Mental Game: The Third Pillar Athletes Need to Train

“Why can’t I play like that every time?” It’s that question that infuriates athletes. They practice on a consistent basis. They add hours to their practice routines and seek out coaching to guide them to better performances. They consistently train their technical abilities, tactical awareness, and physical attributes, but they perform inconsistently. After low performances, they ask themselves “What went wrong?” And, after their highest performances, they come back to that question, “Why can’t I play like that every time?” The answer is that they aren’t entering every contest with a consistent mindset.

Three Pillars of Training Athletes

A top sports psychologist and a leading voice on high performance mindset, Dr. Michael Gervais, tells us that there are three pillars to any athlete’s development; three areas that they can train: their craft, their body and their mind.

An athlete’s craft refers to their skill. It’s a combination of an athlete’s technical ability and tactical awareness. Other coaches may refer to it as fundamentals. Training an athlete’s body has become a very scientific process. Athletes are constantly trying to refine their training process to increase their speed, power, reaction, agility, hand-eye coordination, endurance, and other athletic abilities. The progression usually leads them to become more intentional about training the physical components in their early teenage years.

Why training an athlete’s mind is important

Very few athletes spend significant time training their mindset before they enter their post-high school years. In fact, many athletes will go through their entire athletic careers without training their mentality at all.

I ask all of the college athletes that I work with to estimate what percentage of their ability to be successful comes down to mental strength. The average response hovers between 70–75% with all of them estimating that it is at least 50% or greater. My follow-up question is, “what percentage of their training is dedicated to mental training?” The average response is less than 5%.

While some might find the disparity between the need for mental training and the time dedicated to it discouraging, it gives coaches and athletes an unmistakable indicator as to which pillar they should focus on if they want to see a vast improvement in the consistency of their performances.

Training the mental pillar takes work

Unfortunately, many coaches and athletes will choose to ignore the mental pillar. It takes a lot of effort and vulnerability to do the internal work needed to improve your mentality.

It is also very difficult to quantify the effects of mental work. If an athlete lifts weights, they feel sore the next day, and so they know that soreness is part of the process. Most record their reps and know that they’re getting stronger because they can lift more over the course of time.

When training your craft, it’s easy to quantify progress by evaluating your success rate for a given task. It’s much more difficult to quantify mental progress. All of these factors lead to hesitancy amongst coaches and athletes to intentionally train their mentality.

How to train the mind

The easiest way to get started with mental training is for an athlete to set goals like they would if they were training one of the other pillars. Next, they should develop a routine for training that skill. Finally, they need to find a way to measure growth in that area. This can be difficult, but not impossible. An athlete might choose to work on confidence, performing under pressure, or overcoming adversity. All of these are skills that can be trained in a way very similar to training a technical skill or training their body.

For instance, an athlete’s goal might be to become more confident during their performances. Their routine could include mindfulness practice, visualization, and self-talk. They might set a goal to spend 5-10 minutes on each skill every day. They can evaluate if their confidence is growing by recording their own evaluation after every performance (game, practice, meet, etc.). Basic questions might include:

  • On a scale of 1-10, how would I rate my mindset in today’s performance?
  • On a scale of 1-10, how would I rate my confidence level?
  • Was there anything that affected my confidence?
  • What did I do to affect my confidence in a positive way?

A simple log like this can take less than a minute to complete each day, and they will notice patterns developing that correlate their mental training routine with the growth they are seeing in their confidence.

It’s important to note that just like the other pillars, the mental pillar takes consistent work, and the work is never done. If a basketball player didn’t touch a basketball for six months, they would expect some rust the next time they hit the gym. If any athlete stopped working out for a month, they would expect their strength to recede some during that time. Likewise, if an athlete gets themselves to the point where they are happy with their mindset, they still need to continue to work to maintain their ideal mentality.

Mental training is the most important training an athlete can do and it’s the area in which many athletes have the most room to grow.

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