What is Mental Training and how can it support athletes to perform to their full potential?
How Much of Performance do you think is mental?
When you ask athletes, most often their answer usually lie between 50% and 90% with a few rare exceptions that will answer 10% or 100%.
I personally prefer seeing it the following way: to perform at our best, i.e. 100% of our potential, we need to be 100% physically ready and 100% mentally ready (not mentioning technical and tactical aspects). T
he point here is not to debate on the percentage but the to recognize the importance of the mental component in the athlete’s performance, which can make the difference between just having some potential and fully realizing it, between qualifying or not, making a podium or not, winning or not, no matter what the level of competition.
Now, when you ask them “How much of your time do you spend practicing your mental skills?”, the athletes very often answer “not a lot”, or “none”.
So, where does the gap between the fact that athletes recognize the importance of the mental component in their sport and the fact that they don’t work on it come from?
There are many different reasons, for instance:
- Some think that if you do Mental Training, it means that you have psychological problems or mental health issues
- Some might think the mental component is something you have or don’t have (confidence, focus, motivation, etc…). This is a fixed mindset approach (I am like I am and can’t change this), as opposed to a growth mindset approach (I can improve in any domain).
- Some might think they are already doing Mental Training by repeating to themselves (or to their athletes if they are coaches) what they have to do: “Focus”, “Don’t stress out”, etc… which can be helpful but is very limited compared to what is possible. Often, we know what to do but don’t know how to do it. Eventually there are some things to know to make these affirmations more effective.
- Some might think Mental Training is just for top level athletes.
- Eventually a lot don’t really know what it is and how to practice.
The objective of this article is to precise what Mental Training (also called Mental Preparation, or Mental Game coaching) is how it can support athletes whatever their level. Future articles will go into details of some mental skills and techniques.
Here is what we can say about Mental Training as a start:
- If you are an athlete, you probably have experienced the Mind/Body connection. The only thought of a competition creates a response in your body in the form of heart rate increase, excessive sweating, butterflies in the stomach, etc…all this without you doing your sport, without being at a competition, without doing anything but thinking. The goal of Mental Training is basically to utilize this Mind/body connection to your advantage, in an intentional and positive way, as opposed to being a victim of it.
- Your thoughts and emotions are impacting your performance, whether you are aware of it or not. One objective in Mental Training is to become aware of what you think, what you feel, and recognize how this might affect your performance. Then you will be more able to make choices that will benefit your performance.
- Mental Training is like taking your brain to the gym, it does for the brain what stretching and strengthening do for the body. When you practice mental training, you actually stretch the way you are looking at your performance and the possibilities offered by any situation, positive or negative; you learn and strengthen your ability to turn nervousness into positive energy, to focus, to relax, to bounce back after setbacks, to feel confident, to play well under pressure (and to like it!), so that you perform at your full potential… These are skills that can be learned, practiced and strengthened with some reps just like any work-out.
- A growing body of research shows the benefits of different techniques like mental imagery or visualization (for instance: From mental power to muscle power, or The BASES Expert Statement on the use of Mental Imagery in Sport) tremendously used by Novak Djokovic, heart coherence techniques used a lot in Golf or Baseball, meditation and mindfulness, used by Michael Jordan back in the days under the teaching of Georges Mumford, more recently by the rugby star Jonny Wilkinson, etc…
- As physical, technical, tactical preparation, Mental Training requires commitment and practice. Knowing or believing is not enough, you have to learn and then practice on a regular basis. As Thich Nhat Hanh puts it about meditation, “it is not a matter of faith, it is a matter of practice”.
- Mental training is for anyone. Any athlete, whatever the sport, whatever the level, is human and therefore has thoughts and emotions that are compromising their full potential.
- If Group Coaching is possible, Mental Training is even more effective when individualized because every athlete has his/her own mental blocks, beliefs, ways to react/respond to stress, etc…
- Eventually, Mental Training applies to other fields like school, music, acting, personal or professional life. Beyond techniques and performance, Mental Training helps to increase the awareness of how we operate, think, process, to be more intentional and to support our search of sense of and fulfilment in our sport and in life in general.
What can Mental Training be used for?
Mental Training can be used a great variety of objectives, like the following:
- Manage Stress and Pressure
- Increase Confidence and Self-Esteem
- Improve Focus
- Bounce back after Setbacks (Resilience)
- Push through Pain during competition
- Learn to Relax
- Increase and Maintain Motivation
- Have Fun
- Be Free to Fail
- Improve technical gestures
- Recover from Injuries
- Improve Group/Team Dynamic
- Improve Relationships with self and with others
When we speak about Mental Preparation, we often associate it with hard qualities like determination, discipline, commitment, sacrifice, courage, confidence and positive mental attitude.
