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csuBy Mike Kuchar, Senior Research Manager, X&O Labs

Jim McElwain knows how important it is to develop mental conditioning in his players. Discover how the "process" (that Saban buzz word) that continued to develop in Fort Collins.


By Mike Kuchar
Senior Reseach Manager
X&O Labs
Twitter: @MikeKKuchar

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Jim McElwain knows how important it is to develop mental conditioning in his players.  After all, he was the offensive coordinator for two national championship seasons at the University of Alabama- and worked with perhaps the guru of "toughness training" Nick Saban.  So as McElwain left Tuscaloosa to become the new head coach at Colorado State in 2012 he was given the task of turning around two 3-9 win seasons.  While the Rams 4-8 record this season may not be indicative of tremendous progress–it’s about the "process" (that Saban buzz word) that continues to develop in Fort Collins.   And it’s that process that Coach McElwain shared with X&O Labs Senior Research Manager Mike Kuchar in an exclusive interview.

Editor’s Note:  Part of this interview contains the transcript of Dr. Lowell Wightman, a sports psychology expert who lead the Colorado State University football team through an extensive 16 session mental training program this summer and spoke in great length with Mike Kuchar about it.

MK:  When you first got to Colorado State, it was coming off three 3-9 seasons.  What the general feeling that you felt among the kids?

JM:  The biggest thing was the disconnect of the "why."  I wasn’t here to look at what happened, but focused on what we can do to get ourselves better every day.  First and foremost is understanding the "why."  They must know why they are doing what they are doing.  From there, pushing themselves to be great on every aspect of their life.  We had to educate and understand the investment in each of us in what we had to do every day to get better.  One of the analogies we use is that each of us own our own company and our own brand.  We don’t stay the same- we either get better or get worse.   It’s not just the players.  It’s the equipment room, it’s the trainers, and it’s the support staff.  Whatever it is that touches the program and has meaning to us getting better- the investment must be on a daily basis.   As we build we get a bunch of Fortune 50 companies.   They have to buy into the investment.

MK:  What are some of the every day investments that you did with them to make them accountable?

JM:  It doesn’t happen overnight.  Every day you’re striving to be great.  Whether it’s in your personal life, your social life or your athletic life.  Our goal is when your playing days are over, your personal well-being is so much better off because of the experience here at Colorado State.  We are in an instant gratification society, yet we need to understand that being committed every day is really what gets you there.  Worry about each rep in the weight room, each note you take in class.  Let’s not endure, let’s attack.   It’s hard because of the instant gratification society.  When you’ve invested, the games become easy because of your preparation. We’ve done it through mental conditioning and how you think.

MK:  The mental conditioning is something has always been a part of the game that is neglected. What are some of the things you’ve done to train your players on that side of the game?

JM:  We spend 16 sessions in the classroom for 20 minutes based on themes that teach you how to be successful as a person.  Within those themes, there were exercises that helped you mentally on how you approach, how you think and how you conquer.  One of the biggest fears we have is a fear of failure.  If you’re afraid to fail, you will never put yourself out there from a competition standpoint.  To be great is hard- it will put you in standards that will take you out of your comfort zone.  We’ve had someone come in here, such as Dr. Lowell Wightman, and train them from the mental side of things.  We all have great strength programs, great off-season programs, etc.  What separates those who go out and really obtain their goals are the ones who really push themselves.  We had to learn how to think in a positive manner.  Some coaches will tell players what to do.  These days, players want to know "why" they are doing what they are doing, and that goes with every instance of their life.  It’s a lot bigger than playing football.

MK:  What do these sessions consist of?

JM:  There are lessons within each segment.  They are short, concise points that we refer back to during the course of the season.  So when you’re dealing with something in your life, you reach back to those lessons and draw from them.  We have to break down how they think and how they learned.  I try to reach every single person in my group, yet everybody learns differently.  It is my responsibility as an educator to assess how that person learns and create a teaching strategy to help them.  They all learn differently.  We find out how they learn based on these 16 lessons.  After you go through these lessons, you discover what the common goal is.   Through these sessions, we’re able to find out where we’re not real strong so we attack those areas, and where we’re strong we don’t have to spend that much time.  That’s as a whole, and then it breaks down to each individual player.  We have to find out how to make them best be successful.

