Sport Psychologists – Applied and International Since 2005
Category: Mental Toughness Digest
The Mental Toughness Digest is a weekly email sent by the sport and performance psychologists from Condor Performance. It’s our way of staying in touch with the thousands of people who have contacted us since it all started in 2005.
The Digest doesn’t pretend to be a source of scientific facts that might be found in a peer-reviewed journal. Instead, it aims to promote thoughts and discussions about the important role that psychology plays in sport and performance.
Motivation is about more than a subcomponent of sport psychology and mental toughness. This article looks at delayed gratification and more.
Too Many Theories
I have long held the view that most areas of psychology are blighted with too many theories. Don’t get me wrong, I know we need research to support our professional decision making. But in my view there are simply too many below par theories, models and papers out there. Google Motivation and sport psychology theories and you’ll see what I mean.
This then blows out the work load of applied sport psychologists such as myself. I try to read as many peer-reviewed journals on sport psychology as possible. Unfortunately have to sort through the mountain to find the gems.
Oh, and there are some real gems.
One of these is the work done around Delayed Gratification via The Stanford Marshmallow Experiments. Starting in the 60s Walter Mischel did a series of studies that gave us with a huge clue about the motivational requirements of successful people.
One Marshmallow Now Or Two Later?
In these studies, children between four and eight years of age were offered a choice. Each child, in turn, could pick between one small reward immediately or two later. One marshmallow now or two later, you decide? If the child decided to have two marshmallows later then it would be on the condition that the single treat was still there when the experimenter returned. This was normally after about 15 minute.
Remarkably in the majority of the testing about half the children gobbled down the one marshmallow almost immediately. The other half would exercise great will power and wait for the experimenter to return. In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to “delay their gratification” tended to have better life outcomes. For example, these high will power youngsters went on to get better exam results. They were happier and more likely to have good relationships. They ended up with much better jobs than the lower will power kids.
Below is a 6 minute Ted talk which explains the concept and experiments in more details.
Although I am assume that Professor Mischel had little interest in the specific field of sport psychology I can’t imagine another branch of psychology whereby the concept of delayed gratification is more relevant.
Delayed gratification is really just “doing something difficult now in the hope that it will be prove worth it later on”.
Of all the hundreds of theories on motivation pertaining to sport psychology this is most useful. Quite simply put, one of the chief explanations about why so few succeed is because they can’t link their short term struggle with their long term aspirations.
Most athletes and coaches try and find shortcuts. They throw in the towel when the rewards for their effort are not immediate and obvious. They gobble down the single marshmallow instead of waiting for two. Very few people actually love getting up at 4am in order to do laps under floodlights. But the champions and champions-in-the-making do it anyway.
In the defence of ‘most athletes’ it’s unlikely that anyone has taken the time to carefully explain to them that improving is all about patience. Doing the hard yards in the preseason so the rewards can come during the season.
What If The Kids Had Been Coached First?
What would have happened had all the Marshmallow experimentees been coached beforehand. Imagine a performance psychologist had been allowed to spend time helping the kids mentally prepare first. How about the impact if a performance psychologist shows pictures of other kids succeeding. Imagine if all the subjects has been taught proper mindfulness techniques thus allowing ‘urges’ to just be noticed.
But of course elite sport, especially at the highest level, requires a little more delayed gratification than 15 minutes. On many occasions the truly meaningful “payoff” for effort might only be 10 or even 20 years down the track. That’s a long time to wait for that second marshmallow! Think about the young athletes who sacrifice time with friends and family whilst they are teenagers only to see the rewards in their twenties and thirties.
Remember, the experiments centred around one marshmallow now or two later. The children were not left with a brussell sprout for 15 minutes. This is a super important point. There was nothing mean about leaving the kids alone in a room with one marshmallow. The only difficultly some of them experienced was the tussle between their own strength of mind and their own temptations.
Applied Sport Psychology
At Condor Performance one of the ways we help those we work with to embrace delayed gratification is by encouraging them to keep track of their progress.
Key Performance Indictors can “bridge the gap” between the daily and weekly grind and possible moments of glory. These monthly checks act a little like licking the marshmallow but not eating it. They help remind us about what we might get later on down the track. They remind us about why we’re doing what we’re doing even if it’s uncomfortable. MCs are, in my opinion, the most powerful motivators available when you can’t actually use marshmallows!
Easier said than done? If you’d like to receive details about our sport psychology services then you can get in touch a number of ways.
Emotional Intelligence. Can we control our emotions? Sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole takes a deep dive into the topic of emotions.
Sport psychology and its big sister performance psychology are minefields when it comes to terminology. What I mean by this is that related terms gets thrown around often and easily. Some of these words are more common than others. For example, ‘mental toughness’ and ’emotional intelligence’ are used and misused more frequently than ‘team unity’ and ‘flow’.
Those of you who are familiar with Condor Performance (the psychologists) and Metuf (the model) will likely know that for a long time we have tried hard to define such terms. For example, for us mental toughness is an umbrella terms that pertains to the “Big Five” aspects of the mental side of sport / performance. In fact, the word Metuf is an acronym for motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus. And of course, mental toughness is not to be confused with the other ‘
But what about the “Big Five” terms themselves. When we use the words emotional intelligence for example are we all in agreement about exactly what we are talking about? Not in my experience, not even close. In fact, I find emotions and related discussions to be the most confusing, and risky, of all the sport psychology concepts.
Some Recent Examples
Let me use an example to explain. Recently on social media I saw a screenshot of a presentation that contained the words “controlling their emotions under pressure”. It was a bullet point next to the words composure, one of “six keys to being resilient” (according to the slide). I added this comment “It is not possible to control emotions, only influence them. It is psychologically dangerous to imply you can”. I will not go into detail about the back and forth that took place after this initial comment except to say this. It would be very useful if there was a censuses on how emotions work and what we mean by emotional intelligence.
With that I will give my professional opinion and expand on my “it is not possible to control emotions” comment. As an applied sport psychologist it’s not really my job to prove that the below is correct, or scientifically robust. Having said that, at Condor Performance, we do collect a huge amount of internal data as part of our mission to be constantly improving. Some academics might argue that because our data is not converted into scientific articles and then submitted for peer review that it is meaningless. I will save my counterargument to that assertion for another time / blog.
Our Guide to Emotional Intelligence
First and foremost we want to agree on what emotions are. They are feelings. Many of these feelings are enjoyable like joy and excitement. Many are not that fun such as fear, nerves and frustration. Then there is the feeling of not feeling anything at all – often called apathy. Some recent studies suggest there are 27 main emotions that most humans experience. This “feels” about right. Especially if you remove the ones that sounds like emotions but are actually thoughts (like worry, for example).
