When it comes to examining the degree in which sports are “mental,” the percentages vary depending on who you ask. Of course, it’s impossible to assign a specific number to this hypothetical question, as each individual athlete approaches sport preparation and performance in his or her unique way. Another problem with the question is operationalizing the variable “mental.” Depending on how you define the word “mental,” you might find that your answer will vary in direct proportion to the specificity of your terms.
The mental aspects of sports
Generally speaking, most athletes I talk to agree that a big part of sports are mental. When I press them to give me a percentage, their answers are always over 50%, and sometimes as high as 90%. Ironically, when drilling deeper on this question, even the 90% answer to the question of how much sports are mental might be too low. For example, think about the following daily experiences in sports that are dependent on mental preparation, execution, and toughness:
- Motivation for training
- Coping with pain and injuries
- Dealing with adversity
- Successfully communicating with teammates and coaches
- Studying playbooks and preparing for competition
- Multi-tasking sports with other life responsibilities and tasks (school)
- Making daily decisions relating to integrity and responsibility
- Maintaining a high level of sportsmanship
- Dealing with stress and controlling anger
- Learning how to channel arousal and play in the zone
- Refining focus and setting personal goals
Of course, the list above does not include every mental task athletes experience on a regular basis, but it does provide a quick overview of a typical day in an athlete’s life.
The importance of mental toughness
Regardless of how gifted and physically talented an athlete is, if he or she is not able to successfully perform daily mental tasks then consistent athletic success is unlikely to occur. For example, an otherwise great athlete who struggles with time management, anger control, and making responsible decisions might not ever be able to display his talents as it’s likely he will won’t see the field because of team rule violations. Similarly, if another talented athlete plays well in practice, but has difficulty transferring her talents to real games, it’s also unlikely she will play much. As you can see, without mental preparation and toughness, it really doesn’t matter how talented an athlete is in the hypothetical sense.
The final verdict
While I want to shy away from saying that sports are 100% mental, when I think of all the mental challenges athletes have on a moment-by-moment basis it’s tough not to state that figure. What I do think is true is this: An otherwise below-average athlete based on physical abilities can often be competitive because of mental toughness, while other naturally talented athletes can quickly see their careers end because of a lack of mental toughness. Just think, every time you witness an unexpected happening in sports where a an athlete with few natural talents succeeds, you are seeing firsthand the power of the mind and how the impossible becomes possible through sheer mental toughness.
Perhaps we shouldn’t spend too much time trying to determine the exact percentages of sport preparation and performance that are mental, but to instead simply recognize that athletes (and coaches) who spend little to no time developing mental toughness are dramatically limiting their chances for future success. The good news is that there is an abundance of great sport psychology information available today, making it easy for coaches and athletes to sharpen their mental toughness with minimal time and effort.