Bill Cole is the Founder and President of the International Mental Game Coaching Association, an organization that provides training and certifications to mental game coaches worldwide. He has been the performance psychology consultant or coach with athletes or coaches of 25 world and national teams, 11 international and Olympic teams, and 32 professional sports teams, associations or leagues.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I grew up in a very small village called Williamsville, in the larger town of Amherst, a suburb of Buffalo, in Western New York State. We were minutes away from Canada and Niagara Falls.
I am very grateful my parents moved to Williamsville in 1941. It was one of the best school districts in the country, and it still is. The schools were distinguished by offering a very well-rounded set of student experiences, with particular excellence in music, drama and sports.
Music was a defining experience that set me on my career path as a performance psychology consultant.
I started on the trombone at age 8 in school lessons. I ultimately played bass trombone, tenor trombone, baritone, and baritone bugle. I played in every type of musical group possible—pit orchestras for musicals, marching bands, symphonic bands, concert bands, orchestras, brass choirs, jazz ensembles, rock bands and a drum and bugle corps.
Our high school band was ranked in the top three in the nation. We played throughout the US and Canada. I played at a very high level, good enough to be selected for the New York State All-State Orchestra and also the All-County Band. I was on track to go to music school but changed course into sports psychology at the last minute. In high school, I sat first-chair-first, ahead of two of my trombone friends who actually did go to music school and became very successful professional musicians.
Many of my high school music friends went on to careers in the music industry as recording engineers, recording studio owners, touring musicians, session musicians, and members of philharmonic orchestras across the United States. One fairly famous one is Robert Kinkel, who was a founding member, Musical Director, composer, and arranger for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO). TSO has sold over 10 million concert tickets and more than 10 million albums. Billboard Magazine and Pollstar both ranked TSO as one of the top ten ticket-selling bands in the 2000s.
Robert Kinkel and I were inducted the same year, 2003, into our Williamsville School District Wall Of Fame.
Our high school Jazz Ensemble I played in was the opening act for Buddy Rich and his Big Band in a concert in 1971. I also performed with multiple Grammy-award winner Chuck Mangione as a member of his orchestra in a recorded Friends and Love concert in 1973. This was at the height of Mangione’s popularity as a composer, arranger, and master of the flugelhorn.
I played in two Chicago / Blood Sweat and Tears type rock bands in high school and after. So I made money as a professional musician for a short time.
I also loved racquet sports, having played tennis from age 10. I couldn’t get enough tennis and immersed myself in every aspect of it I could. I actually began teaching tennis at age 15 and a half. I competed at the national level in tennis and badminton and played in hundreds of competitive tennis events over a career of 15 years. I was the winner or finalist in 25 tennis tournaments and played professional tennis in the 1970s and 1980s. I earned money as a pro, played some big-name pros, and played on television. Years later, I was ultimately inducted into the Buffalo Tennis Hall of Fame.
Even though I consistently performed at a high level throughout my music career, I was perplexed as to why I could go from “hero to zero” in the blink of an eye in sports. That question is what launched me into a lifelong quest to discover that answer.
My background in music and racquet sports gave me deep insights into performance psychology, learning psychology, and teaching and coaching. I was exposed to phenomenal teachers and coaches who modeled excellence, and who expected excellence. They inspired me to pursue teaching, coaching, and to become a leader in my field.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
I used to be a complete perfectionist growing up. I achieved at very high levels, but I also paid a very dear price in feeling extreme stress to achieve, and high pressure to continue those levels of success. Now I call myself a recovering perfectionist, and I use what I learned from my journey through and out of perfectionism to help my clients grow.
I help people see the effects perfectionism has on their work, their lives and their relationships, how it helps them achieve, but also how it gets in the way of their relationships, and of how much personal pain it costs them.
Two quotes on perfectionism I often use in coaching:
“Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” — Confucius
“I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence I can reach for. Perfection is God’s business.” — Michael J. Fox
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
I train and certify mental game coaches worldwide through the International Mental Game Coaching Association (IMGCA). The mission of IMGCA is to advance the research, development, professionalism, and growth of the discipline of mental game coaching worldwide. IMGCA was the world’s first mental game coaching membership organization, created in 2006, and is the only national or international mental game coaching membership organization in the world today.
From my vantage point in the field of sport psychology, I sometimes see professionals giving advice that is incomplete, or at least not so well-thought-out. For example, they often say that the two areas in which they coach people so they can perform better are to “think better” and to “be more positive-minded”. These are both laudable goals, and I teach these as well. But what they often leave out is the most central, crucial aspect of peak performance. When you perform in most disciplines, there is little if any time to “think”. In fact, depending on the situation, there is usually no time to think. There is only time “to do”. So the part of their coaching that is missing revolves around skills and approaches to help performers “quiet their mind”, and to play mindlessly, on automatic pilot.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
When I was quite young I was fairly shy. I was a very good procrastinator. I also had pretty strong stage fright around public speaking. These issues of course caused me many unwanted limitations and troubles, so for many years, I studied how to overcome all of these. I read books, I took classes, I joined clubs, I worked with coaches, and I subjected myself to the very situations that used to cause me so much angst.
I became a professional speaker, seminar leader, and workshop leader. I’ve spoken to a wide variety of audiences nationally and internationally. I was eventually a member of the Board Of Directors of The National Speakers Association (Northern California).
I overcame the shyness to the point where people are surprised to learn that I used to be that way. I am now proactive, and no longer self-sabotage from procrastination, and can help others overcome this as well.
I’ve discovered that many excellent coaches, teachers, and consultants gained their insights, wisdom, and skillsets from the struggles they themselves encountered in reaching mastery in a certain discipline.
