Mental Skills Etc.

Mental Skills are often mixed up with the methods aimed to help improve mental toughness. One of our sports psychs clarifies what ‘mental skills’ really are

Mental Skills Training is obvious for game-sports such as chess, but it should be obvious for all sport and performance areas.

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 free 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. 

Cricket Psychology

The sport of cricket is particularly demanding from a psychological point of view – which makes for some mentally very tough cricketers

Jonty Rhodes
This image courtesy of the Mumbai Indian IPL franchise

I think it would be reasonable to say that there is no sport quite like cricket from a psychology point of view. Although all sports are mentally challenging, most of them tend to require only certain kinds of mental skills in order for the athletes to perform consistently at the best.

Cricket, on the other hand, requires the entire array of mental techniques that we as sports/performance psychologists typically use during our consulting with sporting performers and coaches from around the world.

In other words, the 1-on-1 work we do with cricketers and cricket coaches from around the world tests our abilities as mental skills experts like no other sport I can think of.

Cricket Psychology Defined

Let’s breakdown the psychology of cricket a little. It is both a team sport and an individual sport. Due to this cricketers need psychological interventions that would apply both for team athletes (e.g. rugby league) as well as solo sports (such as golf). It even requires very specialised forms of communication normally only applicable to those who play “doubles” in sports such as tennis, badminton and beach volleyball. I am of course referring to the really interesting dynamic between two batsmen whilst they out there in the middle together.

Let’s get to the point – communication is a psychological skill even if the communicating is about something very tactical – such as whether to go for a second run or not. That is why we have dedicated an entire module of our online, self-guided Mental Toughness Training program for cricket (“Metuf for Cricket”) to team unity and communication skills.

Despite the fact that all of the skill execution is done on an individual basis cricket is still a team sport and therefore concepts such as team unity, cohesion, dynamics and the atmosphere of the dressing room are all pivotal to very successful cricketing teams.

Kevin Pietersen was statistically by far the best batsmen to play for England between 2005 in 2014. Yet despite this, it was decided that’s due to the ‘team dynamics’ that his services would no longer be required. It was a controversial decision at the time however the fact that England’s performances across all three formats of the game since then have improved suggests than team unity might be more important than an individual’s technical brilliance.

A Self-Guided Mental Training Program for Cricketers and Cricket Coaches looking to get the Mental Edge

Cricket Psychology – Focus is Essential

Even the shortest forms of cricket last a lot longer than the entirety of most sporting contests. Therefore cricketing excellence from a psychology point of view is synonymous with extraordinary abilities to be patient and reserving their focus for only when it really matters.

I had some great cricket coaches during my school days at Oundle (United kingdom) but I can’t recall any of them teaching me how to switch on and off effectively for either my keeping nor my batting. Oh, if I could only send a message to my 15-year-old self about the routines mentioned in the Focus chapter of Metuf for Cricket my cricket would have improved immeasurably.

Recent Examples of Cricketing Mental Toughness

With the recent (2019) English summer only just coming to a conclusion then a blog article on about cricket psychology would be lacking if we did not make reference to three of the most remarkable displays of sporting mental toughness that have been seen on the cricket pitch for many years.

The World Cup Final Over

In case readers do no follow cricket then let Wikipedia summarise what happened at the end of the Cricket Wolrd Cup that took place in England early this year. The final took place between New Zealand and England (hosts) on 14th July 2019 at Lords (the home of cricket):

The two teams were tied on 241 runs at the end of the match, resulting in a Super Over being played to break the tie. On the final ball of New Zealand’s Super Over, after equalling the 15 runs England managed in their over, Martin Guptill attempted to score the winning run but was run out by wicket-keeper Jos Buttler, meaning the Super Over was also tied. England won on the boundary countback rule, having scored 26 boundaries to New Zealand’s 17, thus becoming Cricket World Cup winners for the first time.

What was remarkable from a cricket psychology point of view was just how well all of the players and the umpires handled the extreme pressure of the situation. It is especially impressive given that the chances of a Super Over being required are about 0.5%. Huge credit needs to go into those who were assisting with the mental side of preparation of both the Kiwi and Pommy cricket teams.