In browsing the list of these 27 emotions I have picked eight as very common for athletes, coaches and other performers:
With these in mind we turn our attention to the question what is your relationship (as a person) to these and other feelings? Is it useful to find the cause of your excitement (for example) so you can replicate it at will? Are strong feelings of anxiety and fear bad – to be stopped like some kind of emotional disease? Do we control our emotions or do they control us or neither of these?
This Is How I Explain It To My Clients
Emotions are just part of the human experience. Internal feelings are one of seven sources of information (stimulus) available to most of us most of the time. The others are sight, sounds, smell, thoughts, touch and taste. All of these groups of stimuli vary in terms of their pleasantness. For example, drinking fresh and sour milk activate different taste buds but both are taste sensations nonetheless. You can apply the same to all seven. We experience fear and excitement very differently but both are emotions, nothing more, nothing less.
The first and most important part of being emotionally intelligent is just becoming better at noticing and experiencing different emotions. Yes, both the pleasant and the unpleasant ones. There are many ways to go about this but there are a couple of rules to ensure it’s helping. Don’t try and change the emotion directly. Wether it be via mindfulness, meditation or moonwalking your task is to “increase your awareness of your feelings with decreased judgment”. I often like to do this by going through all the senses so that there is no real difference between the internal two and the external five. Here is a link to 16 minutes “Really Simple Mindfulness” audio recording we created recently in case you want a helping hand.
Technology – Friend or Foe?
You can certainly use one of the myriad of Apps as well (too many now to list) but remember this. Mindfulness, like exercise, shouldn’t cost you anything. You do not need a gym membership to improve your cardio fitness. You don’t need to pay for the Premium version of an App in order to do mindfulness. Even our “Really Simple Mindfulness” audio recording above is only really designed as ‘training wheels’ until you get the hang of it by yourself.
So becoming better at observing your emotions is the first part of emotional intelligence. But it’s not the only part.
The second part is about realising that although you can never control your emotions you can sometimes influence them. And that choosing to do this might assist with what you’re trying to do (achieve etc).
For example, you might decide that you would like to feel as calm as possible before competitions (exams, performances etc). In your attempt to influence this (NOT CONTROL) you might design a Pre Competition Routine that is full of tasks they YOU find relaxing. With practice (repetition) the likelihood of you feeling calm the hour before kick off or tee off will increase. But real emotional intelligence comes with knowing that there will never be a guarantee (synonym for control) that you will in fact feel calm and relaxed.
Don’t Try And Change Emotions Directly – Ever
And not even here you are not trying to change your emotions directly. If you relaxation tasks are actions (preferable) then you’re really influencing your preferred pre game actions and hoping they make you feel calm. This is very different from trying to calm yourself down.
How do we deal with this? We just notice these unexpected feelings alongside all the other sights, sounds and thoughts of the situation. Which if you’ve been doing this on a daily or weekly basis (see above) as part of your training will be child’s play.
For those of you who stumbled across this article in search of an applied definition of emotion intelligence then copy and paste this.
“Emotional intelligence is the ability observe and label your own human emotions and to know when and how to influence them”.
Gareth J. Mole, Sport Psychologist @ Condor Performance
Sporting comebacks are easier to understand when you look at the different areas that make up optimal sporting performances.
The Term ‘Comeback’ Is An Interesting One
What first comes to my mind when I think about ‘sporting comebacks’ is ‘coming back to what’? The Oxford Living Dictionary defines comeback as ‘a return by a well-known person, especially an entertainer or sports player, to the activity in which they have formerly been successful’. Which of courses begs the question successful as defined by who and what?
What are some of the most memorable comebacks that you have been involved in as a coach or athlete? How about as a sports fan? Is it the size of the deficit that was overcome or the amount of surprise caused?
Last year, in 2019, we were treated to two of the most remarkable comebacks I can ever remember. But each earned the label epic comeback for very different reasons.
Tiger Wood’s Comeback Win at The 2019 US Masters
Apologies if you already know all of this. However, it’s important for the non-golf followers out there to be aware of the facts around this remarkable sporting victory.
Tiger dominated the international golf scene for just over a decade. It is easy to understand why many regard Tiger’s ‘hot’ years as having no equal in individual sports. Lance might have been a contender but we all know what happened to him! Roger had to share most of the spoils with Rafa and Novak.
Of Tiger’s fifteen major titles fourteen of them came between 1997 (winning his first US Masters) and 2008 (a third US Open). Fourteen majors in eleven years mean he was averaging more than one per year during his glory years.
The Decline …By His Standards
Only Tiger will really know what contributed to the slide in his form. He went from more than a Major a year to none for the following ten years. Theories-a-plenty suggests a combination of factors. Maybe ageing, injuries, improved opponents and non-golfing scandals or a combination? Between 2009 and 2018 his trophy cabinet did not continue to fill up at quite the same rate as per the previous decade.
The above graph is very telling in many ways. For me, the most meaningful takeaway is this notion of success as defined by who and what – as mentioned earlier. I work 1-on-1 with dozens of professional golfers who would love to have Tiger’s trophies from 2010 – 2018 where he managed “only” 9 tour victories (and no majors). In other words, like so much in sport psychology, comebacks are all relative.
Tiger’s win at Augusta in April 2019 will be regarded as a comeback because he used to win these events without even breaking a sweat. Then he didn’t for a while. This resulted in many of these lesser golfing achievements (top 5 and top 10 finishes for example) getting ignored, dismissed or underplayed. Let me say it again. Most pro golfers would give their left leg to have achieved what TW did during his “slump years”.
Sporting Success Is About So More Than Trophies and Medals
I advise my athletes and coaches to be mindful of not letting results (influenceable) play too big a role in what they regard as success. And if you must use sporting results collect a whole bunch of stats not just wins.
Our Metuf model suggests there are five major areas that all contribute to performance success. Physical, Technical, Mental (which includes emotional) and Tactical Preparation act as four ‘engines’ on a performance plane. The rest of the aircraft is like their health and wellbeing. To increase your chances of winning anything you’re better of focussing on there five areas. Sport psychology stalwart Dr Chris Shambrook says it best. “Focus on the input, and let the output take care of itself”.
Tiger is now known to have had a number of physical and personal challenges for most of the previous decade. Maybe these were enough to result in him “only” coming 2nd and 3rd in the hardest golf events in the world. But we will never really know (nor will he) because we can’t unbake the cake.
What Tiger had to endure from a physical point of view (injuries and surgeries) would have been enough to force most athletes into retirement. But most athletes don’t have the mindset (grit?) of Tiger Woods.
The nature of sport, especially at the pointy end, is that you just don’t have a chance to dominate if one of your four engines is not functioning properly. Of course, a much more common scenario across all sports are athletes who are physically fine (injury-free at least) but whose Mental Preparation and Toughness isn’t optimised. If this sounds like you please get in touch, we can help, it’s what we do.
