Summary: Have you ever wondered what the secret behind a champion’s success is? Why some players achieve success against the odds while others with seemingly greater talent fail to live up to expectations? If you could change the way your players thought, what would you teach them to make them better? We asked sports psychologist Glen Murdoch for the answers to these questions and more. We convinced him to share the principles he teaches professional teams and athletes during his sought after one-on-one coaching sessions and group workshops. Here is what he told us.
The story has become football folk lore in Western Australia. A young sixteen year old Ben Cousins, dreaming of making it to the AFL, is told he is too slow to make it by an AFL scout.
Such comments would have set most sixteen year olds back, if not seen them abandon their dreams totally. But not Ben Cousins. Instead, he took the comments as feedback and set himself the goal of becoming quicker.
He brain stormed different ways in which he could improve his speed and this eventually lead him to taking up a part-time job and employing the services of West Coast Eagles sprint coach Mark Neates.
The result? Ben Cousins was eventually drafted into the AFL by the West Coast Eagles where he later became a captain, multiple fairest and best winner, Brownlow medallist and Premiership player.
Such stories are certainly uplifting and inspiring. But they are also surprisingly common amongst champion teams and athletes who prove time and time again that their success is no fluke!
Someone who has gained a remarkable insight into the secrets of sporting success is sports psychologist Glen Murdoch.
For 26 years now, Glen has been coaching and teaching people to be a better version of themselves. With unbridled enthusiasm he says he has always loved coaching and the tingling feeling he gets when he sees athletes or clients have that “ah ha” moment when they break through a barrier to success.
He runs a successful coaching and training business, has a degree in Sport Science, a diploma of education, and a graduate Diploma in Sports Psychology. He’s coached the Victorian women’s cricket team to an Australian Championship, worked with several football clubs in the VFL and throughout Australia, won a teacher of the year award in England and is fast growing an excellent reputation for his “gap” work with sporting teams, businesses and athletes.
Glen took some time out of his busy schedule to sit down with Coach AFL and discuss the 5 success secrets he teaches to footy players and clubs during his intensive one-on-one sessions and workshops. And I have to say, we were extremely inspired by what he told us.
Success Secret #1 – Setting Personal Goals
According to Glen, one of the most common traits amongst successful athletes, coaches and teams is goal setting. That is, almost every champion athlete or coach has, at one time or another, set themselves goals to focus their efforts on and motivate themselves with to succeed.
In fact, ask any of today’s top footballers and coaches if they have any personal goals right now, and we guarantee almost all will tell you “yes”. Coincidence?
Goal setting is a powerful process because it helps clarify precisely what a player wants to achieve in footy. As a result, players begin to focus their efforts on the tasks they need to do to achieve their goals, as well as spotting the distractions that would otherwise lure them from their course.
But more than this, properly-set goals can be incredibly motivating, and as players get into the habit of setting and achieving goals, they’ll find that their self-confidence builds fast.
Here’s what Glen recommends for players and coaches.
1. Educate Players On Goal Setting
When Glen works with an athlete or team, one of the first things he does is help them to set personal goals. These are not team goals, but rather what players want to personally achieve at an individual level.
But simply telling players to set goals does not work in Glen’s experience. As Glen explains “Players, and people in general, really need some help in how to set a goal and what a goal should look like.”
So Glen also shows his players how to set personal goals using the “SMART” technique. These are goals that are:
- As if now
How does Glen does this for football players? Easy!
Glen simply asks them this one easy question – “Picture it’s the last day of the season and your team has just won the grand final. What personal goals would you (as a player) have had to achieve during the season to get to that point.”
In this case, a full-forward might answer, “Its the 30th of September, we have just won the grand-final. I have kicked 65 goals for the season at a 65% conversion rate.”
A goal like this suddenly gives a full-forward focus on what they want to achieve during the season and starts them thinking about how they can go about achieving it.
