Whenever I speak to athletes and coaches, I ask them how important the mind is to athletic success. With few exceptions, the response is that the mind is as or more important than the physical and technical side of sport. 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. Okay, they’re all important. And the mind is an essential piece of the athletic performance puzzle that is often neglected.
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, inconsistent, and mostly disconnected from other aspects of athlete development.
Herein lies my question: Why isn’t mental training treated the same as physical and technical training in athletic? When compared to its physical and technical counterparts, mental training clearly has second-class status. While junior programs in every sport have full-time technical and conditioning coaches, few have mental training programs at all and even fewer have mental coaches on staff. Moreover, when mental training 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 athletic today. Five key elements come to mind.
First, physical and sport training programs don’t just touch on a few areas that impact athletic performance. Rather, they are comprehensive in design, aimed at ensuring that every contributor to athletic success is addressed and developed maximally. For example, conditioning programs include strength, agility, stamina, and flexibility. Technical progressions include stance, balance, upper-body position, and much more.
Second, when you work out, you don’t just walk into the gym and do random strength or agility exercises. Instead, you engage in organized workouts based on a structured program that coaches believe will result in optimal physical preparedness for athletic. Similarly, when you go in your training setting (whether a field, course, court, hill, track, etc.), you don’t just play around and hope to improve. Rather, you follow a technical progression based on your level of development. In sum, both the physical and technical components of athletic development have an organized program comprised of a framework and process that guides you systematically toward your goals.
Third, you wouldn’t get more fit if you worked out every few weeks. And you wouldn’t improve in your sport if you only trained once a month. What enables you to get stronger and perform better is that you engage in physical and technical training consistently. Day in and day out, week in and week out, and month in and month out, you regularly put time and effort into their conditioning and technical work.
Fourth, you don’t do the same physical conditioning and sport training all year round. Rather, you focus on specific areas at different times of the off-season and competitive season. For example, you have greater volume and intensity early in your conditioning program and taper as you approach your competitive season. Additionally, you focus on technique during your off-season sport training and then move to tactics and then competitive preparation as the competitive season nears.
Fifth, though all athletes need to do the same basic things in their development—conditioning, technique, tactics—these programs need to be personalized to address your particular needs, goals, and stage of development. So your coaches have you focus on your lower-body strength if that is an area you need to improve on in your conditioning. Or, they emphasize something technical if that’s an area you need to work on.
Using these five criteria—a comprehensive, structured, consistent, periodized, and personalized program—it’s pretty obvious that the mental side of sport 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, this exposure, for almost all U.S. athletes, lacks these five criteria that are so essential for maximizing its value to athletes’ development.
As you develop your training program—whether physical, technical, or mental—you should apply these five criteria to ensure that you are going to get the most out of your efforts in preparation for next your competitive season.
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 your sport, from the development level to the world stage, athletes, coaches, and parents will look for every opportunity to gain the precious fractions of a second that separate success from failure in sports. Additionally, as the limits of physical conditioning, technique, and equipment are reached, it will be both natural and necessary to leverage all that mental training has to offer athletes. Only then will mental training, at long last, stand as equal partners with physical conditioning and technical training as athletes strive to take advantage of every opportunity to achieve success in pursuit of their goals.
If you have big goals for our sport, you shouldn’t wait for our sport’s culture to catch up on how to incorporate mental training into overall athlete development. Instead, you can gain a real competitive advantage by taking the five criteria discussed in this article and applying them to your mental training program throughout the year.
Want to make mental training a part of your overall training program? Take a look at my online mental training courses.