The Rest of the Plane
The other major aspect of performance is ‘the rest of the plane’. We could refer to this as mental health and wellbeing. In my work as a sport psychologist I prefer to think about this from a solutions point of view. For example, sleep, nutrition, relationships, rest and purpose to name some of the most common.
It would certainly appear that these areas of Tiger’s life have improved significantly over the past year or so. I would suggest they may well have had an equal – or greater impact on Tiger’s comeback than his return to full fitness. But we will never really know (nor will he) because we can’t unbake the cake.
During the famous green jacket ceremony Tiger finishes it by saying ‘Yeah, I’m excited about show and tell at school’. This suggests how he is thinking about his family in the immediate aftermath of his most epic comeback ever.
Although there is still a lot of data missing proving the link between improved wellbeing and sporting results trust me the two are heavily linked.
Genuine sport psychology will only become mainstream when sporting decision makers realise that happy athletes win more – a lot more.
Another Epic Comeback in 2019
Some comebacks take much less time that the ten years it took Tiger to win another major. Some only take 45 minutes in fact.
Lets fast forward a few weeks and move from the greens of Augusta to the floodlit nights of Champions League football (soccer). The Champions League is Europe’s premier inter-club competition where the best teams from all the major leagues take part in a separate competition the following year.
Again, if you know how the Champions’ League work then skip this paragraph but it’s important to put all examples into context. The Champions’ League consists of first a round robin “pool” format (similar to FIFA World Cups) and then a second knock out stage. All the matches except for the final are played over two legs. This means that the scores from each pair or games get summed to decide the overall winner of the tie. In the event of deadlocks (even number of goals scores across the two games) the team who scores more goals ‘away’ from home will prevail.
In last year’s semi-finals Barcelona (of Spain) took on Liverpool FC (England) and Ajax (Holland) played Tottenham Hotspur (England). After the two first games, it was looking very unlikely that either of the English teams would advance to the final in Madrid. Barcelona took a 3-0 lead into the second leg meaning a single goal for the Catalans’s at Anfield would mean LFC would need to score 5 against arguably the best team in Europe! Ajax fans were forgiven for starting to think about a trip to the Spanish capital after their team beat Spurs 1-0 in London. So they would take a lead, an away goal and home field advantage into the decider.
Yet Despite All The Odds …
Yet despite all the odds both Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur prevailed. Both the second leg matches were remarkable in their own way and worthy of the label comeback. But the Liverpool comeback would have to go down as one of the comebacks of the century. Especially given that it resulted in them going onto to lift the trophy a couple of weeks afterwards.
There are some lessons to be learnt here from the men who orchestrated these comebacks. For a start, both the managers (head coaches) of these two famous English team appear to take the mental side very seriously. The have created a ‘never give up’ attitude with their respective playing squads. I suspect that their comebacks are always less of a surprise to them than their fans.
In fact, Jurgen Klopp – the German coach of Liverpool – described his players during the press conference after their remarkable 4-0 comeback semi final win as ‘mentality giants’. This is a term I have not come across before but will be passing onto my coaching clients for sure.
How about you? Have you been involved in a sporting comeback? If you have add the details to the comments section below. Better still, describe your mindset before and during the comeback for others to read and benefit from.
Goal Setting is one of the best known of all mental skills – but we have come a very long way since the old days of S.M.A.R.T. goals.
This article was originally written in 2019 but has recently been updated. It now includes examples pertaining to the Corona Virus and associated challenges.
There are roughly 5000 separate searches for the term ‘goal setting’ every 24 hours around the world. This is the same number of searches for the term ‘sport psychology’. This suggests that athletes, coaches, students, bored teenagers and performers have heard of goal setting, want to do some but don’t really know how.
Before we help you out with this let’s remind ourselves of something important. It’s useful to seperate processes (methods) and their intended outcomes. In other areas of sports science, this is much easier. For example, in physical training one of the intended outcomes is cardio fitness. I assume you could list dozens of activities (processes) that would help improve cardio fitness. Moreover, you would never confuse skipping (for example) with the outcome of cardio fitness.
The Same Applies For Mental Training
The same framework can and should be applied to mental training but rarely is. Goal setting is the method. It’s a process but what are the intended areas we’re trying to influence when we do some goal setting? Furthermore, just like skipping which can be done well or poorly not all goal setting is the same. Most of the goal setting I have seen in the skipping equivalent of doing it once a year and hoping this will have a long last impact on cardio fitness.
Many sport psychologists will tell you that goal setting is all about improving motivation. But I would argue that it’s much broader than that. In fact, if done properly goal setting can become the entire foundation of your personal and sporting/performance endeavours.
Goal setting the Condor Performance way is really Goal getting. Setting long term outcome goals is actually rather easy. It’s the stuff required to get you there were the magic happens – so to speak.
Start With Your Preferences
The scientific literature refers to them as outcome goals, performance goals and process goals. It also suggests that ideally you’ll have all three types as part of your “goal setting” plan. I would agree.
Preferences are a much better label than outcome goals. The hard reality of elite competitive sport is that very few will actually achieve their long term goals. Preferences will soften the blow if you don’t make it without impacting on your motivation. Preferences want to be long term; between one and five years from now. They also want to be about both life and sport (performance). A simple 5 x 2 table of future preferences is ideal.
This is nothing revolutionary. The highly overrated S.M.A.R.T Goals might get you to the same place as the above exercise. One of the key aspects missing from many goal setting systems is the concept of influence. It’s essential that the person coming up with their long term preferences knows this. We only have some influence on these futuristic outcomes.
I am updating this blog in the midst of the 2020 Corona Virus and associated challenges. I will use it to prove my point from the above paragraph. Almost every sporting goal set at the start of 2020 will not happen. Is it your fault? Of course not, you only have some influence on these preferences.
When doing goal setting / getting with my clients I normally start with preferences. But not always. If I feel that for the individuals in front of me (on the screen) ending with preferences will be best then I do just that.
Progress – The Key To Effective Goal Setting
Let’s assume for the sake of simplicity that you have started with your long term preferences. You have done your 5 x 2 table and have ten sporting and personal achievements clarified on paper. What next? The research calls them performance goals, we call them monthly checks.
Monthly Checks are typically performance aims and indicators that we have more influence on compared with our long terms preferences. Normally, we have a lot of influence on these key performance indicators. And here one of the secrets of many of the world’s best athletes. Due to having more influences on their KPIs compared with LTOGs they value the former more than the latter. Most competitive athletes do the opposite and wonder why they spend so much of their time frustrated.
Examples of monthly checks might be statistics from competitions. For example, maybe you’ll track ‘greens in regulation’ for all rounds of golf for the month of February and compare that with March. Or maybe you focus on training progress instead. Maybe you see if all that skipping is actually doing anything by repeating a heart rate recovery test at the start of each month.
