Whenever I think of the importance of a mental skillset in competition, I can’t help but turn to legendary High-Performance Coach – Tim Grover’s definition in his Best-Selling book ‘Relentless.‘
“In sports we spend so much time on the physical component – training, working, pushing the human body to be faster and stronger and more resilient than most people ever thought possible. And then eventually, we get around to paying some peripheral attention to mental conditioning.
That’s completely backward. Excellence isn’t only about hitting the gym and working up a sweat; that’s the smallest part of what you have to do. Physical ability can only take you so far.
The fact is, you can’t train your body – or excel at anything – before you train your mind. You can’t commit to excellence until your mind is ready to take you there. Teach the mind to train the body.
Physical dominance can make you great. Mental dominance is what ultimately makes you unstoppable.”
The ongoing research into elite performance has me fascinated by the best of the best in all walks of life. After all, It is the blueprint of success they have paved the way for us to model the elite.
When it comes to scenarios of mental toughness, a common example referred to is that of the U.S. Navy SEAL’s “Hell Week.” In his New York Times Best-Selling Memoir, Sniper Corps member Brandon Webb talks about the mistaken beliefs of the harrowing 7 days.
“The common misconception that you must be a super athlete to make it through ‘Hell Week”. Not so. In its purely physical requirements, the course is designed for the average athletic male to make it through. What SEAL training really tests is your mental mettle. It is designed to push you mentally to the brink, over and over again, until you hardened and are able to take on any task with confidence, regardless of the odds – or until you break.”
With the evolution of technology and the ability for businesses and experts in their field to be seen globally on social media and the internet, this generation of athletes will see some of the fastest, strongest, and most athletic abilities that we have ever seen. But with that same evolution of social media and technology, Today’s athletes are more vulnerable and susceptive to more criticism than ever before, affecting the psyche of athletes and their ability to meet their truly amazing potential.
In my opinion, this will see a rise in the significance, and impact of sports psychologists, mental performance coaches, and health and well-being experts alike. But not only from a mental health standpoint, but as a strategy to get the mental edge over others in competition and maximize skill potential. At elite levels, everybody has a strong sport-specific skillset – that’s why they are at that level in the first place. But it is the ability to believe, focus and recover that separates the best from the rest.
In a study carried out back in 2019, a Canadian non-profit organization called ‘Own the Podium’ whose mission is to propel Canadian athletes to Olympic medals, put together a group of six elite sports psychologists to come up with what they labeled “The Gold Medal Profile for Sport Psychology.” Their purpose was to create a definitive list of what mental skills separate the great from the good, and how to apply and develop them.
The group led by Natalie Durand-Bush of the University of Ottawa presented a list of 11 mental competencies to the Canadian sports governing bodies in 2020. The list is divided into three categories – The gold, silver, and bronze medal categories which pend on the priority of each mental skill to ultimately construct the ideal athlete. Each factor contributes to maximizing athletic performance while still maintaining beneficial mental health.
Oh and for the record – Canada matched its best-ever medal haul in its most recent Summer Olympics and its second-best medal haul at the Winter Olympics. Here are the 11 mental competencies for Success:
Fundamental: (Priority Gold)
Being passive is not our default mode as human beings. It is in our nature to strive, to want, and to move in a direction of something we desire and deem valuable. The importance of motivation is not really a well-kept secret and studies show that those who are more highly motivated are willing to train harder and end up achieving higher performance levels. But not all types of motivation are the same. Whether you are primarily motivated intrinsically (from within), extrinsically (external factors), away from (pain), or towards (goals), it is important to understand how you are best motivated in order to put strategies in place to trigger the action that comes from motivation on a consistent level.
“One day or day one. You decide.” – Unknown
Once again, a number of studies have linked what we call self-efficacy i.e. your belief in your ability to do what’s needed to achieve a performance level aligned with athletic success. Confidence allows athletes to thrive in their environment. It gives them the belief that they can overcome any obstacle or challenge to achieve their goal. Confidence, put simply, is the belief or degree of certainty an individual possess about their ability to be successful in their sport. Confidence is built through putting time, effort, and repetition into a skillset. The more competent you become at a skill, the more confident you are in performing it.
