Mental Training Skills Every Athlete Needs To Learn
The physical skills you need as an athlete will be dependent upon the sport you play. A swimmer is going to have a different skill set than a pitcher, for example. While a pitcher is going to need a completely different set of tools than a soccer player.
That’s on the physical side. But what about the mental side of the game?
Mental characteristics such as confidence, focus, resilience, motivation, and many more are universally important to every athlete, no matter the sport or position you play.
Developing such characteristics, just like with your physical skills, requires a set of tools to use. In this article, you will learn the five mental training skills every athlete needs to build a strong mindset.
What is Mental Training
Before we dive into the mental training skills you need, I find it valuable to first take a moment to examine what even is mental training in the first place.
Back when I was in high school, and even in my early years of college, I would have looked at you with a blank stare if you’d mentioned those two words. Working on the mental side of the game was simply not on my radar.
Luckily, a lot has changed in a short period of time.
Many more athletes are coming forward with mental health challenges, and so greater focus is starting to be given to the development of a strong mindset.
Some common mental health struggles athletes face include low confidence, performance anxiety, fear of failure, depression, loss of identity, and struggling with high expectations/pressure.
Many times in the past such struggles were brushed aside under the guise of the phrase, “It’s just a game.”
But for so many athletes, it’s not simply a game…it’s their life. Their identity. Everything they do and all they are is directed towards their sport. If not careful, that can open the door to many mental health challenges.
Mental training is a way of overcoming such challenges. But more than that, it’s a way of preventing them in the first place through using these tools in a proactive manner.
Now, at this point you may be wondering if these tools are only applicable to those who are struggling? The answer is a resounding NO!
From an overall mental health standpoint, they do a phenomenal job of helping. Simultaneously, they strengthen your mental game which leads to greater production on the field/court.
Mental training is a way of using certain skills to cultivate characteristics in your mind that will lead to not only greater success within your sport, but greater fulfillment as well.
Benefits of Mental Training
When it comes to choosing new aspects to apply to your training routine, you should always begin with the eye of a skeptic.
Just because a coach or anyone else tells you something is good, doesn’t necessarily mean you should jump into it right away. Especially not an article on the internet…
However, mental training is not a fad or some new found thing that will add six inches to your vertical or ten miles per hour to your fastball. These are sound principles based in psychology that are working on a level of thought, emotion, and behavior.
Through the use of these tools, you will gain benefits in the way that you approach the game, which is what then translates to greater success on the field or court.
But, as I said, you shouldn’t just take my word for it. You need proof! So, let’s take a look at a few of the main benefits you can expect from the 6 mental training skills every athlete needs to learn:
- Increased Confidence: every athlete knows the importance of self-belief. That understanding and trust that you have the skills capable of succeeding. Through the use of these mental training skills, you will build self-confidence, and continue to do so as you apply the techniques.
- Decreased Anxiety: constant worries about what may or may not happen is a common plague among athletes. It’s natural to want to win and play your best, but worrying about doing so is not the best way to go about making that happen. Through these skills, such anxiety will be decreased.
- Increased Focus: another benefit you can expect is a strengthening of your ability to concentrate. Split seconds make or break games and careers. Developing elite focus will provide you with a competitive advantage.
- Reduced Fear of Failure: it’s easy to develop an aversion to mistakes. Though, they are nothing you need to fear as they are the only true way to learn and improve. However, as athletes, all too often mistakes equal failure and this turns into something to fear. Through these mental training skills, your fear of failure will be reduced.
- Increased Enjoyment: while you may not think this one directly impacts your level of play, I’d like to task you with finding someone who absolutely dreads their sport, yet still consistently goes out there and succeeds. To be a great player, you’ve got to enjoy the process. You must learn to love both the ups and downs, the training, and the feeling of competition. Through mental training, such enjoyment and satisfaction will be increased.
"Through the use of these tools, you will gain benefits in the way that you approach the game, which is what then translates to greater success on the field or court."
Mental Training Skills To Know
Each of these mental training skills requires repetition and consistency.
For example, you can set performance objectives (which you’re about to learn) once and that will be great. They will help you out for that game or practice. But if you want them to benefit you repeatedly, while also retraining your mind, you must stick with them consistently.
