Colorado Rapids

Q&A with Brian Bergford | How the Rapids' Mental Performance Coach is elevating the team's mindset for on-field success


As part of our efforts to reduce the stigma around mental health, we are highlighting a member of our Mental Performance team each week in May. This week, we spoke to Mental Performance Coach Brian Bergford about his background in mental fitness, his work with the team, and the importance of staying mentally sharp to optimize success in our lives.

How did you first get into performance coaching and mental fitness?

I wanted to understand psychology and why people think certain things. I just wanted to understand better where does behavior come from and how do people make decisions? What are the fundamental structures beneath what makes them feel what they do? Then it evolved into being really fascinated with human performance. I love athletics, sports, anything that was really high-performance and the pinnacle of what humans are capable of. That really captivated me and became how do we maximize people's psychological and emotional resources to get the best performance we possibly can? That became the driving force and fascination.

I'm not interested in mediocre performance. For me, anybody's that's pushing the envelope of what they are humanly capable of is the space that I want to be in. In terms of performance on a basic level, it's everything that we do day to day. We're trying to get a result. On the spectrum of real life, what type of results are we trying to get? And how far are we pushing that envelope? When you get into the excellence of sports, or people that are really high-level performers like executives, CEOs, business owners, people like that, that's the space that I like to play in.

What is your role as Mental Performance Coach with the Rapids?

I'm a mental fitness advocate. What's your actual plan to be dialed into your mindset, in your emotions, to have as powerful of a reservoir as you possibly can? To have the emotions and the thoughts and the things that drive excellence to help you have a really, truly fulfilled life? I don't think that that's looked at enough. There's things you can preemptively do to keep yourself nice and fit and healthy and mentally and emotionally robust, so that it makes the chances of having a mental health “injury” far less likely. My role as mental performance coach is being very proactive in giving people the habits, rituals and routines and disciplines so that they can perform their best on and off the field and have fulfillment too. It's not just about performance, because that can create a lot of misery and suffering as well. We've got to balance all that individually and help support them on all those different levels. Obviously, we're talking about a soccer club. People want to see results, they want to win. I think when we support people all the way around, that's what gives us the best chance of that happening.

When did you first start working in sports?

The first time I was really working with athletes was in college because I was at the University of Colorado with their football program there. I've been around these types of environments before, and I love it. There's something amazing about being in an environment that's very heavily ego-based. I like that high-stakes environment.

What if an athlete or client doesn't understand or buy in to the importance of mental fitness? Do you have a set plan to alter their perception?

I don't need to; they will change their own mind. Usually the people that have the strongest minds and are really on top of this stuff, they're the people that appreciate it the most. They know it's valuable; they're the most truly confident, not insecure, posing as confidence. There's a lot of athletes that are really confident, but it's very much coming from a place of ego, and that's gonna get pulled out from under them. They're gonna find out what confidence really is and isn't. If somebody doesn't think much of it, that's fine, I keep on doing what I do by showing the value that it brings, and if they latch on to something, it’s great.

What is the difference between working with a group of athletes compared to individual clients, how do you alter your approach to coaching them as a whole unit?

I think it's really critical to have the backing of the club, that [mental performance] is something that's really important and they're putting resources into it. The head coach is crucial. If you have a head coach that only thinks being fit and doing physical training is important, but not mental fitness, that attitude is going to bleed over and have a massive impact on the team. I think the coach will be critical in setting the tone for the guys. If that's in place, the genuine leaders on the team are going to get it. They're grounded. They know who they are.

What is your weekly schedule like with the team?

Every week, we'll have a team meeting. It’s a 15-20 minute block where we've got the entire team and we're just going through mental performance principles. I'm coming in, chatting with the guys a little bit, just being available, being around to have those side conversations, develop relationships. At the end of the day, that helps me make sure I'm in tune with what the coaching staff says and the messages they're bringing to the guys and that I'm aligned with that. Then we'll go to practice to see and feel where the team is really at. Things can change week to week or even practice to practice. That dynamic between the guys, making sure they're in a healthy place, that they're supporting each other the way they should, I want to know about that because it helps me change my messaging. Like last week, I was going over confidence with them specifically, and how that needs to look in the cycle of confidence. Next week, I'm going to be going specifically over appreciation and gratitude. Those things have a practical, pragmatic use and value. We're talking about how this actually impacts performance.

