Mental Skills are often confused with the methods aimed to help improve mental toughness. One of our sport psychologists sets the record straight.
Mental Skills Are… umm … Skills
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, it’s quite easy to separate the outcomes (ability) from the processes (how).
Let’s take a soccer (football) player as an example and consider the skill of dribbling the ball. 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 actually dribbling is NOT the only way to become better at dribbling.
As I explain in this 2020 visualisation video imagining yourself dribbling can be just as effective. So what we end up with is a variety of “methods” that can be used to become more skilful. And these skills are not limited to technical skills. They can and should include physical skills, tactical skills and of course mental skills.
The main reason that the term mental skills is used 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’ or ‘process’ 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 processes that coaches use to help their players 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 at the moment. First, the mental side is less visible and less tangible than say the physical and technical aspects of performance. Secondly, there is very little agreement within the sport psychology community pertaining to exactly what are the most significant mental skills for optimal performance. How many are there? What are they called?
At Condor Performance, we have been diligently working away behind the scenes to come up with our own consensus. It is still too early for us to publish these findings, but I am happy to reveal exclusively to the subscribers and readers of the Mental Toughness Digest that we believe there are, in fact, six primary mental skills. And these six in actual fact all contribute to a seventh, the mother of all mental skills … consistency.
Inspired By Physical Skills
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 …
A great way to improve your upper body strength is by …
In these three examples, the word in bold is the skill – the thing you’re aiming to improve. Therefore the 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 physical with many physical methods. Probably hundreds if we really did some thorough brainstorming.
Now let’s see how you go with the mental side of performance by me revealing two of the six mental skills I alluded to above.
I could improve my composure by …
A great way to boost concentration is to …
Not Quite So Easy Is It?
Remember composure and concentration are the mental skills here. So the question is what processes might help improve them? Or maintain them if they are already excellent?
All in good time my friends, all in good time. As many of you may know in the past we have attempted to put some of our core ideas online for anybody to access. Imagine the explanation part of sport psychology consulting only, without the conversation part or the individualisation aspect. We are on track to replace all of these self-guided courses with updated ones by the end of 2024 and our followers will get first access when they are ready. In the meantime, the old version of Metuf is still available to trial for free online via this link here.
And if you want to access the full course you can do so via a whopping 60% discount using this code until the new versions become available:
Just copy and paste the above at the checkout where it says “Have coupon?” and away you go.
How important is focus compared to all the other mental skills required for consistently high performance? Provisional Psychologist Madalyn Incognito addresses this question and more in this great feature article.
Focus is arguably the most crucial mental skill of them all. High performancereally isn’t possible without it. Because of this, it’s one of the areas of mental performance we work on the most. One quick and simple way to measure your current levels of focus is to complete one of our Mental Toughness Questionnaires here.
What Exactly Is Focus?
In psychology, ‘focus’ is defined as mentally attending to something while tuning out from any other irrelevant incoming information. And like every other mental process, it plays an important role in helping keep us alive. Our survival is ultimately aided by our ability to attend to stimuli and extract information from our surroundings. The ability to focus is a mental process that is present from birth. It plays a vital role in virtually every life domain.
Focus In The Performance Domain
There are actually several different types of focus. But the two most relevant in the work we do are Focused Attention and Sustained Attention. During focused attention, we attend to a target stimulus for a given period of time. This allows us to rapidly detect changes and react/respond in an appropriate way. Good examples from major sports would be:
Cricket: The batter watches the ball and has to adjust their shot based on the bounce of the ball off the pitch.
Tennis: The speed that a player can react to a volley whilst focusing on the incoming ball.
Baseball: Too many examples to list.
Sustained attention, or what is commonly known as concentration, is where we focus on a task for an extended period. Complete attention is given to the task until it is over. Any irrelevant sensory information is filtered out. Think long-distance and enduro-sports, musical and theatrical performances, and even surgery. Basically, anything that requires an individual to concentrate for a prolonged period of time. A swimmer requires focused attention whilst on the blocks followed by sustained attention during the race.