MK:  It’s always difficult to train players to see the "why" of what you’re doing, particularly if they haven’t had a good deal of success.  How can you convince them of this without prior proof?

JM:  Although in our profession, the tangible results (of wins and loses) are how you’re measured, but you must take an assurance as a coach to see the way they approach their lives on an every day basis.  I see how they react with each other daily.  In our case, we saw a huge win to start the season against Colorado-then a dead period- only to win three of our last five.   In previous years, that may not have happened.  We had chances to give up, where in the past they might have.  We saw how they fought and how they competed and how they felt about themselves once they accomplished what they did by the time the season ended.  Our winter workouts this season has been night and day from a year ago because I don’t think they understood the "why."

MK: What were some of the lessons you had to draw from at that time to get them to focus on being successful?  How did you do it?

LW:  We had to discuss that during that time.  I had to go back to the process and get them thinking about what are the things that they can control and do in their position and not focus on the negative consequences of error and failure.  Now we must address failure and admit to it but then address the process that makes you great and focus on it.   You know what to do; you’ve done it before.  Don’t get anchored on the negatives.  Many of the players admitted in the past they did focus on the negative in the past and we had to run away from that. 

MK:  What other tangible things are you doing right now in your program that trains players to be accountable?

JM:  The reason why we’re coaches is to help these guys succeed in life.  If we teach them to understand how to invest in their lives, you will have a great group to work with in the future.  There are no secrets; they know we care in everything we do.  A lot of these guys have never been able to trust and that’s hard.  You have to develop the trust and let them know we are here for them.  The 16 segments are now the process in which we teach that.  Once they are given the background in these things we reach back to them every so often to solidify the point.  They are life lessons.

MK:  Many coaches try to implement mental toughness training in their players, but Coach Saban and his staff at Alabama- a staff you were a part of- really has cornered that market.  What did you take with you from Coach Saban’s training and how have you applied it at Colorado State?

JM:  Well, I can write a novel based on what I learned there.  The daily organization and the investment in yourself is what I learned most.  The mental toughness part is created over time where the sacrifices you make have to pay off, and not on the scoreboard.  There are too many "gamers" who just show up on game day.  These are the same guys in the end haven’t put the investment forward to overcome obstacles.  It’s become habit over at Alabama, where the older guys teach the younger guys.   Coach Saban preaches each year as a totally different event because it’s a totally different team.  There is no carryover.  Each year is different.  The one thing we can do is push ourselves past where our mind tells us.   That’s where the 16 segments come in.  In it’s simplest form it’s "being in the now" meaning that I can do everything right now to prepare me for the future. The goal of every game shouldn’t be the scoreboard, but instead the personal ability for you to win that play.

MK:  So how does this all of this translate into wins on the field?

LW:  The biggest component that measures success of mental conditioning to the success of football is the relationships and the communication of relationships that they make with their teammates.  It’s about what we do to build those relationships with their teammates.  The connections they make with one another is the biggest way we know we’ve succeeded mentally. 

Insiders Members: Click here to login and read the full-length version of interview.

MK:  Coach McElwain and Dr. Wightman, we really appreciate your time.

Thanks, Mike.  It was a pleasure to shed some light on this side of the game. 



What You're Missing:

Join X&O Labs exclusive Insiders program and gain access to the entire interview with Coach McElwain including:

  • Get full access into one of the 16 mental conditioning classes he and Dr. Lowell Wightman conduct with CSU players in the off-season.

  • How he combats unselfishness by discovering how his players think.

  • The visualization techniques he and Dr. Lowell Wightman teaches to CSU players- and the principles you need to apply it to your program.

  • Why he nixed the famous "countdown clocks" in the weight room and why his players are not allowed to listen to music before games.

  • Why his best teaching lesson this off-season will be conducting in the pool.

  • How you should be using Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets to reach your players.

  • Plus, much, much. More.

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