Mental imagery. Cue words. Goal setting. Centering techniques. They are all quite popular… yet their actual effectiveness is worth examination.  Anecdotal reports suggest that Olympians are masters of mental skills…the scientific evidence however suggests that sometimes mental skills are much ado about nothing.

This point is highlighted in Ross Roberts and his colleagues recent research study titled, “Psychological Skills Do Not Always Help Performance.” Over the years, it has been found that athletes with low narcissistic personality traits struggle in competitive situations. With this in mind, Roberts’s research team sought to see if athletes with lower levels of confidence (operationally defined as low narcissists) benefited more greatly than their peers with greater feelings of superiority.  The results were striking in that it was revealed that it was only high narcissists who benefitted from the use of relaxation skills and self-talk strategies. In essence, those that need mental skills the least benefit from them the most.

This really must leave one wondering about the foundation on which mental skills are built upon.  If a competitor is to reap their benefits, the stage must already be set for their success. Psychological skill training without a robust training environment may only lead to tired minds and futile efforts.

Perhaps depth is led to these considerations by considering the research of Iris Mauss and her colleagues. Many cognitive scientists and neuropsychologists have begun to examine the costs and benefits of deliberate emotional regulation. In essence, asking the question, “Does actively making efforts to manage stresses and mental wanderings help or hurt my ability to live and perform optimally?” Mental skills are typically active efforts to feel good and focus finely.  Resent research is starting to highlight that active efforts to manage emotions is a bit like using a blunt instrument during precise surgical techniques—well intentioned efforts made, but unintentional damage done.  Some researchers have even found efforts at managing one’s emotion is more damaging to one’s focus than a foul mood!

So abandon the concept of emotional management all together? This seems like a foolish philosophy. The answer to high mental and emotional performance may lie in implicit emotional regulation. This type of regulation operates outside of conscious control and is grounding in the goals and attitudes that are developed over time.  Athletes that score high in narcissistic traits have likely been part of athletic environments that have lifted their egos up over the years and encouraged them to love competition. Sporting cultures that highly value emotional regulation and have emotionally resilient ideals embedded in their daily actions and language lead to athletes that can feel good and focus finely on a most consistent basis. Emotional regulation is an important goal for athletes looking to thrive in the most competitive settings. It is best found when mental skills are stacked on top of richly, rooted, mental toughness values.

Mental skills with weak motivational and emotional value systems turn out to be all bark, but no bite. Tennis players, do not abandon your between point-routine that is filled with a diaphragmatic breath or two and an energizing key word. Do certainly however stack these skills on top of great attitude and a culture of excellence.

* Note: Image of "Challenge Me" braclet is courtesy of the International Junior sports academies.  It is an attitude that can be found training on the courses and courts of Hilton Head Island.

About the Author

Adam Naylor, EdD, CC-AASP

Dr. Adam Naylor leads Telos SPC and is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Sport Psychology at Boston University’s School of Education.

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