Processes – How Champions Are Really Made
The final piece of the goal setting / getting puzzle is arguably the most important. What processes (activities) are best right now for you? By ‘right now’ I mean today and this week. There are two keys in doing this effectively. First, realise (know) that you have even more influence on your processes that you do on your progress and preferences. I would say ‘a huge amount’. You have a huge amount of influence on how to spend your time. Secondly, focus on what you can do. Good process planning doesn’t even consider what you can’t do not what you used to be able to do.
The current Corona Virus is a great example of this. Most athletes and coaches around the world are spending too much time thinking (talking) about what they can’t do right now. This common but unhealthy mental habit then makes it harder to think about the thousands of ways around challenges like lockdown.
If you’d like some professional help to set and then get some goals then get in touch. You can request a Call Back (form to the right on computers, below on smaller devices). Even better (as it gives us more background on you) is complete one of our questionnaires in which you can ask for info on our 1-on-1 sport psychology services.
Raising young elite athletes is no walk in the park. Sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole, a 15 year veteran of working with sporting teenagers, provides some tips to Mums, Dads and Guardians.
A Quick Guide For Parents / Guardians
A significant number of the regular readers of our Mental Toughness Digest blog are the parents or guardians of young athletes. Some are the guardians of current or previous youngsters we’ve worked with. Others are just Mums and Dads who have realised that good psychology can help the whole family. Raising young elite athletes (well) is no walk in the park. This blog is an amalgamation of advice that I have provided the parents of my youngest sporting clients over the years.
With very few exceptions I have generally found that the parents of our young sporting clients have acted impeccably. By this I mean they have helped us help their son or daughter. Almost all of them are readily available if need be but tend to be very respectful of the psychologist–athlete relationship. Most mums and Dads tend to give their child (or children) plenty of space and privacy.
In fact if I think back to all the young athletes that I have assisted myself over the last 15 years I can only think of one bad egg. Only on one occasion with one client did a parent ‘block’ my attempt to help their child. Basically the toxic relationship between parent and child trumped by attempts to help the youngster. I followed the career of this promising young athlete and was saddened but not surprised when they quit at age 19.
The Relationship Is Key, Sacrosanct
What is far more common is for the relationship between the young athlete and their parent(s) to benefit from some ‘spit and polish’. In other words, it’s fine and functions but it could – like most things – be that little bit better. Remember parents are not qualified experts in complex concepts such as emotions and motivation.
Here are a couple of humdinger questions that I have had from some of my young sport clients.
How do I explain to my father that I would rather he not attend my competitions because of the win-at-all-costs mindset that he has?
I would like to have a boyfriend but I know that Mum would see this as me getting distracted from my long term sporting goals. Can you help me with this?
My folks put so much pressure on me. I don’t think they mean this but they do. Should I tell them to take it easy?
When it comes to providing advice to these types of difficult but important questions we rarely try and change the parents’ way of thinking. Let’s take the “win-at-all-costs” question above as an example. It’s unlikely that I would try and explain to that parent why that way of thinking might not be ideal. For more on this topic read this Blog post from 2018.
For a start we prefer to spend all of the consultation time that comes with our various monthly options with / on the athlete. Although we’re happy to have the occasional brief conversation with a parent we do not have the luxury of extensive conversations with anyone else outside of the well defined consulting process. This is where email/text message has revolutionised sports psychology services. It allows parents/guardians to share concerns or ideas with their son or daughter’s psychologist but without having to use up any of the 1-on-1 consultation time.
So the advice that we generally give in these scenarios is roughly along these lines:
Genuine mental tests come in many packages. One of the most common is that the people you spend time with will not always make what you’re trying to do easy. Sometimes on purpose (e.g. hyper criticism) but more often by mistake managing both family and non-family relationships is tough. The Mental Toughness process will remain incomplete until this is something you can manage regardless of who you spend your time with.
If family comes up as an “issue” during the mental conditioning process this provides us with a golden opportunity to get some genuine mental toughness training done. In other words – instead of having to try and make a situation mentally harder on purpose we can use the “issues” to practice our new found mental skills. Real confidence only really happens when you have seen it work in actual, real life situations.
How Much To Push?
Maybe the hardest part of raising young elite athletes is knowing how much to push. One of the Mothers of one of our clients recently asked the psychologist working with her daughter if he had any advice on this. In other words given the added demands faced by young athletes how much pushing, nagging, cajoling is necessary? And when does it become too much? This is an excellent question.
I have had a few weeks to think about this since the question was sent to me and now that I have this is my response.
Many of the clues to a lot of psychological dilemmas is often “somewhere in the middle”. In other words, trying not to end up at either extreme can be useful. A analogy of water temperature can be useful here. When running a bath for your baby son/daughter we take huge care of making sure that the water is neither too hot nor too cold.
In fact, when my daughter and son were babies I had a thermometer to ensure that the water temperature was always close to 37.0 degrees. As they aged the “degrees of freedom” grew so nowadays anything between 35 and 40 degrees is fine.
Degrees of Freedom
From my point of view this analogy is the ideal guide for the parents of young athletes. The younger they are the more I’d suggest that you reduce the possibility of extremes. For example too much practice and too little. Or too many competitive situations and not enough. But as they grow older we’d want to allow more and more degrees of freedoms. In other words, although you still try and motivate them to do their homework the acceptable range becomes bigger and bigger. You might insist on them doing some homework each day but you become flexible with when this takes place and the duration.
In other words, if you’re the Mum or Dad of a 10-year-old athlete who is inclined to overtrain then I’d suggest making it virtually impossible for this to take place due to their age. However, if your child is almost an adult and is “not putting in the work” then it might be better for everyone if you just become a gentle reminder service.
Sometimes simple little strategies such as helping take the training equipment out before some home training and helping them pack away can do wonders when it comes to helping teenage athletes find the “sweet spot”.
8 ‘Quick Wins’ for Sporting Parents:
Communicate with your child in a way that shows you are more interested / invested in their effort (highly influenceable) than their sporting results (somewhat influenceable). Accept that raising young elite athletes comes / will comes with its challenges.
Mental Skills are often confused with the methods aimed to help improve mental toughness. One of our sport psychologists sets the record straight.
The term mental skill (or mental skills) is one of the most misused in elite sporting circles. In fact, it’s used incorrectly almost everywhere in my experience. And here’s why.
The skills are the outcomes not the processes yet most people accidentally refer to them as the latter.
When we talk about an athlete who is technically skilful we are referring to the amount of technical skill (ability) they already have. We are not referring to how they became skilful only that they are skilful. So with the technical side (engine) it’s quite easy to seperate the outcomes (ability) with the processes (how).
