3 Keys to Making Mental Training Work in Sports

05/31/2016 05:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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When I speak to athletes and coaches, I ask them how important the mind is to sports success. With few exceptions, the response is that the mind is as or more important than the physical and technical side of sports. I am obviously biased given what I do for a living, so I won't take a position on which I believe is more important, but I will say they're all important! And the mind is an essential piece of the sports performance.

Yet, when I ask these same athletes and coaches how much time and energy is devoted to mental preparation, they indicate not very much and certainly not as much as it deserves. Moreover, any attempts at doing mental training is typically scattershot and inconsistent. Clearly, at this point in sports, the mind either woefully under-appreciated or thoroughly neglected.

Herein lies my question: Why isn't mental training treated the same as physical and technical training in sports? When compared to its physical and technical counterparts, sport psychology clearly has second-class status. While just about every sports team, from youth to college to Olympic and professional, have full-time technical and conditioning coaches, few have full-time mental coaches. Moreover, when sport psychology is offered, its presence is vastly different from the physical conditioning and technical regimens that athletes benefit from.

Let's consider what makes physical conditioning and technical development effective and then compare it to the use of mental training in sports today. Three key elements come to mind.

Comprehensive

First, physical and technical training programs don't just touch on a few areas that impact sports performance. Rather, they are comprehensive in design, aimed at ensuring that every contributor to sports success is addressed and developed maximally. For example, conditioning programs include strength, agility, stamina, and flexibility. Technical progressions include stance, balance, upper-body position, footwork, and much more.

Structured

Second, when athletes work out, they don't just walk into the gym and do random strength or agility exercises. Instead, they engage in organized workouts based on a structured program that coaches believe will result in optimal physical preparedness for their sport. Similarly, when athletes go onto the field, course, court, or what-have-you, they don't just do whatever they feel like doing to improve. Rather, they follow a technical progression based on their level of development. In sum, both the physical and technical components of sports development have an organized program comprised of a framework and process that guides athletes systematically toward their goals.

Consistent

Third, athletes wouldn't get more fit if they only worked out every few weeks. And they wouldn't improve if they only practiced once a month. What enables athletes to get stronger and perform better is that they engage in physical and technical training consistently. Day in and day out, week in and week out, and month in and month out, athletes regularly put time and effort into their conditioning and technical work.

Using these three criteria--a comprehensive, structured, and consistent program--it's pretty obvious that the mental side of sports isn't getting the attention it is due. Based on my own experience and feedback I have gotten from athletes, coaches, and parents around the country, most exposure that most U.S. athletes have to sport psychology lacks those three criteria that are essential for maximizing its value to athletes' development.

I predict that it will take some time before mental preparation receives the same attention as its physical and technical counterparts. But, as the stakes get higher and the competition gets tougher in sports, from the development level to the world stage, athletes and coaches will look for every opportunity to gain the preciously small advantages that can separate success from failure in sports. As the limits of physical conditioning and technique are reached, it will be both natural and necessary to leverage all that sport psychology has to offer athletes. Only then will sport psychology, at long last, stand as equal partners with physical conditioning and technical training as athletes strive to take advantage of every opportunity to achieve their goals.

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