The term ‘mental skill’ or ‘mental skills’ are surely the most misused in elite sporting circles. In fact, it’s used incorrectly virtually everywhere in my experience.
You see, skills are the targets or outcomes, not the methods or processes and yet most people accidentally refer to them as the latter.
When we talk about an athlete – say a soccer player – who is skilful we are referring to the amount of technical skill (ability) they already have. For example, they might be able to dribble the ball very well like the great Diego Maradona used to do in the 1980s. Because the most common way to become better at dribbling is by actually dribbling a ball then the skill and the process got mixed up along the way.
But dribbling is not the only way to become better at dribbling. Mental rehearsal of the correct dribbling movements can be just as effective, for example. So what we end up with is a variety of “methods” that can be used to better our skills – technical, tactical, physical and mental.
The main reason that the term mental skill(s) is useful incorrectly is it is often used to describe the methods when it should be describing the outcomes.
Let me use some examples.
At Condor Performance we regard the five most common mental skills of performance as being motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus.
You can liken – therefore – a concept such as emotions as being rather similar to dribbling a soccer ball. You are either very good at handling your emotions or very poor or somewhere in the middle. And of course, regardless of how good you are, you could always get better (yes, Maradona could have been better at dribbling too).
So emotional management (intelligence) becomes the focus of the endeavours. If you Google ‘mental skills’ you’ll find furphies all over the screen suggesting that goal setting, visualisation and mindfulnesses are all common mental skills used in sport and performance.
They are common, but they are not mental skills – they are mental methods (processes).
The area of sports science that does the best job of separating methods from intended outcomes is the physical side (shout out to any physios or exercise physiologists reading this).
Try to finish these sentences off by just using what comes to mind …
- I could improve my flexibility by …
- I could improve my cardio fitness by …
- I could improve my upper body strength by …
In these three examples, the word in bold is the target and therefore the methods or processes need to be added at the end, in place of the three little dots. For example:
I could improve my cardio fitness by running, skipping, rowing, walking, cycling and/or swimming.
One target with many physical methods.
Now let’s see how you go with the mental side of performance (aka mental toughness).
- I could improve my motivation by …
- I could improve my emotions by …
- I could improve my thoughts by …
- I could improve my unity by …
- I could improve my focus by …
Not quite so easy is it?
Remember motivation is the mental skill here so the question is what processes (things you can actually do) might help improve or maintain desirable levels of motivation, passion, commitment and/or performance enthusiasm?
Our old friend goal setting might be one and we recently wrote an entire article on the mental method that some people call goal setting which you can read here.
How about the mental skill of emotional intelligence? Very Simple Mindfulness is a ‘hum-dinger’ here and as explained in a lot more detail via the sister Metuf program is all about ‘increased awareness of the present moment with decreased judgement’.
The mental skill of thinking (bet you never thought of thinking as a skill, did you?) has hundreds of tried and tested methods to try and better it (a lot more than most sporting skills such as dribbling a soccer ball that’s for sure) but the best – in my opinion – is simply knowing the amount of influence you have on stuff like results and other people.
How about the mental skill of Team Unity? Arguably the hardest of The Big Five areas of sport/performance mental toughness as it involves other people (only somewhat influenceable – see above). In fact, so tricky that I will dedicate the entire of next week’s edition of the Mental Toughness Digest to the topic.
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Finally, the mental skill of focus otherwise knows as attention or concentration. How is it possible to vastly improve your focusing abilities (skills)? The best way that I know is to work on switching on and off so that you are keeping all your focus juice for when it matters. Human concentration is limited, you can increase the amount you have a little but the best way to know when you focus and what not to.
Our team of expert mental skills coaches have helped countless numbers of athletes and performers with all of these mental skills and many more as well over the years so feel free to get in touch via email if you’d like our support. Please include a contact number (plus country) and you’ll get a call from one of us within 48 hours.