When we use the word “mental” to describe an athlete’s shortcoming(s), the term is used so loosely it’s practically impossible to gain any real meaning. Does “mental” mean the athlete can’t focus? Needs better motivation? Doesn’t know what to do when inserted into the game? Or can’t handle pressure and adversity? As you can see from just these quick examples the word “mental” can mean almost anything when used to describe a sport shortcoming or problem area.
Breaking mental issues down
When it comes to sport success, athletes rely on a host of different skills acquisitions, including learning how to improve physical attributes (i.e. size, speed, agility, etc), technical tasks (i.e. learning how to throw a curve ball, block a defender, or execute a chip shot in golf), and mental skills (how athletes learn, emote, and behave while competing). What is interesting about mental skills is how much of sport is “mental” when you break it down into more manageable sub-categories:
A.) Cognitive. Cognitive skills training is helpful for athletes in that it encompasses how well the athlete knows his or her sport, including the specifics of his or her position and/or role on the team. For example, if your child is regularly out of position on the field, the problem is not that she is having problems with her emotions, but instead speaks to the fact that she could benefit by doing some homework on how to actually play her position on the field. This is an example of a cognitive, not emotional, challenge.
B.) Emotional. Emotional skills training is designed to help athletes better manage their attitude, problem-solving, and resiliency. An example here might be an athlete that makes a mistake early in the game, yet can’t control his emotions and move past the error in order to still salvage a good game. Emotional challenges are different than cognitive challenges — emotions are the fluctuations in mood state we experience, while cognition is the mental processes we use to acquire knowledge.
Get the diagnosis right or you won’t fix the problem
It is vitally important that you frame the problem right in life, otherwise you likely won’t find a solution to your problem. “Mental” problems include learning lapses as well as challenges keeping emotions in check. What this means is the treatment for each case should be specific to the problem, and not just some sort of blanket mental health approach without any true focus. Think of it this way — if your car engine were making a noise, you likely would not first start your diagnostic approach by examining the back seats. Expanding on this, if you did decide to play around with the seats, you will almost certainly continue to experience hearing a noise from your engine — meaning the original problem would not be fixed. The same is true with mental support — if you treat a cognitive problem with emotional solutions (or vice versa), you will likely miss addressing the real problem.
We throw the word “mental” around a lot in sports, but my experience has shown that in most cases the word tends to be a generic, catch-all term used to describe everything from ignorance of the sport, to out of control emotions that limit the athlete’s ability to focus and perform. The reality is most athletes could benefit from specific mental training, but it’s important to develop a plan that directly addresses the challenges you want to overcome. Only when athletes combine physical, technical, and mental training to their development will they position themselves to reach their full athletic potential.