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Why are psychological skills important to athletes?

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Many athletes have made the unfortunate mistake of believing that their success is embedded mostly in their physical ability, without much, if any at all, focus on the mental side of sports. Is physical practice the only component of your training programme? How do you learn to maximize your performance or even to be a consistent performer? Athletes and coaches always think they must only practise longer and harder – they are reluctant to include psychological tools in their training and performance regime.{{more}}

To be a better athlete does not necessarily mean that you must train harder or longer. It could mean that you need to address all the components that make up a successful athletic performance –

mental, as well as physical. Since you do not enter into competition with a completely empty head, you must include mental skills in your training and conditioning programmes as well. This will enable you to develop the strategies which will prepare you to enter a competition with the “proper mindset”.

As the science of sport performance evolves, it becomes increasingly important to integrate the mental and physical aspect of performance. Traditionally, no attention has been given to the cognitive aspects of performance. Coaches and athletes have devoted most of their attention to the physical components of performance. Yet coaches, athletes and parents often attribute non-performance to things related to the mental aspects of performance, such as “She was not eager enough;” “He did not focus;” “I was so tense or I was psyched out;” “She is so good but she cannot handle the competition stress;” “I was so scared….;” “I wasn’t psyched enough.” These are all comments frequently used to describe competitive disappointments, but rarely do you find a coach who says that the athlete has not been taught the proper psychological skills and strategies.

It takes time to develop and optimize the individual behavioural skills necessary to maximize athletic performance. A plan A, B, or C or a one-day lecture will not be enough. One requires training on a regular, systematic basis to develop and apply the correct skills. Psychological training should incorporate methods and techniques which teach one how to interpret what is happening to you and why. Then, in the following order, how to cope with whatever is happening to and around you; how to cope with whatever you encounter; how to make decisions based on relevant cues and how to persist, despite what is happening with you and to you. In short, you need to learn the cognitive skills and strategies that are necessary for controlling sport performance and the environment.

In the following articles I will identify ways in which, as an athlete, you can develop psychological skills and be the best that you can be in your area of sports.

Dr Miller is Health Psychologist at the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital.

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