Mental skills training is a relatively new discipline, having been popularized in the last 25 years or so. It has been around for much longer, but without a name or a brand attached to it. When working with teams and individuals I often ask the question, “What percentage of your game is psychological?” To this question, most – if not all – performers agree that there is a mental component to their craft that deserves considerable attention, yet all too often there is only a small percentage of practice devoted to mental skills. I was recently thinking about this phenomenon and the reasons behind it.
Even though I ask the “percentage question” to dozens of performers, always getting the same answer, I am still searching for the reason that mental practice is so often overlooked in training. It struck me that perhaps performers do not see the relevancy and connection of mental skills to their daily life, or as skills that can be used life-long.
People participate in a lot of activities that aren’t required for survival, such as playing sports or music, going out to dinner, watching movies, etc. However, these activities have been tied to something greater than the behavior alone. Sports and music allow people to socialize, challenge themselves, develop skills, or perhaps find a scholarship and/or career. Dining out and going to a movie gives people the opportunity to shut down for the day, unwind from school or work, and socialize with people they care about. All of these activities have greater reasons for participation than the behavior alone. Perhaps mental skills, and its relatively youthful presence on the national scene of society hasn’t quite developed those deeper motivations for deliberate practice.
So the question is, what can be done to shift mental skills training into the realm of social relevance and importance?
I believe that it starts with professionals in the field making a greater attempt to “practice what they preach.” This seems like a relatively obvious solution, but one that is often overlooked as professionals in the field. As professionals we know the everyday struggles and significant life events that play a big role in our perceptions of the world – and consequently in our behaviors. What kind of inadvertent messages do we send to those around us – family, friends, and clients – if we do not practice the use of mental skills? The answer is more obvious in other fields of work. You wouldn’t trust a financial advisor who recently declared bankruptcy, or a police officer who breaks the law, or hire a personal trainer who doesn’t appear fit and healthy. Mental skills coaches, sport psychologists, or anyone providing mental skills training has an unwritten duty to practice what they preach.
If you don’t make an attempt to practice the skills you so adamantly prescribe to performers, what level of belief do you truly have in these skills? I, and many others, agree that mental skills transcend sport and exercise performance. These skills can be applied to any event or moment in life. Job interviews, raising children, handling conflict with coworkers, finding happiness can all be handled successfully with the help of mental skills. Leadership begins with a choice to embody the values, beliefs, and skills you deem as important before attempting to lead others in the same direction. So let us make a greater effort to practice what we preach so that we may bring mental skills training to the forefront of performance.
***As a side note from the editor, this post holds an important message for educators of all kinds, including teachers, parents, coaches, and mentors. It is hard to sell a message that we do not ourselves buy in to. If you want your child, athlete, student, etc. to develop their mental game, they must be able to look to you as a model, for guidance and support. It all comes back to a simple message, practice what you preach.
Jordan is a consultant in the Center for Sport and Performance Psychology and is a second year graduate student in the Sport and Exercise Psychology master’s program. He completed his undergraduate degree in Exercise Science with an emphasis in sport psychology and a minor in psychology at the University of Northern Iowa. Jordan has a background playing pro-am baseball in the Midwest and has served as a mental skills coach for the University of Northern Iowa softball team during his senior year. Jordan also has a military background as a Staff Sergeant in the United States Air Force. His research interests include motivation orientations in collegiate athletics as well as resiliency in the military setting. Jordan has experience working with football, volleyball, tennis, cross country, track, soccer, basketball, hockey, baseball, and softball, but enjoys working with anyone looking to enhance their mental game. His philosophical approach focuses on the positivist and holistic approach to increase awareness, develop skills, and learn how to utilize them in all aspects of life.