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Mental skills needed for athletes’ optimum performance – Part 1

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The area of sports psychology has examined the relevance of psychological skills training, including mental skills training, in helping athletes improve their performance. Mental skills are procedures that help athletes control their minds efficiently and consistently, as they execute sport-related goals.{{more}}This not only involves developing skills such as concentration and stress control, but it also includes efforts to influence personal characteristics such as self-esteem and sportsmanship.

Psychological skills techniques help athletes make adjustments to their actions, thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations that will improve their games. Players can use these techniques to

o help build self-confidence

o set goals

o manage their stress,

o use imagery and visualization to work on game skills

o focus concentration and attention.

Sport psychology also can help athletes with problems off the court that may affect performance on court. It is very important that athletes learn the art of compartmentalization, separating the personal from professional aspects, so that their on the field performance is not affected negatively.

Building Self-Confidence

Self-confidence has been defined as an athlete’s realistic expectations about achieving success, and it has been stated that self-confidence is not what athletes “hope” to accomplish, but rather what they realistically “expect” to accomplish.

To foster self-confidence in players, as a coach and trainer or parent, you should act confident yourself to set a good example; help players improve their skills and competencies; use frequent rewarding statements; and encourage positive self-talk. You should also de-emphasize outcomes and help players to focus primarily on performance improvements and excellence.

Players often lose confidence and become intimidated in times of difficulty, giving rise to negative thoughts and low expectations. Therefore, athletes must be encouraged to maintain high expectations and positive thoughts, regardless of the outcome, and bear in mind that overconfidence can also be a problem, leading to reduced effort and intensity that lower performance.

Goal Setting/Developmental Planning

A goal is something that we would like to achieve or accomplish, and it gives our energies specific direction. By setting goals, athletes gain a sense of control over their actions and can move beyond beliefs or fears that may prevent high performance. Goal setting has been shown to enhance performance, reduce anxiety, increase confidence and understanding, and enhance purpose and motivation.

For goal setting to work, the athlete must set goals properly. The following are 10 principles for goal setting, accumulated from years of practical experience and scientific study:

1. Set goals for mental as well as physical skills.

2. Set goals that are specific and measurable.

3. Set a target date for completion.

4. Set goals that are difficult, but realistic.

5. Set short-term, intermediate, and long-term goals.

6. Set goals for practice, as well as for matches.

7. Set goals that are positive, as opposed to negative.

8. Remain flexible enough to adjust goals as needed.

9. Write the goals down on paper.

10. Emphasize performance goals over outcome goals (such as winning).

Stress Management

Stress occurs, “when there is a substantial imbalance between what you perceive is being demanded of you from the environment and what you perceive your capabilities are, when you perceive the outcome to be important”. This means that stress has three elements: the environment, the individual’s perceptions, and the individual’s responses to these in the form of arousal (the activation of the mind and body).

As a coach, you can use sport psychology to help athletes work on each of these three elements. You and your athletes can find ways to alter the environment to make situations less uncertain or to reduce the importance of outcomes. For example, you can talk to parents to make sure they don’t pressure athletes too hard to win.

A number of psychological techniques have been developed to assist athletes in controlling their perceptions of events. These are called cognitive techniques, and these techniques focus on creating awareness of negative thoughts and changing such thought patterns by stopping them and replacing them with more productive ways of thinking. Psychological techniques also have been developed from which athletes can learn to help reduce their arousal levels. These techniques, known as somatic techniques, are generally related to relaxation. Some of these are imagery relaxation, self-directed relaxation, progressive relaxation training, and biofeedback relaxation.

(To be continued next week)

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

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