Hot Topic: Integrating Mental Skills Training Into a Strength and Conditioning Program
Sport psychology is rarely used by strength and conditioning coaches. Effectively integrate mental skills training into a collegiate strength and conditioning program.
Many professional and university-level competitive athletes are currently utilizing the services of sport psychologists, and their performances are benefiting from the knowledge and skills learned from these professional educators. There are many sport psychology professionals working with colleges and universities both as professors and private consultants. Some schools have gone as far as to implement full-fledged sport psychology programs within their athletic departments with full-time staff. An area that sport psychology is rarely used, but has great potential for application, is the strength and conditioning program designed by the strength coaches. The focus for this Hot Topic will be how to integrate mental skills training into a collegiate strength and conditioning program effectively.
How Can Mental Skills Training Help My Athletes?
The basis of sport psychology can be simplified to the mental skill of thinking right in sport (4). All athletes have thoughts, sometimes they think correctly and sometimes incorrectly. Athletes may have multiple thoughts over a short period of time while other times they may obsess about one thought for an extended period of time. Regardless of the number of thoughts an athlete has, it is not possible to have more than one thought at a time. Thus, it is important for athletes to be aware of their thoughts in an effort to focus on the thoughts conducive to achieving peak performance. When wrong thoughts occur, athletes need to be aware and have an action plan to be able to re-focus on the right thoughts. When an athlete thinks right, the chances for improved performance are much higher (4).
Focus is a skill in the same way that passing a football or performing a power clean is a skill. Therefore, focus can be learned in the same way as throwing a football can be learned (3). The five keys to teaching the skill of focus are time orientation, positive self-talk, composure, concentration, and confidence (3).
The first component of focus is being “in the moment” and “totally in the present” (3). This Hot Topic established that thinking right is where everything starts. In order to focus, the athlete must be thinking right and also thinking in the present. Thoughts can be past, present, or future oriented (Figure 1). A present oriented focus is necessary in order for athletes to perform at their best in the moment. Awareness of the need to be in the present is the first step. The second step is implementing a control strategy; thought stoppage is considered a control strategy. When an athlete attempts to be in the moment and has wrong thoughts (past or future, doubt, fear, anxiety, etc.) one method for thought stoppage is to ask the question, “where are you?” with the answer being, “right here, right now,” (3). Another method is to use a physical cue such as wearing a rubber band or bracelet that can be snapped to cue the termination of the wrong thought and replace it with a right thought (7,8). Athletes often go to the weight room for conditioning before or after their technical practice. It is easy for them to think about future or past practices instead of the present strength and conditioning session. As a strength and conditioning coach, mastering this step of focus with your athletes will help them mentally transition not only into the weight room session but also between exercises, which increases the quality of the session.
Figure 1. Thought Time Orientation (3)
Self-talk is the internal mental conversation that occurs all the time. Part of focus is shifting self-talk from negative to positive. Athletes often develop habits negative self-talk, which is thinking wrong. Athletes must learn to use affirmations to generate positive self-talk. Affirmations are strong positive statements about yourself (2,3). Affirmations should be specific to the individual, positive, logical, strategic, motivating, and powerful (3). Belief in self and belief in method are keys to having strong positive affirmations. Athletes might doubt their ability to perform a certain exercise, lift a heavier weight than normal, or they may really dislike a certain exercise. By using positive affirmations to reaffirm their competence, athletes can be better prepared to perform and excel (5).
Composure can be viewed at as energy management. Learning to control physical, mental, and emotional energy is the essence of composure (7). The energy levels of athletes have optimal levels for performance, often referred to as optimal arousal (Figure 2). This optimal level of arousal varies depending on the specific demands of the activity. In the weight room, an athlete may need a high level of energy in a short time period in order to perform a max lift. In contrast, a lift for endurance purposes may require some energy to be conserved in order to complete the sets and reps. Peak performance occurs at the optimal arousal level, thus if an athlete is has too much or too little energy for the given task, performance may suffer. As a strength and conditioning coach, you can teach your athletes how to “dial it in” so that they are at their optimal level for peak performance. This takes practice as each athlete responds differently.
Figure 2. Energy Levels - Optimal Arousal (3)
Concentration requires identifying what matters, and then focusing on it (3). The weight room can be a great place to practice concentration. In a weight room there are typically a few distractions, the setting is a controlled environment, and the tasks often involve performing the action individually. Athletes can learn and practice concentration to stay focused for a certain time period, and then practice it over and over again for each rep and set. The varying exercises and warm-up/cool-down routines allow athletes to practice concentrating for a variety of activities, which can be transferred to the various areas of sport and life.
Cook’s model of concentration (Figure 3) uses a 4-step routine, which consists of observation, strategy, imaging (visualization), and trust (1,3). Within each step, there are specific tasks. The first step is to observe. In the weight room this may involve looking around at who is in the room. Is it full of people or is it just a coach and athlete? Is there music playing? What is the temperature? What equipment is needed for the session? The second step is to form a strategy for the activity. In the weight room, this may involve reviewing the technique for the particular exercise. What is required to perform it correctly? What do you personally need to focus on when performing this exercise? The third step is imaging, or visualizing. In this step, the athletes visualize performing the exercises correctly and successfully. The athletes think about what it feels like to perform the activities in this way. At this point, all decisions have been made, there should be no more thoughts questioning the task. The final step is trust. This can be accomplished by using some simple cues to reaffirm trust in preparation and ability. Cook created this simple cue, which applies to any activity, “see it, feel it, trust it,” (1,3). It should be noted that this is just one example of a cue, and cues should have a personalized and powerful meaning for each athlete. At this point, the athletes are ready to perform and should be mentally passive and physically active.