Let’s take a soccer (football) player as an example and consider the skill of dribbling the ball. If I compare myself with Leonel Messi you’ll see what I mean. Messi’s ability to dribble the ball is far better than mine. He has far better skills in this technical aspect of soccer than I do. But we can’t say the same about the methods (processes) that each of us use (have used) to work on this skill.
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.
As I explain in this recent visualisation video I created imagining yourself dribbling can be just as effective. So what we end up with is a variety of “methods” that can be used to better our skills. And these skills are not limited to technical skills. The can and should include physical skills, mental skills and tactical skills.
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’s All Use The Correct Terms
If I were in charge of the “sports science dictionary” so to speak I would insist on the following. All processes (activities) should contain the word ‘method’ and all outcomes (abilities) should use the word ‘skill’. So for example catching a baseball is regarded as one of the technical skills of baseball. But there might be dozens of method that good practice coaches use to hone this particular skill.
How This Plays Out For Mental Skills
There are two main reasons why this doesn’t happen for mental methods and mental skills as much. First, the mental side is less visible and less tangible than the psychical and tactical engines. Second, it’s a much more recent participant at the performance enhancement top table.
At Condor Performance we regard the five most common mental skills of performance as being motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus.
Think of 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.
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.
Try to finish these sentences off by just using what comes to mind …
I could improve my flexibility by …
To improve my cardio fitness I could …
I could improve my upper body strength by …
In these three examples, the word in bold is the target – the thing you’re aiming to improve. Therefore the methods or processes need to be added at the end. 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 (also known as mental toughness).
I could improve my motivation by …
To improve my handling of emotions I could …
I could improve my thoughts by …
To improve the unity of my team I could …
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 might help improve or maintain desirable levels of motivation?
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. Crucially goal setting is just one of hundreds of ways to target motivations. Just in the same way that skipping is just one methods to improve fitness.
How about the mental skill of emotional intelligence? Very Simple Mindfulness is a ‘hum-dinger’ and we recently created this free VSM audio file that anyone can download.
What about thoughts and thinking? I bet you never thought of thinking as a skill, did you? The best method in my professional opinion is simply knowing the amount of influence you have on common performance factors. For example, do you instinctively know that you have more influence on your effort than your sporting results?
How about the mental skill of Team Unity? I would suggest doing some research into someone called the 10 R’s for more on this one.
Finally, the mental skill of focus otherwise knows as attention or concentration. How is it possible to vastly improve your focusing abilities (skills)? In my career so far as a sport psychologist I have had huge success in helping my clients improve their focus with the use of routines.
If you’d like to develop these ideas further then there a couple of options. First, you can reach out to us and ask about the process to work 1-on-1 with one of our sport / performance psychologists. Our hourly rate varies a little depending on location and monthly option but is roughly AUS$ 200 (US$ 150) and hour. If this is beyond your budget then consider doing one of our online Mental Toughness courses instead.
Leading Sport Psychologist Gareth J. Mole explains the difference between Mental Toughness for Performance and Clinical Mental Health.
There is an encouraging change taking place behind the scenes in elite sport around the world. Mental health (wellbeing) is starting to be considered an important part of sporting excellence. This is a welcome change from the “win-at-all-cost” and “suck it up” ideologies that existed before. But it’s not all roses and bubblegum. With this Wellbeing Movement there is a risk that many people involved in the pointy end of sport will confuse mental health with mental toughness. Of course although they are related due to both being related to the mind, they are not one and the same.
Thousands of Psychological Models
Psychologists the world over vary considerably when it comes to which frameworks they use to inform their work. Maybe more so than any other regulated profession disagreement about which theories are best is common. On the one hand this is healthy as it encourages robust discussion – a key improvement ingredient of any profession. The issue with psychology, especially sport psychology, is both the size of the disagreements and how they’re handled.
When I started Condor Performance in 2005 one of my goals was to only have the healthy bit (above). By this I mean I set out to put together a team of sport and performance psychologists who all agreed on the core elements of what we did. To this day I am happy for the team to disagree about the smaller stuff but we need to be in unison about which framework is best for our sport and performance clients.
In 2005, most of the sport psychology theories were geared towards either performance enhancement or person enhancement. Often the ideas contained within wouldn’t work together. In fact, some of them would actually damage the other side. As a new qualified sport psychologist I was not satisfied with this status quo. Our clients deserved better.
Metuf Is Born
This was my starting point. Most registered psychologists are quite capable of assisting people with mental health issues (e.g. severe depression). However not many psychologists can help sporting clients with their “mental game”. The part that is getting referred to in famous phrases like “golf is 90% mental”.
I wanted to be able to do both, I wanted to bake my cake and eat it. Then I wanted other performance psychologists to be able to do the same. As 99% of the consulting we do at Condor Performance is one-on-one then I wanted to be a councillor, a coach or both to our growing client base.
Metuf didn’t come about suddenly. In fact the main elements from Metuf didn’t even have a proper name before 2010. They existed as a series of worksheets that we’d use with our clients. These PDFs, now part of our archives, declared that general wellbeing and happiness are not the complete psychological requirements needed to reach ambitious sporting goals.
There are other psychological aspects that may not be that useful for normal, everyday people. But these mental skills are mighty useful when it comes to achieving consistent success. The best umbrella term for these extra psychological strengths is Mental Toughness.
Pre Shot Routines – A Great Example
Whenever I am asked to defend this position – that mental toughness and mental health are not the same – I use the same example. One of the most useful mental skill for start-stop sports (like golf, shooting, lawn bowls) is a Pre X Routine. For golf, that X is shot but for tennis it’s means point. These short routines have nothing to do with mental health and wellbeing. They never have, they never will.
As Metuf evolved so did it’s place in the bigger picture. We used to believe the ideas would only really work on the mentally well. In other words in the early days we’d often refer our clients to clinical psychologists for “fixing” first. But eventually we worked out that many people where quite capable of working on their mental health and mental toughness at the same time.
Where Does The Word Metuf Comes From?
Despite there being hundreds of mental skills that can be used to enhance human performance there are only a few mental targets. By this I mean when you seperate mental health from mental toughness and try to break down the latter into smaller parts you’re not left with a lot. When we refer to mental toughness five potential improvement areas keep coming up over and over again:
Motivation, Emotions, Thoughts, Unity and Focus.
The first letter of each of these five words spells Metuf – which is pronounced with a soft ‘e’ as in egg not a hard ‘e’ as in me.
If we look at these five labels we can see where the confusion between Mental Health and Mental Toughness can come from. The first three in particular look like they’d be pretty handy for anyone struggling with their mental health (think depression and motivation, or severe anxiety and emotions).
But the M in Metuf that stands for motivation is from the context of performance not daily life. The kind of interventions that a clinical psychologist might use to motivate someone with clinical depression don’t resemble the kind of Mental Methods we use to motivate mentally well athletes, coaches, officials and performers. And the same applies for the E, T, U and F.
