Each week we bring you a blog on different mental skills that can be applied to your life or topics in the world of sport psychology. Recently, we featured an athlete on our blog. Now, we want to bring you a coaching perspective on sport psychology.
To many who had the pleasure of passing through Edinboro University of Pennsylvania’s cross-country team, he is known as Coach Watts. To locals he is known as the old man who is either yelling times out of vans at young runners on dirt roads or eating hot fudge milkshakes with chocolate ice cream. However you know him, you know he is an extremely funny, high-spirited, kind-hearted person, who cares just as much (if not more) about how his runners grow as people as they do athletes. In his own mystical way, he was able to transform every athlete on his team to not only buy into his training, but also WANT to perform up to their potential for him, the team, and themselves. If you are a coach, you know how hard of a task this actually can be. As a young twenty something, I never really thought much about his coaching philosophy. I usually just showed up to practice and did what I was told for the day in order to lose the title of a “Rag” (any runner who did not earn “All-American” status). After earning a Master’s in sport psychology, I started thinking that there may be more to his coaching philosophy than meets the eye.
Name: Douglas Watts, retired from coaching in 2013
Credentials: 44 years of coaching at Edinboro University, over 200 All-Americans, 44 PSAC titles, 33 regional titles, four NCAA championship teams, 5-time national coach of the year, USA Track and Field and Cross Country Hall of Fame Coach
How important would you say mindset is in the sport of running?
The objective is to be the best that you can be. It’s not for everyone. It’s for those that WANT to be as good as they can be. If the components of psychology are not prevalent, aren’t on the surface, haven’t been dealt with or struggled with in the past, then they can’t be as good as they can be. They haven’t adjusted. If no one is perfect physiologically, it does come down to the psychology. Your environment, resources, weather, etc., often impact being the best you can be. You must make an adjustment in your psychological profile to then be the best you can be when this environment is not always conducive. You must meet the challenges and overcome them. You cannot avoid not working on the psychological aspect.
What does a mentally strong runner look like to you?
1. Confident- you did the workout. The workout is setting you up for what you are going to do now. A runner who feels secure in their ability to go out and do what needs to be accomplished.
2. Willingness to risk- put it all on the line without worry.
3. Willingness to adapt- adaptation to mental stress. I asked a lot of my runners in practice. This included extremely hard and grueling workouts and a tough racing schedule.
4. Stability- between life, running, future, emotional balance, academics.
5. Focused- unrelenting focus towards our goals as a team and individually.
How do you incorporate psychology into your coaching?
In coaching, how I coached was exactly who I was. The athletes have to trust and believe in the coach. They have to be as safe in their life as they can be. You perform your best when everyone you are surrounded by is working towards the same goal. There is safety in that. I tried to cultivate this. The way to do this is where individualism is accepted. Who they were was accepted. I was going to support you in the best student you can be in addition to the best runner you could be. If he is happy with a 2.2 grade point average and I am not happy with it, he isn’t gong to run in the big meet. That’s the way it worked. Anything I asked my athletes to do, it was for their benefit, not mine. If this meant me losing a dual meet because they needed to rest up for a bigger meet or they had to stay up studying for an important test, then that is the way it was going to be. I won’t use my runners for points when that hampers them being the best they can be in all facets of life. The decision making process is for them and that breeds the secure environment where my athletes can trust me. When this security is fostered, then no one questions why we are doing a certain thing in practice.
When recruiting, did you look for certain high school athlete’s with a specific mindset?
Physical times were of concern; but it was never ever the bottom line. I looked for those that wanted to be the best they can be. If you wanted to come to Edinboro you better be willing to train. Don’t come here if you can’t risk. The team will be upset with you and I will be upset with you. I expected your best. I wanted the girl or the guy who was excited to be as good as they could be. Most of the times you can tell. I never tell the athlete what they want to hear. Don’t sell a lie to the athlete. Be honest about what they can expect in the program. This is what proves successful in this environment. I looked for toughness and independence because there is a great deal of responsibility in your training. I expect and your teammates expect you to get your runs in. You must have the independence to do this. I look for someone who is unwilling to let his or her teammates down. I looked for a recruit who was not afraid of being in an environment where everyone is willing to be the best they can be.
Is there a runner you coached who fit the epitome of‘mental toughness?’
I have been fortunate enough to coach a great deal of mentally tough runners. The most mentally tough runner was David Antognoli from a rag (small and unknown) school, from nowhere. He went out and challenged the Olympic champion, Dave Wottle, at Notre Dame. Antognoli won the cross-country and 10K national championships. He didn’t have the training system, the resources, or the backing at the time. Antognoli was able to get to the line and say ‘I’m going to race.’ No one has ever had those expectations before. The most stable, focused, confident runner was Antognoli. He came from nowhere to the national level. He was not afraid to win when no one had those expectations of him. He was able to go to the line and say ‘I’m going to do my best’ and always did. He is the best. The epitome. The prototype of what I hoped everybody could possibly be.
Thank you to Coach Watts, who was willing to share his wisdom and perspective and take a break from fishing to do this interview!
Photo by: Edinboro Athletics