Mental Training for Athletes: Out of the Clinic, Onto the Field — Sports Psychology in Today’s World

Over the past 3 decades that I have been a mental health professional, I have had the opportunity to work with many athletes, from young gymnasts, to Olympic level athletes, from all sports. One of the most consistent factors I have seen, is that hardly any of them have had any specific mental skills training. They train for years to master the physical skills their sport requires. Practicing and competing consume their lives, and often their family’s lives. Intuitively, most athletes develop their own methods to sustain concentration, reduce stress and anxiety, and prepare for competition. Coaches sometimes offer suggestions as well. However, positive results can be inconsistent, and not always reliable when the real life situations throws an unexpected curve ball.

Sports Psychology

Historically, the first use of the term ‘sport psychology’ is credited to the founder of the modern Olympic movement, Pierre de Coubertin. He published an article titled, “La Psychologie du Sport,” in 1900, and continued to write on the psychological aspects of sport until he died, in 1937. In the days of traditional sports psychology, we focused on ‘thinking differently,’ so you can feel differently, and thus perform differently. Positive thinking and visualization were the top mental skills techniques. In the past 20 years, the expansive scientific research in the fields of neurobiology, neurocardiology, and physiology, have shown us, in much greater depth, the powerful connections of the mind and body. We now know, that working to change our ‘thinking,’ or negative thoughts, is a much less efficient process, then learning to shift our physiology, and feelings, to support the thoughts that will empower us. Today, some of us who work with athletes, rely on evidence based interventions to train and strengthen the mind-body connections, which improves peak performance. We also know that athletes who consistently train in the area of mind-body connections, have a higher level of success than those who don’t.

Mental Training Athletes — Stress is the problem & the solution!

In her book, The Upside of Stress, Dr. Kelly Mc Gonigal, describes how you can learn to use stress to your advantage, rather than allow it to break down your system, and deplete your resilience. An athlete can be taught how to recognize the signs of their own internal stress, and then utilize specific skills that can be drawn upon, in those moments of pressure, to respond with focused strength and power. Some of these skills include, breathing techniques, heart rate variability training, and power words. The key to successful mental skills training is to get ahead of the game! With the same mind set used in developing physical mastery, the athlete must learn and practice mind-body techniques consistently, to ensure they are easily accessible when they need it the most. Getting your mind-body connection into excellent shape, I refer to it as, mind-body fitness, requires initial skills education and training, and then a practice schedule, which will reinforce the skills.

What are the top skills to learn?

The first step in the process of developing mind-body fitness in sports, is to assess where stress is negatively affecting you, such as, noticing it is hard to focus when the crowd is noisy. This is a type of mindfulness training. Then, specifically define your goals, for example, “I want to feel calm and focused when I step up to bat.” Learning mindfulness skills allows you to notice when you lose focus, or feel too much anxiety, that you’re not centered. This is where mistakes are made, and injuries can happen. Most athletes can describe being “in the zone.” Learning what the zone truly is physiologically, when you’re out of it, and how to quickly get back into it, is a powerful tool. This will improve consistency in performance, preserve energy, and increase power. Additionally, learning how to use guided imagery and visualization, specific to your sport, can strengthen the mind-body connection to your performance. When the brain and body work together, visualizing and feeling the perfect performance, the memory of this increases consistency on the field. Learning the correct way to use self-hypnosis, and visualization is vital. Music, and guided imagery deepens the learning in the athlete’s neurobiology.

What if the skills are practiced & performance does not improve or gets worse?

There are a variety of factors that can create roadblocks in an athletes’ performance. One of which is, a previous injury that can leave left over ‘hesitations’ in the nervous system. We call these “YIPS,” and they can contribute to performance slumps. This happens due to the body’s natural defense mechanisms related to protection, and wanting to avoid further pain. Some injuries are not physical, yet produce the same roadblocks. An athlete who has experienced embarrassment, humiliation, or extreme pressure to perform well, and they didn’t, can incur emotional injury that also creates “YIPS.” When they can’t seem to pullout of it, coaches, parents, and teammates, find themselves frustrated and disappointed with the athlete. The athlete can head into a spiral of loss of motivation, and low self-esteem. The athlete is NOT a failure, or broken. They have information, or data, stored in a place in their nervous system that is creating this hiccup, “YIP.” Re-filing this data, moving it to a more efficient place, can help restore the system to balance. I have had a lot of success, a long with many of my colleagues, with curing the “YIPS” and getting the athlete back on track, using interventions from my clinical training. I utilize Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR), Brainspotting, and HeartMath tools (heart rate variability training), to facilitate this process of restoring the balance. I also often attend a competition, or go to the practice field, or gym, to observe how our work is translating to performance. This helps me gather up specific information to further design the needed interventions. It also provides the opportunity to intervene in ‘real-time,’ when the mind & body are in an activated state.

Who can help an athlete develop the necessary skills to improve their mind-body fitness? Coaches are the first place to be introduced to some of the skills. However, many coaches do not have specific training, but can offer what they have used themselves. Consultants or performance coaches may have specific training and experience with mental toughness skills. Sports Psychologists have additional sports specific training, over and above their foundational psychology education. They may or may not have specific training in EMDR, Brainspotting, Heart Rate Variability, Guided Imagery, and Hypnosis. It is important for an athlete to ask what training someone has, and what types of sports issues they have experience working with.

This article offered just the tip of an iceberg in the area of sports psychology, and mental skills training. In future articles, I will dive deeper into each skill to offer additional guidance. Each athlete must take charge of his or her own mind-body fitness program. I know that when you do, you will be a cut above most of your competitors. It starts with learning what you can do, then reaching out for specific coaching to develop yourself in this area. When mind-body fitness improves in sport, you will find higher levels of peak performance than you have ever known. You will also find how it helps you in all areas of life.

Resources to guide you — There are many books, guided-imagery tapes, videos, and consultants, in the market today. As a starting point, here are some resources to help you begin to find what fits for you, or your athlete.

If you have found resources that have helped you, please send them to me. I would love to hear about them.

Inside Sport Psychology, by Costas I. Karageorghis, & Peter C. Terry, 2011.

Finding Your Zone, by Michael Lardon, 2008.

This is Your Brain on Sports, by David Grand, & Alan Goldberg, 2011.

10-Minute Toughness by Jason Self, 2009.

The Upside of Stress, by Kelly Mc Gonigal, 2015. — Sports Performance Coach

Sara Gilman, MFT

CEO, Founder, President

Coherence Associates Inc.
 (760) 942–8663
 721 N. Vulcan Ave. Suite 106–108, Encinitas, CA. 92024
 625 W. Citricado Pkwy. Suite 120, Escondido, CA. 92025

Mental Training for Athletes: Out of the Clinic, Onto the Field — Sports Psychology in Today’s World

Originally published at on April 8, 2016.

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