Inside CSU’s Mental Conditioning Program

Apr 18, 2015 | Program Development, Physical / Mental Development

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



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:  Assuming you must "break them down before building them back up," What is the protocol you use for assessing their mental state of mind in the beginning of this program?

LW:  We start by using what the NCAA provides to us such as their SAT and ACT scores, which is a pure academic case.  But we also have a questionnaire which is a profile questionnaire asking them the following:

  • What are their hobbies?
  • What are you levels of interest outside of school  (music, theater, drawing, etc.)?

Each coach will go through all of them and we start so find out whom this person is and start to develop a relationship with them.  It’s a complete assessment of the whole person, not just the athlete.  We ask some questions about the acculturation of the athletes who come from different areas.   If a kid likes to play the guitar and likes bluegrass music, we try to find a place here in Fort Collins that plays blue grass music.  We may not find it, but the kids see that we’re willing to do those things. 

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?