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What Mental Training for Sports Is Really All About

When athletes treat their minds as they do their bodies, they perform better.

 Julien Tromeur/Shutterstock
Source: Julien Tromeur/Shutterstock

I get several phone calls and emails a week from parents of athletes who tell me that their young athlete is struggling and it seems to be “mental.”

I then ask for more details about what kinds of specific difficulties their kids are having and they have a tough time explaining further. The most common response is, “They train great, but don’t compete well.” But the parents can’t usually provide any more useful information.

Additionally, when I ask them what they know about sports psychology or mental training, they typically say, “Not much.” Yet, when I ask athletes, coaches, and parents how important the mental side of sports is compared to the physical and technical aspects, a few say not as important, many say as important, and almost as many say more important.

Though I really appreciate the latter sentiment given what I do for a living, even I don’t think the mind is more important because athletes can have all of the mental stuff in the world, but if they’re not physically and technically capable of performing their sport, the mental side doesn’t matter. But it is an essential piece of the athletic success puzzle. I then ask how much time athletes devote to their mental preparation and they usually look sheepish and respond little or no time.

Despite its obvious importance, the mental side of sports is most often neglected, at least until a problem arises. The sports world seems to hold mental training to a different standard than the physical and technical aspects of sports.

Many people have the impression that mental training can produce miraculous results in a short time. You wouldn’t believe the number of calls I get from parents a week before an important competition! Though I consider myself very good at what I do, I am definitely not a magician. You wouldn’t expect increases in strength by lifting weights once or twice or an improvement in technique by working on it for an hour. Why would the sports world expect such unrealistic goals from mental training?

The mistake that athletes, coaches, and parents make is that they don’t treat the mind the way they treat the physical and technical aspects of their sport. Athletes don’t wait to get injured before they do physical conditioning. They don’t develop a technical flaw before they work on their technique. Rather, athletes do physical and technical training to prevent problems from arising. They should approach the mind in the same way.

Also, the qualities that make physical and sport training programs effective are:

  • Comprehensive
  • Structured
  • Consistent
  • Periodized
  • Personalized

The only way to improve any area of athletic performance, whether physical, technical, or mental, is through commitment, hard work, and patience. I can say with confidence that if athletes make the same commitment to their mental training as they do to their physical and technical training, it can play a key role in helping them achieve their goals.

So, to help the sports world understand what mental training has to offer and to explain precisely what I do, I thought it would be helpful to describe my work with athletes, so everyone in the sports community can consider mental training in its proper context and, as a result, maximize its benefits.

Prime Performance System

Let me begin by saying that there are many sport psychology consultants and mental coaches out there with varying degrees of education, training, and experience. Though I know most of the best ones around the U.S. personally or by reputation, I don't know what they do or how they work. All I can tell you is how I work with athletes.

My mental training with athletes relies on my Prime Performance System, a truly unique and comprehensive framework for mental training that I have developed over my decades of work with top junior, collegiate, Olympic, and professional athletes. It’s comprised of five essential mental- and performance-related areas:

  • Five attitudes (ownership, process, challenge, long-term, risk) enable athletes to look at performance, competition, success, and failure in the healthiest way possible. By adopting these attitudes, athletes lay the foundation to pursue their athletic and life goals from a healthy starting point.
  • Five obstacles (overinvestment, perfectionism, fear of failure, expectations, emotions) are often erected without athletes’ awareness as they develop as athletically and personally. These obstacles sabotage their efforts and performances. My goal is to remove these obstacles so athletes can attain a psychological and emotional state that liberates them to pursue their goals with commitment, confidence, and abandon.
  • Five keys to training (perspective, train like you compete, consistency, experiment, quality) ensure the highest quality and maximum benefit from sport training. The culmination of these approaches involves athletes getting the most out of their training efforts enabling them to progress as fast as possible toward their athletic goals.
  • Five mental “muscles” (motivation, confidence, intensity, focus, and mind state) are essential for athletes to perform their best. They enable athletes to get the most out of their efforts. If athletes can develop these muscles, they give themselves the means to enter competitions totally prepared to perform at their highest level possible.
  • Five mental exercises and tools (goalsetting, self-talk, breathing, imagery, routines) provide athletes with the practical strategies they need to ensure they are comprehensively prepared to perform their best when it counts the most. They are aimed at attaining and maintaining an optimal mental and physical state required to achieve success.

How I Work

The first time I meet with an athlete, I administer my Mental Assessment of Performance (think of it as “physical testing for the mind”), an evaluation of around 15 essential mental areas drawn from my Prime Performance System.

