Capturing Mind Games: My Evolution From Athlete to Mental Performance Coach

In this blog, I want you to get to know me better.  I want to give you a bit of an insight into who I am as a Mental Performance Coach as well as who I was as an athlete and my career journey too because I’m sure there are parts that you can relate too and parts that will help you through future challenges.

Let’s start with my professional background. In fact, let’s address the real elephant room. Who am I? and why should you listen to me? Well, as I said, My name is Callan McKinnon but many people know me as Coach Cal. After hitting the my rock bottom back in 2016 I had no other choice but to rebuild myself. Through this journey, I realized how important the mental game is.

I enrolled in the Life Coaching College in 2017 and upon completing my studies there I was employed with a Men’s Health and Wellness company working with around 200 men going through their own challenges over the course of about 18 months.

As a former athlete and lover of all things sports! I wanted to help athletes bridge the gap between potential and performance. After working through my degree of psychology in the field of sports I started “Rise Above Adversity” in September of 2018. Over the last 6 years, I’ve researched meticulously, into the elite mindsets of the greatest athletes in the world, and now worked with around 500 athletes either individually or through workshops. It has been a journey but it has also been so fulfilling to watch this baby grow as well as having no choice but to continue my own personal growth through discomfort and challenges from a business standpoint.

Now for the part that I’m really excited about and a little nervous is sharing with you my journey in sports.

As early as 4 years old I’ve been involved with some sort of sports club. My Mum and Dad were State Soccer and Netball representatives so playing sport is something they had my brothers and I into, at an early age.

I started off following in my Dad’s footsteps and playing Soccer for the Modbury Vista Soccer Club and by the time I was 10 years of age I had played a bit of football, cricket and basketball as well so sport become a big part of my life very early.

At the age of 7, I started playing basketball  for my school. This was when Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls became all the craze of the 90’s. It seemed like everyone was playing and I just wanted to be a part of it. Like a lot of kids at that time, Basketball became my sport of choice. And by the time I started to hit my early teenage years, I knew it was something I would love to develop to a professional level. At that age it was just so much fun and that is where the love of the game developed for me.

My Saturdays were spent at St. Bernard’s rec centre (now the ARC). I loved the game that much I was coaching, refereeing to make a bit of pocket money and playing.

My parents realized pretty quickly that I was taking this basketball thing pretty serious around the ages of 13-14, and after much deliberation, put me into the elite pathways at that time. I played my first year of District or some may know it as Representative Basketball here in Australia for the Norwood Flames. I played my first year in Division 5 and my second year in Division 4.

I then went out to under 18 tryouts, and I think I was possibly looking at a Division 4 Spot. But, I decided to take that year off. Instead,  Playing a social grade of basketball that year, my then coach, took me out to Torrens Valley Basketball Club where I found a spot in the Under 18 Division 1 team as a second year. Initially this did wonders for my ego. But little did I know, my ego was about to take some hits.

Like any sport and anything in life, it came with its challenges and rightly so. I mean if it were easy to play elite level sport, everyone would do it right?

As much as I loved the idea of competing against the best in the state, I didn’t play much and I developed the “If I had”. I’m sure you’ve all met the “If I had” athletes before, right?

If I had more court time, I’d be better. If I had more of a chance, I could get into more of a rhythm on the floor. If I had been in this team longer, I’d be looked after more. Basically, I blamed everything and everyone around me for my attitude, my performance and my victim mentality.

Moving along, I then went up and played Under 20’s as a division 2 player. I started to gain more belief in myself and skillset at that level which led to some exposure. Now granted, Torrens Valley wasn’t one of the foundational clubs here in South Australia so Division 2 was their highest level in the U20’s comp.

During that season, I was picked to play in the Reserves State League comp – once again, our highest level for Men’s basketball at the club. The team was stacked with Ex- National Basketball League Players like Mean Al Green, Dwayne Nelson and my U18’s and U20’s Coach John Culbertson. So it felt like a starstruck privilege for me to even be sitting on that bench.

As these guys slowly retired, I formed a good group of mates there and became quite comfortable. I would say too comfortable in fact, and played on and off for the next 10 years out at Torrens Valley in the reserves comp.

Looking back at it now, I say “too comfortable” because I feel like I settled to just be a good player at that level and that fire and burning desire to do more with basketball slowly started to fizzle out. I became just a happy-go-lucky guy who just went with the flow and really didn’t ask any questions or push for more.

Throughout this part of my career I had some of the best games and some of the worst. Sometimes I felt like the game loved me and sometimes I felt like it hated me. But little did I know, these were just the challenges, the highs and lows that every athlete must go through.

At that level, everyone has a decent physical skillset. What separated the elite was how they handled each challenge from a mental perspective.

At this point in my journey. I had very much a fixed mindset. And this is how i describe it.

