Mental Training For Athletes
Mental training for athletes has always been something that deeply interested me and something I have always included in my work. Although my primary experience has been coaching handball goalkeepers, my mental training experience can be applied to all athletes.
When it comes to handball goalkeepers (and goalkeepers in general), they are individual athletes in a team sport. Their role is often not fully understood or supported by their coaches or team mates. It’s not uncommon for handball goalkeepers to not get equal technical and tactical support in the training process from their coaches, let alone to get the support in the mental aspect of training.
I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been contacted by handball coaches, handball goalkeepers, handball players, parents of handball goalkeepers, and athletes from other sports about the “mysterious” situation they’ve found themselves in suddenly. All of their stories sound something like: “I have no idea what’s happening, but in the last 2-3 games I significantly underperformed. It seems like I can’t even do the easy things. Can you help me?” When I assess their situation, I always ask them what mental training tools they’ve used so far. Very often I get the answer: “what do you mean by mental training tools?”.
This confirms to me just how much the whole topic of mental training for athletes is marginalized even now when we are fully aware of its importance. My intention is to bring more clarity and understanding about this topic so more athletes can maximize their performance by leveling up their game on a mental capacity as well.
You can’t just focus on training your physical body without including the mental training aspect as well because the body/mind connection is scientifically undeniable (more on that below!)
What is Mental Training For Athletes?
If you want to become a successful athlete, you want to rip the fruits of the symbiosis between your physical and mental self. What I mean by this is that you will need both skills if you want to become a successful athlete. And for that matter in life too! Anything that happens in your mind has a direct and significant impact on your body. And it goes the other way too – whatever happens in your body has a strong impact on your mind.
When you are stressed out or nervous – your physical body responds to it: your heart pounds faster, your muscles tighten, your blood pressure rises, your breathing is quickened and shallow, your palms start sweating. When you feel confident – your body posture is different than when you feel disappointed, and vice versa. When you feel “down” for whatever reason – it’s impossible for you to perform on a high level. Even if you’re in a peak physical condition. The important thing to know is that there are the ways to use your body in order to impact your mind, and you can use your mind to impact your body!
Mental training for athletes is learning the tools and strategies on how to prepare your mind to help you consistently perform at your best, mentally and physically. Many coaches are “afraid” to learn more about this topic and to include it in their work, because it seems too complex. For me, this was always an inevitable and integral part of my coaching work. Spoiler alert – learning more about how to apply elements of mental training in your work is not as extremely complex as it seems!
Is Mental Training For Athletes Important?
Nowadays coaches are witnessing a huge lack of motivation for athletes to overcome difficulties. Whether it be in an exercise, in training, in learning something new, in daring to fail… there is something missing here. Especially when it comes to young athletes.
In my coaching work in over 20 countries with thousands of athletes so far, I’ve had to deal with so many of them being unable to overcome their inner blockages. The issue that kept occurring is the lack of mental strength and stamina, the lack of resilience, and the lack of persistence.
Early on in my coaching work, I started questioning how could I facilitate training the resilience and mental strength with my athletes. It was clear to me that the level of mental skills my athletes had was translating into whether or not they had future success, stayed average, or were ultimately unsuccessful and/or gave up from the sport altogether.
Growing up in a war, despite it being extremely traumatizing, taught me so many valuable life skills that helped me in every aspect of life. My coaches never needed to motivate or inspire me to try out a new movement, a new exercise, or to try out a different strategy or a game plan. I was always ready to overcome my own beliefs of what is possible or not, to step out of my comfort zone, and to try something new! It seems that the same drive carries me in my coaching career as well! 🙂
How is Mental Strength Learned?
Mental strength, perseverance, and resilience are learned through facing challenges, through learning to fail and through succeeding. By learning to see and use what scares us as something that can motivate us.
Nowadays the majority of young athletes don’t get the chance to learn these skills through persisting through challenging situations in their life. Life is easier for everyone for the most part than ever before.
This doesn’t mean that everyone needs to grow up in a war or a similar traumatic environment in order to build these important mental skills, but it does mean that there are different ways they can be learned and built, and we need to use them.
Mental factors such as self-belief, confidence, focus, resilience, and motivation are crucial to athletic performance. Mental training for athletes gives them strategies and mental exercises to work on these qualities and to build them proactively, so that they are able to grow as an athlete and to face any challenges in competition.
Mental training is important, because what will separate good from great athletes at the elite level, will be their ability to prepare and endure mentally, and to be able to execute well under the pressure of competition.
The Benefits of Mental Training
Mental training should be a critical component of an athlete’s overall training, offering countless benefits that go way beyond physical capabilities. Here are some of the key benefits:
Improved Focus and Concentration
Athletes are often required to perform in highly distracting environments. Mental training techniques, such as visualization and mindfulness, help athletes maintain focus on their performance goals, effectively blocking out distractions and pressures that can affect their concentration and execution. This sharpened focus is essential during high-pressure moments and competitions.
Increased Confidence and Self-Belief
Confidence is a significant predictor of athletic success. Mental training empowers athletes with the belief in their abilities and skills, which is critical for facing tough competitors and challenging situations. Through positive self-talk and mental imagery, athletes can reinforce their self-esteem, boost their self-confidence, and maintain a positive attitude towards their performance. Believing in their abilities allows them to approach competitions with a winning mindset.
Better Stress and Anxiety Management
Competitive sports can induce significant levels of stress and anxiety, which can negatively impact performance. Mental training equips athletes with coping strategies to manage these feelings, enabling them to stay calm and composed under pressure. Techniques such as deep breathing, relaxation exercises, and cognitive restructuring help athletes transform anxiety into positive energy.
