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Becoming Unbreakable

The following is a partial transcript from earlier Process2Perform episode

Something that we have done organically here but never really put a name on it, is understanding that the directive for some of these sports is different than the others. What I mean by that is that in some sports winning is the only thing, at least in many circles. And I am talking from the athlete perspective, but just as well this could be the coach or the club. Football as an example – there are dozens of different ways to scheme an offense or defense. Just in my career from college to the NFL – I ran the option, the west coast, the west coast adjusted, the spread, the zone scheme…so differing philosophies on how to use the space (space is the enemy of the defense!). And I have also at these different stops coaches who value, or prioritize – different techniques (most of which didn’t really make any sense by the way). And there are obviously different ways all of these techniques are taught, because there are varying qualities of coaching.

So you have different systems, different techniques, priorities, and coaching styles at every level. And at every level you have to get really good at those variables in order to be a contributing player on a team that is trying to win now.

I could go out right now and start a junior all-American team and just teach football fundamentals – and those kids could be the best in the city with their foundational technique and football IQ. But if we aren’t running a ton of motions, or personnel, or gadgets – people are going to get mad, parents will ask questions. And incidentally, we should run the option it is the most effective way to win with like for like athletes. But just as European soccer clubs are introducing American-style warmups to placate American parents while training in the US; we have to show something relatable in order to get buy-in.

My point is that winning and winning in a manner that they see on Sundays is the priority. And so athletes are concerned with doing whatever it take in that moment to move forward. Contrast that with individual sports, or sports like rugby or soccer. Everyone competes to win, but there are developmental styles – fundamentals of technique and sporting intelligence. These things are more universal to the sport, and therefore can be developed in any ecosystem you choose to play in.

So when we talk about building a development model and the perspective of time – it is actually harder for some of these sports to have that perspective than others. I am not for a second suggesting that athletes shouldn’t be focused on the techniques their coaches employ – but in practice it is difficult for an option QB to work on his 7 step drop, which will likely be in higher demand at the next level.

If you want to contrast that with soccer or rugby – basketball to some degree – there are fundamentals of the sport that are the same across the board. Everyone can have their personal style, and every team can have a set of tactics they use; but the development of an athlete in those sports looks similar because at the younger levels teams can always focus on fundamentals and principles of play that are true regardless of region. That’s why you see a more developmental model in some sports than others. Not sure if it is chicken or the egg – but you get the point.

There are constants in these sports that will always provide opportunities for success – when I worked with professional teams on technique, the message to the staff was that our movement patterns and techniques were scheme agnostic. This means that a better moving athlete armed with proper movement patterns, strength and agility; that athlete was going to be a much better version of themselves and execute the coaches game plan at a higher level

regardless of scheme or opponent.

I am constantly reconstructing models, researching, and talking with thought leaders about delivering a complete performance system. I want to seamlessly merge your mental and cognitive processes with your technical mastery, with your ownership decisions. One feeds off the other, and all are part of the construct that is your – what I call – elite persona.

I want to go through our Master of Craft pyramid again because the point I want to make this week is significant to developing a lasting performance platform. The MOC is a simple understanding of how an athlete thinks about developing their craft; their ability to execute the positional requirements of the sport at the highest level.

We start underneath the foundation – with our character traits – our non-negotiables. These are the traits elite performers must foster in order to maintain the course. The base of our pyramid is foundational technique for reasons I have discussed ad nauseam. Foundational knowledge is layered on top of that; and then consistent routines round out what I consider the BASIC REQUIREMENTS for success.

If you or your athlete do not have these things buttoned up, or if you are not spending dedicated time getting them on level – then you are artificially creating a ceiling for your abilities that will show at one point or another, depending on your natural physical gifts and the competition level of your opponents.

After basic requirements are addressed – we move up to our advanced cognitive/emotional requirements – conceptual knowledge of scheme, intimate view of our opponent, trust in our teammates. And finally, when we create a system that allows us to continually hits on these points as part of our development cycle – we can reach what I like to call perpetual supremacy. This is a control over your process, an opportunity to consistently be the best version of yourself – to always have the opportunity to grow as a player, teammate, as an individual, regardless of age.

That’s the goal – the goal is to have an opportunity to live at your best. The goal is to create the conditions to develop the confidence that comes from having a process. I verbalize this as confidence in your preparation, but I think we need to take it back one step.

In any sport, to be at your absolute best; you have to be completely resolved that you have the ability to execute the plan. I was reminded recently that confidence is a layman’s term – self-efficacy is the professional term for one’s belief that they are able to complete the required task. I like to think of this as our bedrock – our mindset. The absolute most important piece of the puzzle, and the reason I like to think of everything in terms of cycling through process.

When we think about developing confidence, or self-efficacy – first of all; what does that actually mean to the athlete? It means that, like I referred to last week, we can enter into situations with the belief, or the confidence, that we have the ability to control our own behaviors and motivations regardless of environment.

Simply, it is us believing we can do it. Regardless of scheme, opponent, situation; we are in control of our behaviors and we can find success. That is powerful. That is the differentiator. And that is a trait that can be, must be, developed.