  • I was a confidence player – When things were going well, I was very good.
  • My focus was very much on the end result. – Whether it was winning or losing, making or missing…. and this is how I would judge myself.
  • I didn’t want to let people down. I wanted everyone to like me. Which means I didn’t deal with mistakes or being criticized very well at all.
  • I had a belief that some players just had a natural ability and were destined for greatness. But that just wasn’t me.
  • I would constantly compare myself to others. I would idolize my opponents, like it was an honor to play against the best. Instead of simply respecting them and focusing on my own strengths and abilities.
  • I had a victim mentality. I didn’t take responsibility for my own actions. Instead i blamed the coach for limited minutes or not allowing me to get into a rhythm before pulling me out again. It was always someone else’s fault.

Here I am at the age of 28 still feeling unfulfilled and empty of those dreams that I had created for myself as a young kid who loved the game of basketball. And this is life where took a turn.

Torrens Valley would merge with the Woodville Warriors Basketball Club. A foundational Club who had both a men’s and women’s State League side. I was immersed in a whole new culture, surrounded by some great players and some great leaders at the club and that really reignited that competitive fire within. I wanted to be the best athlete I could be and really challenge myself to see f I could play at the State League level.

I went out and got myself a trainer with full intention of making it at a pro level for nobody else, but myself. I had my nutrition, my workouts, my vision, and my mind locked in that year.  I was working out 6 days a week. I was learning different footwork, new techniques and i was putting in repetition, after repetition, after repetition. To the point where, I wouldn’t even have to think. My body would just instinctually move a certain way.

In turn,  I had my very best season in Reserves that year at my new club. I Took away the team MVP and was top 10 in the league in scoring which for me, was the product of a mindset shift.

The next year, I went out to my first pre-season with the State League team and was fitter than I’d ever been. The speed and physicality of the game was at whole entire other level and on our last training I was one of the last 2 guys to get cut. I was devastated. I’ll tell you now, one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to do is get back in that gym and continue to put in the work,  when you feel like all is lost or you go through that spiraling feeling of self doubt and feeling of failure. But that moment also paved the way for the next chapter.

I knew I had to get stronger and both years we had imports playing at my preferred position of the point guard spot, which forced me to adapt my game into a shooting guard. I went back to reserves, doubled down and put in even more individual work as well as training with the State League guys to continue to develop and improve to that next level.

The following year, Back-to-Back NBL champion  Darnell Mee was brought in as our head coach, and I felt like I had a clean slate to prove myself. Once again, I had a really strong pre-season and made what was at the point known as the Premier League team for Woodville.  I exceeded all of my own expectations and limiting beliefs and was named the starting shooting guard for the very first game of the season, ironically against Norwood. There were people including the coach that believed that i was better than i thought I was.

I would love to paint the picture of being the hero in this story but truth is, it didn’t quite go down like that.

As much as I waited for this moment to come, I wasn’t ready. In fact the day of that first game. I was a mess. I was so built up with nerves and anxiety that I made myself physically sick. This was the amount of pressure that I had put on myself. I went 3 for 8 shooting that game and ended in a tough loss. With ex-36er Darren Ng coming back into the side for our Round 2 clash against North Adelaide, I was consequentially sitting at the end of the bench.

To add to the chaos of it all…  at this point in my life, I was going through some external issues that had also detracted my focus. The environment at my work became quite draining and I’d been going through the emotions of a relationship breakup since late in the pre-season.

I look back on this now as a test. A test to see how badly I wanted this success. Like a video game, the higher the level, the higher the challenges. The stress I put myself under started to impact  my body, and about 20 minutes in to our second 90-minute training session of the week I was done.

As I was sprinting and went to turn, I felt the tear of my calf muscle. The injury had me out for 6-8 weeks and I never came back from it  from both a physical or mental standpoint.

I played one career game at the semi-professional level.

A lot of people ask me if I regret the decision.

And to be honest, Initially I did.

But looking back on it now, that decision has lead me down a path where I get to help other athletes rise above adversity to become the very best they can be in a game that they love.

From trying different sports at an early age to dedicating my love and time to the sport of basketball, I’ve seen how much focus we put into physical conditioning, natural talent and skill set. But the fact of the matter is… maximizing athlete potential comes from much more than that.

I learnt the harsh lesson that our physical ability can only take us so far and I know I’m not the only one. The mind dictates what the body is capable of doing. It controls our confidence, our focus, our work ethic, our discipline, our goals, our motivation, the way we prepare, our habits, and our our ability to perform in pressure moments but most importantly… it controls the belief we have within ourselves. That internal voice that tells us to do something or not do something.

It is the mind that trains the body. Not the other way around.  We can’t commit to being great at something unless our mind is ready to take us there. It is the mental game that makes you dominant.

And the beauty of this is, the mind is just like a muscle. It is developed and built with focused effort, practice, repetition and time.

– 𝒞ℴ𝒶𝒸𝒽 𝒞𝒶𝓁.

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