The Ben Stokes Miracle

Again, in case you were not following the Ashes let me summarise. Ben Stokes scored 135 not out on the final day of the third test to deny Australia the win. From a cricket psychology point of view, the most commendable aspect of Stokes’ innings was just how ‘in the moment’ he was through the whole day. The past and the future of mostly distractions in high-pressure situations and Ben Stokes was the embodiment of relaxed and present-focused.

Steve Smith Stats’

In 2018 Steve Smith was banned for 12 months for the role he played in the ball-tampering incident that shook the world of cricket. Although as performance psychologists we are mindful never to judge everything on the results the fact that Smith scores 333 more runs than any other player in the series (both side) is truly incredible. Obviously we’re biased but it would be hard not to suggest the reason for Smith’s dominance with the bat is due to his amazing cricketing mental toughness.

But don’t take my word for it – have a read of what the current Australian coach wrote about Mental Toughness back in 2010 (view the original article here on the Cricket Australia website):

Being successful as an international cricketer transcends the ability to play an elegant cover drive, brutal pull shot or belligerent forward defence. The best players are not only physically fit and technically sound, they are also extremely mentally strong.

Mental toughness is often talked about, but exactly what does it mean when people talk about a player who is mentally tough? There have been many descriptions of mental toughness over the years, but in essence it is about the ability to perform consistently under pressure. When it all boils down, the game of cricket is about eliminating all distractions and giving 100% attention to the next ball. Simple as this may sound, concentration is often the hardest part of the game. There are so many distractions which can take a player away from pure concentration on the next ball delivered or faced.

During this first Test match in Wellington we have witnessed two examples of mental toughness. Michael Clarke’s departure from the one-day team has been so well documented that you would have had to have been living in a cave in the Himalayas not to have noticed the commotion. While Michael’s private life is no-one’s business, he has had to deal with a very public ordeal.

On two counts, he has shown class and courage under pressure. Firstly, he faced the media with dignity and style, and then he came out and let his bat do the talking with a brilliantly executed Test-match century. With his feet gliding like a ballroom dancer and his concentration as steely as a fighter pilot, Michael showed why he is evolving into one of the great players of this era.

No-one can judge what ‘Pup’ has been through but what we can conclude is that he is not only a very talented cricketer but an incredibly tough one at that.

During Australia’s first innings, one of the vice-captain’s partners in the middle was another man who has endured a different form of media scrutiny over the last few weeks. After a lean run of form, Marcus North’s future as a Test cricketer was under the microscope. As you would expect, he pleaded his case and to the selector’s credit, was picked for this Test series.

In the Australian cricket team there is always one player who is under the pump for their position in the team; it’s just how the industry works. When you are ‘that’ player being scrutinised the glare leaves you in a lonely place and sleep deprivation becomes a reality. Softer minds wilt under such distraction; tougher ones rise above the pressure and use it to inspire career-changing performances.

In this case, Northy’s courageous resurrection in form could prove to be a career-changing performance. From the first ball he faced, he converted his preparation into practice. He was alert and his balance was back to its best. Inside the camp, these traits of sharpness and balance were no coincidence or surprise because the moment he touched down in New Zealand he was visually determined and focussed to find the batting touch that had eluded him in the latter half of the domestic season.

To his credit he didn’t sit back and hope for the best but instead hit hundreds of balls in the practice nets, made a few minor adjustments to his stance, and then conquered the demons of insecurity to post his fourth Test century. Runs under pressure say a lot about the character of the person and both Marcus and Michael Clarke have proven that they are as mentally tough as they are technically correct.

Mental Toughness

Mental Toughness. What is it, can it be measured and most importantly for success-seekers; can it be improved? Sports psychologist Gareth J. Mole muses these questions and more in this edition of the MTD:

Mental toughness is the interplay between motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus.

What Is Mental Toughness?

The term mental toughness is getting used more and more across many domains but in particular in competitive sporting circles. On the one hand, this is great news as finally, the mental side of performance is getting the attention it deserves and requires. The downside is that it is increasingly used in the wrong way – for example as a synonym for mental health.

