As a coach, we know that to give their best performance, an athlete should focus their attention on the here and now, meaning they should stay in the present moment and concentrate on their actions.

We teach this rule to our athletes, but we sometimes forget that the coach’s state of mind has a significant impact on their behavior. Therefore, when our thoughts wander through time, we tend to make mistakes that cause athletes to worry about the future or the past. By focusing our attention on the present moment, we set an example, and we positively influence our athletes to follow this same path.

What are the most common mental mistakes made by coaches? And what could we do to help our athletes focus on the present moment?

10 common mistakes made by coaches

Nobody is perfect. Although you do everything in your power to be a role model for your athletes, you will have certainly committed one of these mental errors on some occasion. Personally, I have committed them all, and I still make them, it’s perfectly normal. The most important thing is to become aware of the patterns that we repeat at a mental level, then develop new strategies that will help us stay in the present moment.

Here are 10 types of behaviors that could prompt your athletes’ minds to wander. Which of these have you done before?

Thinking about the past:

  1. Talking about previous victories or defeats;
  2. Focusing on a brilliant performance (that you would like to reproduce) or a poor past performance (that you would like to avoid);
  3. Focusing on mistakes that occurred earlier in the match or competition.

Thinking about the future:

  1. Discussing the consequences of a future victory or defeat, before the competition is over;
  2. Stating doubts that cross your mind;
  3. Focusing on mistakes that should be avoided;
  4. Putting a lot of pressure on your team because you let yourself become overwhelmed by the high expectations of others, about your coaching or how your athletes should perform.

Allowing your mind to wander freely:

  1. Directing your athletes’ attention towards the opponents instead of themselves;
  2. Focusing on weather (rain, wind, heat) or equipment (state of the field, characteristics of a piece of equipment);
  3. Directing your athletes’ attention towards the score.

Our athletes are constantly being told to focus on their actions and forget the rest. We want them to think “one point at a time, one skill at a time.” However, each time they are reminded of the score, when we point out a mistake they made, or when we talk about the consequences of a hypothetical defeat, we train our athletes to detach themselves from the present moment and to travel in time and space.

5 tips to help your athletes stay in the present moment

Focus on the process

Identify your process goals and direct your team’s attention to those goals. Repeat them regularly so that your athletes know that it is your priority and what you will focus on – not past performance, victory or defeat, or mistakes that could be made in competition.

Process goals are based on the execution and form of a technical skill or strategy. It can also be a goal related to the tactical or strategic aspects of the game. These goals are entirely under your control, which means they depend only on your athletes or your team, and not on the performance of the opponents.

Everything in its own time

Make it clear to your athletes that the consequences of a win or a loss will be dealt with after the competition, and make sure what you say reflects this philosophy. Everything in its own time; it is useless to anticipate something that may or may not happen and extrapolate the consequences. The vast majority (85% according to studies) of events that we anticipate and worry about never happen.

Be loyal

Be humble, supportive and forget about your ego. Make sure your actions and words are not influenced by external expectations – for example, what others might think of you as a coach if you lose the game or the competition. Your athletes want to feel that you are part of the group and that no matter what happens, you will work together and you will support them. This attitude will help athletes return to the present moment by freeing themselves from concerns about the consequences of mistakes and defeat.

It is sometimes tempting to detach yourself from your athletes’ or your team’s results, under the pretext that you did everything you could “but they were not focused” or “they have not played with their heart, they have not given their best effort.” The performance is always a team effort between the coach and their athletes. Success and defeat belong to both parties.

In your body, out of your head

Be brief and concise in what you say and encourage your athletes to focus on their physical sensations – the fluidity of movement, body relaxation, explosiveness, energy. Be direct, open and frank in your interventions, and confident in your attitude. This will help your athletes get into the action and avoid being overwhelmed by worries, thoughts, and emotions.

Only us

Talk to your athletes about their actions and what they can control. Remind them of the process goals. Give them instructions, show them what they have already accomplished and what they can do better. The more your attention is directed toward your athletes, the less they will tend to focus on the opposing team.

Being able to recognize when our mind wanders

Staying in the present moment is a real challenge. In fact, it is impossible, because our mind naturally wants to wander. We are responsible for recognizing when we lose track of our thinking and for developing strategies to return to the present moment.

As a coach, our words and behavior have a direct impact on the path that our athletes will take. It is therefore even more important for us to be aware of our thought patterns, so we become a positive influence on our athletes, and a real factor of change in the way they act in practice, in competition, and in life.

Leadership is a matter of having people look at you and gain confidence, seeing how you react. If you’re in control, they’re in control. – Tom Landry