[Photo credit: Wonderlane]
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.
Athletes who practice mental skills learn more about themselves.
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.
Athletes who practice mental skills learn more about themselves. They learn how to deal with failure and overcome setbacks. They learn how to prepare for difficult times in life and manage their anxiety. They learn how to deal with stress and fatigue. They develop the power of focus. They set goals and know what it takes to make their goals a reality. They understand what they are capable of and how to work hard. They know how to motivate themselves and reinforce desirable behaviour.
What is Mental Skills Training?
- 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.
- Self Confidence.
Self confidence is specific to a given situation. For example, Michael Jordan was extremely confident of his ability to score baskets and lead his team to multiple NBA championships, but much less confident of hitting a home run when playing MLB. His confidence as a sportsperson however, gave him the confidence to attempt that switch from NBA to MLB.
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 and manage their stress.
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.
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.
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.
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 the power to motivate themselves.
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?
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