Unpacking success can be a difficult and very complex task. There are obvious ingredients such as physical attributes, technical skill, and mental ‘strength’. However, these are not ingredients that you can pick up at your local supermarket. They are the product of a multitude of different factors including genetics, practice, environment, coaching and experience. Over time we have gotten closer to the ‘secret recipe’ of success through a process of constantly refining two particular areas – physical conditioning and technical skill. Despite paying specific attention to these areas, it is commonly acknowledged by athletes and coaches that 90% of their success is mental. When they are then asked how much time they dedicate to refining this element of the recipe, they often respond with a figure less than 10%. How can athletes develop that vital third ingredient of success, mental ‘strength’, or mental toughness as it is referred to both in popular media and scientific literature? The key is to break down the concept of mental toughness into smaller factors. Although there is still some debate amongst academics as to what constitutes this aspect of performance, they’ve given us the lead by identifying some key components. For this article the components that we want to focus on involve commitment, motivation, mobilisation, self-awareness, confidence, flow and mental skills.
The effect that the mind has over the body and the intricate scientific link between the two is a conversation for another day. The topic here concerns the essential ingredients, from our perspective, for success. Whether you are a player or on the coaching staff (and collaboration between the two is vital) you have a responsibility to contribute towards creating a professional training and competing setup that allows the strengths of individual players to be highlighted, brought together to create a powerful cohesive team, all within an encouraging culture that prioritises and emphasises growth, positive reinforcement and a healthy energy. How do we create this environment? We start by applying the following concepts.
As a young player, where is the starting point for finding the psychological ingredients for success? To answer this question we are going to briefly unpack the components mentioned earlier. The entire premise of what we do as sport psychology professionals, as well as the success of integrating a mental element to your training, all starts with you as a player, or coach, buying into the idea and power of mental training. This speaks to the commitment aspect of mental toughness. Application of psychological models to training routines requires a mindset and attitude that is accommodating towards an alternative way of training. If the buy-in is there then the willingness and openness to try new ways of training will be there. This buy-in and belief is key for setting a solid foundation for effective mental skills training. You need to be committed to the process of new ideas and alternative ways of thinking, training and behaving.
Once you have achieved buy-in as a player the next logical starting point is with vision creation. To create your own vision you must start with identifying your ultimate goals. These are the most significant end goals that you as a player, or team, are aiming to achieve. Consider these goals as your dream goals. We often find it useful to assist athletes with identifying 1 short-term, 1 medium-term and 1 long-term ultimate goal. Once these are developed you will have identified where you are heading and you’ve essentially created a vision and a direction. This vision and direction then becomes an integral part of your motivation – you’re giving yourself something to achieve, some purpose behind what you are taking part in. But, how do we achieve this vision? We now shift our focus from outcome orientation to process orientation and we create what’s called an action plan map of process goals. These goals are considered the mini steps to success; they are the smaller milestones that become a part of your checkpoint journey to your ultimate goals. These process goals essentially become an everyday checklist of ‘to dos’. This process assists athletes with staying focused on what needs to be achieved in order to give themselves the best opportunity of successfully reaching their end vision. When setting process goals be as specific and as thorough as possibly covering all areas of your training be it physical, emotional, mental, nutrition or within your skill acquisition.
To build on from this, you need to mobilise your system by identifying how your ultimate vision and process goals fit in with the overall team’s vision and goals. Start identifying ways in which your goals overlap with the team’s goals and furthermore how you can effectively contribute towards your team’s success by integrating your goals into the team’s setup. In terms of monitoring your progress it is often wise to share your plans and vision with family, friends, coaches and even team mates. By doing this you can create a sense of accountability and responsibility and your support structures can assist you with ‘staying in line’.
If you are a serious athlete and want to realistically chase long-term success we would advise that you undertake some psychological/mental sporting assessment. This is an effective way of improving your self-awareness as an athlete. These assessments are designed to map out your strengths and weaknesses within a variety of sporting personality elements. After being assessed you will have an accurate starting point for developing effective mental skills through training programmes designed specifically to improve the areas that you may be weaker in. In addition to this it is inevitable that your overall self-awareness as an athlete will improve. Coaches and parents can also view these assessment reports and in turn improve their awareness of you as an athlete. To round off this recommendation, ask your coaches or sport psychologists to help you develop exercises that will help train certain mental areas within your assessment.
A further vital ingredient involves the application of certain mental skills such as the development of a positive pre-game mental routine. These routines are vital for creating a heightened sense of concentration and focus and many athletes use these routines as a means to start getting themselves into their own competitive zone. Before competition starts (this can be done in the hours leading up to the game or even during the warm up) consider the following. Identify what your roles and responsibilities are as a player in your team. What does your team expect from you? What are they key areas to focus on during your game? It’s about ensuring that you get the basics right first. Secondly incorporate positive self-talk into your warm up routines. Research indicates that due to the intricate link between body and mind our physical response depends on our emotional state. If we improve our positive self-talk we have a better chance of feeling more at ease before and when competing. In addition to positive self-talk athletes need to learn to breathe properly both when preparing for competition and when competing. Stimulating the vagus nerve triggers the release of a substance called Vagusstoff (Neurotransmitter) which is a calming agent that you can self-administer simply by taking a few deep breaths with long exhales.
Finally, finding your flow is essential for success. During your game it is important to learn to manage emotions, make effective decisions and stay focused. During your matches there is only a limited competing time and athletes need to be mentally alert in all areas and ensure that as individual players and as a team their mental intensity is maintained. Athletes will experience their own flow when their mind and body feel at one and the aforementioned factors regarding managing emotions, making good decisions and staying focused come naturally. Athletes can practise finding this zone and flow by mimicking the competitive environment as best as possible while training. If athletes make a conscious effect to invest a little more time into the recommendations of this article, then the chances of achieving a heightened sense of mental resilience is improved and consistent success suddenly becomes much more attainable.