Because focus plays such a large role in high performance across the sporting and non-sporting performance domains, it can be valuable to learn about the different ways we can enhance and improve our focus.
The benefits of meditation extend beyond the general health benefits it’s commonly known for. In the performance domain, meditation is commonly used to bring our attention to the present moment. Basically, this practice helps us get better at focusing our minds on the task at hand. Meditation is not about positive thinking nor about changing thoughts. At the end of the day, thoughts are something we have only some influence over.
“As our clients know it’s better to just accept your thoughts and get on with the job.”
Every single moment of the day we’re thinking about something. The purpose of meditation is actually to heighten our awareness of the present moment. This includes any external experiences (sensory stimulus) and internal experiences (such as thoughts) observing them without judgment. Or as little judgment as possible!
Screen Time And Sleep
Aside from the benefits of meditation on our cognition and focus, sleep also plays an important role in these mental processes. We know that sleep deprivation can severely impact our decision-making, alertness, memory, learning, and reaction time.
One of the biggest causes of sleep disruption today is screen time, particularly its proximity to bedtime.
Electronic device usage prior to sleep can have a significant impact on sleep quality. Research has shown that individuals who use their mobile phones right before sleeping experience a decline in both focused and sustained attention. To enhance your sleep quality and reduce the impact of screen time usage on your focus the following day, it is ideal for athletes and performers not to be on their phones right before bed. One way of giving yourself the greatest chance for a good performance is by switching off any electronic devices as early as possible before sleeping.
Flow And Focus for Sport / Performance
The word Flow is also thrown around in the sporting world when we talk about focus. Flow refers to a state where an athlete or performer is fully and completely immersed in what they’re doing. What we know about flow is that in this state physical performance is heightened. This is because the individual is completely present, attending solely to the task and filtering out any irrelevant information.
Based on Flow Theory, individuals who struggle to get focused or stay focused are probably experiencing one of two things. They’re either experiencing anxiety or boredom. The two variables at play here include the individual’s skill level and the difficulty of the task they have been asked to do. If an athlete’s skill level is relatively lower than the difficulty of the task, this often creates anxiety. On the other hand, if an athlete’s skill level is relatively higher than the task difficulty, this tends to lead to boredom. To create an environment where flow can occur, skill level and task difficulty need to be roughly equal.
Matching Skill Level and Task Difficulty
Matching skill level and task difficulty can be particularly tricky in a team or group setting where you have individuals of varying skill levels and experience. For athletes in a group training setting where the prescribed sets or drills are too “easy”, creating artificial constraints on performance or setting artificial thresholds for success to increase difficulty can help in keeping them engaged. For example, if a boxer is asked to spar against a less experienced opponent, setting higher point thresholds or introducing artificial rules to make the round more physically and mentally demanding might aid them in entering a state of flow.
Throwing a minimum of three strikes per combo, only leading with a feint or a double jab, or starting a combo with anything but a jab are some artificial rules that can be introduced to increase the difficulty of the round and help the athlete engage in the task where their experience level isn’t matched. For a swimmer hitting well below the times they need to be hitting during an endurance set, introducing a more difficult breathing pattern or a higher dolphin kick benchmark off each wall might introduce some additional physical and psychological constraints to a relatively easy set.
It is important for athletes and performers to shift their thinking from what they can’t get out of a session to what they can get out of a session. By enhancing task difficulty in an artificial sense we can help them to better engage in the session, and this will increase the chance of them leaving the session feeling as though they’ve gotten something out of it.
Narrowing Your Focus
Sometimes we underestimate the value of setting objectives or targets for the session we’re about to do or the week of training we’re about to commence. Narrowing our focus to a small selection of focus areas when we train (and even compete) is an attentional style that promotes concentration and helps us filter out all the irrelevant information around us.
I often find that athletes, particularly those on the younger side, struggle to engage during training and even on game day because they don’t know what to think about. They’re often trying to focus on too many things at once, which can lead to a lot of overthinking. For players who just can’t get their head in the game, this is most likely the reason why. Particularly during the development stage when athletes are trying to learn a whole range of new skills, it can be difficult to see them engaged in what they’re doing because they’re having to think about and remember so many different things. Trying to focus on so many different skill areas isn’t always the most efficient way of working towards progress, and it can often be hard for us to physically see our progress and use this as motivation to keep going.
