Every athlete knows the importance of mental toughness, but many struggle with understanding the skills, and to what degree to use the skills, apply to maximizing athletic potential for their specific sport (Sport Success 360).
Mental toughness skills can be loosely defined in sport psychology as an athlete’s cognitive and emotional abilities relationship to behavioral movement (sport skills). Mental skills are “thinking and feeling” experiences athletes have while simultaneously attempting to successfully execute sport skills.
Examples of Mental Breakdowns
When athletes over-think sport situations to the point where fear and anxiety disrupts the natural execution of sport skills, the problem is a mental breakdown. For example, when you see an athlete become upset after a bad play and loses focus in the plays that immediately follow, the athlete is suffering from poor emotional coping skills – or a mental breakdown.
Unlike machines, humans do not simply follow algorithms that lead to perfect solutions. When a basketball player steps to the free throw line, she clearly wants to make the shot – and has made free throws hundreds of times before in practice. As she takes her warm-up dribbles, she even reminds herself that nobody can disrupt her shot – after all, it’s a free throw. Still, she misses the shot.
Coaches generally do a good job of teaching sport skills (like making free throws), but when athletes are called to execute the skills in they have learned in game situations they often fall to pressure – and end up choking as a result. Making things worse, most athletes go back to only practicing the physical elements of a sport skill, and often disregard the importance of being able to control nerves and emotions (mental skills) the next time they feel pressure in a game situation.
Only when athletes are able to focus their thinking and control their emotions can they maximize their abilities to successfully master their sport.
The Degree of Training Athletes Need
Most sport psychology mental training skills center around confidence development, improving focus, controlling anxiety, and rebounding from adversity. All of the skills, like imagery, breathing, and using cue words, can be tweaked and modified to help athletes of all ages and skill levels. The question is not whether these skills “work” or not (they do), but rather the extent and degree specific athletes should use them.
One simple way for athletes to break down mental skills is to begin by thinking about the type of sport the athlete plays. The following breakdown is designed to be thought of with respect to intensity, and not to be implied that there are some sports that require no mental training skills.
Gross Motor Sports – Less Thinking, Less Mental Training
Sports that rely on big muscle groups and relatively simple behaviors usually need less focus on mental training skills. Some examples of these sports include linemen on a football team, track sprinters, and rebounders on a basketball team. Of course, these athletes still benefit from mental training, but not generally to the degree that athletes who are required to use more fine motor skill movement and precision thinking (see below).
Fine Motor Skills – More Thinking, More Mental Training
Sports that rely on precision movement and a high degree of stress control usually need more attention on mental training skills than the gross motor skill group described above. Some examples include putting in golf, shooting free throws, and making shots in pool. Again, this does not suggest that only mentally tough athletes can do these things, but it does mean that mental toughness may have a greater impact on athletic success than most people think.
The reasons why precision sport movements require superior mental toughness include the following:
1. There is more time to think. In sports, the ideal situation is when an athlete engages in “muscle memory” movement, the kind of action that happens automatically. In precision sports, the time to think can often interfere with this biorhythm and cause the athlete to fail.
2. There are more things to control. When athletes are given autonomy to perform a skill (like a free throw), the experience is very different than automatically defending an opponent. Instead of reacting, when athletes control a situation they must regulate all thinking and feeling and synchronize these experiences with their body in order to execute the skill.
3. More time to rebound and process from failure. Unlike a lineman in football who misses an assignment and quickly moves on to the next play, a golfer might agonize much longer after missing a 2-foot putt. It is for this reason that the athlete must work diligently to improve in the emotional skill of becoming more resilient.
Since mental toughness programs are not one-size-fits-all, it is important to understand your sport and then determine the degree and extent to incorporate mental training skills. Physical, technical, and mental skills are all important as they apply to sport success, but the percentage of training will depend on man of the factors outlined in this article.