Performance-enhancing Habits, Attitudes, and Techniques.
Mental performance consulting, eh?
And what is it that you do exactly? (slightly raised eyebrow)
In keeping with the expectation of brevity in social discourse, I typically respond to such a question with something like “I help individuals and teams optimize performance through mental training.”
Although this response is generally sufficient to get a perfunctory “okay” or head nod, I am frequently left feeling that my interrogator was not entirely satisfied – that I was in fact being asked for some details or specifics about what mental training actually entails.
Despite the increasing visibility of mental coaches in professional and Olympic sports, many people feel uncertain or skeptical about whether a mental coach could really help them or their team perform better. Is bringing in a specialist really all that necessary (i.e. worth the investment)?
In this article, I offer a response to the implicit (but often unasked) question behind the question: What exactly do you mean by mental training and how can it help me?
Putting on your training H.A.T.
Put simply, perhaps too simply, mental training involves developing a set of mental habits, attitudes, and techniques (note the nifty acronym H.A.T.) designed to optimize both your training and your performance.
In the paragraphs that follow, I will say a bit more about each of these 3 major facets of mental training. Bear in mind that it is not my intention, nor is it possible, to provide an exhaustive account of the scope of practice of applied sport and performance psychology.
In this overview, I am aiming for breadth over depth in an attempt to provide a wide-angle view of the range of topics that a mental coach might focus on as part of their work with athletes and performers.
Of course, each unique situation will call for a customized program involving some tailored collection of these elements. Inevitably, some topics will demand more or less attention while some might not be addressed at all.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Your mind sets the stage for everything you do. In order to achieve something, you must first envision it, fully commit to it, and then formulate a plan that will produce the desired result. Mental training for high performance thus begins with clarifying your vision of performance excellence, setting measurable goals, and establishing sound habits and routines.
An important but often overlooked aspect of good training habits involves finding the correct training to recovery ratio. Of course, developing mastery requires a rigorous schedule of deliberate practice. But more training is not always the answer. Too many aspiring athletes and performers learn the hard way that rest is just as important as reps.
Another topic that falls under the category of habits is accountability. In order to know whether you are on track to achieve your goals, you must establish continual feedback loops with meaningful metrics for monitoring and tracking your progress. Champions do not aim for vague notions of improvement. They quantify everything and always know exactly how they are doing relative to their goals.
A mental performance consultant can help you put systems in place to ensure that you are getting the most out of your training while effectively managing your physical, mental, and emotional resources.
“Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.”
I am using “attitudes” to refer to any way of thinking or feeling that affects your behavior. The use of the plural is intentional because the way you approach training and competition is impacted by a variety of dynamic mental features including things like your motivational style, achievement orientation, confidence, optimism, mental toughness, and resilience. Each of these psychological constructs comes with its own empirical research base, primarily in sport and educational psychology.
In the popular media, much of this falls under the banner of “mindset.” Although certainly more hip-sounding than “attitudes,” the term mindset has become somewhat conflated with Carol Dweck’s more specific notion of “growth mindset,” which focuses on the benefits of adopting the view that ability and knowledge can be increased through effort.
Despite the usefulness and widespread popularity of Dweck’s work, growth mindset by itself fails to capture the multi-dimensional nature of one’s overall mental outlook. I have thus opted to settle for the more boring “attitudes.” Whatever you call it, the ability to control the way you think and feel while training and performing (i.e. how you motivate yourself, sustain your confidence, respond to adversity, etc) will have as much impact on whether you ultimately achieve your goals as your physical prowess and technical acumen.
An informed mental coach can leverage the psychological science of performance to help you create an approach to mental preparation that is grounded in empirical evidence. This is far superior to listening to your coach repeatedly urge you to “focus” or “be tough.”
“I don’t even have any good skills.”
People who hire a mental coach often do so expecting, by analogy with technical coaching, to be taught some “skills” that will help them manage their performance anxiety or stay more calm and focused during competition. The field of applied sport and performance psychology has accommodated this expectation by adopting a largely technique-driven approach, essentially branding itself as being synonymous with psychological skills training (PST for short).
PST involves equipping athletes and performers with an arsenal of cognitive-behavioral strategies designed to regulate arousal, attention, and emotion in high-stakes situations. The core mental skills on offer are goal-setting, mental rehearsal, positive self-talk, relaxation, and mindfulness – all of which are supported by vast research bases attesting to their proven track record as performance enhancers.
Any mental coach worth their salt will be well versed in each of these skills and able to guide you through an efficient process of acquisition and implementation. In my view, PST should be the last thing brought online after the psychological groundwork has been laid through the cultivation of effective habits and attitudes – much like preparing the soil for planting.
What do mental performance consultants do? They fit you for your own mental training H.A.T. – an arsenal of mental habits, attitudes, and techniques that will ensure that you are getting the most out of your potential.
Just as it helps to have a coach present for the purposes of both instruction and accountability related to technique, fitness, or nutrition, having a mental coach can greatly accelerate the development of a mental game that will give you a distinct advantage over your less mentally prepared counterparts.
If ever the time comes that you decide that you are ready to take the next step of bringing in someone that is dedicated specifically to guiding you through the vast landscape of mental performance, you know where to find me.
With you in the pursuit,