Figure 3. Cook's Model of Concentration (3)
Confidence is a just a thought. Like any other thought, you can make a choice to be confident or not to be confident. Athletes have the ability to choose their attitude and choosing to be confident may help improve focus and performance. Choosing to become more competent and choosing to focus on performance are two keys to building confidence (3). Competence is the knowledge of how to do something and knowing that you can do it. Competence is gained through practice and working to learn the physical and mental skills necessary for the sport. Competence builds confidence.
Everyone wants to win and often, as athletes and coaches, we worry about losing and everything that goes along with that. Instead, coaches and athletes should focus on the performance and the process that is necessary for the best chance of success. Strength and conditioning plays a role in the process of developing athletes to have the best chance to win in every sport. Setting goals and teaching athletes to focus on the process during strength and conditioning sessions and how the exercises will help them work toward their goals and build competence. As athletes build competence and attain their goals, they build their confidence. This is the essence of mental skills training and sport psychology.
Athletes are good at setting goals but rarely are athletes good at setting goals that are attainable. The idea with goal attainment is that if the goal is realistic, specific, measureable, and has a time orientation then it has a better chance of being attained. Long-term goals (e.g., bench press 225 lb 20 times by a certain date) are important, but the bulk of the time should be spent on attaining short-term goals (e.g., bench press 225 lb 5 times in 4 sets with rest). Short-term goals should be action-specific in relation to the long-term goal (2). With each short-term goal that is attained, confidence grows and thus performance improves (2,5,8). Goal attainment with short-term goals means that goal setting is a reoccurring process, not a once per year or season process; it is a continuous process that occurs daily and weekly.
Role of the Strength and Conditioning Coach
The strength and conditioning coach can play a unique role in the delivery of sport psychology as the coach often works with the athletes on a year-round basis. Having this consistent long-term contact with the athletes allows for relationships to be established over time and for the athletes to build trust in the coach (8). Athletes may be resistant at first to “buying into” mental skills training, but with time and a consistent well-planned message from the coaching staff, and strength coaches, athletes learn to adjust to the idea of doing mental skills training. Another benefit to the strength and conditioning coach integrating mental skills training is that the weight room can be a great place to learn mental skills as there are often multiple reps of the same exercise along with multiple different types of exercises, which allows for multiple opportunities to practice your mental skills, as mentioned earlier.
Comprehensive Integrated Approach
Integrating mental skills training requires a comprehensive approach that involve every individual that plays a role in the development of an athlete. The head coach of the sport is the most important leader for establishing a philosophy that includes sport psychology as a part of the process. The next two most influential people in the development of an athlete are the strength and conditioning coach and the athletic trainer. Both of these individuals spend many hours with the athlete over the course of a year. Other people involved that may spend less time with the athlete include the sport psychologist, academic support staff, sport nutritionist, etc. When everyone involved in guiding and influencing the athlete is speaking the same language and incorporating mental skills into their piece of the program it makes for better communication and increases the chance of success of the overall program.
Mental skills are an important aspect of athletic development and, like physical skills, should be practiced. The benefit to mental skills training is that it can be practiced anywhere at any time. The weight room can be a great environment and the strength and conditioning coach can be a great teacher for integrating mental skills training into the program. However, it is necessary to become educated in the proper science and technique behind training athletes physically, and it is also necessary to have proper education in the science and application of psychological training specifically pertaining to sport. Every coach wants their athletes to be able to perform at their best at the right time. Sport psychology is a great resource to help develop athletes to be able to perform at their peak. It is recommended that strength and conditioning coaches seek out sport psychology professionals who are actively involved in working with sport and utilize them as a resource to help improve your athletes and programs.
We would like to thank a group of people that without their vision and support this comprehensive integrated program of athletic development would not be possible at the University of Missouri. Athletic Director: Mike Alden; Executive Associate Athletic Director for Student Services: Dr. Bryan Maggard; Director of Sport Psychology: Dr. Rick McGuire; and the head coaches. A special thanks to Coach Gary Pinkel for his support and assistance in integrating sport psychology into his program, and his work with Dr. McGuire and Coach Ivey in developing the “From the Whistle to the Snap” program for Missouri Football.
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- McGuire, RT. From the Whistle to the Snap: Winning the Mental Game of Football. Ames, IA: Championship Productions; 2012.
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- Vernacchia, RA, McGuire, RT, and Cook, DL. Coaching Mental Excellence: It Does Matter Whether You Win or Lose. Palo Alto, CA: Warde; 1996.
- Book and DVD- Ivey, P, and Stoner, J. Complete Conditioning for Football. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2012.
- Book- Orlick, T. In Pursuit of Excellence. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2007.
- Book- Jackson, S, and Csikszentmihalyi, M. Flow in Sports: The Keys to Optimal Experiences and Performances. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 1999.
- Book- Vernacchia, R, and Statler, T. The Psychology of High-Performance Track and Field. Mountain View, CA: Tafnews Press; 2005.
- Book- Williams, JM. Applied Sport Psychology: Personal Growth to Peak Performance. New York, NY: McGraw Hill Higher Education; 2009.
- Book- Shields, DL, and Bredemeier, BL. True Competition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2009.
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About the Author
Brian Zuleger, CSCS, HFS, USATF-Level 2, received his Master's degree in human movement and performance emphasis in sport psychology from Western Washington University where he served as a volunteer coach with the men's and women's track and field teams. He currently is a doctoral student in sport psychology, graduate assistant with the Missouri Institute For Positive Coaching and volunteer coach with the men's and women's cross country and track and field teams at the University of Missouri. Pat Ivey, CSCS, MSCC, USAW, received his Master's degree in health education emphasis in sport psychology from the University of Missouri where he is currently a doctoral student in sport psychology and the Associate Athletic Director for Athletic Performance.