Other personal goals for a player might be:
- To average 20 possessions a game;
- To make 4 tackles a game;
- To win 5 contested possessions a game;
- And so on…
During his workshops, Glen educates players on the importance of goal setting then shows them how to set personal goals using the SMART technique.
Glen also has players focus on performance based goals, rather than outcome based goals. The difference is simple.
An outcome based goal for a player may be “to play senior football”. While this may be an excellent goal to aspire to, other factors which the player has no control over may influence the outcome, such as injury, match committee opinions, opportunity or just plain bad luck. If a player fails to “play in the seniors” because of something out of their control, they will become dispirited and less motivated to perform.
In this case, a better approach would be to set performance based goals that will help them achieve their desired outcome, such as to lay X amount of tackles or win X amount of possessions a game. In this case, players have control over the achievement of their goals and will draw more satisfaction when they achieve them.
2. Write Goals Down On Paper
Once a player established their goals, the next step Glen gets them to do in his workshops is to write them down on paper and continually revisit them. This is something he strongly recommends coaches get their players to do also.
According to Glen, this is important because players are far more likely to work towards and achieve their goals when they are written, then if they are simply imagined.
As Glen explains, “When you write goals down, you activate a part of your brain known as the reticular activating system, which acts as a filter between your conscious and your subconscious mind.”
There are some interesting points about your reticular activating system that make it an essential tool for achieving goals.
First, you can deliberately program the reticular activating system by choosing the exact messages you send from your conscious mind. For example, you can set goals, or say affirmations, or visualize your goals.
Second, your reticular activating system cannot distinguish between ‘real events’ and ‘synthetic’ reality. In other words it tends to believe whatever message you give it.
According to Glen, “By writing down your goals, your brain starts sending signals to your sub-conscious saying ‘this is what I want’, and your mind begins to work out ways for you to get it. And that is what goal setting is really about. It’s not ‘let’s write something down and see if it happens’. It’s about writing something down and letting your mind work on ways for you to achieve it. It is phenomenal how the mind works that way!”
3. Make Players Accountable For Their Goals
Of course anyone who has ever gone through the goal setting process will tell you that unless you make yourself accountable to your goals, they are often forgotten about and become meaningless.
So the final piece behind Glen’s strategy is to make player’s accountable for their goals. One of the best ways to achieve this is to have players communicate their goals to a third party.
According to Glen, “This prevents players from slackening off and forgetting about their goals. But if a player says to you, ‘my goal is to kick 65 goals for the season at a 65% conversion rate’, then you can hold them accountable to that goal throughout the season.”
Here is what Glen recommends for coaches.
1. Communicate Goals To The Coaching Group
Firstly, Glen suggests coaches should encourage their players to share their personal goals with them. This shows the coaching group that a player has at least set goals, and have set them in a way that will work for them. It also means coaches can briefly discuss ways in which that player can achieve them.
2. Start a Buddy System
Secondly, while it is important for coaches to know what a player’s individual goals are, coaches typically do not have the time at the grassroots level to continually hold each and every player accountable to their goals, every week during the course of a season.
Glen therefore suggests for coaches to introduce a buddy system. In this situation, players would buddy up with another player, with each acting as the other’s accountability coach.
In this scenario, you may have 20 pairs within a group. Each pair would then meet every Monday or Tuesday after the game to discuss each others performance against their goals. The conversations would not just involve whether a goal was met or not for that particular game, but would also cover what a player did to achieve their goals during that week.
Does a player need to do more goal kicking practice at training, take his preparation more seriously the night before the game, or position themselves better at stoppages? These are ideas that each pair could discuss and hold each other accountable for to achieve their goals.
According to Glen, “This simple system ensures players are accountable for their goals and continue to work hard to achieving them. It also works much better because the players have control of the process. The coach can of course show them the process, but the players ultimately need to take responsibility for it to make it move forward.”
3. Reassess Goals
Finally, while it is important to set goals, it is just as important to reassess them as you move forward. When players reach their goals, they should take time out to reward themselves and celebrate it. This acts as a motivator to keep on moving forward.
