With great interest and anticipation, I drove Sunday, January 24, 2010 to Birmingham, Alabama to attend a celebratory program to award Alabama Crimson Tide Head Coach Nick Saban with the 2009 Leadership Innovation Award. The program and award highlighted the accomplishments of the Alabama football team.
During the acceptance speech, Coach Saban directly attributed his championship team’s chemistry and success to a mental conditioning program he employed. The mental conditioning program provided a "success mindset" that resulted in a BCS Championship win against the Texas Longhorns in the Rose Bowl.
Saban openly discussed his desire to change the culture of the team, after a 2006 losing season that, more importantly, included off-the-field misconduct and poor decision making by several members of the team during the off-season. With the help of the Pacific Institute of Seattle, the Alabama team learned about mental conditioning approaches to help them to achieve peak performance.
Opposing coaches could see the difference in the players right away.
“Alabama played with an attitude and viciousness that we did not,” Clemson coach Tommy Bowden said in 2008.
“I just saw a team that had a mentality,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt, “They were going to be physical, they were going to play physical and they did.”
“I think it’s the identity that we’ve always tried to create,” Saban said. “Be aggressive, physical, play with a lot of toughness. Strike them, knock them back. Be aggressive and relentless in your style of how you play and how you compete.
Though these types of mental conditioning programs are perceived as new and cutting edge, the fact is that mental conditioning involves the application and teaching of cognitive and positive psychology. This approach is based on scientific research and principles that have been around for close to a half-century. It is one of the most widely used and validated mechanisms for behavior change. Many organizational and sports psychologists have been using this approach in their practices for years with considerable success. This area of applied psychology looks closely at an individual's beliefs and self-talk and the effect it has on behavior and performance. It is highly results-oriented.
“I don’t think the message is that different,” Saban said. “I think the things that it takes to be successful are the same regardless, whether it’s passion, commitment, hard work, investing your time in the right things, perseverance, pride in performance, how you think in a positive and negative way, the discipline you have personally -- you have to make choices in your decisions.”
Saban emphasizes that you must “develop champions before you can create championship results.” He also emphasizes the importance of creating the right processes to get the right outcomes.
The players who spent the summer on campus were enrolled in a dozen mental conditioning classes, designed to improve, in Saban's words, the "self-actualization, self-confidence [and] self-esteem" of his players. Twelve times each summer, the Alabama football team sits through 30- to 45-minute classes devoted to mental conditioning and character development. The Pacific Institute of Seattle was hired to design a program and lead the players through a series of awareness exercises and affirmations, such as:
"We are a team that's committed to excellence. It's represented in everything we do."
"Our defense is aggressive. We fly to the ball seeking always to cause big plays on every down. We intimidate our opponents."
"Our offense is consistently on top of their game."
"Our team is a family. We will look out for each other. We love one another. Anything that attempts to tear us apart only makes us stronger."
These affirmations reinforced the vision and outcome that the Alabama coaching staff was looking for and provided a language to communicate expectations and establish behavioral habits related to mental focus, teamwork, determination and priorities.
Saban also made the point that the program never once talked about winning, they only talked about their commitment to success, pride in performance and being the best you can be.
“That’s exactly how it was. To me, I thought it helped us out as a team. It made us realize that we have to focus night and day.”
--Marquis Johnson, cornerback.
Nevertheless, the program’s emphasis is on personal choices and accountability. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.
“Honestly, you have to look inside yourself. The coach can only tell you and say so much. To play as a man, you have to look inside yourself.”
-- running back Glen Coffee.
Excerpts from Chattanooga Free Press, July 28, 2008; Tuscaloosa News, August 10, 2008 and September 8, 2008; Forbes, September 1, 2008; and Sports Illustrated, September 8, 2008.
For more on mental conditioning and peak performance, click on The Handbook of Peak Performance, and for the latest mental conditioning tools, click on: Peak Performance eCoach and request access.