To see more engagement, narrowing one’s focus can help. Choosing one or more areas of focus or ‘focus goals’ can help athletes know what to attend to. They can then bring their attention back to these if it wanders and stay engaged in what they’re doing. Clarifying these focus goals ahead of the session, week or month also allows them to take ownership.
Focus goals allow athletes to recognise their progress more clearly and take accountability for their efforts during training and on game day. There is no real excuse for not knowing what the objectives of the session or game are. Increased accountability is a large part of the philosophy used by our founding sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole. This style of sport psychology can be confronting at first. But it is vital as part of the performance enhancement aspect of what we do. The coaching side as opposed to the counseling side.
Do You Need Help With Your Focus?
It’s clear that focus is an integral part of any performance arena. If you’re an athlete or performer looking to develop some of these ideas further please get in touch by completing our Contact Form here. Your focus can be improved and qualified psychologists are the ideal teachers.
de Oliveira, M. L. C., de Nogueira Holanda, F. W., Valdez, P., de Almondes, K. M., & de Azevedo, C. V. M. (2020). Impact of electronic device usage before bedtime on sleep and attention in adolescents. Mind, Brain, and Education, 14(4), 376-386.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., Montijo, M. N., & Mouton, A. R. (2018). Flow theory: Optimizing elite performance in the creative realm.
Lippelt, D. P., Hommel, B., & Colzato, L. S. (2014). Focused attention, open monitoring and loving-kindness meditation: effects on attention, conflict monitoring, and creativity–A review. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1083.
Marin, M. M., & Bhattacharya, J. (2013). Getting into the musical zone: trait emotional intelligence and amount of practice predict flow in pianists. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 853.
Swann, C., Keegan, R. J., Piggott, D., & Crust, L. (2012). A systematic review of the experience, occurrence, and controllability of flow states in elite sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13(6), 807-819.
Yoshida, K., Takeda, K., Kasai, T., Makinae, S., Murakami, Y., Hasegawa, A., & Sakai, S. (2020). Focused attention meditation training modifies neural activity and attention: longitudinal EEG data in non-meditators. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 15(2), 215-224.
How Coachable are you? Sport Psychologist Gareth J. Mole looks at the mental concept of coachability in this brand-new feature article.
I recently volunteered to assist with the training and game management of my son’s Under 9 soccer/football team. I will likely write a whole feature article on the entire experience later (a must-read for those involved in developmental or junior competitive sports). But for now, I’m only mentioning it to provide some context for this blog on coachability.
During the first game of the season, one of the other fathers and I were chatting on the sideline. By the end of the match, we basically agreed that the team could do better. Rather than grumble from the stands we felt it appropriate for us to lend a hand. Fortunately, this offer was accepted and Coach J and Coach G (me) got to work.
As I write this we are midway through the season. So far, two of the most common words during pre and post-training sessions have been coachable and coachability. As these young seven, eight and nine-year-old boys and girls learn to deal with competitive sports for the very first time some of them are highly coachable whilst others are less so. As you would expect.
So What Exactly Is Coachability?
While researching for this article the first thing that I realised is that coachable and coachability are not actually official words yet. The Cambridge Dictionary shows up nothing when you punch them into their online search. However, it does show up in The Britannica Dictionary suggesting they are trying to officially make it into the English language.
Their definition of coachable is “capable of being easily taught and trained to do something better.”
Focus And Motivation Come First
One concept that is obvious when it comes to the range of coachability is that some of them struggle to be coachable because they lack focus. Whilst others struggle because they don’t really, really want to be there. It is mid-winter here in Australia and La Niña has made for some pretty challenging training conditions. Which of course I love.
As a practising sport psychologist, this is a timely reminder that in psychology things aren’t always as they appear. Although on the surface it appears as if we have inherited a group of soccer players whose overall coachability is not great I am confident that this is most effectively addressed by helping them with their focus or motivation or both.
