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 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 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 – it’s not as 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 15 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 I could facilitate training this 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, 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!
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 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 the good from the great athletes at the elite level, will be their ability to prepare and endure mentally and to be able to execute well under pressure.
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:
- Goal setting
- Error management
- Concentration development
- Positive self-talk
In my work on mental training for athletes, I developed strategies based on:
- Daily routines
- Goal setting
- And many more…
WHO CAN BENEFIT FROM MENTAL TRAINING?
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 challenging, emotional situations. Knowing how to release stress and how to regulate your emotions in a healthy way will bring many benefits to your coaching work.
RESEARCH ABOUT THE EFFECTIVENES
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.
DO YOU WANT TO EXPLORE MORE ABOUT MENTAL TRAINING?
I will be releasing a new group coaching program on mental training for athletes. This will be tailored to both athletes and coaches and will start in early 2022.
If you would like to hear more about it or my other programs, sign up for my newsletter to make sure that you get all the updates as soon as I announce new programs!
If you are interested to read more about this topic, you can check out this blog post which I just published a few days ago.