The benefits of mental training on athletic performance have been shown in research study after study. Evidence for popular techniques such as visualization and guided imagery increase consistency of perforamance, confidence, and precision of movement (Sheikh & Korn, 1994; Rodgers et al, 1991); positive self talk and goal-setting also get a lot of research support (Thelwell et al., 2010; Crust et al, 2011). What's interesting is the focus on what it does in competitive settings?
But what about practicing mental training...in practice (as opposed to game time)?? An interesting study in 2003 by Frey and Colleagues with baseball and softball players looked at the differences in those players who used mental training techniques in game situations versus in game situations and regular practice. Guess which group performed more consistently and was more satisfied with how they did? You got it-the ones who practiced their mental games.
You see, just as with practicing new skills and techniques, there is a learning curve with the mental game as well. To effectively learn to focus and control thought patterns, an athlete practices these things just as they practice their physical skills. All too often, though, this is not followed through enough with athletes.
Why? It depends on the individual athlete; but common limiting factors include a lack of knowledge in how to best use the skills (as the concept learning to focus more effectively is harder to pin down than learning to catch a ball), lack of emphasis by coaches, lack of consulting services/ineffective consultants (hopefully not the case in my neighborhood:)) , and so on.
What can you do to improve the 'practice of mental training'?
- Read up! Recommended user-friendly books include Kay Porter's "The Mental Athlete", Rob Bell's "Mental Toughness Training for Golf", and "The New Toughness Training for Sports" by Jim Loehr. The more you know, the easier it is to apply.
- Find what techniques work for you or what you need (ex. imagery, suitable mantras, relaxation) and commit to using them regularly.
- How best
to commit? It can be as easy as scheduling it in just as you schedule your sports practice. Set aside a regular time. Coaches and programs can also incorporate this into their regular practices with their teams.
- Write it down! If you already use a training log of some sorts, it's easy to include.
- Utlilize a consultant to design the most effective program for the individual athlete, coaching staff, or team.
Note: a little mental practice is better than none at all, however, for maximum benefit, spend a few minutes daily working on the inner game. Over time, you'll be surprised.
Stay the course and do the work!
Frey et al. (2003). Collegiate Athletes' Mental Skill Use andPerceptions of Success: An Exploration of thePractice and Competition Settings. The Journal of Applied Sport Psychology.
Crust & Clough (2010). Developing Mental Toughness: FromResearch to Practice. The Journal of Sport Psychology in Action.
Sheikh & Korn (1994). Visualization in Athletic Performance.