be successful, they can transfer these skills to the sports arena and into other areas of their lives.

The program is also based on the concept that positive coaching produces much better results than negative coaching. Prevailing wisdom tells us that people who receive positive support and feel good about themselves perform better in anything they do. You don’t have to be a doctor with 17 degrees to know that!

But what is not so obvious is that self-worth and positive thinking need to be taught. Helping your teammates, focusing, and even working hard are all skills. They may seem like simple skills to a veteran coach, but to youngsters they can be difficult. Thus, we need to teach them, just as we teach proper shooting form or defensive positioning.

In the program, coaches use a structured, science-based, written curriculum and text, which are based on the mental skills studied in sport psychology. Players read, discuss, and then practice mental skills daily. The bench players and the starters learn and practice exactly the same skills.

Here are the eight major skills we teach in the program:

• How to work hard and actively help others. Both make athletes feel good about themselves instantly.

• How to be positive with others, because people perform and learn better in a positive environment.

• How to be positive with themselves since what they are thinking generally affects their behavior or performance.

• How to recognize harmful or distracting thoughts and change them to helpful ones.

• How to set proper goals that assist in attaining success daily to build self-worth.

• How to concentrate on the details of a task, not the outcome.

• How to visualize successfully completing a task to improve chances of success.

• How to meditate in order to relax, focus, and control harmful thoughts.

When & How
The program starts with a 90-minute workshop where we introduce the principles of the curriculum. Athletes are also asked to read a text about the concepts and to take a quiz. By reading and writing about the skills, the athletes better understand their meaning and importance. We then apply those skills at every practice and game.

The three constants we concentrate on most are: effort, details, and goals. We work as a team on these areas and also ask each athlete to think about them individually.

Getting a great effort out of athletes on a daily basis is something many coaches struggle with. In our program, we teach athletes about effort in a very systematic way. In the beginning of the season, we stop practice often and ask them, "How do you feel about the effort you are giving?" When they reach their maximum level of effort, we stop and ask them to remember that feeling—remember how it feels physically and emotionally and what it looks like—and then to duplicate it, working on the consistency of that effort.

When we see that they are thinking about something other than what is being drilled, we ask them to identify the distracting thought. We practice recognizing distracting thoughts and talk about how those thoughts relate to forgetting about the details of the sport-specific skill.

It may seem simple, but it is actually quite difficult for athletes to stop and reflect on what they are thinking about. It’s amazing how their focus can improve once they understand the connection between their thoughts and their performance.

Athletes also need to understand the details behind their sport-specific goals. They are often so focused on scoring a basket, for instance, that they can’t break down why a play or move is not working. For example, one of our players kept having his inbounds passes picked off. He was constantly passing to our center in the key instead of reading the defense and thinking about the process needed to get it there. But instead of saying to him, "We need better passes!" we made him stop and think about the reasons his passes were not successful and explained the importance of details, not outcomes. He never threw that pass again!

Goals are also key to the program. Before practice every day, each athlete must write down three goals he will work on that day. For the player mentioned above, one of his goals was to "look at the defense before passing 10 times during practice today." The goals must be very specific and, when possible, quantifiable. A goal of "better passes" or "don’t throw any interceptions" would not have worked because it would not have been specific enough.

Does It Work?
At Lasell College, Head Men’s Basketball Coach Chris Harvey has been pleased with what has happened with his team since implementing a sport psychology curriculum. He thinks it has helped earn Division III tournament bids in each of the past three seasons.

"As an example, we focused as a team on effort before we started reading and applying the curriculum," says Harvey, "but now we are focusing on understanding what the team vision of effort is, how it feels, how it looks, how to attain it, and how to prolong it. The kids see this as the game within the game. Now they see maximum effort as a choice to be made."

Teaching basketball hasn’t changed at all, but the players are learning new ideas about how to think and how to apply what they learn. They understand that learning mental skills is a science because they read about them and hear about them at each practice and game.

"Our team has a definite idea of what we want to do each day because we think about it a lot," says Harvey. "We emphasize those skills that will also help our players to be good thinkers after they leave Lasell College. I find it personally satisfying, and I feel we have reached a higher level earlier in the season than in seasons past."

By focusing on their thoughts and changing those that are not helpful, athletes play better, have more confidence, and are more satisfied with their experience on their team. And, possibly most important, the mental skills that are learned and practiced daily are transferable to the rest of the players’ lives. Hard work, helping others, and achieving goals are community values that will help turn our young people into future leaders.

To request a copy of the curriculum mentioned in this article, the author can be contacted at The group’s web address is: