Overcoming Adversity on the Path to Success

This article will continue my evaluation of the most recent high school soccer season.  We had a good year, one of the best in the program's recent history going 10-4-3 overall. On the face of it, that's not too shabby.  Closer inspection reveals the three ties and one of the losses all resulted from allowing goals with under 3:00 minutes left on the game clock.  In fact, one occurred when a goal was allowed with just :03 remaining in the match.  Allowing late goals in these matches produced a strikingly negative impact on our record.  Even more disturbing is the fact we completely and totally failed to compete in two of our losses, How can a team with 10 wins lose games by scores of 0 - 8 and 0 - 9?


More accurately a lack of mental toughness was behind those two lopsided losses and allowing late goals that robbed us of favorable results. This is what has been constantly on my mind these past few weeks. How do I help the student athletes develop better mental toughness?  I will explore this in today's writing.

I know where we stand and I have a clear vision for where we need to go.  The journey between the two points is the off-season's undertaking. I'm going to identify specific areas where our team is lacking and attempt to set a course that will develop or enhance each of these areas.

For me, mental toughness begins with COMMITMENT.  The more committed one is, the more difficult it is to relinquish one's goals.  In other words, the more invested one is in a process the more difficult it becomes to give up on the process until achieving what you set out to do. This process calls for a clear vision of what the desired result of a process is and a well defined plan to achieve the desired result.

I recognized the lack of commitment early on with this group.  It manifested itself in a variety of ways some of which I will identify today beginning with off-season opportunities that were missed by most of the team.

Sunday afternoon open gym futsal.  We had a small core group who attended all or nearly all of these sessions.  Sunday afternoon was chosen so as not to interfere with other extracurricular school activities. These were completely voluntary workouts and therefore an excellent indicator of an individuals commitment to the 2016 season.  The day and time of the weekly event were consistent and well established in advance so as to allow student athletes to plan ahead to attend.  Those who made an investment in a 2 hour weekly opportunity to improve would prove to be committed to the team. That group was much smaller than I anticipated with a few would-be key members of the team not showing to any of the opportunities afforded to them. I was alarmed by this and my concern would prove to be well founded.

As winter weather began to break and spring advanced upon us we began small group training. Again, Sunday afternoons were the day and time of choice so as not to conflict with other extracurricular activities. I also offered alternate times as participation lagged making myself available at their discretion instead of mine. Attendance at these voluntary workouts was so poor we eventually abandoned the process entirely.  This near total failure raised a huge red flag about the commitment level of the individuals who would comprise our team that next fall.

Recognizing a lack of commitment to the team was of concern, I set about establishing a visual commitment metric to encourage and promote greater participation and deeper commitment.  This came in the form of a "money jar."  I went to a local discount store and purchased a one gallon plastic jug with a lid.  Each time we gathered as a team each individual player was to deposit one penny into the jug.  As the jug filled with pennies it would provide a visible measure of our commitment to the TEAM and one another.  The proceeds would go to a needy family or be donated to a local charity. This project began well and initial momentum carried us through 10 days to two weeks before participation dropped off significantly and eventually stopped altogether.

I want to be clear, we never did have 100% participation in this endeavor. From the start some made the conscious decision to not participate.  Others wanted to participate on a limited basis preferring to donate a lump sum to cover a week, month or the entire season.  Obviously, these individuals completely and totally missed the point of publicly renewing their commitment to the TEAM on a daily basis. By the end of the second week even the captain in charge of the money jug had fallen off course as he quit bringing it out of his car and into the presence of the TEAM so people could add a penny each day.

Towards the end of the season, after the two devastating losses mentioned earlier, I made a point of the missing money jar. I drove home the concept about lack of commitment to the team - more precisely to the underclassmen on the team for the seniors had already squandered their opportunity, and therefore their season  The money jar made a brief reappearance although few if any actually contributed. First another senior took the money jar with a proclamation that he would bring it to every team function. He failed to bring it to the very next team activity, I kid you not.  Next another senior took charge of the money jar and to his credit he did bring it to every team function the rest of the season and even to his exit interview.  One player, allow me to repeat that, one player brought a penny to their end of season interview to be placed in the money jar,

So, obviously our commitment to TEAM and one another must be strengthened before we can even begin tackling mental toughness. We must change how we think about TEAM before we can change our approach to preparedness and eventually change how we confront adversity and define who we are.


I have questioned myself concerning the level of commitment I am asking for from the members of our team.  Am I asking for too much? I do not believe so as past experiences have proven to me what it takes to be a successful program. Obviously a significant number of players believe other wise and that difference of thinking is where the challenge lies.

The question I will put forth to each individual team member concerning their commitment level is this; how will continuing to approach soccer and the soccer team as you have in the past help you to feel good about yourself, your performance and to achieve our stated goals?  Were you satisfied with the season just completed? If not, what changes are you willing to make so as to achieve more success?  Of course, in asking this question I will run the risk of individuals acknowledging they were quite satisfied with the season just completed.  That is a risk that must be taken if only so the answer more precisely defines the challenge being faced.  For a program that had not won 10 games in one season in many years, it is quite possible the players rational thinking is that what they did in preparing for last season is good enough. It wasn't, but focusimg on 10 wins over six poor results could cloud their thinking.

This is where RESPONSIBILITY and ACCOUNTABILITY come into play. Part of being mentally tough stems from taking responsibility for our approach to the TEAM and the game of soccer. Are we accountable for our thoughts, words, deeds and the rewards or consequences that stem from them? We will encounter adversity. That is a fact. To survive adversity we need to focus on things within our control. Elimination of adversity is not a possibility. We will face adversity, so the key becomes how we handle adversity. Nothing and no one can bother, distract or upset us without our granting them the ability or permission to do so.  This is, in part, the reasoning behind my mantra of Next Play! Whatever the adversity we encounter we must focus on our RESPONSE to it.

We might blame officiating or bemoan poor performance by teammates or coaches, but the ultimate responsibility will always remain the domain of each individual player or coach and by extension the collective of the TEAM. The referee misses a call or makes a poor decision - do we respond by arguing with the referee or by staying involved in the game and moving on to the next play!? When a teammate makes a mistake that adversely impacts the game do we chastise him continuing a chain of negativity or do we "pick him up" and help him to refocus on the things still under his control?

Dealing with adversity often involves ADAPTABILITY which is in and of itself about our response to the adversity encountered.  Adversity, by nature, removes us from an established comfort zone. We have certain expectations for how things will play out and when they don't go exactly as planned we need to be adaptable. This is true in soccer and in life.  Change is uncomfortable as it removes us from an established comfort zone, but we must accept some level of discomfort and pain in order to learn, adapt and advance. If we fight change we will soon be left behind which is exactly what happened in each of our poor results last season.

RESILIENT people do not see themselves as victims of adversity or change. They do not complain "why me" and lament their "bad luck".  Resilient people recognize bad events as a normal, if unwanted, part of life then adjust or adapt to the new reality of the situation. Dynamic individuals and teams are relentless in their adaptability, creativity and ingenuity to not just survive adversity, but to adapt and overcome adversity in continued pursuit of their vision.

An individual or team vision is defined by goals set.  What does the individual and or TEAM seek to accomplish. Again, I had encountered adversity in coaching last seasons team when the seniors set their goals both during the summer and once again when goals were revisited just before the regular season began. Almost all conceded losses to the "big three" of our conference and established a goal of winning the remaining 13 regular season games and at least one post season tournament game. We were defeated in 3 matches weeks before we actually played those matches. We had no chance to be resilient in losing to these teams for we never allowed ourselves the opportunity to engage and overcome the expected adversity.

Having goals and being resilient in overcoming adversity, difficulties and setbacks in pursuit of said goals means we will persevere while tolerating short-term frustration, discomfort and pain for long-term success.  Persistence and Resiliency are key; many people decide to simply give up and seek an easier route to a lesser goal or result. Due to a lack of commitment, most people lack the ability to be adaptable to setbacks that force an adjustment to the process  they have defined to achieve the goals established for themselves and their TEAM. In short, CONFIDENCE is missing.

The words confidence and belief are inseparable; you can't have one without the other. Our confidence will endure certain ebb and flow according to different circumstances or events (adversity) we encounter. Mental toughness or our resiliency depends on our ability to remain steadfastly focused on the goals we seek to achieve. These goals are not always tangible as in the number of wins we seek to accumulate in a season or the winning of a championship. In fact, the most important goal to focus on is a simple one - to improve every time we step on the field. This will allow our confidence to continue to grow and expand.

I have often spoke and written of comfort zones. I firmly believe the game (and life) begin at the end of your comfort zone. In speaking with a fellow coach recently I remarked that some our athletes seem afraid of success.  Individual athletes and or their collective teams come to the brink of real success only to fail to achieve said success. When faced with the prospect of persevering to actually overcome adversity and claim success / achieve their goals they crack under pressure and retreat to a previous comfort zone. Their established comfort zone becomes a comfort trap.

I have given this deep consideration and believe a failure to accurately assess the threat to our comfort zone inhibits the ability to establish new comfort zones. If we look upon the challenges adversity presents as unrealistically dangerous or threatening to the establishment of a new comfort zone we choose to remain where we are.  In a sense, it is amazing what we can become comfortable with when we choose a course of unchanged action.


I have described this avoidance as a fear of success. Each degree of success brings with it new challenges. If we think of each degree of success as a newly established comfort zone we can begin to sense the amount of work involved in being committed to success.  Our Rational Thinking in pursuit of success (or living life to its fullest) must focus on taking calculated risks designed to purposefully move us up the comfort zone ladder. We will likely fail before we succeed. Through our adaptability, our ability to adapt to and over come circumstance and events, new confidence is found. Being resilient is about being accountable and responsible in facing failure, learning from our failures and moving forward from our failures.  We must shrug off the shackles of self-imposed limits and our restricted views of reality to open our minds to ever greater possibilities and ever greater success. This is what being mentally tough is all about.


What does it mean to be coachable?

The latest high school season ended a month ago. After taking time off I am just now beginning to analyze our performance.  I have found it prudent to allow time for the emotions of the season to pass and also for myself to become rejuvenated from the grind.  How do I know when to begin again the process?  When I start yearning to be actively coaching again, it is time.

As I have reflected upon the season just passed, the theme that has emerged is "coach-ability."  This might seem a straight forward subject, but it is not. For example, is a player uncoachable or has the coach failed to find the best way to coach a player?

The hallmark of my teams has always been defense. They have always featured stout if not stifling defense that fuels a fast paced balanced counter-attacking offensive style. Not this past season.  We allowed 2.12 goals per game which is abysmal by my standards. The most important question to be asked is, why?

In analyzing the goals we allowed certain trends become apparent.  First, our backs were overly aggressive at times - they often dove in or stabbed at the ball instead of containing the attacker. This was something we addressed in training on a regular basis to little avail.  Secondly we were caught very flat or lacking defensive support on a far too regular basis - death to a zonal defense.  Again, this is something that was addressed on a regular if not daily basis in training.

So, now the question becomes, were the players uncoachable or did the coaching fail to reach the players?  I know from experience my coaching methodology has worked in the past. Was my approach with this group of individuals off or were they simply uncoachable?

Mistakes are welcomed if we learn from them.  And this is where we begin to uncover where the problem lay this past season.  Repeated mistakes become bad habits and we repeated the same mistakes in our back line on a regular basis.  No matter the approach in training the mistakes remained the same and constant. We simply could not overcome established bad habits.

I submit there are varying degrees of coachability

Not coachable: The know it all. Not receptive to instruction. Listens only to his own voice.

Selectively coachable: Does what is asked but only when it is self-serving. Mostly does whatever he wants.

Reluctantly coachable: Goes through the motions but doesn't fully embrace coaching. Reluctantly committed.

Coachable: Does everything asked of him. Surrenders self to the TEAM.  Trusts and empowers coaching.

When our performance is looked at in the context of the above scale, it becomes abundantly clear why we struggled defensively this past season. Team Culture was and will continue to be a frequent topic of conversation. In some ways, this past team was extremely selfish. That might sound harsh, so, in simpler terms, we had players whose excellence was defined by their arms and legs more so than by their heads and hearts. And let there be no doubt about it, this was apparent whenever we encountered adversity this season.

Now in my third decade of coaching I have seen my fair share of players who refused to take coaching, rejected instruction and eschewed the earned experience of those who would help them. Mostly I have seen the game pass these players by or seen them languish in mediocrity due to their arrogance, anger, subversion or low self-esteem. I have also seen plenty of players make transformative changes in their approach to the game that lead to TEAM success and earned them the individual accolades they had so desperately sought on their own.

How does a coach overcome a players inability or reluctance to take coaching?

I can identify "problem players" at the moment when I intervene with advice, instruction or criticism. It is at that moment when the athlete makes a choice between responding positively or reacting negatively that determines his destiny as a player. This can also be said of a team as a whole. Unless a coach can somehow influence a change from negative to positive in the player and or team

Can coachability be developed?

I have had some past success with this. Discovering a players motivation to learn and improve - what buttons to push to energize the players learning process is a key.  The individuals goals as a player are another.  What does the player wish to achieve and can he be convinced the coach holds the best interests of the player in mind as well? Which leads us to the player / coach relationship. This is where I failed with some individuals and therefore for the team this past season.

To be honest, the culture shift we implemented in the program this season was drastic and there was a certain (and expected) level of backlash against new rules and standards. The demand of players that they be subservient to TEAM instead of self was difficult for some to grasp let alone adhere to. Our disciplinary issues mostly fell into this realm.

In the Mel Gibson movie "The Patriot" the militia are an undisciplined lot who break ranks and flee in retreat at the first sign of adversity. They must learn to trust one another and band together tactically to become greater than the sum of their individual parts before they can turn the tide of battle in their favor and rout the British.  It took time, but they eventually found their way.

So, yes, coachability can be developed. Learning to trust one another is the foundation that must be established. Making self subservient to TEAM is a major step. The simple proposition that an individual will sacrifice his own selfish desires, needs, wants for the good of the TEAM is what must be brought forth. This can best be accomplished through building relationships that help the student athlete buy in to the TEAM philosophy.  This is what occurs in the movie "Remember the Titans" where a diverse group of high school athletes overcome social differences and selfishness to become a TEAM far greater than the sum of its individual parts.

Coachability is a state of mind. It is about having the internal strength to trust teammates and coaching to achieve more together than the individual can achieve on his own. The transformation that must sometimes occur is about learning to willingly allow one's self to be subservient to the TEAM's whole. Developing an understanding that excellence is defined by head and heart even more so than by legs and arms must occur. When these things are allowed to blossom and grow transformative change from selfishness to selflessness can occur. That's when I have seen an uncoachable player turn into a coachable player.