And of course, this is my bread and butter. This is literally what my colleagues and I do five days a week, most weeks of the year.
Low Levels Of Coachability Are A Symptom
It is tempting to try and work out which players are struggling due to an inability to focus and which ones lack motivation but this is actually an unnecessary step. Regardless of how motivated and focused they are they can always improve. Improvement is a never-ending process. You never reach the finish line where it is no longer possible to improve.
Do I Know Too Much?
One of the challenges of being so qualified and experienced in sport psychology when assisting with your own child’s sporting team is not getting carried away. This is one of the main reasons why I insisted on doing it with somebody else. Coach J, a Scotsman, is a vital cog because not only does he have a great understanding of the sport but he also helps me to remember that these are youngsters at the very, very start of their sporting journey. They are not Premier League players. Not yet, anyway.
So the two of us have regular meetings whereby his knowledge of the technical and tactical gets mixed with my knowledge of the mental. And then we come up with a unified approach to training and games. What is apparent is how effective this is compared to the way that sport psychology is so often done.
Often the sport psychologist will come in and run a series of workshops without any involvement with the coach(es). Some professionals call this Working In Silos. Even more common is when the sport psychologist only helps with mental health issues. He or she is basically a therapist who happens to work with sporting individuals. For anyone who has watched the Ted Lasso TV series the way the work of Dr.Sharon Fieldstone is portrayed is more or less what I am referring to here.
But Back To Coachability
We need to acknowledge when coachability is an issue that it could be caused by poor coaching. Let’s be honest here. Not all coaches are equal and not all coaches are at the top of their game.
If you are reading this and you are heavily involved in the running of a sporting team where you feel like coachability is an issue then I would suggest you start with an examination of your coaching staff. Here are some questions for you to consider:
What are the qualifications of our coaches? Do they have some kind of formal training or are they just former players or mates of one of the decision-makers?
Are any processes in place that allow them to develop professionally? Or are they doing exactly the same this year as they were four years ago?
Are the players given an opportunity to provide feedback about the coaches? It seems so one-sided that the coaches provide feedback to the players but rarely the other way around?
Coaching The Coaches
Once you’re happy that the coaching staff are not the primary cause of poor coachability then of course it’s time to help the players. Obviously, I am heavily biased but dispatching your coaches off to retrain as qualified sport psychologist (a six to eight-year process in most countries) is impractical and ridiculous. But what if sporting organisations give their coaches the opportunity of working alongside a sport psychologist or performance psychologist? Not because they too need therapy like Ted does in the Ted Lasso series. But because one of the most effective ways of improving the mental toughness of a sporting team is for it to come directly from the coaches who have the right mentors.
More and more of the work we do at Condor Performance is to mentor sporting coaches. Below, to finish off, I have listed of few recurring suggestions that come up over and over again in the 1-on-1 work I do with sporting coaches. If you want more, you know how to find us.
Processes are more important than outcomes.
Treat athletes as people first, performers second.
It’s very difficult to help others if you are not looking after yourself first.
‘Enjoyment Is One Of The Cornerstones Of Sporting Success’ argues Chris Pomfret. Without it, it’s a very long way to the top.
This article was first written by Chris Pomfret in 2017, then slightly updated by Gareth J. Mole in 2022. Another article on the same subject by the same author – Enjoyment and Performance – can be found here.
The Fun Factor – A Key Mental Skill
There are so many questions regarding fun and enjoyment in the context of elite sport and performance. But the most pressing would be these two. Is it actually necessary for an elite athlete to love their sport? And can The Fun Factor be increased in situations whereby the mojo is gone?
To address the first of these I can’t help but think back to the 2017 Wimbledon Tennis tournament. And in particular, comments made by Aussie Bernard Tomic following his elimination. Tomic appeared to be wondering what to do when something which once sounded so glamorous now seemed so unappealing. One thing is obvious when looking at this from the outside, The Fun Factor had gone. And this is assuming it was there in the first place.
