Feb 23, 2018
To the Video

In 2017, Whitman College went 31-1 and became the first program from the West Coast to play in the NCAA Division III Men’s Basketball Tournament’s Final Four since 1982. The season was capped by Head Coach Eric Bridgeland being named the 2017 Co-National Coach of the Year by D3hoops.com.

Bridgeland had been transforming Whitman’s program since his arrival in 2008, but had never come close to last year’s level of success. What was the difference? Bridgeland attributes it to the implementation of mental training. Before the start of the year, he called on Graham Betchart, a mental strength and conditioning coach who works with the NBA Players Association, for assistance.

“The very best take this approach,” Bridgeland says, citing elite performers such as Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. “How could Phelps win so many gold medals without that focus on the mind?”

The new process for Whitman focused on visualization and video affirmation. Players recorded 15-second videos of themselves reciting self-affirming messages such as “I play aggressively” or “I attack the lane.”

It became a ritual for players to pull out their phones and watch their own commercials at practices, before games, and during halftime. “That was part of our routine, and it was a big deal,” says Bridgeland. “Some guys took to it right away, and some did not. We didn’t force anybody to do this.”

And it was up to each individual to develop his affirmation. In one instance, a player’s words revolved around him making more baskets. After his shooting did not consistently improve, he told Bridgeland he needed to change his affirmation. The coach wouldn’t let him, and instead suggested he change his mind-set to: “I missed that one, but I’ll make the next one. And when I make that next one, I’ll be on fire!” It worked.

The Blues also participated in team visualization exercises, in which the outcome of a game was less important than the process. At least once or twice during practices and game timeouts, Bridgeland and his players collectively took three deep breaths together to regain or rebalance their focus.

That approach stemmed from a process the team practiced off the court, during which Bridgeland read lines from a prepared sheet of paper as players relaxed by taking several deep breaths and focusing on their breathing. One of his favorite lines is: “If we play together as a team, there is no way we won’t be victorious.”

“Win or lose, we were completely detached from the outcome,” Bridgeland says. “Whatever happened, happened. When we were undefeated, I didn’t feel any pressure. We were just focusing on what we do.”

He credits Middlebury College Men’s Tennis Coach Bob Hansen for introducing him to the value of mental training. Bridgeland’s first head coaching job was at the University of California-Santa Cruz, where Hansen coached the Slugs to seven NCAA Division III tennis titles. After one season at UCSC, Bridgeland accepted a head coaching opportunity at the University of Puget Sound in 2001.

“When I left, I asked Coach Hansen for his best piece of advice,” Bridgeland remembers. “He said, ‘You need to do team visualizations and mental affirmations.’ I did that at Puget Sound but didn’t consistently incorporate them at Whitman. Last year was the first time we dove back in and made it part of our routine. If you do not do it daily, it’s really easy to let it slip. But if you work on it consistently, the success you achieve can be overwhelming.”

Image by Cpl. Paris Capers

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