The Aeroplane Analogy
The analogy that we have been using more recently is that competitive athletes are like four engines aeroplanes. Overall wellbeing is like the main body of the aircraft, Mental Toughness is like one of the engines. In other words there is no point in having Rolls Royce engines if they’re attached to an aeroplane that is falling to bits.
A full explanation of this analogy can be seen through the Introduction Videos of our online Mental Toughness training courses. These intro videos can be seen for free before you decide if you’d like to pay for the entire course.
If watching some video presentations isn’t your thing then reach out to us instead. We now have a team of almost ten psychologists. All of whom can help you with either your mental health, your mental toughness or both.
Sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole provides some free advice on how to manage The Corona Challenge. During the 20 minute audio below he discusses concepts like creativity and not letting cancelled events impact on your motivation. This audio recording was put together to help anyone and everyone not just the current Condor Performance clients. Please share it with your contacts and feel free to add comments and ask questions below.
Good day. My name is Gareth. I’m one of the sport psychologists from Condor Performance.
I decided that, today, I wanted to put together this relatively detailed audio recording after having had quite an unusual last 10 days whereby most of the conversations that I have had with my own sporting clients and most of the one-on-one peer supervision that I’ve had with my colleagues at Condor Performance, we’re now nine sport psychologists and performance psychologists, have centered around how to manage the coronavirus.
A lot of the conversations were generating similar kinds of suggestions on how to get through this difficult time, so I felt like it would be useful for me to put some of these ideas into this audio recording so that anybody and everybody could benefit from some of those suggestions, bearing in mind that, obviously, my colleagues and I at Condor Performance are genuine experts in helping people get through difficult situations.
The first thing is very specific to the sporting industry. One of the biggest disruptions is the fact that many sporting contests are being canceled left, right, and center. One of the bits of advice that I would strongly recommend that you do is to mentally separate your preparation from your competitions. By that I mean if one of the only reasons why you get out of bed in the morning to go training is in preparation for a particular competition, then maybe this is a fantastic opportunity for you to explore other motives for trying to improve yourself.
What I mean by that is if you take away the competition and all the motivation to improve goes with it, then you would potentially benefit from thinking about some of the other reasons why you would potentially want to continue your training despite the fact that there may not necessarily be any competitive situations coming up. These can include things like the pure feeling of satisfaction on improving one aspect of your sport. It could be that you are working hard to get a personal best in the swimming pool or on the track. This satisfaction can exist in the absence of competitions. You don’t necessarily need a competition on the horizon in order for that personal best to be an incredibly satisfying confidence booster. I would highly recommend that you separate your competitions from your practice. It’s something that we do routinely at Condor Performance with our clients.
Also, don’t forget that, although many sporting competitions from around the world are being canceled, there is the possibility that this health crisis will end as quickly as it started. What I mean by that is that, although it’s very probable that sporting contests over the next month or two may not go ahead, there is a reasonable possibility that many of them will be reinstated in June, July, August, September of 2020 and even, depending on the sport and the practicality of it, many of the competitions that got canceled during the March-April period may actually be rescheduled. You may actually get a increase in the number of competitions that you experience later on during the year.
Certainly, the sporting clients that work with one of the Condor Performance psychologists would be working hard to make sure that, if that happens, that there is not a overwhelming amount of training that needs to be squeezed into a short period of time because the training regime stopped at the same time that the competitions were canceled. That’s the first thing to mention.
The second thing I want to just briefly talk about is the concept of creativity. Creativity is a seriously under-utilized part of the mental side of sport and performance. There is no better time that I can think of whereby a little bit of creativity will go a very long way. What I mean by creativity is that, often in very highly predictable situations whereby everything’s the same month after month, year after year, it’s very easy for us to get into the mindset where we assume that everything has to be done a certain way. That is the enemy of creativity in many ways.
This current pandemic is giving us a really good opportunity for us to be forced to think outside of the box. I’m going to give you a couple of examples. Obviously, one of the bits of advice is for us to spend less time close to other people. A common environment that springs to mind that’s highly applicable for athletes and coaches would be a gym. It might be that your gym is closed or that you simply decide there’s too many people in your gym.
Now, if you think about it, the main purpose of going to a gym is to basically work on your physical capabilities as we call it. Those of you who are familiar with the analogy of the athlete being like an airplane central to the METUF model will know that physical capabilities are one of four engines on the airplane whereby the main body of the aircraft is your health and wellbeing. Physical capabilities includes things like improving muscle strength, cardio fitness, flexibility, speed, and balance.
I ask you this question. How many of those could you work on if you were restricted to only being in your home or your house for the next month or so? Take away the equipment from the gym. Let’s imagine that it’s closed, but give you the task of continuing to work on your cardio fitness but without access to treadmills, to work on your upper body strength but without access to dumbbells or bench presses, or to work on your flexibility.
Hopefully, what you will find is that, without too much difficulty, you will start to think of some fairly simple ways in which you can actually go about doing those same exercises or doing that same training at home. Of course, your body doesn’t really care how those exercises are being done. It just wants them to be done. Creativity is really central. I know that Gene Moyle up in Queensland, a really well-regarded sport and performance psychologist who works a lot in the performing arts, is a huge advocate of creativity. I totally agree with her, and I think this is a fantastic opportunity for us to all be a little bit more creative.
The next thing to mention is the impact on mental health. At Condor Performance, we assist our clients with both sporting or performance, mental toughness, and mental health. We regard them as being related but different from one another. Mental health is really about your day-to-day functioning as a person. Sporting or performance, mental toughness, is really about a set of skills, mental skills that you could apply in your sporting situations in order to improve your performance. For example, things such as concentration or how you manage your emotions.
The final thing I’d like to just mention is the fact that, during difficult times, obviously, we have to be particularly aware to ensure that our mental health is taken care of. That is easier said than done, of course. The first thing that you would want to make sure that you do, from a mental health perspective, is to ensure that, if you’re really struggling, particularly with some of the challenges related to the coronavirus, that you don’t suffer in silence. That’s the first biggie.
Telling anybody is always going to be much better for you than suffering in silence. Of course, that person doesn’t necessarily have to be a trained professional. However, if you are seeking advice, if you are looking to get an expert or a qualified mental health practitioner on board to assist you, then of course you’d want to make sure that that person has the proper credentials. Obviously, having a conversation with your grandmother, who’s not going to charge you for that advice, is certainly a pretty reasonable starting point.
The next thing to do, and in many ways, this is linked with my previous suggestion about creativity, mental health, like physical health, is going to be positively and negatively impacted by a lot of your decisions. One thing that I’ve been discussing with some of my clients is the fact that, in many ways, we could use the concept of us being housebound for the next few weeks or few months as a really good opportunity to maybe improve our mental health. Not only are we safeguarding our mental health because of these difficult situations, we are actually taking one step further and using a little bit of creativity to boost it so that it’s even better than it was had this coronavirus not taken hold in the first place.
