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Winning Mindsets and Sustaining Excellence

This is an excerpt from One Goal by Bill Beswick.

Winning can change coach, player and team mindset from the positive drive that brought success into a negative weakness that fails to sustain further achievement. After winning, new pressures emerge, whether real or perceived, that challenge the established mindset.

1. Expectations

After a winning season people around the team, many of whom are significant influences on the way that players think and feel, hold the team to a new, higher standard. The team are expected to win again and again (often unrealistically). A good example is the team who win a league championship and are promoted to a higher league. Fans, media and so on expect the team to deliver the same results. Many such teams, from recreational youth teams up to professional league teams, are crushed by the weight of unrealistic expectations, fail to deal with the defeats that ensue and often return to the comfort zone of their original league in the following season.

2. Consequences

When a team at the top of the league table lose, the loss can be perceived as far more dramatic than any previous defeats the team has suffered when positioned lower in the league. Of course, it is just a loss, but winners have to deal with the enhanced consequences, often intensified by the reactions of the people who have influence on team and player mindset. The fear of consequences when required to repeat success can cause a team to choke. Players' minds switch ahead and become infected by the consequences of an unexpected defeat. Anxiety about the outcome begins to shape the actual performance. Concentration, composure and momentum are all lost as the team effectively defeat themselves.

3. Sideshow

Winners inevitably attract greater attention, sometimes accompanied by celebrity status and often intensified by media attention. Without control, this prominence can be a major distraction to the mindset needed to maintain success. Team sport offers many examples of one-off champions but far fewer repeat champions. When teams of these two types are compared and examined, one of the essential differences is that the teams able to manage the distractions of the sideshow are the teams that stay engaged in the daily task of continual improvement. These are the teams that are more likely to repeat success.

Of course, most teams in a league are more used to chasing than being chased, and they may be very inexperienced at dealing with sudden success. Inevitably, most coaches spend far more time and effort developing the mental strength of their teams to handle failure than they do dealing with success. The players may be quite unprepared for the pressures that sudden success can bring, including the feeling of being on trial and being expected to exhibit excellence on demand. Eventually, a team can feel that they are in a no-win situation. If they lose they are ostracized, and if they win the pressure increases. This situation may eventually erode team mindset and commitment. The dangers of success are clear:

  • Loss of hunger and commitment
  • Complacency caused by living off past reputation (see the Chelsea report)
  • Exhaustion caused by lack of recovery time
  • Believing the praise and publicity

If a coach cannot teach her or his team to handle and get past these issues, then the team will not be able to sustain and repeat their success. Rather, they will falter and return to a position in the league where the pressure drops to a comfortable level.

The options facing coaches with teams who achieve success are to do nothing, to reestablish and grow the existing team or to reinvent the team by introducing new players.

In this situation, a great deal depends upon the resources available for the coach in the context of the agreed vision for the team and the club.

Handling Success - Three Types of Player Mindset

  • Those who reach the top because they believe they can. They are in the best position to sustain success.
  • Those who are capable of success but have difficulty handling the sideshow. They will need a lot of help to stay on top.
  • Those who are simply content to be in the team. They will not contribute to repeating success.

Complacency Destroys

In 2008 Chelsea suffered a surprise 3-1 Champions League defeat away to Roma. Captain John Terry identified his team's complacent mindset:

We sort of strolled in, thinking we were better than them, when clearly we're not. What was disappointing was that we didn't fight. Even after we went one and then two down, we didn't show the fight and desire that's got us where we've been over the past few years.

First and foremost, when you go to a place like Roma you need to fight and show more determination than them. If it comes to quality, then nine times out of ten we're better than most sides. We have to start with the desire to win. (Hughes 2008)

Sustaining Excellence

Shortly after Sir Alex Ferguson acted to kill off overlong celebrations following Manchester United's treble-winning season, I was tasked with helping the team set goals for the new season. I was concerned about how we would set new goals after such an outstanding season. I shouldn't have worried! The team, led on this occasion by Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs, came up with a beautiful response: ‘Win again! Win better! Win with class!' This was the mindset of champions determined to sustain success!

We have established that the major change in a team who first experience significant success is mental and emotional. The strong collective mindset that drove the team to victory is now besieged by the increased expectations, greater consequences of any defeat and the heightened sideshow described earlier. The team now find themselves being chased instead of doing the chasing. Without intervention by the coaches the team may start to get in their own way. Individuals flushed by success begin to push their own agendas ahead of that of the team. The team may then display reduced cohesion. Coaches must prevent the spread of negative influences on mindset by reinforcing the mental strength of the team if it falters.

Figure 15.1 suggests a programme of recalibration actions for coaches who want to train their team's mindset to deal with success on the way to sustained excellence.

  • Celebrate - reinforce the good feelings that accompany the initial success.
  • Move on - the coach defines the end of celebrations and commences team preparation for the next challenge.
  • Set new goals - the refocusing process is helped by agreement on the new goals to be achieved.
  • Reengage - the coach remotivates the players so that they are invigorated and again commit themselves to the hard work ahead. New players may be recruited to strengthen the team.
  • Refocus - to win again, the team have to narrow down attention on the tasks ahead. No distractions!
  • Smart preparation - repeating success is tough, so the coach finds ways to keep players on track with new challenges to meet the desired objectives.