To summarise, Tomic stated that he felt “bored” out on the court. That he was lacking motivation during Wimbledon and in his playing career more generally. He reported lacking a sense of fun. He described being happy with his life from a financial perspective but being dissatisfied with the sport of tennis and not caring about his results. Tomic acknowledged the difficulties of playing at the top level for such a long period but stated that he planned to continue for another 10 years so that “I won’t have to work again.”
Include Mental Training From The Start
In later interviews, Tomic said that he felt “trapped” in the sport and that if he could go back in time he’d encourage his younger self to pursue another career. “Do something you love and enjoy” he would advise the 14-year-old Bernard, “because it’s a grind and it’s a tough, tough, tough life.”
Sporting results are a crude way to make conclusions about anything but sometimes this is the only data we have. When Tomic made these comments in 2017 he was ranked in the Top 20 in the world. As we update this article almost five years later his ranking is 260. And I would suggest this slide in the rankings is mostly due to mental health reasons. The lack of the fun factor is now taking its toll. And it wouldn’t surprise me that soon we’ll be referring to him as a ‘former tennis professional’.
All Athletes Have Mental Health Issues
Every single athlete will have some kind of mental health issues that they would benefit from addressing. This is particularly true for those competing at the pointy end whereby the psychological challenges tend to be much greater. Think about a professional tennis player who spends eight months of the year ‘on the road’. So rather than dividing athletes into those who are mentally well versus those who are mentally unwell, it’s more useful to separate them into those who are addressing inevitable mental challenges versus those in denial.
Of the many reasons that sporting and non-sporting performers contact us a lack of enjoyment is consistently in the top three. Performance anxiety tends to be ranked first, and a gap in performance between practice and competition is generally ranked next. But the loss of fun. enjoyment, motivation is a close third.
If we compare Tomic to someone like the legendary Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt the differences could hardly be more extreme. Among the many contributing factors to Bolt’s success as a runner, his pure love of racing was right up there. It was remarkable to observe how every time he competed he treated it as a celebration of his passion for running. I’m sure this was one of the main reasons for not only his success but also his longevity as an athlete.
Enjoyment And Seriousness Can Coexist
Enjoyment is surprisingly difficult to quantify. As such it’s no wonder that so many sporting and non-sporting performers struggle to find it when it ‘goes missing’. The word ‘fun’ often gets used in this context. Wherever possible we encourage our clients to tap into the pure childlike thrill that comes with performing. One problem is that even something that seems as straightforward as fun is hard to define as a concept.
If you’re a tennis player reading this now, ask yourself what exactly is most fun about the sport? If your answer is that you just love hitting the ball, can you describe in words why that is? Is it movement-based, or the challenge of executing a successful shot, or the ‘feel’ of a clean stroke when the racquet and ball meet, or just being in the moment?
If you’re finding it hard to put into words why hitting the ball is such fun that’s entirely understandable, but what happens when you’re suddenly not hitting it well? Or when you’re injured? Or when you’re hitting it well but results aren’t going your way?
Enjoyment isn’t simply having fun (whatever that word means to you) and again most people find it difficult to define what the additional components are. Enjoyment also involves a challenge, reward, satisfaction, pride, achievement, growth… and more. Too much of a result-focus is well known for decreasing enjoyment. This often leads people to lose touch with the simple pleasures that drew them into their sport or performance area in the first place. A lack of a suitable performance/life balance is detrimental to the fun factor and in turn to the performance itself.
Another common cause for reduced enjoyment is when our personal identity (who we are) becomes defined solely by our sporting/performing self (what we do). In fact, there are many reasons why enjoyment can suffer. People typically find it much harder to address these challenges because unlike technical issues (such as serving, volleying, or hitting forehands in tennis) they do not have a way to quantify what enjoyment means to them and therefore they don’t have a way of improving it.
Whilst you don’t need to love your sport, reconnecting with (or discovering) a sense of enjoyment can have tremendous benefits both from a performance point of view as well as overall mental health. Depending on where you are in your career this article might be a great opportunity to take a little bit of time to sit down and really consider the reasons why you spend so much time on your sport or performance area. Does it fit into your overall purpose or upon reflection are you doing it for all the wrong reasons. As always if you need a helping hand from a qualified professional that please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
Sport psychologists Coaching The Coaches is becoming more and more normal as competitive sport finally start to understand what we do.