In this case, players need to reassess and set the bar higher again with their next goals.
- If the goal was achieved too easily, make your next goals harder.
- If they took a dispiriting length of time to achieve, then make them a little easier next time instead.
- If you learned something that would lead you to change other goals, do so.
- If you noticed a deficit in your skills despite achieving the goal, decide whether to set goals to fix this.
Failure to meet goals does not matter much, as long as you learn from it. Feed lessons learned back into your goal setting program.
Players need to remember that their goals will always change as time goes on. So they need to adjust them regularly to reflect growth in their knowledge and experience, and if goals do not hold any attraction any longer, then let them go.
Success Secret #2 – The Principle of “Cause and Effect: Driving Your Own Bus
According to Glen, another common trait amongst successful athletes and teams is the principle of “cause and effect” – one of Glen’s favourites. According to this principle, athletes can live their lives above or below the line in the below diagram.
When players live their lives above the line, they are living “at cause”. In this case, they take responsibility for everything that happens to them – in footy this means preparation, training, recovery, diet, performance on the ground etc.
As Glen explains, “This is the language of responsibility and of course when players are living above the line they are very easy to coach because they own their mistakes or deficiencies. It’s where successful athletes and people live at, and where players should aim to be.”
Conversely, when you live your life below the line, you are living “at effect” where you allow things to just “happen” to you.
According to Glen, “This is the language of blame – where everything that’s gone wrong was the coaches fault, the wife’s fault, the weather, the umpires, basically anything other than the player themself. This is where losers typically live, and where players should aim to avoid.”
When Glen works with players in a workshop, he educates them on this principle and asks them where they are living?
He then gives them the term “Who’s driving your bus?” for them to own and adopt as a playing group. Glen loves using this term.
According to Glen, “Whenever a team mate starts playing the blame game, the playing group generally asks that player ‘Who’s driving your bus’. This helps that player realise their negative mindset and take responsibility for their own destiny again.”
Success Secret # 3 – A Mindset Of Inner Strength
This next factor is closely linked to Glen’s principle of “driving your own bus.” According to Glen, when he works with players, they often ask him for help to develop inner qualities such as their courage, commitment, passion, talents, strengths and more.
In this situation, Glen feels it is important that players are made to realise that whatever it is that they actually need to succeed as a player, is already within them. Players already have all of the resources they need inside of them to succeed, they just need to find them and bring them out.
This is an incredibly important mindset for athletes to have.
As Glen told us, “These things do not arrive in the mail box, they are within all of us. Players should realise that instead of just hoping for certain qualities – instead of just wishing to become a better kick, or a great mark or for courage in packs – a better question would be to ask themselves what they are willing to sacrifice to get them?”
“That’s what champions do and how players should approach their goals.”
Success Secret # 4 – A Mindset of Failure vs Feedback
As you know, when players make a mistake or fail to achieve their goals, their confidence can nose-dive. You only have to look at teams playing without confidence each week in the AFL to how badly this can affect performance.
But what if every time something did not work out, instead of seeing it as failure, players simply saw it as feedback to try a different strategy next time?
This is yet another important mindset that Glen tries to pass on to players.
According to Glen, “Coaches need to move their players towards this mindset. They need to convince their players that there is no such thing as failure, only ‘feedback’. Because from this place, players not only continually learn from their mistakes (and also achievements for that matter), they also have the confidence to continue trying again without fear of failure.
“When people know they cannot fail, they are so much more adventurous and confident. And in reality, what is failure anyway?”
Success Secret # 5 – Communicating Success
The final success secret Glen teaches players during his workshops is communication. This revolves around what you are communicating to yourself internally, and what you are communicating to team-mates and the opposition externally.
Glen generally spends a lot of time teaching players how to master these two important facets.