The process of sustaining excellence.

The whole philosophy of chasing excellence and mastery in soccer is that it can never be attained. But the pursuit ensures that the team achieve the highest level of performance possible.

Coaches of Champion Teams Who Repeat Success

  • Have an insatiable passion for excellence
  • Employ the very best staff
  • Retain inspirational players
  • Have an intense belief in being the best
  • Build a history of success
  • Celebrate success and look beyond to greater things without delay
  • Never get tired of winning
  • Find key players to provide strong leadership
  • Adapt creatively to changing circumstances or increased competition
  • Plan for succession to stay ahead of the game

Immediately after winning the Super Bowl, Coach Bill Belichick reverted to thinking of his team as number two.

He then went on to say, with all respect, that the team that had just won the Super Bowl had a lot of work to do to reach the ideal of consistent championship contenders. It meant that the team in the front office, coaches and scouts, were going to have to get back to work soon. And the team on the field shouldn't get too comfortable. He was asked how many players on the Super Bowl champs would have to be replaced before he could call them perennial championship threats. He didn't hesitate: ‘About 20!' (Holley 2011, p 48)

Repeat champions who achieve ongoing excellence seem to have a number of enduring principles in common. In an excellent piece of research Yukelson and Rose (2014) determined 10 such principles:

  1. Having a game plan to develop continuity and consistency from year to year.
  2. Never playing to defend a title but rather to win a new one.
  3. New and challenging goals especially emphasising performance excellence.
  4. A daily dedication to practise with attitude and effort - ‘Today's preparation leads to tomorrow's performance'.
  5. Attention to detail - an understanding that big games are won by moments of excellence.
  6. Coaching for player accountability and self-responsibility.
  7. Player leadership that releases the power of the locker-room.
  8. Having team resiliency that ensures quick recovery from setbacks.
  9. Quality relationships that reflect strong emotional ties between players.
  10. Acceptance of team roles even when changed.

Finally, it helps if the coach, like Alfred Schreuder at FC Twente as described earlier, sets a team goal with some room to manoeuvre. Aiming solely for the number one spot can become self-defeating over time and may make attaining a second or third league place seem a failure. If the coach sets an early season goal of being in the top four, then there is wiggle room to maintain team belief in the case of one or two defeats. This approach is a great help to a team on the way to repeating success; players can endure a temporary dip without feeling like failures. At the appropriate time the coach can refine the team goal to being number one!

Setting new and realistic goals early each season gives players a chance to repeat success.

Photo courtesy of FC Twente.

Guidelines for Players to Repeat Excellence

  • Be a fighter - never a victim.
  • Improve every day.
  • Think like a champion.
  • Preparation is everything.
  • Deal with the sideshow.
  • Beware celebrity.
  • Be a leader and step up.
  • Challenge yourself to be better.
  • Deal with the setbacks.
  • Think team - ‘we' not ‘me'.
  • Stay in the race.
  • ‘If it is to be, it is up to me'.

Coach's Checklist on Raising the Bar to Repeat Success

Questions that a coach must answer throughout the season.

Inside the Team

Overcoming the Pressure of Success

Coach Kerri e-mailed me about her successful U18 girls team:

We have averaged 13 wins a year and regularly qualify for the playoffs. This year's team have the talent but hit a road bump recently. They usually play well under pressure, but this year they made some unusual choices in their captains and that, plus the loss of some key players, set off a chain reaction that culminated in some losses and a serious beating where I saw them emotionally unravel. They are burdened with team history and are finding it difficult to handle the pressure.

The team were clearly struggling to repeat success and were suffering from the attitude killers of high expectations and the heavy consequences of defeat. The programme Coach Kerri and I agreed was based on rebuilding passion, self-esteem, team identity and competitive toughness:

  • Making soccer fun again
  • Increasing communication to decrease anxiety
  • Rebuilding team identity and visualising what could be:
    • The great feeling of being part of a team and family
    • Deciding what is special about this team
  • Adding some social events to reconnect everybody
  • Setting new goals and team expectations:
    • Focusing on performance goals - ‘This is the way we want to play'
    • Ignoring outcome goals - ‘Let the score take care of itself'
  • Reestablishing good practice habits and ensuring role clarity so that the players know what they are supposed to do in every situation in the field
  • Having each player declare to her teammates,
    • ‘These are the three things I will do well for the team . . .' and
    • 'This is how I will be a good team member . . .'
  • Discussing and coming to terms with failure and removing fear
    • Reminding players that failure is a learning moment
    • Asking players, ‘What is the worst that can happen?'
  • Committing to continual improvement
  • Gradually increasing the team's challenges as confidence is rebooted

The skill of the coach in applying the programme gradually turned the team around. The key, however, was when Kerri offset the power of the captains by asking for leadership from everybody in the team. Two of the younger, talented players came out of their shells, and suddenly the team had inspirational leadership. The team responded, regained their hunger and competitive fire and rebuilt their winning record the next season!

Learn more about One Goal.

More Excerpts From One Goal