One of the great professional delights for us here at Condor Performance is the opportunity to work alongside sporting coaches. We are privileged to work with coaches across many sports and levels of competition. Most of this consulting is 1-on-1 whereby we help them improve both their own mental toughness as well as their mental coaching skills. Of course these two areas are related but are far from one and the same. So coaching the coaches really means coaching the coaches mentally.
The process of collaborating with coaching staff provides a range of challenges and rewards distinct from working directly with athletes. It is immensely satisfying for us to help coaches redirect some of the vast amounts of time and energy spent on their players back into improving their own performance. That’s right, coaches are performers too even if they don’t actually strap on the boots.
An Unlimited Appetite for Learning
Increasingly at the elite level of sport there is a trend for coaches to take off-season trips. The idea is to ‘pick the brains’ of other organisations in order to bring new perspectives back home. “Study tours” are fascinating exercises with a host of educational benefits. However they’re not exactly cheap and that thing called ‘life’ can get in the way.
We are huge advocates for these study tours but accept they will not be possible for most coaches. Luckily there is a workaround. Start working 1-on-1 with a qualified sport psychologist or performance psychologist from the comfort of your own home.
Of course when it comes to the practical application of coaching tasks and responsibilities it is the coaches themselves who are the experts, not us. But we become involved to provide mental skills training to the coach, not to start developing game plans or overhaul training regimes.
Five Key Questions
Below you will find five key questions for coaches directed at their own performance, not that of their athletes.
HOW ARE YOU PERFORMING OUTSIDE OF THE PLAYING ARENA?
Before we discuss the mental side of your coaching performance, let’s take a moment to look at the bigger picture. Improving your performance in areas which don’t at first appear to be directly linked to the ‘nuts and bolts’ of coaching will in fact directly benefit your work with your athletes. Attending to ‘off-field’ matters will help to increase your physical and mental energy. It will sharpen your focus when coaching. It will enhance your enthusiasm for your duties. Furthermore, it will promote enjoyment of your role and contribute to your general wellbeing. Finally, it will help to address (prevent) burnout in the longer term. The major targets for improvement for any coach, from a lifestyle perspective, are:
Nutrition. No doubt you’re encouraging your athletes to put the right fuel into their bodies? And while you may not be running around on the court with them it’s important that you do the same. This isn’t just necessary for general health but also for enhancing your mood and improving concentration. Taking care of your nutritional needs seems fairly obvious at first glance. But that’s why it often takes a back seat to other tasks which seem more urgent at the time.
Sleep. Unfortunately this is not an exact science and a great night of shut-eye can’t be guaranteed. There are various factors which can get in the way of sleep. So anything you can do to increase the chances of a good night’s rest will have flow-on benefits to life and sport. Taking basic steps to plan for and implement good sleeping habits sounds sensible enough. Like nutrition, sleep can be one of the forgotten components in the grand scheme of coaching performance. See this great PDF for more details.
WHAT DOES MENTAL TOUGHNESS LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?
The mental qualities you hope to see in your players are easy enough to picture. But what does mental toughness actually look like for you personally? What are the skills you’re seeking to keep improving upon in order to perform at your best? Below are some points that keen-eyed readers will recognise fall along the lines of the Metuf model. These are all areas we often discuss when coaching the coaches.
What are your reasons for coaching and wanting to do it well? The immediate response to this may be that you love your chosen sport. However it’s helpful to clarify this passion further. Why exactly does coaching appeal to you and what are the rewards which you get in return for your efforts? Knowing what matters to us in terms of our chosen sport means that we can keep these values as non-negotiable aspects of our sporting lives.
