The Secret Step to Building a Confident Player and Team

Every coach wants to get the most out of his or her players in an effort to give his or her team the best opportunity for success on the field of play.  And every coach knows that consistent performance is absolutely necessary for a player and team to win, particularly in the close games against the best competition.  These points are a given.

So here are a couple of questions for you, “What makes the most successful teams successful?  What is their secret ingredient for consistent performance and execution?”  Here are two more critical questions for you…”Do you ever get frustrated when your player(s) or team fails to execute during a game? And what is the root cause of the breakdown in execution?”

The answers to these questions are all inter-related in a crystal clear cause and effect relationship and will be covered in detail in this article so read on.

To get the most out of your players and to build a confident, competent and happy group of players requires that you as coach become an excellent communicator.  Your players look to you for direction as to how to play the game mechanically as well as how to play the game mentally; which includes the why of the game; why the game works the way it does and why you want them to do the things you ask them to do.  As a coach when you combine the elements of how and why into your teachings you begin to build a solid foundation of competence and confidence.

The question that I posed earlier as to “what makes the most successful teams successful?” is certainly a combination of factors: talent, coaching, team chemistry, luck and more.  However at the root of any team’s success is confidence and the ability to play with 100% effort and 100% focus all of the time.  I firmly believe that champions are made, not born and I have personally experienced that on my teams in the most amazing ways!  But, again, in order to get your players to perform their best game in and game out you, as coach, must instill within each of your players the mental “trigger” of belief and confidence.

It is widely believed in sports psychology circles that confidence is the essential foundation for any athlete to possess in order to perform to his or her optimal level.  Without a solid base of confidence a player’s performance is likely to be inconsistent; a roller coaster ride of ups and downs.  This is particularly true with youth athletes where high levels of expectations can make a young athlete’s confidence fleeting and fragile.  As a coach it is your responsibility to understand the dynamics between the physical and mental/emotional aspects of the game and how they affect each of your players specifically in the following areas:

  • How they deal with perceived failure
  • Their individual level of expectation for performance
  • Their overall enjoyment of the game
  • Team morale and relationships between players and coaches
  • Each player’s mental preparation for each game or at bat
  • How you as a coach react to their mistakes and “failures”
  • How your players’ parents react to their child’s performance
To me, as a coach, the most important elements of building confident and competent athletes are:

  1. The expectation level you set for the team and each player for their performance and, 
  1. Your response to the mistakes and failures of your players during the game.
On my teams I have developed a coaching philosophy that has done wonders to keep my players confident and happy, as well as minimize the individual and collective downtime experienced after a “mistake” or “failure.”  On my teams we never stress the importance of any single mistake or failure.   We don’t even really focus on the score.  It’s what I call Effort Over Outcome coaching.  You see if you as a coach or parent micro-manage every mistake your child makes during a game you are going to live in a world of constant frustration.  And, believe me; your frustration makes the game a whole lot less fun for you and your child.  

The last thing your child needs to hear from the stands or right after the game is their parent’s critique of their performance; it’s just totally counter productive because your child will shut down to it, or worse, it will act to affect their game negatively.  Children have an innate desire to please their parents, particularly daughters and their fathers, so be very careful as parent and coach to monitor excessive intrusion by parents, especially during the game.
So, more to the point, what specifically is my Effort Over Outcome coaching philosophy?  Well I cover that and 21 Mental Performance Killers in my book, HowShe Thinks is How She Plays, but I’ll share the foundation of the philosophy here and why it is so vital in producing the confident and competent athletes you so desire.

We live in a society obsessed with results and outcome and judgment over such.  Nowhere is that more empirically present than in the sports of baseball and softball where statistics and one-on-one battles are interwoven into the fabric of an otherwise team game.  Early in my coaching career I can admit to being a coach that put far more emphasis on outcome.  I wanted to win and that is how I kept score.  I would critique every mistake and would become visibly frustrated often.  As you can imagine my players quickly picked up on my energy and began to play tight after a mistake (either in the field or a less than stellar at bat), and it only led to the dreaded snowball effect when one error would lead to four or five and one strikeout would lead to a half dozen.  

The sad thing was I had some pretty talented teams that never won consistently.  Why?  I believe it was because I, as a coach, and we, as a team, were far too focused on outcome.  We rarely came back once we were behind and we lost countless games in which we led.  The worst effect of this style of coaching was a lot of tears from my players.

Fortunately I had an epiphany and discovered a different coaching path that has made all the difference in the world to my players and my teams!  About two years ago we started letting go of mistakes and scores and outcomes in general.  I know that may sound crazy in a game that is built around stats and scores, but keep reading!  Instead we focused on each girl’s and the team’s effort.  We only had three goals: give 100% physical effort on each play, give 100% mental focus on each play, and most importantly have fun playing the game.  We told the girls that if you do these three things during each game the results (outcome) would take care of themselves.

Think of it like cause and effect.  If the cause is effort and focus and fun the effect will likely be a good one.  And even the close losses are easier bounce back from because we gave our all and had fun.  The end result was far fewer physical and mental errors, higher quality at bats, much quicker bounce back from mistakes (so no snowball effect) and…many more wins; now imagine that.  And the really cool thing is that my players began to play with soaring confidence because they weren’t afraid of being scolded for every mistake and we truly started playing in the moment instead of fearing a future failure or lamenting a past failure.  And their mental focus enabled them to become more competent players.  

Finally, all the tears I used to get during and after the games turned in to smiles. So you too can build a team of confident and competent athletes ready to win and have a whole lot of fun doing it!  

Thanks for reading!  --John Michael Kelly

Check out my latest book, Loving the Game, here!


The Comeback Mindset

The “comeback”…one of the great elements of sport, when momentum shifts and player or team overcome the odds and prevails in dramatic fashion. After all what’s more exciting than the walk off hit to win the game or the clutch hit, pitch or play that forever changes the course of the game!
But what is the genesis of the comeback, and when do the seeds of that comeback take root and why?
As well, we’ve all seen athletes or teams stuck in prolonged hitting, fielding or pitching slumps.
What are the causes for the slump, why is it so hard to break the bondage of such a slump, and how can athlete or team get back on track with brimming confidence and dynamic performances?
Finally, why is hitting or not hitting “contagious?” Meaning why is it that when a few players start to hit the entire team joins the fun, and (think the 2014 San Diego Padres) when key players don’t hit the virus of not hitting spreads like wildfire on a team?
It all comes back to the “Comeback Mindset” (or lack of one), the “cause” of all “effects” on the field. And here is the really good news: any athlete or team can acquire and possess the “Comeback Mindset,” as it is always a CHOICE. Let me explain:
1. It all starts with the human mind; the most powerful thing on the planet! Each of us creates and experiences over 50,000 unique thoughts each and every day. This amazing fact, along with the knowledge that these massive thoughts tend to “clump together” into “thought patterns,” leads us to understand why athletic highs and lows can come so frequently and so dramatically. Because at the core of it all, how you think is how you play! Doubt can be as strong and powerful as a freight train if left unattended. It can grow deep roots that steadily undermine sports confidence and derail game performance. This is the mind’s power at work. The goal is to first recognize these limiting thought patterns, then shift the thoughts behind the emotional state to effect performance levels.
2. For a team, from my experiences on the field, there is no denying that the more energized, loud and focused team will carry or shift momentum. This collective energy, all focused on the comeback (a common goal), is not only palpable in the dugout but to the other team as well. On the other hand a team with divided energy (some “can do” and some “can’t do”…and this includes coaches) will never mount a comeback. Great players and teams often “will” themselves to overcome the odds to achieve success.
3. For an individual player the same applies. If one’s energy and expectancy for future at bats, plays in the field or next inning in the circle is for SUCCESS their body and mind should be in a corresponding calm, relaxed, focused and confident state allowing her to play her best. However, if this same athlete is bothered or awash in DOUBT her body will experience corresponding anxiousness, confusion, hesitancy in action and fleeting confidence at best. In this emotional thought state she can never perform her best and her slump will likely continue.
4. For athlete or team the development of the “Comeback Mindset” is always a CHOICE. Can the athlete/team cultivate the “belief” that their luck can change, or do they resign themselves to only what they see? This leads me to the Zen paradox of “I’ll see it when I believe it,” instead of the typical Western response, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Looking at game adversity as a challenge and opportunity to prevail is at the heart of the “Comeback Mindset.”