Often, mental health gets confused a little bit. It’s a little bit intangible, and that can make it hard to improve. Really, if you think about it, there’s just some really common basic drivers that can really help with mental health. Some of these may well be easier for you to do if you’re housebound for four weeks compared with if you were going about your normal activities. I’ll just go through these very briefly.
One of them is sleep. A lack of sleep or poor quality sleep is incredibly damaging to mental health. One thing you could do is you could really prioritize your sleep. There are a few little tricks, going to bed at the same time. Trying to get up at the same time really helps. We use a term at Condor Performance called sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene is simply the idea that you do a whole bunch of things that will assist you in getting a good night’s sleep.
Some of the most obvious ones, which I’ll just read here from my printout from the Center for Clinical Interventions, so basically you can avoid caffeine and nicotine, if possible. Try to avoid alcohol. They recommend it is always best to avoid alcohol for at least four to six hours before going to bed. Bed is for sleeping. Try not to use your bed for anything other than sleeping and sex so that your body comes used to associating bed with sleep. Avoid naps during the day so you’re more tired at night. No clock watching. Many people who struggle to sleep tend to watch the clock too much frequently. Checking the clock during the night can wake you up. Eat right. I’ll talk about that in a second. As I mentioned, going to bed and getting up at the same time.
If you wanted more information on sleep, you can jump on to the Center for Clinical Intervention’s website, which is cci.health.wa.gov.au. They have a really good one-page PDF on sleep hygiene, which would be a really good thing for you to go through during the time where you may be restricted to your own home. Sleep is one.
Also, as was suggested there, eating. Maybe one of the reasons we don’t eat as well as we would like to is because we’re always rushing around between training and work or school. Therefore, one of the reasons might be that we simply don’t have the time to eat properly. If you’re spending the next four weeks or so at home, then hopefully you’ll have plenty of time to really think about what you are eating.
Of course, in certain places, I’m aware that access to food is limited, but to my understanding, no one so far has starved to death as a result of the coronavirus. My general understanding, although certain foods are unavailable, there is still plenty to go around and, again, a fantastic opportunity for you to ask the difficult but important question, “Am I eating the right things? Am I fueling my body?”
Of course, the most effective way for you to fight any virus is for you to ensure that your body is as healthy as possible. There’s really no more effective way of making sure that your body is as healthy as possible than eating and drinking the right kinds of things. That’s another aspect of mental health.
Another really important part of mental health is relationships. Again, using a little bit of creativity, relationships could be something that you really try and improve over the next few weeks. I can hear some of you thinking, “Well, that’s not so easy because I’ve been told to socially isolate myself from friends and loved ones.” Of course, once again, that’s a lack of creativity. Due to the wonders of modern technology, you don’t need to be in the same room as someone in order to have a conversation with them.
When I say that being housebound and having more time on your hands than you were expecting is a great opportunity to improve relationships, I’m talking about potentially reaching out to friends that we might have lost touch with and setting up a couple of conversations with them via things such as Skype. FaceTime video is amazing. A service that we at Condor Performance are using more and more and more is Zoom, Z-O-O-M, which is a really, really amazing webcam sharing or video conferencing system that allows for a whole bunch of fantastic features from screen sharing and so on and so forth. Why not contact that cousin that you lost touch with back in the late ’90s and see if they want to have a little bit of a chat with you via Zoom?
Those are some of the simple ideas, some of the ideas that we’ve been discussing with our clients that, obviously, are applicable to everybody.
Let me just finish with a little bit of a plug. As some of you know but many of you don’t know, the team of sport and performance psychologists who work for Condor Performance do the overwhelming majority of their sessions via webcam. Therefore, in many ways, we are ideally suited, both from a qualifications point of view and a technology point of view, to assist you through this difficult period if you feel like doing it alone is a bit overwhelming.
If you would like information about our services, then the best thing for you to do is to shoot an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. One of our team will get back to you, normally within 48 hours. Make sure you mentioned the country in which you’re located so they can send you information in the currency from the country you’re from. Any general information, as well, can be included in that email. Of course, it’ll be kept entirely confidential.
With that, thank you for taking the time to listen to this. I wish you all the very best of luck in the coming weeks and months. Hopefully, some of these ideas will help you to get through this very challenging and difficult time. Cheers.
Team unity, also known as culture, is the glue that sticks together the members of sporting teams so that they work together and not against each other.
Team unity is also known by other names such as culture, team cohesion and team chemistry. All of these labels describes the factors that can result in some sporting teams being completely unified. Whilst others can resemble the boys from the famous novel The Lord of the Flies.
Team Unity is possibly the most intriguing aspect of sporting mental toughness. It is without a doubt the area that athletes expect to be good without having to do any work. All athletes understand that to improve muscle strength they’ll need to do some work. Most athletes understand that to improve managing emotions they’ll need to do some work. But most athletes expect their teammates to respect them just by existing.
In other words, the culture of most sporting teams, even the professional ones, is typically not that flash. The second factor is that regardless of the current state of your team’s culture it can be improved. That’s right, if it’s currently poor it can be bettered and if it’s already excellent it can still be improved further.
When Team Unity Falls Apart
Between 2005 and 2015 Kevin Pietersen was the top run scorer for the English men’s nation cricket team. However he was regarded by many of his teammates as a prickly character. They tried to address this but couldn’t. Many sporting teams would simply have accepted this. However, unity was considered so important by The ECB they eventually stopped selecting their top batsman. Kevin Pietersen’s book with the same name is a must read for anyone looking to learn more about the team aspects of elite sport.
Between 2005 and 2015 Kevin Pietersen was the top run scorer for the English men’s nation cricket team. However he was regarded by many of his teammates as a prickly character. They tried to address this but couldn’t.
Many sporting teams would simply have accepted this. However, unity was considered so important by The ECB they eventually stopped selecting their top batsman. Kevin Pietersen’s book with the same name is a must read for anyone looking to learn more about the team aspects of elite sport.
How Is Team Unity Best Improved In Sporting Teams?
We work mainly with the coaches so that we make ourselves redundant.
One of the main jobs of the coach of a sporting team is to unify the team and them keep them unified. The problem is most of them attempt to do this delicate work under-equipped. This results in millions of well-intended coaches around the world doing an average job of this key component of performance.
So we work with the coaches, ideally one-on-one and put what we call The 10 R’s under the microscope. The 10 R’s refers to five pairs of words that each start with the letter R. They provide a great starting point for discussions on how to improve the unity of any given team.