How well are you able to manage your emotions? That term – manage – is used deliberately and is not a result of the growing ‘business-speak’ in modern society. Although the term ‘control’ is thrown around freely in sports, we cannot control our emotions as we cannot guarantee them. What we can guarantee are the actions that we pick in response to our feelings. Developing competency in recognising and better understanding one’s own emotions – and the impact of these emotions on performance – benefits the coach in their work and enables the coach to teach their athletes similar skills.
Do you spend the majority of your time worrying about aspects you have little or no influence on? For example, your opponents? Food for though, no?
How well are you able to get your message across to others? Are you able to receive and interpret messages well from others? How effectively can you get messages across to yourself? Communication is a hugely under-utilised skill. Normally this is due to lifelong habits which we have developed in everyday interactions. Even minor modifications can yield powerful changes in tasks such as teaching biomechanics or managing different personalities.
How well are you able to focus on what is most relevant and useful in your role as a coach? It is equally important to improve your attention in preparation as well as in competitioN. Are you prioritising one over the other at present?
DO YOU HAVE A PLAN TO DEVELOP YOUR SPORTING IQ?
Out on the playing surface, tactical wisdom refers to knowledge about the sport. It’s about decision making skills and knowing ‘when’ to or ‘why’ to do something. There is an enormous difference between ‘how to’ shoot for goal (technique) vs. determining if a shot or a pass is best goal (tactics). Developing decision making skills is something which the vast majority of coaches I’ve encountered have revelled in. I enjoy helping them to teach their athletes how to become smarter and to read the play. How to be proactive rather than reactive.
Off the playing surface these same principles apply for coaches. We want to encourage them to continue learning, to seek new knowledge, and to gain deeper insights into their sport. Tactical wisdom for coaches isn’t restricted to coming up with new game plans. Instead, tactical wisdom is looking at the bigger picture and planning how to acquire and utilise knowledge for the benefit of your athletes. As a coach, if you can recognise what your strengths and weaknesses are knowledge-wise then you’ve immediately begun a process of filling in any gaps and strengthening the existing foundations.
IS YOUR BODY GETTING ENOUGH ATTENTION?
Improving the strength, fitness and flexibility of athletes is of course a key consideration for any coach on any given day. However, we are talking about coaches here and the risk with this group is that enhancing the physical capabilities of athletes will always take priority over your own needs. Taking the time to plan specific goals for improving your physical capabilities and implementing weekly effort towards these goals will benefit your work with clipboard and whistle. It may even help you to come up with some new ideas for punishing your athletes with torturous fitness drills!
ARE YOU REFINING AND UPDATING YOUR TECHNICAL SKILLS?
When discussing technical consistency with an athlete, we would be talking about their ability to execute movements and apply skills the way they want to over and over again across all conditions in competition. That is, ‘how to’ do something. One of the primary concerns of a coach is to help teach athletes these skills. So in order to improve your performance as a coach it is worthwhile considering ‘how to’ teach your charges. It is one thing to demonstrate to a javelin thrower the method for launching that piece of equipment. However, it’s another to be passing on that knowledge in a way that is effective and of most benefit to that individual athlete. It’s hugely useful for coaches to break from habit where possible and review how they go about executing their skills in their role as a coach. How effectively are you teaching your athletes and how satisfied are you in your current ability to pass on skills/knowledge/information to others? As with all the previously mentioned pillars of performance, ongoing improvement in the ‘how to’ of coaching players is the goal here regardless of which technical elements are areas of strength for you as an individual.
If you are a sporting coach and you’d like some info on how we can work with you please contact us via one of the below.
What is mental toughness? What is it not? Is there a best practice way to improve it permanently? These are the main topics that are addressed in this article.
No Agreement At This Time
It is important to state from the very beginning that there is currently very little agreement within the sport psychology community about what is really meant by mental toughness. In fact many researchers and psychologists working in sport and performance don’t even like the term mental toughness. Some don’t like the actual label whilst others don’t believe it should be a seperate concept to mental health. With this in mind the below assertions are just my professional opinions. Not surprisingly they are shared by my colleagues at Condor Performance.
Defining Sporting Mental Toughness
What is mental toughness? What is it not? Is there a best practice way to improve it permanently? These are amongst the main topics that I will address below. Please use the comments sections at the bottom to let me know if you agree or disagree and why. And don’t forgot the why.