5. It’s all “cause and effect.” If you want to change the result, change the cause. Sounds simple (and it actually is to one who practices the process) but it takes some time to fine tune your mind and thought process to be able to make the necessary shift (minor or major). Perpetuating the same beliefs and thoughts will only bring the same results. As such, limiting beliefs must be challenged and thinking must be “by design” instead of “by default.” You always have the power to program your mind to direct your thinking, even in the toughest of times, to the “green zone” instead of the accidental “red zone.”
Here are five “action step” strategies your athlete and team can implement IMMEDIATELY to “activate” their “Comeback Mindset:”
1. Recognize that the “Comeback Mindset” is always a choice. Be the one to set the tone on your team. Be the leader who gets vocal, gets dirty and chooses to keep competing. Adopt a “never give up and never give in” attitude and spread it throughout your dugout and on the field! Your personal energy can ignite your entire team and change the outcome of the game. Remember prior successes and BELIEVE that if you have done it before you can do it again!
2. Stay in the present moment. Present Moment Awareness (“PMA”) is crucial for an individual athlete and team when trying to overcome a slump or turn the tide for your team in a game that looks hopeless. Being bothered by a past failure or mistake (“Past Focus”), or worrying about failing in the next inning or next at bat (“Future Focus”) will insure your outcome will be the same as before. In a game where the hitter has less than 4/10th of a second to decide pitch velocity, movement and location the inability to harness 100% of your mental focus in the present moment will spell predictable disaster!
3. Be aware of your own energy. I firmly believe that female athletes need to “feel good” to play well. As such be mindful of how you feel and work hard to keep those “can do” thoughts going. Run on and off the field and make noise. I have found that the simple act of making noise on the field or in the dugout can elevate focus and performance for both individual and team. Try it…you’ll feel better!
4. Understand “Controllables;” those factors you do and do not have any control over. Things like the umpire’s strike zone, field conditions, teammates play, coaching comments, hitting the ball right at someone, bad hops, etc. are out of your control. To let these things get into your head when you may already be fighting yourself mentally is a really bad plan, as it will surely only serve to accelerate negative, doubtful thinking.
So what factors can you as player or team control?
Your ATTITUDE (see #1 above)
Your level of PREPARATION
Your mental FOCUS (see #2)
5. Have a super short memory. Hey, let’s face it…tough things happen to all players and teams in softball. It’s just the nature of the game. Prepare yourself for the adversity the game will inevitably throw at you by devising a mental game plan to overcome and bounce back from the bad things that happen. This preparation will enable you to build more resiliencies. If you are in a slump or your team is having one of those days let go of what happened bad and look forward to the next “opportunity” the game gives you (again, see #2)! A great way to do this is to focus more on the “process” and your “effort” than being obsessed solely with the outcome or results you get. Be mindful of your inner conversation (see #5 above) and choose “green.”
The bottom line is the “Comeback Mindset,” once cultivated, is a super powerful weapon for any player or team. A determined, enthusiastic player or team is hard to stop. And, again, activating this mindset is always a choice that can be triggered in any given moment by a shift in thinking (which in turn triggers a subtle then powerful shift emotionally).
The challenge, of course, is to be able to implement these strategies when you don’t feel great, or are having one of those days. This is why physical AND mental preparations BEFORE you step on the field are crucial to reversing slumps and turning games around for teams.
To comeback or not comeback, that is the question…that is the choice!



If your athlete is of college showcase age (14+) or soon will be you'll want to read my top 10 tips on how she can stand out in showcase events (whether games or camps):

1. Know WHY you are there! This may seem simple but there is a HUGE difference in mindset between a tournament game and a showcase game/camp. In tournaments your team must shine; in a showcase YOU must shine.

2. Know "they" are ALWAYS watching! To a college coach you are an investment they will only make if they feel it's a safe and sound one. As such they have their "eagle eye" on you before, during and after the game. So pick up those empty water bottles in the dugout 

3. Keep your eyes forward and FOCUS! Dedicate your focus and energy on what you have CONTROL of. Let your performance speak loudly. Once your focus is on the coaches behind the fence you are DONE.

4. Do something special...STAND OUT! A showcase is an OPPORTUNITY to strut your stuff amid the sea of competition so make the most of each ball hit to you; each pitch; each at bat. Get dirty! Give maximum effort ALWAYS, and "effort" is always a CHOICE!

5. Play to your STRENGTHS! If you are a pitcher with a great change up SHOW IT...often. If you've got speed then bunt, slap, steal a base or stretch that single into a double. If you are a power hitter swing HARD. Give the coaches something to REMEMBER you by. Don't take pitches as no college coach will recruit you for walking!