And now I help my clients understand and manage their shyness, procrastination, and stage fright with various coaching programs, books, and speaking programs. One workshop example:
The Mental Game of Speaking: Building Composure, Confidence and Credibility
I wrote two books on public speaking:
Free To Fee: How To Move Into The World Of Professional Speaking
The Mental Game Of Speaking: Building Composure, Confidence and Credibility
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
When we were very young, our parents took us, three kids, to the public library each week. We could not leave until we each checked out five books to read. We turned those books in the next week and repeated that process, every week, for years.
So I’d have to say, my love of learning, reading books, and my deep curiosity has been my strongest guideposts to advancing in my career, and in life.
What is your morning routine?
My routine can vary according to the day, but on most days, I am up at 5 am and starting to read the news. Then email. Then I write new content for an article, book or one of my websites.
I then exercise, take a walk, have breakfast, some Chinese tea, and then come back to my home office and start my “official business day”.
If I can’t sleep, at any hour of the night. I don’t fight it. I get up and do some reading or light office work until I feel the urge to sleep.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
Many, many years ago, when I was a relentless over-achiever, I had such high energy and excitement for what I was doing that I rarely felt the need to “smell the flowers” along the way. I rarely sat still. I had so much I wanted to do, I was always on the go.
Since then, I’ve learned to savor things much more. I’ve learned the value of building rapport and connection with people. I’ve learned the art of deep listening. This intentional approach to being in the moment has improved the quality of my life immensely.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
Some authors have suggested that people tackle their biggest, most challenging task at the start of the day. This can work well for some people. If you remove that huge roadblock, you’ll feel great. But what happens if you don’t succeed? And how hard is it to actually get going on such a large undertaking? For most people, it’s very hard. And of course, this is one of the leading reasons for procrastination.
Instead, consider “warming up your mind”, just as a musician warms up before a concert. An experienced musician would never walk in and simply begin performing. They have a well-defined, systematic approach to feeling prepared and confident.
I’ve developed an energy-efficiency-zone system that overcomes mental obstacles, and procrastination. Each unit propels you to the next level:
- Action: Dive in and get going! Just do something. Organize your desk. Get your papers ready to go. Make a to-do list. Keep it simple so you can execute it and succeed quickly. Don’t seek perfection. Seek fast completion of these simple tasks.
- Traction: You’ll soon feel like you actually are grabbing hold of something real instead of wondering why you’re not moving ahead. Your procrastination will begin to lift.
- Momentum: You’ll feel like the action is moving you along, effortlessly. You’ll feel the energy.
- Velocity: You’ll begin to work faster and more efficiently.
- Flow: You’ll feel like you are in full engagement, in a world all to itself.
All of this leads to the ZONE. Here you feel something special is happening, something memorable.
Here are two more strategies.
Identify even the smallest “wins” you have and don’t wait to feel happy unless you score a huge victory or you can check off a huge item from your list. This may take far too long, or it may never come. Perfectionists have a very hard time identifying the progress they’ve made. This keeps them in a dissatisfied mood and ruins their flow and their progress.
Then, celebrate each win. That will give you the good feelings you deserve and that you need for continued progress. Use those good feelings and energy to “feed” the next task.
Finally, a major mistake people make with their “to-do lists” is to erase or delete each task they accomplish as they go. They finish the day and think, “What did I actually DO today?” The evidence is gone. And of course, they feel less than satisfied. This also gives them no longer-term record of that progress. Instead, keep a daily task completion log to see what you’ve actually accomplished. It’s very invigorating and encouraging to see your long list of “wins” at the end of the day, and overtime. So keep those lists.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
In 1974 Tim Gallwey wrote the seminal book The Inner Game Of Tennis. This book was revolutionary at the time, and today is still considered controversial, yet its teachings have spawned a new learning and performing perspective and method of instruction in all sports, and other arenas.
In 1978 I was the first person in the world to earn an undergraduate degree in sport psychology, so this book was quite inspiring for me, and perfect timing. It ignited my interest in the mental game and really helped launch me into the field of sport psychology.
Gallwey said that every discipline has an inner game and an outer game. Every sport is a game of course. Athletes keep score in the outer game mainly by how much they win. The inner game is the game that takes place in the mind of the athlete. I help athletes and performers across many disciplines grow and seek excellence in their inner game, their mental game.
To win the outer game consistently, we must first win the inner game. To gain a degree of control over our outer world, we must first gain control over our inner world. Our best performances originate from inside ourselves. Yet people create mental barriers, or get in their own way, resulting in performance deficits. I help people overcome these mental blocks.
Another person I have learned a great deal from is the prolific writer and business coach, Marshall Goldsmith. I love all his books, and a checklist from one book, in particular, is very helpful: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful! The checklist is called The 20 Annoying Workplace Habits You Need to Break Now. In it, he outlines 20 behavior patterns that can be self-sabotaging, and he then provides strategies to overcome them.
His solution-focused approach mirrors my style of writing as well: Identify an issue, problem, obstacle, or behavior pattern that is not useful, and then devise specific strategies and techniques to manage them or remove them.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
I have a huge archive of quotes collections, by category. I infuse them in my writing and also use them in my coaching sessions. I find that when my clients read the best thinking from elite performers, their minds open up to new possibilities.
I use quotes like this to teach existentialist approaches to motivation and perspective on life:
“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” — Oscar Wilde
I use quotes like this to help people open their minds to possibility and to see themselves as deserving of success:
“People can only consistently achieve to the level of their self image.” — Bill Cole, MS, MA
I use quotes like these to help people understand how the zone operates:
“When I learned how to breathe, I learned how to win.” — Tom Watson
“Things slow down, the ball seems a lot bigger and you feel like you have more time. Everything computes. You have options, but you always take the right one.” — John McEnroe, describing the zone.