1. Mastering Self Talk.
Research shows that human beings say over 60,000 words to themselves each day. Even more incredible is the fact that your unconscious mind hears everyone of those words and tries to turn those beliefs into a reality.
So the questions players should be asking themselves are, “What exactly am I saying to myself? How am I saying it? And how is that making me feel?”
When Glen works with a player, he asks them “What do you want to be?” and “What do you believe about yourself?” And according to Glen, he is amazed how many walk around telling themselves “I am sh*t”.
Little do these players know that if they changed that ‘self-talk’ to reflect whatever it is they want to be, even if they don’t believe it, eventually it embeds in the unconscious mind and their new beliefs become reality.
As Glen explains, “A person’s thoughts control the realities they create. Not the other way round.”
“I’m strength, I am a great mark, I am courageous in packs. Players need to change their self-talk to reflect whatever they want to be, and the key for this to work is to say it to themselves, even if it is not the way it is now.”
One of the strategies Glen uses to teach positive self-talk to players is to get them to wear an elastic band or head band around their wrist. Then every time a player finds themself saying negative self-talk to themselves, Glen tells them to snap the wrist band, say “that is not me” and change their language with the words they want.
According to Glen, this simple, yet powerful strategy creates a physical anchor and tells the player at the unconscious level that the talk is bad. It helps players to change their self-talk and beliefs in a very rapid way.
2. Mastering Body Language
Another factor Glen works with players on is their body language, something that Glen tells us is one of the biggest mistakes he sees players making.
As Glen explains, “Players must understand that walking out onto the oval and saying things like, ‘Come on guys, let’s get them Johnno, insert other typical comment here’. These comments actually make very little difference on the field. Studies prove that 93% of communication is non-verbal, meaning your words are only 7% of what your team-mates and opposition see.”
According to Glen, “It’s not what you say neccessarily, but rather how you say it with your body language that matters most.”
When Glen works with players, he tells them to show strength and dominance in their body language. Almost a show of arrogance if you like.
He tells them that when they walk out onto the oval, they must walk out “LIKE THEY OWN THE F*(&U* PLANET!” This means walking out with head up, shoulders back, eye contact and walking with that ‘swagger’.
Glen often shows athletes footage of the great Viv Richards walking out on to a cricket pitch to terrorise bowlers.
According to Glen, “Viv Richards could walk out onto a pitch against Jeff Thompson and Dennis Lillee, with a new ball, no helmet and a bouncy wicket. It wouldn’t matter what the situation was, Viv would always walk out like he owned the bowlers and they were going to bowl a tennis ball to him.”
“And this swagger didn’t change when he walked off the pitch, regardless of whether he scored a duck or a double century. The confidence – almost arrogance – in his swagger always intimidated his opponents and gave his team mates confidence.”
This is the kind of swagger and body language that Glen tells his athletes and teams to emulate. And if they aren’t confident, then Glen tells them to “fake it before you make it”.
Football has come a long way in recent years. While coaches focus on the latest zone defences, advances in strength and conditioning training, and video reviews, the subject of sports psychology seems to have snuck under the radar.
But it seems not for much longer, as more state league and amateur clubs begin to copy the AFL’s lead and employ the services of a sports psychologist.
Goal setting, taking on a champion’s mindset and mastering your inner self-talk and body language are all success traits of champion athletes and teams, and something all coaches should be educating their players on.
They are gifts coaches can leave with their players to set them up for success in future seasons when they may not be there, and even better, in their personal lives outside of football. And how awesome would that be!
SIDEBAR: Aside from working with athletes on their psychology, Glen can also help teams develop their leadership groups, show coaches how to better communicate with their players, and clubs develop a winning culture. He often runs group workshops and training sessions for coaches and players alike.
If you would like information on when Glen runs his training sessions, sign up to his excellent sports psychology newsletter at www.murdochcoaching.com.au. Or conversely, you can personally call him direct on 0425737169 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss any of your problems or needs.
Title photo by Jimmy Harris via: freeforcommercialuse.org.