The 9 Essential Habits of Mentally Strong Football Coaches

The 9 Essential Habits of Mentally Strong Football Coaches

I read an article last year, “The 9 Essential Habits Of Mentally Strong People”, that I return to frequently. So does my wife Julie and we’ve discussed it at length together. I haven’t read the book he refers to (The Obstacle Is The Way by Ryan Holiday) but the article mentions the key themes of the book:

He’s talking about mental strength, a difficult-to-define psychological concept that encompasses emotional intelligence, grit, resilience, self-control, mental toughness and mindfulness.

Sounds a bit relevant to football coaching, huh? I thought I’d walk through each of the habits and relate it back to my experience coaching.

  1. They see things objectively – by approaching situations with clarity and dispassion, we retain the ability to act creatively and keep the end goal in mind. As a coach this means evaluating players and situations without bias. It means avoiding the halo effect with players you expect to do well. Perhaps you have a tall, charismatic, athletically gifted player that you expect to be your starting quarterback next season. Will you compare his performance objectively against the new kid that shows up in camp prepared to work hard and impress you?
  2. They let go of entitlement – I love this phrase: “they don’t waste their effort feeling wronged by destiny when things don’t quite go their way.” Entitlement can be contagious with your other coaches and the players, and result in a downright toxic environment.Most commonly this feeling of being wronged can come from officials during games, but it can also result from a tradition of winning or the belief that football is superior and more deserving of money and attention than other sports.

    Chris Sailing in NY

  3. They keep an even keel – Yes, I included a gratuitous photo above of me hiking out while sailing in pretty easy wind. Excellent football coaches know to avoid getting too excited when things are going well or too down when they aren’t. It sets a workman-like tone for the players. Early in my coaching career I had problems with officials; I was never ejected but suspect I got close. And this was while coaching the little bobble heads! We all know that there’s never been an official in the history of football was inclined to change a call just because a coach on the sideline got pissed.
  4. They don’t aspire to be happy all the time – The roller coaster of emotions we go through as coaches is a microcosm of life itself, and it is through the struggle of defeat and disappointment that our coaching muscles can grow and evolve. Embrace your mistakes, your negative outcomes, your on-the-field and off-the-field losses and use them to make you better in the next battle.
  5. They’re realistic optimists – We’ve all faced it is a coach at some point: going into a game against a team that by all accounts should blow yours off the field. Those Disney sports movie moments just don’t happen that often, but as a coach you still find ways to bring optimism to your team. My strategy involves finding achievable but aggressive objectives and finding creative ways for the team to deliver on those goals. The scoreboard at the end of the game matters, but find ways to build on small wins to prepare for the next battle and life in general.
  6. They live in the present moment – Mindfulness, being present, paying attention to the people and situation that is right in front of you. You probably don’t have a problem with this on the field during games or practice, but how about during coach meetings or at dinner with your family? You demand “being present” of your players when they are on the clock with you. Do you demand the same of yourself?
  7. They’re persistent in the pursuit of their goals – Are you a grinder? Do you set goals with mini milestones along the way that you can use to evaluate progress? “One win at a time” is a great attitude, but that alone can be a frustrating measure if you don’t overlay other performance based goals alongside wins and losses.

    Chris with other coaches in 2007

    Back in 2007 was the first year I coached “competitive” youth football where we tracked standings, had a playoff system, and competed for a championship. We started the season 0–3, and I just went back and looked at the string of emails amongst the coaches. We were wringing our hands and searching for solutions. The head coach and I were the two new kids on the block, and I know (because I talked to them!) that the other Sherwood coaches at this level were raising their eyebrows and wondering if we had any clue at all how to coach at this level. Our coaching staff vigorously debated options but kept level heads and stayed focused on setting the kids up for success. Some snippets from these emails:

    Jim: I am still concerned about the offense. It seems we are taking steps back instead of forward.

    Chris: If the O-line gets confident that they know what they are doing on each play, other great things will start to happen. There will be stronger mutual trust, a belief that they can succeed which will breed more confidence, etc.

    Jim: I truly feel we need to stick to what we currently have and work to master the fundamentals/assignments of each. I think we would be doing more damage than good to flip things in a different direction. Just because our execution has been poor, at times, doesn’t necessarily mean introducing new plays/formations will solve the problem. Execution is the root cause and we have to treat that instead of just treating the symptoms.

    To make things worse, we ended up having a discipline and bullying issue the following week and had to keep our two best offensive linemen out of the next game. Still, we managed a 26–0 victory and got this note from a parent:

    Parent: The win against Beaverton was great and I look forward to seeing the kids continue to build upon the success they had. You could almost feel the enthusiasm and confidence return to them last night. After the trying week that you had, I wanted you to know that we firmly believe the team would not have had they success they did on Saturday had it not been for the leadership you showed last week. That incident had the ability to tear the team apart, but you used it to build the team up.

    This was the ultimate “grinding” season, and the kids managed to win out and make it to the championship game, losing by just a touchdown to a team that had dominated us during the regular season.

  8. But they know when it’s time to let go – Not every season or experience will result in a turnaround like I described above. Two seasons ago it became clear midway through the year that we were not a playoff bound team. We “yielded to the things that we couldn’t change and made the best of them.” As a coach I think this means finding other ways to celebrate and reinforce the values that are so important for a high character football team. We found ways to have fun, spread the ball around a bit more, and set some mini-goals unrelated to the scoreboard that the kids could strive for (minimizing turnovers, penalties, kudos for good fakes after game film review, etc.).
  9. They love their lives – Finding ways to take pride in and learn from mistakes and defeats is the key here. “May you always remember that obstacles in the path are not obstacles, they are the path.” I’ve coached long enough now to recall seasons where we’ve won championships and seasons where we got to wrap things up earlier than we wanted. Reflecting back, I can find just as much joy on the “disappointing” seasons as the championship seasons. While it is hard to believe this when you are in the middle of this kind of frustration, take solace that time and distance ease that pain and find ways to learn and improve from the experience.