5 Fundamental Mental Skills for Athletes
It’s easy to think that the best athletes who manage pressure are ‘just born with it’ or ‘gifted’.
While they are extremely capable of doing things under pressure, they also learned these skills over time.
Mental skills are like any other skill that you’re trying to learn, they take practice and time.
When you get them, you’re able to perform under pressure, be the go-to player, get selected more often, and be trusted.
The trouble is that they get easily neglected as you don’t know what to train, or how.
Why are they important?
Sport (and life to be fair) is a mental game.
You may have heard the phrase “it’s all in the top two inches”.
And from my experience in professional sport, I can only agree.
While having skill and physicality go a long way, when you’re at the top, there’s another element that plays a huge part: mindset.
Knowing how, when, or the way to use your physical, tactical, and technical skills, especially under pressure, can make the difference.
Having a strong mental game or mindset allows you to:
- Improve performances more consistently
- Handle pressure moments
- Make better progress
- Reduce burnout
In no particular order, I’m going to give you the 5 fundamental mental skills for athletes that you can start learning for your mental game.
Be motivated by pursuing goals.
Yet many aren’t specific about what they are trying to achieve.
Those who don’t set goals will easily lose motivation, get lost in what they’re trying to accomplish, and find setbacks harder to overcome.
You can set goals that are short, medium, or long term.
Use SMART goals as a framework, Specific, Measureable, Achieveable, Relevant, Time-bound.
But it’s not just the outcome, physical, or technical goals.
Don’t forget to also set process goals — those that are not measured by outcome but by your ability to carry out your process.
Or even look at setting mindset goals.
Setting and measuring the character you want to achieve in pursuit of your other goals.
Your self talk can influence your outcomes, and the opposite is also true.
Our self talk can (ultimately) be placed into two ‘buckets’: instructional and motivational.
Motivational self talk is a word (or words) that we use to psych ourselves up, improving our energy, focus, and confidence.
Instructional are the words that we may use to execute a task.
Sometimes you’ll find you can combine them.
In the MindStrong Course, we create motivational self-talk in our MindStrong Mantras exercise.
The ability to stay focused in the moment.
Ever find yourself losing your focus, sometime right at that crucial moment.
You may miss a shot, make an incorrect decision.
Argh, so frustrating.
“I wasn’t concentrating.”
You take on a lot of irrelevant noise and forget the relevant focus.
Sports (and life) can require us to stay focused for sustained periods of time.
Those who are able to drown out external noise and focus on what is important, increase their chances of success.
But do you practise it?
Are you taking the time to sharpen this vital skill?
And with smartphones, notifications, and social media distracting us, there are more chances to lose concentration.
A great way to practise is through meditation. I know. I know. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to start. But the art of doing nothing could give you everything.
If meditation isn’t there for you, add concentration moments into your practice.
Every time you lose focus on your task, note it, chalk it off on a board, or use a notepad. The goal would be to have fewer marks at the end of each session.
Keeping concentration is as much about having awareness of when we lose it as it is about keeping it.
You hear athletes say things like, “I saw it before it happened.”
I loved visualisation when I was playing professionally. I still use it now.
With this skill, you’re viewing what you want to do and how you want to do it.
The image you create in your mind can have many different aspects and senses drawn into it; perspective, speed, feeling, and sounds.
Running through events before they happen can give you clarity and confidence in what you want and hope to do.
And it doesn’t all have to be positive.
Negative imagery or visualisation (what you don’t want to happen) helps you be prepared for when that could happen.
Imagery helps athletes see something before it happens.
Giving you the best shot to make it happen.
The best performances come when you’re relaxed rather than tense.
Adding relaxation to your schedule is what I would regard as one of the most important but most difficult things to do.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll have a constant nagging voice telling you that you should be doing more.
Which makes downtime very difficult.
But from physical, mental, and emotional perspectives, you’ll be able to switch off and recover much easier.
How you practise relaxation is up to you.
It could be meditation, yoga, breathwork, lying on the sofa, a dog walk, or painting.
Mindful practises (such as meditation, yoga, and breathwork) can teach us techniques for relaxing the body and the mind.
All of these are useful for before, during, and after moments that may be causing tension.
How to get started
For one, start thinking about your mental game as if it’s as important as every other aspect.
Think of it like you’re building a sports car.
Your physical and technical training build the ‘machine’.
And the mental training you do is educating the driver.
Two, add it to your schedule and integrate it into something you already are doing.
If you have a training session, set a goal (goal setting) for what you’re telling yourself during the session (self-talk).
See how I got two done in one hit there?
Once you start to integrate it into your schedule, you start getting clever with it (one for another time).
Have one session a week where you at least push the limits of your training and train your mind rather than your outcome.
The important part is that you start to put mental skills into practise.
Go get ’em!
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