Mental Toughness Digest for Sport & Performance.
Turning Up The Mental Blowtorch in Practice
By Chris Pomfret (PSY0000966671)
“How can I make training more mentally demanding?” is one of the more common questions posed to us at Condor Performance by athletes and coaches alike. Quite often this is in the context of a plateau of training performance or when practice feels like it’s becoming ‘stale.’ Broadly speaking, most athletes dedicate most of their time and energy into improving the physical and technical pillars of performance: essentially, strength and conditioning along with skill execution / biomechanics. Here, making practice more demanding would typically involve increasing the physical intensity of activities (e.g. adding more sprints) or placing athletes under some form of duress (e.g. introducing punishments where skills haven’t been executed appropriately). A further manipulation of the training environment may involve increasing difficulty from a tactical or decision-making perspective (e.g. opposed training sessions with less players on one team).
Making your practice environment physically, technically or tactically harder can of course help to make it mentally harder – but not necessarily so. Regardless of whether you are an individual athlete or playing a team sport, the key question is what would make training more demanding for you specifically? Would extra sprints challenge you mentally, or just provide another route to push through the pain barrier? Would a punishment for not completing a sequence of skills help to prepare you for the pressures of game day or just be an annoyance? Would running through your plays with fewer teammates help you to choose when to pass or shoot, or would this just seem like an interesting but unrealistic drill?
Regular readers of the Mental Toughness Digest will be familiar with the mental method ‘Controlling It’ which identifies those categories in any sport which are controllable vs. those which are influenceable vs. those which are uninfluenceable. Consider for a moment the following influenceable categories, which can be manipulated to make practice more psychologically demanding:
· Moveable Objects. These include such ‘tools of the trade’ as equipment and clothing.
· My Surroundings. These include the ‘underfoot conditions’ such as a court or field, and the structures in the general vicinity, such as fencing and seating.
· Other People. These include opponents, team mates, officials and spectators.
· Results. These may include movements, series of plays, scoring, or other outcomes relevant to your chosen sport.
The key to making your practice psychologically harder – a mental method which we call ‘Influencing It’ – is to determine how hard a particular practice drill seems for you. In essence, this involves breaking down influenceable categories into subcategories and assigning a difficulty rating out of 10 (whereby 1 would be incredibly easy whilst 10 would seem almost impossible in your own mind).
So if we took tennis as an example, the category of moveable objects could be very simply broken down into subcategories such as playing equipment (rackets and balls), clothing (such as shirts and socks) and protective gear (hats and sunglasses). A young player who is determined to wear the technologically advanced materials and styles worn by her favourite professional might find it very distracting and highly frustrating to be wearing old loose-fitting clothes which retain sweat and feel restrictive at extreme points of movement such as the service ball toss. In this example, shirts would fall within the subcategory of clothing and may be assigned a difficulty rating of 8 as the tennis player’s concentration is impaired by heavy / oversized / non-breathable shirts and this creates an unhelpful emotional state which impairs performance. By incorporating practice drills which force the tennis player to execute her skills despite the distraction and annoyance caused by unwanted clothing she is making routine training drills more challenging for herself and learning strategies to deal with unhelpful thoughts / physical stimuli / emotions during a competitive match.
As the above example demonstrates, ‘influencing the influenceables’ doesn’t require any significant investment financially or resource-wise, nor does it require disruption to an existing training schedule or any sort of special consideration from coaches / parents / team mates. You are an individual, and as such the things which challenge you most in practice or in competition from a mental perspective may be vastly be different from your colleagues and your rivals. Take a few moments to reflect on how moveable objects, surroundings, other people and results impact upon you psychologically and how you can use these categories to improve your mental toughness week in and week out.