There are many factors that influence an athlete’s performance ability; genetic inheritance, fitness levels, technical skills and of course their mental strength.
Although many sports athletes will spend a lot of their time on their fitness and technical skills, the mental side of the game is often neglected and often only considered when trouble arises.
The skilled athlete has experienced times when they are ‘in the zone’, where they are performing at their physical and mental best in what some describe as a state of “Flow”. If you ask them how they achieved this flow state most likely you’ll get the response “I don’t know it JUST happens”. What this means is that it is an unconscious process and it is outside of their normal conscious awareness.
In modern sports the ability to access these flow states by optimizing mental skills can mean the difference between winning and just competing! Of course there is nothing wrong with competing but the “money” is on those who produce consistent results.
A good deal of the debate on stress has focused on the sporting environment and its impact on athlete’s performance. This is an important area for attention, but it is also true that it is possible to place two individuals into the same sporting environment and to observe that one succumbs to the pressures of stress and one thrives!
The difference between the two can be explained through the model of ‘mental strength. This explains how individuals develop resilience and an inner drive to succeed. ‘Mental strength’ emerges as a key component for individual athlete and team performance.
Applications and research show that mental strength is directly and closely related with:
- Performance – explains up to 25% of the variation in performance
- Behavior – more engaged, more positive, more “can do”
- Wellbeing – more contentment, better stress management , less bullying
- Aspirations – more ambitious, prepared to manage more risk
Research in the Psychology Department at the University of Hull – under the direction of Dr. Peter Clough Ch. Psych. Has identified the four key components of ‘mental strength’. This research has now been independently validated through studies in Canada, Italy as well as the UK.
Peter Clough’s work means that we now have:
- We are able to define and describe ‘mental strength’ and use it to understand why people perform.
- The first psychometric measure which measures an individual’s ‘mental strength’– it is valid & reliable.
- The creation of a Mental Strength Development program – parts of which are validated and parts of which are unique.
The result is a complete process and program which has valuable applications in the world of sports and athletic performance.
Mental strength can be broken down into four categories and are called the 4C’s:
Athletes who score high in the categories feel that they are in control of their performance and of the environment in which they compete.
They are capable of exerting more influence on their sporting and training environment and are more confident about working in complex scenarios.
This means for example that, at one end of the scale individuals are able handle lots of things at the same time. At the other end they may only be comfortable handling one thing at a time.
In addition, in the CONTROL category there are two subcategories:
CONTROL (EMOTION) – Athletes scoring highly on this scale are better able to control their emotions. They are able to keep anxieties in check and are less likely to reveal their emotional state to other people
CONTROL (LIFE) – Athletes scoring higher on this scale are more likely to believe that they control their lives. They feel that their plans will not be thwarted and that they can make a difference.
Sometimes described as “stickability”, this describes the ability for an athlete to carry out tasks/performance successfully despite any problems or obstacles that arise while achieving the goal.
An athlete who scores at the high-end of the scale will handle and achieve things to tough unyielding deadlines. Whereas an individual at the other end will need to be free from those kind of demands to achieve their goals.
Describes the extent to which athletes see problems as threats or opportunities. Some will actively seek out challenge and change and will identify these as ways for self-development. Others will perceive problems as threats.
So, for example, at one end of the scale we find those who thrive in continually changing environments. At the other end we find those who prefer to minimize their exposure to change and the problems that come with that – and will strongly prefer to work in stable environments.
Athletes who are high in confidence have the self-belief to successfully complete tasks and performances, which may be considered too difficult by individuals with similar abilities but with lower confidence. Less confident individuals are also likely to be less persistent and to make more errors.
Athletes at one end of the scale will be able to take setbacks (externally and self-generated) in their stride. They keep their heads when things go wrong and it may even strengthen their resolve to do something. At the other end individuals will be unsettled by setbacks and will feel undermined by these.
Confidence also has two subcategories:
CONFIDENCE (ABILITIES) – Athletes scoring highly on this scale are more likely to believe that they are a truly worthwhile person. They are less dependent on external validation and are generally more optimistic about life.
CONFIDENCE (INTERPERSONAL) – Athletes scoring highly on this scale tend to be more assertive. They are less likely to be intimidated in social settings and are more likely to push themselves forward in groups. They are also better able to cope with difficult or awkward people.
Clearly the ‘mental strength’ model has specific and obvious applications for sports, individual athletic performance and team performance.
The challenge lies in identifying what might be the causes of stress and pressure for each athlete and to help them to become aware of these. Awareness leads to understanding, which, in turn, can lead to positive action – and improved athletic performance.
Similarly, where the team coach also becomes aware of the potential causes of stress and pressure they are more able to plan and to act to minimize their impact for peak performance.
Specific mental strength training for athletic performance, both individually and in teams, can be found at Mental Strength Training for Athletes.
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