You can think of it as your pinnacle, or your bedrock. In terms of a cycle both are true; it is the beginning and the result. Confidence in your ability to control your behaviors, your motivations – the idea that you can enter into a foreign environment, be it a sports arena or a boardroom – and you will continue to execute as you have prepared for…for most athletes that is the holy grail, that is the light at the end of the tunnel.

What are the factors that go into self-efficacy – I want to call it our unbreakable mindset. How do you become unbreakable? Can you become unbreakable? We have seen many elite athletes – including myself (ok not elite but high level) falter in the spotlight. Not once or twice but for time. To look at what you must develop to become unbreakable, let’s look at why you fail.

The first is performance, or history. If you have a history of performing well, you will inevitably be more confident. If you get into similar situations and regularly fail – the logic goes that you would then be less confident. Context matters to your brain – you don’t need to have seen the exact same film running through your head in order to succeed, but you do need to have data to demonstrate that you can accomplish these things. We do this through staging – practices – this is why your on-field preparation matters. You need to have proof that you can hit the shot, that you can see the window, break on the ball. You need experiences to reinforce your construct.

When we talk about mental toughness, the second component is the belief that what you are doing matters. That your actions in practice are in fact moving the dial for you. This is a huge part of becoming unbreakable; understanding that your willingness, your excitement in chasing your best every day is something that physiologically receive feedback from. This can be a chemical feedback from your brain, or a sensation of good vs. bad stemming from a technique. That is why the best in the world can pinpoint what went wrong - they can sense the feedback from their bodies.

That kinesthetic or physiological feedback is huge for an athlete to ‘feel’ what is happening. More importantly – we talk about the mind-body connection all the time as a two way street. The body will send signals to the brain, our interpretation of those signals, how we respond to those signals; that goes a long way in reinforcing confidence or anxiety in that feedback loop. And because it is important, it is something we have to integrate into our training – something as small as our posture can make a huge difference!

We teach our athletes how to watch film like a master poker player – because aside from actually doing something – watching film is the best thing an athlete can do to increase their confidence and sporting IQ. Why? Because you can reinforce your unbreakable mindset by watching yourself, and you can reinforce it by watching others as well. We see success and believe success is possible.

Think about the last time you watched tape of your opponent – could you pick up tendencies? Did you see anything that confused them, made their lives difficult? Even against the best players in the world; everyone has parts of their game we would rather exploit than others. Film can help you find those things and that is why it is so important. As one sees success in the same context as their role and requirements, an athlete will gain confidence because they are formulating a plan – how to attack the next opponent. Planning is the enemy of distraction, and while plans change, having an understanding of what an opponent can and cannot do is a critical factor in playing a step ahead.

And the last of these, and maybe the one we all identify with, is negative self-talk. It is so easy to turn something negative – and it seems like our default more often than not is to be hyper critical. This was definitely my issue – and again, I think you can look a little to the culture of the sport with how you perceive your role and the requirements for success. In my sport the number one decider of games is turnover differential. And to drill down to my position – if I have a bad play, someone can get really hurt. There are consequences for my actions that I deem very severe, so mistakes cannot be part of the equation. There is a tremendous pressure not to screw it up.

In a more fluid sport, there is much more of a risk reward decision tree that an athlete must make. If the objective is to score a goal as in lacrosse or soccer for example; athletes can be more creative around their scoring objective and then more conservative around their defending objective. Turnovers or possession is these sports is not everything; converting opportunities into scoring opportunities into goals is everything.

So we have to understand what are objectives are, and understand what we are trying to accomplish in every instance. And there are ways to do that; there are skills we teach our athletes, but the most important thing an athlete can do is be confident in their preparation, their process on the field or court. Part of that process and part of that preparation is keeping ourselves calm, directed, and focused.

That means understanding in part whether or not, as an athlete, is it better for you to keep the focus on yourself or keep the focus on your surroundings and the job. Studies suggest that external cues – things that direct action on something outside of yourself – create better outcomes. For example, focusing on the back of the rim is better than the snap of your wrist. Slicing the ball down the middle is a better cue than lifting your knee.

These are opposed to internal focus and reflection, whether we are talking mechanical processes or grading each scenario in real time. I love using cues and affirmations or mantras to put our athletes in the right mindset. But when we get into action, reading-and-reacting is the name of the game. We want to take in the relevant information in our surrounding environment and discard the irrelevant information. Efficiency is key to improving what my German soccer coach Jan describes as speed of thought.

We can use positive affirmations, but working a practice or game dives further into the focus by selecting the indicators for our next decision. These things we call relevant cues. Relevant cues and learning how and what to identify is a worthwhile process that would outlast the length of this podcast. But the key points are that we need to know what our actions can be, what external events trigger our action, and how can we continue to cycle through are action plan as the game continues – specifically in fluid sports.

Over time – these things become natural. A dribbler looking for a defender to switch their hips. A better notices the release angle of a pitcher. A defensive back sees the foot position of a QB... These things create actions for us to make our reactions and they also allow us to stay away from the internal thoughts and reflections that often lead to overthinking.

So those four systems, to generalize, make up your unbreakable mindset. And with unbreakable mindset, we give ourselves the best chance to find long term success. The thing about becoming unbreakable – it is a process. And the process doesn’t always work on day one, and it doesn’t mean you will win every confrontation. It does mean that you have the strength to compete, learn, and improve from every encounter – and that alone is worth the effort.

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