We talk about mental toughness. All these qualities are necessary for sure, but there is also a need to develop some softer qualities like patience, humility, expression of feelings, faith in your plan, belief in yourself, in your coach, in your teammates, accepting responsibility, sense of play, enjoyment and fun.
You can start to assess your areas of strength and areas of improvement by rating yourself for each of the 8 mental skills in the here below wheel. Evaluate your level between 0 (center of the wheel) and 10 (Current perimeter of the circle) and draw an arc of circle corresponding at that level in the associated area.
The new contour will give you a visual representation of your Mental Performance. Review results and make note of any insights that are revealed.
Mental Training techniques
There are a lot of mental training techniques and tools. I personally use a combination of different techniques learned in the US from renown sport psychologists (Dr JoAnn Dahlkoetter), research institutes (Heartmath institute) and coaching schools (CoachU), especially:
- Personal Goals to give a direction and keep motivation
- Power Words or Positive Affirmations
- Mental Imagery or Visualization
- Heartmath stress management techniques, based on breathing and positive emotions, based on decades of research, to reach a coherent physiological state
- Present Focus
- Meditation / Mindfulness
- Personal Coaching as defined by the International Coach Federation (ICF) which enables the athlete to identify his roadblocks and find his own solutions
As an example, here is what a college student golf player with whom I worked says:
« The time I spent working with Evan exceeded my highest expectations. Before working with Evan, I was a complete head case during competitions. I was tired of beating myself up for one bad shot, shooting scores higher than my physical ability should allow, having low confidence, and I wanted to get back to loving the game of golf. Evan helped me with all of these things.
We began with a simple breathing exercise to help calm the mind and prepare the body for peak performance. I still utilize this exercise every time I play and have even incorporated it into everyday life. From there, we talked about different things related to my performances and my feelings about the interventions I was trying to incorporate. Evan would then introduce new exercises depending on my needs, or we would expand on previous exercises that I found to work well.
Improvement started to show pretty quickly. The first (and biggest) change I noticed was an improvement on my mental game during competition. I found that I wouldn’t beat myself up for having bad shots or having a bad hole, which resulted in a better overall performance. My confidence started to climb and I began to have fun once again. Almost a year later, I find myself
playing the best golf I ever have before. These changes have led me to great success including shooting scores that are within my desired range, finishing in the top 10 at collegiate tournaments, and breaking school records. As happy and excited as I am about these things, I am even more ecstatic that I can get through a tournament with minimal mental blocks and I walk away from the course with a smile on my face ».
A few suggestions to start with
The first tips I give when giving an introductory workshop to introduce Mental Training to athletes and teams are the following:
- Start by noticing your thoughts and emotions without judging them, just observing them, in practice and in competition (in the days before, during warm-up, during the event and after). Journaling on a regular basis may help to get clarity and discover some tendencies. This will help to differentiate thoughts and emotions from reality, which is a necessity in order to not be victim of them anymore.
- Focus on the process, not the outcome. Where the attention goes, the energy follows. If you focus too much on the outcome, the time, the victory or the defeat, your mind won’t focus on what you have to do in the moment, your moves, your strategy, your tactics, your effort, etc… It is not forbidden to get some motivation and energy in desiring a certain result, but it shouldn’t interfere with the performance by adding stress, nervousness or distraction.
- Focus on what you can control, not what you can’t control. Too often, the athletes lose physical and mental energy on things over which they have no control, like the opponents’ performance, the weather, the referee, etc…
- Have Fun. If athletes do a sport in the first place, it’s to have fun. But the pressure, the stakes, the competitive spirit, the will or need to win make them forget about it. However, having fun is a necessary condition to perform at one’s best. On the short term, focusing on having fun will help to lower the stress, to relax, and on the long run, it will also help to keep motivated and willing to work hard. One of the reason Roger Federer is still playing at the top level at 38 years old is that he is still having as much fun as before, playing and competing, despite the pressure and stress tennis can generate.
In the coming months, I’ll share different approaches in different situations, with some valuable tips and illustrations to make Mental Training less of a mystery.
However, the most effective remains a personal customized support with a mental coach. If you want to learn more about how we can support you, fill in our contact form and we’ll get back to you shortly. And if you found value in this article, don’t hesitate to share it.