USA(thletes) Today: Owning the Non-Negotiables

As performance coaches and consultants, nxtU privileges process over results, controlling the controllable, and, above all, owning the non-negotiables. We teach and coach our clients to practice deliberate and disciplined reflection, to do the next right thing, to execute what is right in front of them, and to remain hungry and humble. We help them plan, prepare, achieve, reflect, and respond as they hustle to reach their full potential.  Own your processes, reflect upon your performance, make the necessary adjustments - and the results will follow.

Recently, nxtU sponsored and exhibited at the 2019 National Athletic Directors Conference in Washington, D.C. Over the course of three days, we had a series of substantive conversations with athletic administrators and district leaders from across the country. Notably, almost all were as concerned with issues related to coach and student-athlete behavior, mindset, and discipline as they were with their program’s athletic performance and upgrading their facilities and equipment. 

Nestled into a corner of one of the Gaylord’s massive exhibit halls between the NFL Hall of Fame, sports advertisers and marketers, turf companies, digital scoreboard firms, and a company that compiles, markets, and sells profanity-free versions of popular music (!) for secondary school stadiums and ballparks, nxtU held court with the nation’s leaders in education-based athletics.   

Many were fascinated (but puzzled, in some cases) by our focus on bringing sports and mental performance to interscholastic athletics. Early in our discussions, ADs wondered how performance keystones, disciplined and deliberate reflection, periodizing performance, minimizing turbulence, and incorporating VAR (Visualization and Relaxation) techniques could possibly have an impact on their programs and athletes. 

Before long, however, a few innovators realized that, far from not having the time to integrate this “next-level stuff” – as one AD from a Midwest powerhouse program put it – mental performance, executive functioning, leadership, and culture training not only prepares their student-athletes for athletic success but also to thrive across the breadth of their academic, personal, and social lives, as well.  

We talked about “what keeps them up at night”: outlandish social media posts, bullying – by both coaches and players, poor intergenerational communication, unsportsmanlike behavior, toxic locker room cultures, anxiety-ridden student-athletes, and programs that just “don’t know how to win”—much less thrive –  in the increasingly competitive (and expensive) world of interscholastic athletics. 

Many lamented the necessity for “adjunct coaches,” who otherwise have no ties to teaching, education, or their schools. Indeed, many schools just don’t have enough faculty members interested in – or qualified for – coaching today’s student-athletes.  

With this trend towards non-educator coaching, however, many administrators noted, comes significant problems with adhering to a district’s values, ethos, and culture. One, in particular, talked about the irony of having a football coach who makes significantly more money than he does, a multi-million-dollar stadium to fill and market, and unrelenting pressure from the local community to continue its championship performance year-in and year-out. 

Given these pressures, he asked, why (and how) should he allocate his limited time, money, energy, and personnel resources to focus on mental performance, leadership, and culture?  

In response, I held up the Sports section from USA Today’s Monday, 16 December edition. Even a cursory flip through its pages underscores why mental performance, leadership, teamwork, and culture matter more today in the world of sports at all levels than ever before.

The front page features a discussion about how Deshaun Watson and his teammates have embraced “turn the page” as a mantra – or performance keystone – to help them overcome adversity this season. To the side of this article, Steve DiMeglio lauds Tiger Woods’ long-expected transformation into an effective leader as both a player and a team captain for the United States Presidents Cup team. Below that, Heisman-trophy winner Joe Burrow emphasizes how visualization fueled his drive to be “the quarterback of the No. 1 team in the country playing for the national championship.”

On the other side of the spectrum, just inches away, Malcolm Perry, the Naval Academy’s dangerous senior quarterback, notes how setting and reflecting upon specific goals were critical to winning “the biggest game that I’ve ever played in my life.”

The trend continues on page 2C, with Eamon Lynch’s critique of how Patrick Reed’s “Captain America” persona and “sallow” behavior threaten to completely undermine his admittedly otherworldly talent on the course. Indeed, Lynch argues, Reed might succeed between the ropes, but sadly seems to lack the “honor, integrity, professionalism, [and] diplomacy” of a true champion “representing America….”

Even more compelling evidence comes on page 3C with the jarring juxtaposition between Josh Peter’s heart-warming appreciation for TL Hanna High School’s commitment to James Robert Kennedy – “Radio” – who will be sorely missed by the coaches, student-athletes, and community in Anderson, South Carolina – and the recent defeat of the UFC’s self-appointed “over-the-top jerk,” Colby Covington.  One, the subject of an endearing movie starring Cuba Gooding Jr. (himself the subject of scrutiny for his behavior), Debra Winger, and Ed Harris – and the other an otherwise impressive athlete whom his contemporaries in the sport consider “a really rotten person,” “a big-mouth (expletive) idiot,” a “bad guy finally getting his comeuppance,” and a guy who has “gone out of [his] way to be obnoxious to everyone who’s crossed [his] path.”

Nevertheless, “[u]nder all of his bluster and bile,” Dave Doyle maintains, “Covington is a phenomenal competitor. He is a tremendous wrestler, an underrated striker, and has a gas tank for days.” These attributes make him one of the most ferocious competitors in the UFC. Doyle, himself, seems duly impressed, insisting “no matter how much you might hate him, his effort in the cage Saturday night [when he continued fighting and competing even after suffering a midline mandible fracture] was one of the greatest you’ll see from someone who gives it his all and comes up just short.”

Ultimately, in the end, it’s not Covington’s heart or Patrick Reed’s skill that people notice and remember.  Instead, their lack of commitment to what we at nxtU call “the non-negotiables” threatens to destroy their legacies even as they work so hard to build them.

The same applies, exponentially, to today’s student-athletes, coaches, and athletic administrators. Yes, success matters; results matter.  They do not, however, matter more than character, embracing the non-negotiables, and striving each day to live a deliberate, reflective, and disciplined life in pursuit of reaching one’s full potential.

We want our young student-athletes to be more like Malcolm Perry, Deshaun Watson, Joe Burrow, and, yes, Radio. 

We want them to be on time – every time, to work hard, to hustle, to manage their time and energy, to have positive body language and self-talk, and to project a winning attitude. We want them to be as coachable as they are passionate and as committed to their team as they are to individual success. We want them to own the non-negotiables. 

So, thank you to the ADs, coaches, and administrators who stopped by to talk and to inquire about the nxtU Way. We enjoyed – and learned from – these conversations and look forward to working with you in the months and years to come.

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