Plainville football takes part in virtual mental toughness workshop

Published on Monday, 1 June 2020 17:05


PLAINVILLE - “Believe or leave.” “All in.”

Tim Shea’s mottos have become common sayings for the Plainville football team. In other words, it’s about working every day to get better.

This year has posed some unique challenges to those sayings, not just for the Blue Devils, but for every football program in Connecticut due to the coronavirus pandemic and the state-wide restrictions that have come as a result. Normally, this would be the time for spring practice and for new players coming into the program to learn - about the playbook, the coaches, their teammates and the routine - and for returning players to refine some of their skillsets. The actually football season - when and if it will be played - is still an unknown. But this time has also allowed coaches like Shea to get creative with different ways to communicate with their players.

“We started having team meetings on Monday nights on Zoom not even talking about football,” Shea said. “Talking about how they’re doing, how their grades are doing, what’s going on at home, stuff like that. I’m usually around the kids all day long throughout the school year and I thought it was time to get them in the same room virtually and for them to see and be around each other.”

Last week’s meeting, however, focused on important topic. In what is normally a physical sport, Shea and his players took part in a workshop about mental toughness and the mental aspects in athletics from Zack Etter, the CEO of Holistic Athlete, which works with student-athletes about mental health and mental performance.

“I played back in the ’90s and back then it was, ‘because I said so,’” Shea said. “Nowadays, that doesn’t work. [The players] want to know the why and a lot of other things that are going on. Kids need to be coached in the mental aspect as well. To have somebody come in and talk about that was great. He’d ask questions and they’d respond.”

Etter and Shea first became acquainted with one another when Etter was an assistant football coach at St. Paul and Shea was coaching Woodland. Etter, who played at Southington, then moved on to coach at UConn, Fordham under now-Oregon offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, and then Delaware before getting his master’s degree from Springfield College in 2018.

From there, Etter became the head mental coach at Tahoe Training Camps in California, wrote “My Mental Playbook,” a book about mental skills critical to performance and founded Holistic Athlete.

Using his book as the base for the curriculum, Holistic Athlete mainly focuses on three aspects when working with student-athletes. 1. Doing 1-on-1 counseling with players focusing on their social, personal, family, mental and emotional lives and health. 2. Having mental performance workshops that implements mental skills, such as remaining confident under pressure, handling adversity, managing performance anxiety and controlling emotions in high-pressure situations. 3. Teaching coaches how to implement those techniques into their coaching styles and programs, as well as what kind of feedback they get that gets the best results.

Etter and his company currently work with nine different high school football teams, including Plainville, in the state and 17 teams across four different sports.

“When you look at recruiting, when you’re a college football coach, your career is depended on the kids you bring in,” Etter said. “We would look at these kids and their tape would be great and they’d have good size and strength and speed and be good in the weight room and then when they’d get on campus, they would not be able to play in front of crowds, on TV, not be able to compete for starting jobs now that they’re going up against people as good as they are, not being able to manage their time, all those issues. I started to think about all those issues and how those things aren’t being taught at the youth level. No one is telling you how to manage your anxiety or control your emotions or how to handle adversity or how to remain confident or anything like that.”

When both Shea and Etter happened to be at the Nike Coaches Clinic - which included names such as University of Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, Princeton head coach Bob Surace, Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente, UConn’s Randy Edsall, Clemson’s Dabo Sweeney and LSU head coach Ed Orgeron - in Windsor in February, the two began talking about Etter doing a workshop with the Plainville players. And during the pandemic, Etter has been offering free mental performance workshops and 1-on-1 coaching to any athletic director, coach, player or anyone involved with the Connecticut Nike Clinic.

“It was something we already had talked about doing it during the offseason,” Etter said. “I’ve done about 12 so far ranging from Kent State women’s volleyball to high school football teams in Connecticut and Massachusetts. After that, a coach is able to follow up.”

“It’s very direct and very specific in how this skill is going to affect your performance overall,” he added. “People want new information, but that new, because new information is scary and threatens their way of thinking, and how that ties into their performance and their lives. I say to the kids I know you have a social life and an academic life and a romantic life and a social life and a family life and your physical health matters and your mental health matters and your goals outside football matter and that really disarms them. I tell them I’m going to teach them skills they’re going to be able to use in life outside football. Being able to control your emotions on the field is the same as being able to do so before an exam. Remaining confident on the field is the same as being confident at your job and we can practice it the same way.”

Plainville’s workshop with Etter focused on four aspects the players would be able to use both during now and when/if there is a football season.

“The way I break it down is that performance, playing well on Friday nights or in the weight room breaks down into four parts,” Etter said. “It’s the physical: how bring strong and fast you are. You work on that in the weight room. The tactical part: the X’s and O’s and the game plan that you work on in the film room. The technical part: your skillset of the sport you play on the field. The mental part and that all coincides together and works together. You could be someone not as big or strong as someone else, but you can really dominate those other aspects and you can make up for it. I don’t think they’ve really considered, at a high level, how the mental side of things can make up for that and benefit them in other areas.”

And that is the biggest thing for Shea as well. He’ll tell you he is the head football coach at Plainville High School, but will also say preparing his players for the next stage of their lives after their playing careers are done is just as important. Last Monday night was a perfect of example of that philosophy.

“It’s just about getting in touch with the right people,” Shea said. “It’s not just about football. It’s about applying what they learn to real life and to hear that from someone else was important. I’d encourage anyone interested to reach out.”

David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or

Posted in New Britain Herald, Plainville on Monday, 1 June 2020 17:05. Updated: Monday, 1 June 2020 17:07.