“Adversity is guaranteed. Success is not” – Tom Bilyeu.
The mental competency of resilience in sports allows athletes to put the past behind them and focus on what’s important now. Holding on to painful or traumatic events such as losing a basketball game at the buzzer or completing a marathon with a disappointing time can impede athletes from moving on and succeeding in future events. Resilience is the strength to succeed over adversity. It is the ability to let go of mediocre or poor performances and figure out a way to improve your skillset and experience. The best lessons come from adversity. Get back on the horse and keep riding. Resiliency is built in the process.
Self-Regulation: (Priority Silver)
Self-Awareness is the cornerstone for the future development of our emotional intelligence. To be able to manage stress, regulate emotion, and focus your attention (the other three skills in this category), you first need to be able to recognize what your current psychological state is, and what it needs to be, for you to perform at your peak. Self-awareness involves having knowledge of your strengths and weaknesses, your thoughts, emotions and behaviours, your motivation, your habits, and your values and beliefs.
Stress is the biggest cause of illness and injury. It is the anticipation of a negative event that triggers a fear state of mind. In turn, that fear state gets the body ready to fight or flee by releasing cortisol (the stress hormone) into the body. Stress isn’t all bad though. In fact, there is a level of stress needed to induce a flow state of mind. That’s why it’s harder to get into flow (or in a zone) when you win easily. Stress to athletes might better be phrased as ‘pressure’. Whichever way you look at it, stress is self-inflicted. Learning how to manage stress points in your career and performance ultimately allows you to increase focus, resilience, confidence, and in turn consistency. How you view stress impacts performance as well. Anxiety and excitement are almost the same feelings in the body. Yet the thought, “I’m excited” compared to “I’m nervous” often determines a very different result in performance.
Emotions & Arousal Regulation.
A great place to start with this is to rate the intensity of optimal performance in your sport. If 1 is lackadaisical, no motivation, fatigue, and no energy, and ten is a breakneck speed, out of control, aggressive, and over the top, what is the ideal intensity for your sport. Coming from a basketball background, a 7-8 was my ideal intensity. Giving it a measurement allows us to amp up or tone down the intensity rating using tools and strategies. . What are your individual zones of optimal functioning? Some athletes perform better at higher arousal levels than others, and that same person might need different levels in different contexts. The more consistently you can tap into your optimal function, the more consistent your performance will be.
Attentional Control is the directed focus on the task at hand to achieve success. The process of this might look different depending on the goal at large. For example, a long-distance runner who concentrates on their running form may run less efficiently than the long-distance runner who is attentive to the rhythm of breath, how their legs are doing, and so on. Just as you exert physical energy to become fatigued, the same can happen to mental energy. When you put directed focus on elements of performance or career that are out of your control, it can negatively impact your result. The greatest athletes in the world practice mental skills so that their ability to focus on the right things at the right time is at a higher level than everybody else.
Interpersonal: (Priority Bronze)
No athlete makes it to the peak of their sport alone. There is a huge support network behind the scenes that allow an athlete to perform to great heights. None more important, however, than the role of coaches. Coaches dictate the potential of an athlete via their teachings, instructions, experience, and involvement in the sport. They have the ability to fast-track an athlete’s development by paving the way for an athlete to follow. Genuine relationships between athletes and coaches generate more trust, better communication, and a winning attitude. An open line of communication helps everyone be more honest with one another, which leads to stronger training, athletic progress, and personal growth. Winning will become a byproduct of relationships the team and coach/coaches have created with one another.