At Condor Performance we typically consider mental toughness and mental health as both being important to performance but referring to different areas that can be targeted. Mental toughness by our definition refers to the ‘extra mental abilities required by those trying to achieve abnormally hard goals’. The key here is the ‘extra’ part – the part that if improved would benefit elite athletes much more than everyone else. This is what makes mental toughness difference from mental health. Mental health is something that every person on earth would benefit from improving as described in more detail via this previous blog post.

This is not to say that mental toughness and mental health are 100% unrelated nor opposites. The fact that your mind (brain) is involved in both correctly suggests there is a degree of overlap between these two psychological concepts.

One way that I like to explain it to my sporting clients is by using physical health and physical strength as parallels. Elite athletes need to be much stronger than most people will ever need to be. If you took a normal, healthy woman and asked her to play an international woman’s rugby match she’d be found wanting from a physical point of view. Yet, her actual physical health (blood pressure, skin folds etc) may well be the same – if not better – than elite female rugby union players.

So mental health is more or less like the mental basics. If you have clinical depression then this will impact on all aspects of your life. However, if you get nervous before certain sporting contests then the rest of your life might well be completely unaffected by this rather specific mental challenge.

As explained in the Intro video via the free, online, self-guided Metuf for Sports program sporting mental toughness can be thought of a being like one of four engines on an aeroplane whereby the rest of the plane is like mental health and wellbeing:

Mental toughness is like one of four engines on an aeroplane whereby the rest of the plane is like mental health and wellbeing

And just like how one of the other engines – Physical Capabilities – can be broken down into subcomponents (such as fitness and flexibility) so too can Mental Toughness.

As explained in Metuf for Sports sporting mental toughness might better be considered as an interplay between motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus. In other words, when we, as sport and performance psychologists, assist our clients to improve their mental toughness what we are really doing is helping them improve or maintain these five areas.

And of course, we when say motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus in this context we are referring to these concepts as they relate to training and competing much more so than in everyday life.

For example, it’s quite possible for someone to have no signs of depression – which basically means their ‘motivation towards life’ is fine whilst at the same time not wanting to either train nor compete. Logically, interventions designed to improve clinical depression are not going to be much in this case. This athlete needs mental skills designed to help improve his/her motivation in the area(s) they lack motivation for – training and/or competing.

The same applies when referring to sporting emotions, thoughts, unity and focus. The emotions of walking down the 17th hole with a two-shot lead on the final day are not the same as those who experienced by general anxiety sufferers. The thoughts likely to trip up a Formula One driver before the light has turned green are unique and should be shaped accordingly. If you are part of a sporting team that lacks unity you will never be successful. And focus? The kind of focus needed to keep your eye on the ball as it’s coming towards your head at 100 km/h is not the same as the kind of focus that would help you do better at school.

Can Mental Toughness Be Measured?

If you’d like to read a full post dedicated to answering this question then click here. But in summary, the answer is ‘yes, but not directly’. When we measure mental toughness we do so by asking – normally via a questionnaire – about the five areas already mentioned (motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus). There is no way to assess these directly in the same way that a physio can measure flexibility – for example. Some aspects of sporting mental toughness can be measured via observation by an astute onlooker but again this is just a best guess.

For example, when I first start working as a sports psychologist with a new sporting team I typically spend the first week or so just watching and taking notes. I make estimates on areas such as team unity but I am mindful of the fact that a) what you see is not always what you get and b) the week might not be a typical week.

Having said that when I combine the ‘data’ from my notes with the numbers produced after all athletes and coaches complete one of our Mental Toughness Questionnaires then this is certainly more than adequate.

How Can Mental Toughness Be Improved?

Of course it can and like so much in life how you go ahead it will likely depend on your budget. The expensive way is to work 1-on-1 with a qualified sport and performance psychologist like the ones that are part of the Condor Performance team. The cheap way – in fact so cheap it’s free – is to complete the Metuf for Sports online course.

This course should never be considered as a substitute to working with a psychologist in the same way that reading a book about driving a car should never be considered as a substitute to having driving lessons with a qualified driving instructor. But reading a book about how to drive a car is better than doing nothing at all!