The MAP serves several purposes. First, the athletes get to understand the key mental areas that impact their sports efforts. Second, both they and I see where they are in relation to the mental areas. Third, the results of the MAP guide the planning and implementation of a personalized mental training program. The athlete and I collaborate to determine which mental areas should be addressed first.

If the primary focus of our work is on strengthening athletes’ mental muscles and teaching them mental exercises and tools, I will, in my office, describe why they’re important, how they impact athletic performance, and where the athlete is in relation to them. I’ll also show athletes how to use them both away from and in their sport training. The single most important mental tools I teach athletes are mental imagery and routines.

Then, if the opportunity arises, I then work with athletes in their sports setting (e.g., on the field, court, hill, course, track, etc.) and show them how to use the mental exercises and tools while they are actually training in their sport. I have found that this "real-time" experience with mental training enables athletes to ask questions, experiment, get feedback from me and their coach, and see the direct connection between doing mental training, being more mentally prepared, and, most importantly, performing better.

I also demonstrate the Training component of my Prime Performance System to show them how to maximize the value of their training efforts. If athletes get that connection between doing mental training and seeing improvement, I know that I will get buy-in from them. My goal with this work, both in my office and on the field of play, is to strengthen athletes’ mental muscles and give them a "toolbox" of mental tools they can use so that they can gain the most benefit from their training and be maximally prepared to perform their best in competitions.

If my work focuses on the deeper issues of attitudes and obstacles from my Prime Performance System, for example, habitual negativity, perfectionism, and fear of failure, I help athletes understand why these obstacles interfere with their sports efforts, how they developed, and provide insights and tools to remove the obstacles and allow athletes to continue on the path toward their goals. This work occurs generally in an office setting. Exploring attitudes and obstacles is a slower and less certain aspect of mental training because changing deeply ingrained ways of thinking can be difficult. At the same time, when athletes are able to let go of their “baggage,” they are liberated to perform in their sport free from doubt, worry, and fear.

I also want to note that if I recognize that these obstacles are grounded in more serious psychological issues (e.g., depression, anxiety), I will make a referral to an appropriately trained mental health professional (I don’t do clinical work) and may or may not continue to work with the athlete depending the how those issues impact the pursuit of their goals.

Getting Results

I'm often asked how quickly athletes can expect results from a commitment to mental training. Positive change varies widely depending on the individual athletes and the issues that are presented.

For example, issues related to strengthening mental muscles and gaining mental tools training, such as increasing confidence and improving focus, can be improved relatively quickly. I have found that athletes can expect to see improvements in their mental muscles and related sports performance within six to eight weeks, if not sooner.

In contrast, issues related to the obstacles I described above, such as perfectionism and fear of failure, take more time. Athletes can expect to see positive changes in these deeper issues within three to six months.

Admittedly, mental training doesn’t always work as intended. The fact is that sports are complex, unpredictable, and, in many ways, uncontrollable. Many factors, both within and outside of sports, can impact performance and lead to or prevent success, including physical, technique and tactics, equipment, coaches and teammates, and, of course, mental, as well as family life and school.

Just as with the other contributors to athletic performance, there are no guarantees that mental training will result in improved performance and results during the course of my work with athletes. In some cases, improvement is immediate and startling. In other cases, athletes show steady improvement in the months and years during and following the conclusion of our work as they continue to apply what they learn from our work. And, on rare occasions, athletes’ work with me doesn’t translate into improved results at all.

My Goals

I can’t guarantee that my work with athletes will result in accomplishing their athletic goals. At the same time, there are perhaps more important goals that I am confident that I can achieve with them:

  • Increase their awareness and understanding of ‘what makes them tick’ as athletes and people.
  • Provide information and insights that will instill in athletes healthy attitudes toward competition, success, failure, and the role that sports and achievement play in their lives.
  • Identify and mitigate obstacles (e.g., fear of failure, risk aversion) that may be holding them back from their goals.
  • Strengthen their mental “muscles” to enable them to be mentally prepared to perform their best in their sport and other aspects of their lives.
  • Provide athletes with a mental toolbox they can use in their sports and lives.
  • Do everything I can to help athletes to fully realize their abilities and achieve their sports goals.
  • Instill all of the above to not only assist athletes in their sports lives, but also to help them to find success and happiness in their future educations, relationships, and careers, and lives.

So there you have it: what mental training means to me and what I do in my work with athletes. I hope this article takes some of the mystery out of mental training and helps readers to better understand what it can and cannot do, and how it can help athletes, whether juniors, college athletes, Olympians, or pros, to achieve their goals.

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