“At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel” – Maya Angelou
Although you may have heard the saying a “born leader” or a “natural leader”, leadership isn’t actually something that people are born with, but rather a skill that can be cultivated over time. Leadership is a skill set that can be developed like any other skill – with time, effort, and repetition. A good leader always knows the strengths and weaknesses of their team, in addition to being aware of threats and opportunities. hence, the role of the leader in sports is critical in accomplishing set targets and goals. A strong leader has the quality to keep all players united along the mission. In today’s world, dynamic and charismatic leadership can play a pivotal role in the success of many sports.
“A champion team will beat a team of champions.” – John McGrath
The strength of the whole team lies in the hands of every member. Simultaneously, the ultimate strength of individual members is the team itself. This is true for any sports team. To achieve success it’s important to foster teamwork. Whether you compete in an individual sport or team sport, there is more than just one member involved. There are coaches and a broad support network behind the scenes that help the athlete grow and develop. In addition to healthy physical activity, sports provide athletes opportunities to learn life lessons and what it means to be part of something greater than themselves. Teamwork makes the dream work.
Communication develops clarity. For athletes to go as far as they possibly can in their sport, there must be a clear line of communication to and fro, in order to fast-track development and elite opportunities. Many studies have shown the benefits of good communication in competitive athletics. Athletes who know how to effectively interact with each other will work together better, forming a stronger overall team. However, learning to communicate one’s thoughts and feelings clearly and effectively without hurting or offending others can take time. Generally put, communication involves people interacting with one another to convey information. The most obvious form of communication is linguistic (expressing oneself verbally or in writing), but body language, behavioral mannerisms, and many other interpersonal signals are also forms of communication.
Although this is a Canadian study, the emphasis on elite mental skills sets the foundation of what it takes to reach ultimate glory and can be found in champion teams and individual sports worldwide.
The New Zealand All Blacks team who have enjoyed great achievements over the years and who have really become the gold standard of rugby union have credited their success to the mental journey they have been on to maximize performance and competition. Instead of upping the number of practice sessions and increasing their physical training, the team looked inwards to ensure that they would perform at their best in the big moments. The results clearly speak for themselves.
When U.S. Swimmer Michael Phelps was a young age grouper, he had trouble managing his energy and focus. He had trouble paying attention, he fidgeted a lot in class and was eventually diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder. One of his teachers told his Mum “Your son will never be able to focus on anything.”
Bob Bowman, who started coaching Phelps as an 11-year-old, gave Michael’s mother, Debbie, a book on mental relaxation techniques. She would go into his room and read through the visualization passages, helping him to learn to relax and clear his mind. The skills that Phelps used each night helped him stay focused and confident under immense pressure.
From his first Olympic appearance as a 15-year-old in Sydney to that magical week in Beijing, to his final Olympic outing in 2016. Phelps is ranked as the most decorated Olympian in history. With 18 Olympic gold medals, 27 World Championship gold medals, and 16 Pan Pacific Championship gold medals – he set the record for most medals of any Olympic athlete in history.
“You can’t put a limit on anything. The more you dream, the farther you get.” – Michael Phelps
In the mid-1990’s the NBA’s Chicago Bulls led by Coach Phil Jackson and superstars Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen went down a different path when they hired mindfulness coach and sports psychologist George Mumford to work with the team. With the mantra “One breath. One mind. One team.” The Chicago Bulls took their mental skills journey along to become arguably the greatest team we have ever seen. Winning the ’96, ’97, and ’98 NBA Championships opened up the floodgates to the power of the mind in sports. Phil Jackson and George Mumford implemented similar strategies at the Los Angeles Lakers. Winning the NBA Title in 2000, ’01 & ’02.
Steve Kerr, a member of the Chicago Bulls team that three-peated in the mid to late 90s, implemented a similar mental journey and core values as the head coach of the Golden State Warriors from 2015. The Warriors have gone on to play in 6 of 8 NBA Finals since.
You may have heard at elite and professional levels that sport is 10% physical and 90% mental. Whether this percentage is accurate or not, it heads the message that great mental health and emotional intelligence in sports has the ability to take a physical and sport-specific skillset to a whole new level.
– 𝒞ℴ𝒶𝒸𝒽 𝒞𝒶𝓁.