Improved Motivation and Goal-Setting
Mental training helps athletes set realistic, achievable goals, providing a clear roadmap for their training and performance. It fosters intrinsic motivation, helping athletes remain dedicated to their training regimen and persevere through setbacks and challenges. Setting clear, achievable goals as part of mental training keeps athletes motivated. Understanding their “why” fuels persistence and effort in both training and competition.
Improved Recovery from Injury
Mental resilience training aids in the recovery process, helping athletes overcome setbacks and maintain a positive outlook during rehabilitation. The mental aspect of recovering from a sports injury is often as challenging as the physical recovery. Mental training provides athletes with the psychological tools needed to cope with the frustration, impatience, and depression that can accompany injuries, aiding in a more positive and efficient recovery process.
Greater Mental Toughness
Mental toughness allows athletes to persevere through difficulties, overcome obstacles, and remain determined towards their goals. This resilience is crucial for maintaining performance levels throughout a competition. Mental training cultivates resilience, enabling athletes to bounce back from disappointments and maintain high levels of performance even under adversity.
Optimal Performance Consistency Under Pressure
Athletes trained mentally can maintain composure and perform at their best when it matters most. They learn to harness the energy from stress and channel it positively into their performance. Sometimes we give credit to older or more experienced athletes for this, but in truth – this is a skill that can be trained and mastered even with young athletes! Consistency in performance is what separates good athletes from great ones. Mental training helps athletes develop routines and psychological strategies that promote consistency, ensuring that they can perform at their best regardless of external pressures or conditions.
Improved Team Dynamics and Communication
For team sports, mental training can improve communication, cohesion, and the overall dynamics of the team. It helps athletes understand and manage their roles within the team, fostering a supportive and collaborative environment.
What Are Common Techniques?
There are many different forms and techniques of mental training.
While the specific mental training techniques that will be most applicable to anyone can vary, the techniques listed below are some of the most common:
- Error management
- Concentration development
- Positive self-talk
In my work on mental training with athletes, I developed my working strategies based on:
- Daily routines
- And many more…
Here are some of the main reasons why mental training is important for athletes:
Effective goal setting involves establishing specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals. This technique helps athletes focus their training, motivates them to push through challenges, and provides a sense of accomplishment as they meet their targets.
Visualization or Imagery
Visualization, or mental imagery, involves creating a mental image of performing a skill, achieving a goal, or experiencing a desired outcome. This technique helps enhance focus, confidence, and the ability to perform skills under pressure by mentally rehearsing successful outcomes and strategies.
Positive self-talk is about replacing negative thoughts with positive affirmations or cues. This technique can boost confidence, reduce performance anxiety, and help athletes maintain focus and motivation, especially during critical moments in competition.
Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and mindfulness meditation, help athletes manage stress, reduce anxiety, and maintain composure. These practices are crucial for achieving optimal arousal levels for peak performance.
Concentration and Focus Training
This involves exercises designed to improve an athlete’s ability to concentrate on the task at hand while ignoring distractions. Techniques may include focusing on specific cues in the environment or using mindfulness to bring attention back to the present moment.
Similar to visualization, mental rehearsal involves going over strategies, game plans, and responses to various scenarios in one’s mind. This technique helps athletes prepare for competition by anticipating challenges and rehearsing their responses.
Biofeedback techniques use electronic monitoring to convey information about physiological processes. Athletes can learn to control bodily processes such as heart rate, muscle tension, and brainwave patterns to improve performance and manage stress levels.
Developing pre-performance routines (e.g., before a penalty save in handball, a serve in tennis, or a free throw in basketball) can help athletes achieve a consistent state of readiness and focus. These routines may include physical, mental, or breathing exercises that signal the body and mind to prepare for performance.
Cognitive restructuring involves identifying and challenging negative thought patterns and replacing them with more positive and realistic thoughts. This technique can help athletes overcome self-doubt, maintain a positive outlook, and enhance their mental resilience.
Mindfulness and Meditation
Mindfulness and meditation practices help athletes stay present, improve concentration, and reduce performance anxiety. By focusing on the present moment, athletes can avoid getting caught up in thoughts about past mistakes or future outcomes. You can read here my full article about the impact of meditation in handball.
Who Can Benefit From Mental Training?
Basically everyone. Mental training can help you learn the strategies to harness the power of your mind to achieve anything you want. The interesting fact is that I have been using mental training techniques and strategies even more as a coach than when I was actively playing as a handball goalkeeper.
From my own experience, and also from working with many other coaches, I can say that mental training is very beneficial and important for coaches, too. Every coach is facing a lot of stress and emotionally challenging situations. Knowing how to release stress and how to regulate your emotions in a healthy way will bring many benefits to your coaching work.
If you are interested to read more about this topic, you can check out this blog post which I published just a few days ago.
Research About The Effectiveness
This isn’t just my own anecdotal evidence. The effects of mental training for athletes has been studied with very strong results pointing towards its criticalness for athlete performance.
The Sport Journal found in this research that the mental training practice of visualization was “effective in enhancing running performance” in college runners.
This study found that mental toughness can be improved over time. In this study, researchers determined mental toughness to be an athlete’s ability to outperform their competitors in managing demands and demonstrating consistency, drive, focus, confidence and control under pressure.
Research published in the Journal of Sports Sciences has found that successful Olympians have a high degree of self-confidence, are able to manage their arousal level and to block out distractions, and are goal-oriented.
Mental training is not just a supplementary aspect of athletic training; it’s a fundamental component of achieving and sustaining high performance. By cultivating mental strength, focus, resilience, and a positive mindset, mental training enables athletes to unlock their full potential and achieve excellence in their sports endeavors.
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