17 March, 2016

The Value of Mental Skills Training

The Value of Mental Skills Training

Photo Credit: Keith Ellwood

GUEST BLOG: Jacob Andreae is a Peak Performance Coach who writes, coaches and speaks about how to achieve ultimate success in any and every area of your life, with an underpinning focus on creating a healthy body and beautiful mind.

Mental skills training is systematic training of the mind to enhance sporting performance. Mental skills are a key factor in achieving sporting success. Athletes who practice mental skills as part of their regular training regime are more likely to be successful in sport and in life.

In all my time competing and playing sport, my coaches and I dedicated very little time to mental skills training. Not much was known about the benefits of mental skills training and the focus was always on getting stronger and faster. Although the benefits of mental skills training at all levels of sport are becoming better known, most coaches still prefer to leave it out of their programs, and most sporting environments consider it a luxury or pseudoscience.

Common reasons why mental skills training is neglected

  • Lack of knowledge about what mental skills training is
  • Misunderstanding about how to teach mental skills
  • Lack of time

Common myths about mental skills training

  • It’s only necessary when there is a problem
  • It’s only for elite athletes
  • A one-off session to improve a particular component is all you need

What is Mental Skills Training?

Athletes who practice mental skills learn more about themselves. They learn how to deal with failure and overcome setbacks and how to prepare for difficult times in life and manage their anxiety. They also learn how to deal with stress and fatigue whilst developing the power of focus. 

Mental skills training covers seven key areas to help athletes understand what they are capable of and how to work hard, with an outcome being self-motivation and self-regulated desirable behaviours.

1. Goal Setting

Failing to plan is planning to fail. Goal setting is a way of deciding what you want and planning how you will achieve it. Goal setting is the most fundamental component of mental skills training. The process of goal setting develops planning, organisation, confidence, and resilience.

2. Self Confidence

Self confidence is specific to a given situation. For example, Michael Jordan was extremely confident of his ability to score points and lead his team to the NBA championship, but much less confident of hitting a home run when playing MLB. His confidence as a sportsperson however, gave him the belief to make that switch from NBA to MLB.

3. Stress

Anxiety is a feeling of worry about a future outcome and leads to stress. Managing stress is a reality of sport and life. To be successful in either sport or life, athletes must learn how to control their anxiety.

4. Visualisation

Visualising a particular outcome can help to ease anxiety as it gives athletes a sense of ‘having been there before’. Familiarity with a situation reduces anxiety and stress. During the visualisation process, signals are sent along the nervous system just as they would if the athlete were to physically perform the movement. This can help refine movements, recover from injury and enhance performance.

5. Attention

Distraction comes from all angles in the sporting environment, just as it does in real life. Learning how to push aside negative experiences and draw upon positive ones, as well as not become distracted with future outcomes, by being ‘in the moment’, helps athletes to perform under pressure and ‘get the job done’. Athletes should be able to regain their focus when it’s lost.

6. Motivation

Motivation is a bunch of thoughts and emotions that lead to behaviours. Athletes must know what motivates them and how to reinforce desirable behaviours, even when the immediate pleasure might be absent and pain is high. The ability to delay gratification is a key component of maintaining motivation.

7. Self-talk

The most important skill that underlies all mental skills listed above, is self-talk. Humans talk to themselves all the time. Athletes must learn how to recognise ideal thoughts, as well as problematic ones. Success hinges on an athletes ability to convert negative thoughts to better ones, as this leads to positive emotions and positive actions. The success of this process is determinant on an athletes level of confidence, ability to deal with anxiety, visualisation skills, ability to maintain focus, capacity to reinforce positive outcomes and power to motivate themselves.

Where can you start?

As goal setting is a fundamental component of mental skills training, and probably the most popular, my suggestion is to start your mental skills training here.

Allocate an hour with your team to set their individual* goals. In preparation for that session, ask your athletes to think about what they would like to achieve by the end of the season. During the session, ask your athletes to write down two goals. These goals should:

  • Be narrow in focus and start with a verb.
  • Be within their control.
  • Challenge them beyond what they might think is possible, but agree that they can achieve it with plenty of encouragement from you.
  • Inspire them to take action and create excitement about what’s possible.
  • Have an action step that they can take immediately, or within the next day.
  • Be measured along the journey to track progress.
  • Be achieved in the next one to three months.

What can you do if you only have five minutes?

I believe goal setting should always be scheduled the time it deserves. Therefore, if you only five minutes that you can allocate to mental skills training, and that five minutes is court/field time, I suggest starting with visualisation. You can practice visualisation before any training drill. The next time you’re explaining your next drill, ask your athletes to close their eyes and picture what you’re saying. Visualising themselves from their own point-of-view (not birds eye or from the bleachers) is always preferred.

You can also assign mental skills training as homework. Remember, these skills will benefit your athletes in all facets of life, not just sport. Self-talk recognition for example, can be an off-field task where your athletes document every single thought that goes through their mind for a two minute period. They can document their thoughts by writing them down or saying them out loud and recording them on their phone. This process will help them become more mindful, confident, positive, and focused.

Mental skills training is essential to reaching ones potential in sport. Mental skills training provides athletes with real opportunities to practice the skills that are necessary for success in life. Sport brings joy (and heartache) to many people. It is a very effective tool for developing strong, resilient and productive people in society. Mental skills training in sport, especially for kids, is a vital component of developing the skills required for all forms of success.

What experiences have you had with mental skills training?

*The purpose of this post is to develop your athletes as individuals. To achieve team success, it’s also recommended to set team goals and establish a common direction. That’s a topic worthy of it’s own post. If you want to foster leadership and autonomy within your players, look out for that post coming soon. 

© 2019 Paul Mead