What do individual sessions with players look like?

When I do a training, it's got to be general information that's hopefully going to be applicable to everybody in the room, and they can use it on some level. When I work one on one with guys, it's very targeted. I talk to them and develop relationships, but by and large, it's people coming to me instead of me seeking them out to talk. We sit down, we develop a game plan, we build out routines, we build out practices, we build out habits. We draft out a plan, just like they have training plans. We're going to be focused on the rituals that we need to be doing, especially if they're struggling in this particular area. Sometimes they're strong in a lot of areas and there's one area that can be tuned up a little bit to bring it to the level the others are at. It's going to be a game changer for them.

I have a host of things that I can do with any of the guys, but when we work one on one, we pull together what they need as individuals, and develop a plan that's tailored just for them. We refine it, and we see where they're getting stronger and feel like they're playing better on the field. Then we just keep refining until we get the recipe right for them. Everybody's an individual starting from a different place with different strengths and weaknesses. They all process information in different ways, they see the world in different ways. From my standpoint, every single player, every single coach, every single staff member should have their own mental performance training plan that's customized to them as an individual, helping them take the next steps.

How did you come to align with Chris Armas on what your work with the team would look like?

I think he knew very early on that this kind of work could be productive with the guys, or it wouldn’t. In that first meeting, it became clear that we were on the same page. We're very much on the same page about mental performance is something critically important. He doesn't like wasting people's time and energy. After that first conversation we both knew like we wanted the exact same thing. He asked me a lot of questions, especially before the first team meeting, because I was talking in front of the guys. Once he saw me work with the guys a little bit, he understood that we were in alignment. Then he said great, go do your thing.

Do you see your mental fitness coaching translate to on-field succes?

You definitely see that stuff translate now. While I want to say yes, I also want to recognize the fact that I think mental performance coaching is an absolutely crucial part of a program, especially in professional sports. It's the proactive side of-on field performance and what affects things out there day-to-day, week-to-week in practice. For me personally, how big of a difference do I make? I'm a tiny little part of a really important larger recipe. That includes everybody in this club, everybody that works here. Then you have the fan base of all the players. I think that that's what we're trying to get at. Get the recipe right, support the players in the club the best we possibly can, and the results will take care of themselves. Mental performance is a small part of a very big ecosystem.

Social media has a big impact on all of our lives, especially athletes in the public eye––what do you advise the players pertaining to healthy social media habits to improve their mental performance?

I haven't really needed to because I think most of the guys have been pretty on-point with it. Sometimes the guys will come in, and they're checking their stats, and they're looking at things right away. And it's just like, just let it breathe a little bit, check in with yourself first. It's not that nothing people say online matters. But there's such a cluster bomb of everybody's opinions that I think it's very difficult to sift through and get something of substance. Plus, you have to ask yourself, do these people have your best interests at heart? I think that's where you stay tied in with coaches and you ask them for feedback, like is there anything you're seeing out there that would be helpful for me, so that they can have a little bit of a filter. Somebody can throw an opinion out there, but they're not accountable for that guy getting a result on the pitch the next week.

I think one of the most important things is what spirit is it being said from and are they interested in speaking into your life in an encouraging way and empowering you to become your very best? You know who you are, and the people that are closest to you, love you and respect you. The most grounded people might be aware of some chatter and stuff that's going on, it might get to them a little bit, but it's not going to fillet them open. They know who they are. They know what they're about. They're grounded. On a side-by-side note, if you can't stay off social media, and it's getting to an unhealthy place, you have a discipline and/or a planning or organization problem, or you don't have the right processes in place for mental performance. I think sometimes people don't set up their own guardrails. You can still be on social media, but have it be something that's not going to affect you in a negative way.