6. Remember the INTANGIBLES! The easiest way to stand out is to do all the little things well. Hustle on and off the field; use your voice in the field or in the dugout; run out hits; smile and have great body language; encourage your teammates; make adjustments; play fearless; love the game. These are easy to do and will make you STAND OUT!

7. PERFECTION is not important. No college coach I have ever been with during a game has told me they expect perfection from pitcher, hitter or fielder. They expect mistakes. They are looking for potential, overall game and mental skills, plus athleticism...and all the things I listed in #6.

8. Would you recruit you? Remember this is a business for a college coach. If they recruit the wrong kids their job is on the line. Give them a reason to want you (preferably several reasons). They don't recruit "projects," kids who may not be coachable, or drama queens. They want leaders who are teachable; kids who will run through a wall and smile while doing it.

9. Negative EMOTION is not an option! The very quickest way to get your name crossed off the college coach's list is to show negative emotion. Showing frustration or anger after a strikeout, error or poor inning in the circle is a terminal cancer. Arguing with an umpire, shaking your head, kicking the dirt, loafing back to the dugout, hanging your head, dropping or throwing a bat or helmet will effectively ban you from 99% of college coach's "prospect list."

10. There is always a TOMORROW! Depending on your athlete's age there will always be another showcase or camp to shine. One bad showing doesn't usually doom a player as long as she does everything else on this list well. The sky will, in fact, not fall in! Often the first showcase or college camp is a scary proposition for a younger player, so a mulligan or two may be necessary. Look at each showcase as a LEARNING opportunity.

If your athlete or team can take to heart these 10 tips and put them into practice they will be well on their way to securing their college softball future!

Thanks for reading! --John Michael Kelly


6 Ways Fragile Confidence is Nurtured or Crushed

I like to compare a younger athlete's sports confidence to that of holding a new born baby. Of course extra caution is necessary due to how fragile the infant child is. 

How any parent or coach handles their athlete(s) is no different. In truth how you "hold" your athlete's confidence matters, for it too is exceptionally fragile. One wrong move and BAM her confidence can shatter, or at the very least develop a large bump on the forehead!

In any given moment with every word spoken, body language gesture or facial expression (after all 90% of our communication as humans is non-verbal, according to a recent UCLA study) your athlete's sports confidence, like that baby, is either being nurtured or damaged.

As a parent or coach you get to decide whether that precious cargo of "confidence" you are holding, and have so much power to shape, will grow steadily or erode steadily. Here are 6 tips to consider:

1. Are you really being critical or supportive? If you are harping on results or expecting her to do more than she is capable you will damage or stymie her confidence.

2. In the same way you speak praise and support to a toddler attempting their first steps, or a child's first bike ride your athlete's confidence needs praise, not criticism or judgment. Words can be very damaging to a young person's confidence, self-esteem and self-image. Use your words carefully!

3. So often I see and hear parents and coaches getting down on their athlete(s) after a mistake on the field, almost as if the athlete was trying to screw up. I can assure you that your athlete is likely doing her best to master a very difficult sport. Allow those mistakes to be the springboard for learning and growth; not events she is terrified of because of the nasty comments, looks and body language she expects from parent or coach.

4. In truth confidence and competence are tied together. As parent or coach work hard to help your athlete to get better in all facets of their game. Give them the constant encourage and time it takes to improve. The more competent she "feels" she is the more her confidence will naturally grow. If she knows that in your eyes making a mistake isn't the end of the world you will be amazed, and I say this from personal experience, how much better she will feel about herself...and how much better she will play!

5. Remember that confidence in one area of her game doesn't guarantee confidence in all areas. By on the lookout for cracks in her confidence and address them in the most supportive way possible. Remind her that she doesn't have to be perfect (no player is).

6. Enjoy the journey. Her softball days will end some day. Why not be more focused on the creation of great memories for both of you instead of making endless mountains out of mole hills that both erode her sports confidence and drive a wedge of frustration between you both.

My daughter recently left for college and I would do anything to take back so many of the harmful things I said to her out of frustration over the years of her playing softball.

Commit to being different. Focus on what you are "for" instead of what you are "against." Develop a positive, supportive, nurturing mindset and watch your athlete(s) blossom on and off the diamond!

**Download a free chapter of my new book, Think Right, Play Great!