Roles and Rules
It is virtually impossible for a team to be unified without clear rules and roles. If the individual members are not clear about their roles this will cause frustration and infighting. The ‘blame-game’ is rife in sporting teams with poor role clarification.
The same applies for rules. What is and is not acceptable should form a key part of pre-season for all competitive sporting teams. The most effective rules are confirmed in consultation with all the members of the team. Then they are written down. Then all parties sign ‘on the dotted lin’ to agree to abide by them.
Relationships and Respect
It is important to mention that the members of a team don’t actually need to be the best of friends. In fact, they don’t even really have to like one another. But they do need to respect one another. Mutual respect tends to result from teams whereby cliques are not allowed to form. In other words, there is some kind of relationship between all members of the team.
Reassurance and Reasons
More for the coaches but important nonetheless is giving frequent reassurance and reasons to the playing group. Humans are not mind-readers. Athletes are humans too. Some love getting reassurance they they are on track. Others need this reassurance. This is where the magic of the ‘why’ come in. Letting players know why they’re progressing or struggling is the magic dust.
Ready and Relaxed
One furphy in elite sport is that one of the best ways to boost team chemistry is to win more. This is like putting the cart before the horse. In actual fact, one of the best ways is to help them prepare very well. Performers who feel ready and relaxed tend to get along much better than their stressed counterparts.
Recognition and Rewards
In sports, the obvious wins are often too obvious. There really is no need to celebrate winning the league or going the entire season undefeated. I am a much greater believer in recognising and celebrating the less obvious wins. What about the time that your teammate smashes her PB on the Beep Test. Or when all of you are able to attend training without anyone having an injury concern. Teams with a strong culture recognise these smaller milestones.
At Condor Performance we practice what we preach. Due to the monthly approach that we use in our consulting we all accrue months. Each time a client pays for another month we add one month to our records for that psychologist. We then celebrate 50, 100, 500, 1000 and 2000 months together. For example below is a short video we made when David reached 2000 months.
If your sporting team is on a tight budget and you’d like to learn more about The R’s then sign up for our online Mental Toughness training program. If, on the other hand, you have some funds to spend on performance consider contacting us at email@example.com with the details of your sporting team. One of our team will be in touch to explain who we can assist with factors such as team unity.
Are athletes and coaches more or less likely to experience mental health issues compared with the general pollution? Sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole addresses this and other related questions.
As this previous article suggests at Condor Performance we consider Mental Health and Mental Toughness to be different concepts. Not opposites nor completely unrelated but far from one and the same.
Mental Health is ‘the condition of the mind’ as it relates to the individual and their ability to function. Genuine mental health issues will most likely have an impact across a number of aspects of the sufferer’s life.
So the severity of the mental illness is related to how they function as a person interacting with their society. If this person is an elite athlete then of course it might impact on their performances. However, it’s likely to hinder them in a number of other areas as well. By way of an example let’s consider a competitive athlete who has clinical depression. This serious mental challenge may well decrease their motivation to train in their chosen sport. But if it’s a genuine Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) then their motivation will be down across most (all) areas of their life not just their sporting commitments.
The most extreme cases result in the sufferer being institutionalised. For example, having to spend time in either a hospital or prison.
Sporting Mental Toughness, on the other hand, doesn’t work like that. It’s much more likely to be confined to performance aspects only. Let’s use the example of a team sport such as volleyball. One of the subcategories of Sporting Mental Toughness (SMT) is Unity (cohesion, group dynamics, culture). It’s very possible that the lack of team unity experienced by a volleyball team has no adverse affects away from training and games.
Mental Issues Common In Sport
If you’re looking for some cold, hard facts about mental health issues common in sport I have added a couple of articles to the bottom of this article. But this is how I see it. Athletes are human too so as humans they are susceptible to all the normal psychological risks of the general population. However, the world in which they find themselves might increase the chances of facing certain mental issues.
One great example is stress. Eloquently described in the below TEDx video by volleyballer Victoria Garrick. High performance circles are breeding grounds for stress. This is especially true for those involved in low or non-paying sports. The demands of training and competing on top of a job and/or study can be really stressful.
There are some excellent questions being debated at the moment around all of this. One is ‘surely everyone would want to be mentally tougher not just performers?’ Not really. First, building genuine mental toughness is very hard. So, although everyone can attempt to it’s probably not worth it if you’re not likely to encounter ‘extreme mental challenges’.
Think of it as being similar to physical health and physical strength. Everyone could try and work towards being able to lift 150 kgs but how useful is it for most of us? Where is the ‘return on investment’? Maybe using the equivalent training time to practice mindfulness would be more sensible. But if you are a weight lifter, rugby player, bodyguard or defensive tackle – for example – then developing the muscle strength to be able to bench press that amount of weight clearly has a pay off in their performance areas. If you’re a librarian on the other hand, not so much. No disrespect to librarians intended. I am sure many librarians are elite performers in their field. But upper body strength is not that beneficial in pursuing librarian excellence.
Developing Mental Toughness works the same. Although everybody would probably be happy to process extraordinarily levels of focus (for example) is it worth investing the time required to get there if you’re never really going to need it?
Some recent publications have asked the question ‘Are Mental Toughness and Mental Health Contradictory Concepts in Elite Sport?’. In other words, do increasing levels of mental toughness have a negative impact on mental health? My contribution to this discussion would be as followers.
No, unless the individual is mentally ill and chooses to only improve their mental toughness. This is like the weightlifter ignoring their broken wrist and continuing to benchpress anyway.
What Does The Data Tell Us?
Are athletes and coaches more or less likely to experience mental issues compared with the general pollution? Luckily, work has been done to answer this question. As mentioned in this excellent article by Joshua Sebbens, Peter Hassmén, Dimity Crisp and Kate Wensley “A study of elite athletes in Australia reported almost half were experiencing symptoms of a mental health problem, and the proportion meeting caseness cutoffs for mental illness were deemed comparable to community data (Gulliver et al., 2015). More broadly, Rice et al. (2016) conducted a systematic narrative review and also suggested the prevalence of mental illness in elite athletes was comparable to the general population”.
Mental Health and Mental Toughness are not the same nor is one a “part” of the other.
Mental Health and Mental Toughness are not opposites whereby when one improves the other goes down and vice versa.
Keeping an eye on mental health needs to be part of all sporting programs.
Improving mental health has a direct benefit to performance.
Free mental health advice should come from anyone. Paid mental health advice should only come from those with recognised qualifications.
It’s Not Just About Problems
The Positive Psychology movement exists because many psychologists wanted to do more than just fix mental issues. Traditional psychotherapy tends to be to get people back to ‘just functioning enough’ and that’s it. It’s like leaving someone mid way through their journey.
Sport psychology and her focus mental toughness were, in many ways, the original positive psychologies.
Additional Reading Related To Mental Health Challenges for Athletes