It’s also easy to think that once you begin seeing results, you can stop using the skills.
This, once again, is not the best approach for long-term success.
Think about it…why would you stop doing that which has helped you get to where you are? It doesn’t make much sense.
The point I want to make as a prelude to these skills is that they are best used in a proactive, repetitive, and consistent way. A little bit each day (at least a few times a week) will work wonders and you will be amazed at the benefit they will have on your mindset and game.
Each skill listed below has an outline of what the skill is, and then I show you exactly how it is performed.
Outcomes are everywhere in sports. You just can’t get away from them. But does that mean you need to focus on them? No…not if you want to perform your best on a consistent basis.
As a mental game coach, one of the major challenges I see athletes face is the never ending struggle of having their minds fixed on what’s going to happen.
Of course you want to do well and of course you want to have other people see you as a good player, but how does that actually happen?
By focusing on the individual tasks you must do to help you reach the outcome.
This is known as being process focused and is one of the greatest skills any athlete (any person really) can develop.
But to be focused on the process is not easy. Especially with the constant reminder of outcomes anywhere you look. Which is why you need something that will work to bring your attention onto the process.
Enter performance objectives.
Performance objectives are a mental training skill that work by providing yourself with something completely within your control to focus on.
Now these will differ between practices and games. For practices, your objectives should be directed towards improving your skills. For a game, on the other hand, your objectives should be what you need to focus on to allow yourself to perform at your peak.
When setting your performance objectives, you want to do so on the technical side and mental side. The technical side will involve your physical skills while the mental side will involve your mindset, focus, and how you are feeling.
Aim to set one performance objective on the technical side and one on the mental side for each practice and game. That way, during practices you are training with intent, and during games you are giving yourself something beneficial to focus on that will lead to peak performance.
"Outcomes are everywhere in sports. You just can’t get away from them. But does that mean you need to focus on them? No…not if you want to perform your best on a consistent basis."
The way you speak to yourself is often overlooked. What’s worse is that it’s largely automatic. Meaning, you likely speak to yourself in a way that has formed unconsciously over many years, and not always in the most effective way.
And by effective, I mean in a way that increases your confidence, improves your focus, and leads to greater athletic success.
Self-talk refers to the thoughts you have and the way you speak to yourself. We can even break it down a bit further into two different categories: direct and indirect self-talk.
Direct self-talk refers to thoughts you have directed towards yourself. For example, saying things such as:
- I can’t do this.
- I suck.
- I hope I don’t mess up.
- I’ve got this.
- I am a great player.
They are all said in a way that is speaking to yourself about yourself.
Indirect self-talk is quite similar, the only difference being you are saying things in regards to other people or your environment.
Examples of indirect self-talk include:
- The other team looks really good.
- I wonder what the coach is thinking right now.
- The field looks terrible.
- I hate this ref.
- This team sucks.
- I never play well in the rain.
Both have an impact on the way you feel, and subsequently the way you play. Which is why taking control of your self-talk is so vital.
In order to truly master this mental training skill, there is an exercise you can follow, which culminates in a simple practice which will be performed on a daily basis.
How to take control of your self-talk:
- Step #1: Make a list of your current negative self-talk.
- Step #2: Generate a list of positive/productive alternatives.
- Step #3: Repeat the new list to yourself twice a day.
That is what it takes to master the mental training skill of self-talk. What you are doing is reprogramming your subconscious mind to speak to yourself in a different way.
This takes time, patience, and most importantly…repetition.
Stick with it, and you will turn that inner voice into a real asset rather than allowing it to remain a liability.
Having the ability to center your attention in the present moment is a key skill for all athletes to develop. This is really what’s being referred to when a coach or someone tells you to focus.
We’re always focused on something, what you need to gain the ability to do is control that focus and keep it placed upon what you want. And as an athlete, the best place for your focus to be is in the present moment.
This parallels what was addressed in the section on performance objectives. The whole concept of setting process goals is to aid in your ability to keep your mind present. That way, it doesn’t drift onto the outcome.
Mindfulness is the state of being completely focused in the present moment. Therefore, it makes sense why this is such an important mental training skill every athlete needs to learn.
But sustaining such a state is not easy. That’s why mindfulness needs to be looked upon as an actionable training exercise. By doing so, you are strengthening your mind's ability to retain focus, rather than having it bounce all over the place.
