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Coach's Corner feat. Joe Sponsel

Welcome to the Coach’s Corner!

This edition is to introduce you to excellent coaches that possess hard working, yet humble characteristics. These individuals cultivate culture, are creative innovators that blend the art and science of human performance, and most importantly: CARE.

Coaches of all walks of life and sport performances are looking to improve their athletes’ potential. Every day is an opportunity. Every practice is a day to turn an athlete’s weaknesses into strengths. As you are seeking to improve the physical, technical, and tactical training sometimes it is hard to incorporate the mental aspect of your sport. Most coaching certifications and training have a mental piece in order to gain those particular credentials. There are also a wide variety of resources for coaches to get that training such as the National Federation of State High School Association (NFHS) and the Positive Coaching Alliance. So, let’s see how some of the best are implementing those techniques an strategies day in and day out.

Coaches are there to aid student-athletes in more than just wins and losses. The psychology of coaching involves building self-confidence, handling challenges and obstacles, achieving goals in and out of sport, managing stress outside of sport, and improving the well-being of the human being you work with.

Today we are featuring a close friend of mine. Meet Joe Sponsel. Joe is the Assistant Cross Country and Track & Field Coach at Sewanee, The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. He has a bachelor’s in Psychology from Southwestern University where he ran steeplechase for the track and field team and played soccer. He has a masters in Kinesiology with a focus in Sport and Performance Psychology from Cal State Fullerton where he was a volunteer assistant coach for the Titan’s Cross Country and Track and Field teams. Joe Sponsel aka "Lord of Distance," also has a great head of hair (self-proclaimed lol) and still competes at a high level of racing with numerous top finishes in 5 kilometer races.

"Don't look at me" Joe Sponsel

Take a look at this excerpt from Joe on how he approaches the mental game and incorporates Sport and Performance Psychology into his coaching.


Sport or Performance Psychology influences pretty much every part of my big-picture coaching philosophies and day to day interactions with my athletes. One of the most helpful mental concepts I try to impart to my athletes is the idea that you can’t control how something makes you feel, but you can control how you respond to it. Essentially, that means your immediate instinctual or emotional, reaction to an event is essentially uncontrollable in that moment, but what happens next is absolutely under your control.

In my experience, this phenomenon happens in two separate time frames. Immediate, moment to moment reactions and longer term emotional states. An example of a moment to moment reaction is like if a referee makes a bad call or you get cut off in a race. Sure, your emotional reaction might be anger or frustration, but your behavior doesn’t have to be affected by that. You still have a game plan that you need to stick to and an emotional outburst like a retaliatory foul is not likely what the plan calls for and may only serve as a distraction from achieving a larger goal for the game or event.

In the longer term, the emotional reaction might be in the minutes, hours, or days after a performance you aren’t happy with. I see this in my distance racers every so often and I try to catch it early. A common example is when they don’t meet a time or place goal and feel disappointed, frustrated, or confused as a result. What I see and hear from my athletes when this happens is that they think they didn’t work hard enough in practice, just aren’t as fast as they thought, or are upset with some outside force that affected their race. It can be easy to lose confidence and self esteem after a “poor” performance but effectively and productively handling those performances can make it easier to perform well next time.

Here are some helpful ways to move on quickly.

Deep Breaths

Slow in, hold for an extra second or two, the slow out. The slow breath, will lower your heart rate, help calm you down, and help you refocus on the task at hand. Taking a physical breath can help you take a mental breath.

Self Talk

Come up with a mantra or saying that is personally meaningful to you that will get your attention and help refocus it on what is most important in your performance now. It might be a calming voice, forceful motivation, or simply instructional, but as long as it helps you “have a short memory” it will be helpful.

20 Minute Rule

For the longer-term example, I use the 20 Minute Rule. In the bad race example, when I’m talking to my athletes post-race, I tell them they have 20 minutes to feel sad or upset about their performance then move on. They can scream, cry, curse their enemies, whatever it is, but after 20 minutes, it’s over and you have to move on. In that time, the goal is to identify where you went wrong or objectively evaluate the race, learn that lesson, and move on. I want them to take some time feel their feelings and don’t pretend like they don’t feel them, but if they stay in that place too long, they risk dwelling on them and exacerbating the outcome of the event.

If you would like to contact Coach Joe Sponsel, send an email to

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