The Head in the Game: Q&A with PLU Coach Goes Inside the Mind of an Athlete
By Veronica Craker
Assistant Director of Communications
Zach Willis ’19 earned a BA in kinesiology with a concentration in health and fitness promotion and minored in sport and exercise psychology while playing on the football team at Pacific Lutheran University. Last year he returned to the university to serve as the football team’s assistant offensive line coach after completing his Master’s in Sport and Exercise Psychology at Western Washington University. He also works as a master resilience trainer and performance expert at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Willis spoke with us about how he incorporates his education into helping students succeed on and off the field.
What goals did you have in mind when you returned to the PLU football program?
My initial goal was to come and serve the players and coaching staff in whatever capacity I could. PLU and PLU football helped me grow into the person I am today, so I wanted to be able to give back to a community that drove me to thoughtfully care and serve others above myself.
You are a coach first, but your academic expertise is a great fit for your role. How does are your football experience and academic background complimentary?
If you want to be the best YOU, you can be, performing optimally requires focusing on more than just the physical side of performance. Enhancing and deliberately practicing mental skills is crucial. Many coaches talk about the importance of sport psychology but few have the appropriate training to effectively teach student-athletes how to improve their mental game.
How does your Master’s Degree, in particular, help you in your role as a coach?
I think my degree prepared me in a variety of ways to coach effectively. My main focus is on building up athletes’ confidence, encouraging them to be their best on and off the field, and challenging them in an appropriate manner. Ultimately, I think my graduate studies prepared me to be patient and to truly listen to understand what each student-athlete needs from a coach to be successful. For me, being able to take a tactical pause rather than instantly react has translated well to coaching and processing the game in a new way.
How do you coach a student when they’ve made a mistake?
Mistakes are normal and I actually encourage student-athletes to be willing to mess up because that shows me they are willing to learn and grow. More often than not, the individual that made the mistake already knows what they did wrong, so my goal is to encourage them to find the solution rather than tell them the answer right away. By giving players the opportunity to attempt and try new techniques, they begin to understand and develop skills necessary to perform at their best on a game day.
Why is autonomy important for the student-athlete, especially in team sports?
Autonomy is just giving them a chance to have control to have a choice. Rather than telling them to do X-Y-Z, I want to give them opportunities to learn and grow, and I think that’s beneficial, not just on the football field but off the field as well. For many college student-athletes, they may not have much autonomy in their daily life, for example, they may be told for when to work out, when they go to class, etc., so I think giving the team opportunities to name a drill, name a play, choose a drill, can be motivating and fulfilling for each of them.
How do you think this type of coaching translates off the field and into the workforce or in their community spaces?
They can use these mental skills when setting goals for their career, monitoring their stress during finals, and building confidence prior to a presentation. Mental performance goes well beyond just sports and I believe that anyone can utilize mental skills for life.
What would you say is the thing that you enjoy most about your role?
The interactions I have and the relationships I’m building with the coaching staff and the players. I think that’s what lasts a lifetime. Seeing their growth from day one to week 10, and not just as a football player, but their growth in all aspects of their life is truly rewarding.
What is a common misconception about sport psychology?
Sport psychology is not just meant for athletes. Mental skills training can be provided to anyone looking to improve their mental performance –not just individuals who are struggling, but also for individuals who are performing at a high level. Whether you are a performing artist, musician, student, or in your career, I think the opportunities to work on mental performance are endless and seeking a mental skills consultant could be beneficial.