Here’s how to train mindfulness through the practice of mindfulness meditation:
- Step #1: Get into a comfortable position either sitting on the ground or in a chair (keep your back straight).
- Step #2: Set a timer (5-10 minutes for a beginner).
- Step #3: Close your eyes and begin taking deep, rhythmic breaths.
- Step #4: Focus on each breath, and as your focus drifts onto something else, gently return it onto your breath.
The actual act of training mindfulness is when you notice your attention becoming attached to a thought and you return it to your breath. So don’t be discouraged if you can’t keep your mind focused for long, that’s the point. Right now you are training.
Over time, it will become easier and easier to hold your attention, and that’s how you know you are making progress with the skill of mindfulness.
"The actual act of training mindfulness is when you notice your attention becoming attached to a thought and you return it to your breath."
There are many applications of mental rehearsal, also known as visualization. It can be used to build confidence, perform better under pressure, reduce anxiety, and overcome fear.
The basic principles of the practice are the same, all that changes are the emotions you feel while visualizing and the scene you imagine.
Mental rehearsal is best defined as creating a scene in your mind. You will go into great detail with what the environment looks like, imagine yourself in the situation, and then feel the emotions that accompany the scene.
As an athlete, there are two main forms this will take: imagining yourself performing and imagining a relaxing scene.
For both, however, I encourage you to visualize from a first person point of view. Do not see yourself in the scene, be in the scene.
When you’re wanting to increase confidence, perform well under pressure, and overcome fear, the mental rehearsal you will do involves imagining yourself performing.
See yourself going through a game, and most importantly, succeeding and feeling confident while you do.
For handling anxiety and calming your nerves, what you’ll want to do is imagine a relaxing scene. This promotes relaxation and so whenever you’re in a situation where you need to relax, you can simply bring that scene into your mind.
Here are the steps taken to perform mental rehearsal:
- Step #1: Get into a comfortable position (sitting or lying down).
- Step #2: Close your eyes and take 10 to 20 deep breaths to relax.
- Step #3: Create your scene (remember to be in the scene, not simply see yourself in the scene).
- Step #4: Bring emotion into the scene (for your sport, feel confident while you perform and be successful at the end. For a relaxing scene, feel calm and relaxed).
"Mental rehearsal is best defined as creating a scene in your mind. You will go into great detail with what the environment looks like, imagine yourself in the situation, and then feel the emotions that accompany the scene."
Now this last mental training skill is a bit more broad in it’s application than the previous four. Though, it’s core principle is quite simple; you are reframing the way you look at something.
The first example I want to use is mistakes.
How often in the past have you looked upon mistakes with an ill eye? It’s easy to fear mistakes, as they signify you aren’t quite good enough. But is there another, more productive way you can look at them?
Yes. The truth is, mistakes should be your best friend. They are a wonderful way of identifying areas that need improvement and actually making progress in your sport.
How do you expect to grow if you never allow yourself to make mistakes?
Mistakes are teachers and their lessons should be welcomed with open arms.
Another way to use reframing as an athlete is when you are criticized or yelled at. Instead of allowing this to tear you down, you can take what is said, and reframe it in a more productive way.
Was there any truth to the critique? What can you take from what the person said and use it to grow?
At its core, reframing is a powerful way of looking at life from a different perspective. It goes off the old adage that we don’t get to choose what happens to us, but we do get to choose how we respond.
Meaning, you have the power to look at things in any way you choose. So why not reframe them in a way that helps you grow as an athlete, rather than something to fear or that holds you back?
While physical skills differ between sports, the mental side of the game is quite universal.
There are a certain set of mental training skills that all athletes need to learn. By doing so, you will strengthen your mindset and gain a leg up on the competition.
To master your mental game, begin setting performance objectives, improve your self-talk, practice mindfulness, make use of mental rehearsal, and take to heart the concept of reframing.
By doing so, you will develop the mental skills necessary to not only succeed within your sport, but enjoy yourself in the process.
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.
Contact Success Starts Within Today
Please contact us to learn more about mental coaching and to see how it can improve your mental game and increase your performance. Complete the form below, call (252)-371-1602 or schedule an introductory coaching call here.
Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.eli's story
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