What do shoes and socks have to do with the mental game?

Raise Your Inner Game Sports Academy
What do shoes and socks have to do with the mental game?

Here’s an interesting question: When’s the best time to start working with an athlete on their mental game? First thing? In the off-season? Only when there’s a problem? 

I heard a great story the other day about legendary UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, that got me thinking about that exact question.

No surprise, I suppose, but I ended up with a conclusion that you might not expect. :-)

Seriously though, this is actually a very important question, so I do hope you give this one a listen. 

And you can’t really lose because, even if you don’t agree with my conclusion, it’s still a REALLY good story. :-)



  • The surprising “shoes and socks” story (about the great John Wooden) 
  • The critical link between fundamentals and success
  • The best time to start working on your athletes’ mental game (it’s not what you might think)
  • Listen/read to get the full message


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[ transcript ]

Hey, this is David Levin. Author, Raise Your Inner Game. Founder, Raise Your Inner Game Sports Academy.

I was listening to a podcast the other day with Chris Bosh, the NBA great. And he told a great story about John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach. Wooden was like the best ever. Most wins. Changed everything. Total legend. 

And Bosh got to play for him at UCLA. 

So coming into his first practice, he was excited. And super curious what they would be working on. What sort of amazing, high-level, advanced stuff would he be learning. 

So the coach comes in, and here’s what he has them work on. 

They spend the full first day of practice on how to properly put on their socks and tie their shoes. 

Not joking. Shoes and Socks. One full day. 

And that was how Coach Wooden started the first day of every season. Shoes and socks. Doing them right. 

And why did he do that? It was the simplest reason you can imagine. 

If your socks and shoes aren’t right, you’re going to get a blister, which is going to slow you down, which will cost us points and make us lose the game. 

That was it. Shoes and socks are fundamental. Success is built on the fundamentals. We’re starting with shoes and socks. 

First of all, I love that story for so many reasons. What it says about fundamentals, the role they play in success, what it takes to operate at that level and be a true professional, to take the fundamentals seriously like that. I just love it. 

But it also brings up an important question about coaching the Mental Game. Which is, when should you do it? When should you start working on it with your players?

There seems to be more and more agreement and understanding among coaches and athletes that the mental game is fundamental to success, and probably THE fundamental for success. 

So then by coach Wooden’s example, that might suggest that we should start working on it with our athletes right away, even before shoes and socks. 

Because here’s the truth. We can learn that getting our shoes and socks right, for example, is critical and that we need to do it every time, just like we can learn all kinds of things that are critical to our success. But that does not mean we WILL actually do those things in the moment. And that gap — and CLOSING that gap — between what we know and what we DO is a huge aspect of mastering the mental game. And if you don’t get that fixed, you’re not going to get the full impact out of anything you teach. Because they just won’t do it. 

So maybe we SHOULD start our players out working on their mental game on day one. But I don’t actually think that’s the best way to go. 

Now I haven’t tested this. This is just my intuition about it. But my sense is that, even though as we said, the consensus is building about the importance of the mental game, the topic still sounds a little foreign and weird to really everyone, but especially to your athletes. 

So my suggestion is to bring it in a little later. 

Start with fundamentals they recognize. Shoes and socks. Whatever you think is important. Get the rhythms in place, get the expectations and the relationship going. Get them into a good training and development groove. And then, bring in the mental game work. I think that is the best way to have them be the most open to it and for you to have the most success with it. 

And by the way, once you’ve seen them in action for a while, seen their focus, seen their work ethic, how well they apply what they’ve been told, etc. that gives you a good opening to raise the subject. 

“I’ve seen you in action for a bit now, seen how you work, I think it’s time for us to talk about some of the mental game aspects of your position.” So that’s one more nice thing about waiting a bit to introduce the mental game work. It makes the transition feel more natural and like it makes sense to start talking about it. 

Another point, we tend to think about the mental game when we see problems. Whenever you hear pros talk about it, it’s that the pressure was starting to affect their performance and they needed to find a fix before things really came apart.

And that makes sense, of course. You definitely want to fix those problems. 

But you don’t always have to wait until there’s a problem before you talk about the mental game. It can just be another addition to their toolkit and taking things to the next level. 

And honestly, that probably really is the best way to present it. Just like you would show everyone how to move correctly, you should show them how to master their inner game. It should just be a standard part of what they work on, day in and day out. 

AND, the best time for that is after they’ve been working long enough for you to have a sense of their general approach, to have that baseline familiarity and relationship going, and to have some context to use as a starting point.

All right, that’s it for Shoes and Socks. I hope that makes sense. Please do ask a question or post a comment either way. I’d love to hear your take on this. To hear about future posts when they come out, add your name to our announcement list. We’d love to have you join us. Also check out the podcast. Otherwise, keep up the good work, and we will talk next time.

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