Mental Toughness Is Not The Same As Mental Preparation
Is the pursuit of more clarify we need to clear up the most common furphy first. Mental Toughness is the target, the outcome, the ‘thing(s)’ we’re trying to improve. Mental Toughness is not a process. Mental Toughness is the cake. It’s not the beating of the eggs.
A more accurate but less appealing label for mental toughness is actually ‘the mental aspects specific to performance’. But in the same way that you’d sell less Advil if you called it only by it’s scientific name (ibuprofen) mental toughness is both punchier and more appealing to the consumer. If you want to see the importance of getting the label right have a look at this.
Furthermore, mental toughness is the umbrella terms for ‘the mental aspects specific to performance’. What this means is that is refers to a complex interplay between a number of very different mental aspects. It works the same way as intelligence. Intelligence is now known to be made up of different types. So saying some is intelligent or not is less than usual. First up, it’s too black and white – where is the cut off? But more importantly it ignores the fact that someone can be high in visual-spatial intelligence and low in verbal-linguistic for example.
So a much more relevant question is what are the subcomponents of mental toughness? What are the common psychological outcomes we’re looking to improve as psychologists working in sport? After we have agreed on that, we can focus on the best methods, processes for improving them.
The Aeroplane Analogy
At Condor Performance we an use an analogy that the competitive athlete is like a four engined plane. This is best explained via this 15 minute video below.
Most human beings do not require super fitness, amazing physical strength nor excellent flexibility in order to function, thrive and be good at what they do. In fact, only relatively small amounts of physical activity may be needed in order for most people to experience the day-to-day benefits of exercise on their wellbeing.
But if this person happens to be an athlete – and in particular an athlete of a physically demanding sport then these small amounts of psychical activity will not be sufficient. Especially if they want to go as far in their chosen sport as possible.
If the purpose of the aircraft is simply to go for short 20 minute flights as part of a hobby group for amateur fliers then it still needs to function but the efficiency of the engines is less critical compared with an aeroplane that wants to fly as far as possible (safely).
After 15 years of helping mostly athletes with mostly their performance mental toughness, I believe that it is best broken down into these five key psychological subcomponents:
Motivation (towards training and competing)
Emotional Agility (before / during training and competitions
Thought Shaping through values
Unity (Team cohesion)
Focus on demand
Be Careful Of Synonyms!
Most of the other labels that you’d expect to be here are either synonyms of one of these words or a type of one of the subcomponents or a combination of the both of these. For example, the words concentration and attention are both synonyms of focus. I know from some of my academic contact that some don’t agree with this. In other others focus and attention are not actually the same. To them I say this. They are close enough, let’s not overcomplicate things just for the same of it.
Confidence, pressure. fear and feeling relaxed are all types of emotions. Flow, one of the most common words in modern-day sport psychology, is really just a blend of high focus whilst executing tasks that are not too easy nor too hard.
How Do We Improve Mental Toughness
As mentioned before trying to improve mental toughness as a whole thing is a waste of time. Much in the same way that trying to improve intelligence is. Once you start asking yourself the question how do I improve motivation or emotional agility then the magic start to happen. First, common sense and/or experience will produce a few ideas.
Try this experiment with kids. As them to brainstorm way to improve mental toughness. See what happens. Now repeat and ask them to come up with was to improve group unity. Bam!
If you type the word ‘motivation’ into Google Scholar you get 4,270,000 results. We know a lot about motivation and how to improve it. If you type ‘mental toughness’ in you get a mere 18,400 results. That’s more than 200 times the amount of knowledge on motivation compared with mental toughness.
If you are not happy with common sense alone then turn your attention to the research. Or better still start working with someone who has gone through all the research on your behalf. At Condor Performance I am blessed to have an amazing team of psychologists who do almost of the consulting. This allows me the time to get my geek on and consume performance psychology like a bear coming out of hibernation.
If you’d like to find our more about how to work with one of our team on your mental toughness then get in touch now.