It is hard to imagine a professional coach or an athlete who thinks that psychological fitness does not affect the result of their work. In fact, if you are into sports, you might often notice or hear someone saying how the game or match might have ended differently if the opposing team did not “break mentally,” if the opponent was more motivated, or “played it cool”. These are usually the key moments in professional sports, moments that decide on the winner of the world’s championship, Olympic qualifications, and much more. However, for rising young athletes, semi-professionals, and amateurs such moments might come up at regional competitions, state championships or important tournaments. Due to that, sports psychology has come a long way in the last 35-40 years especially in the field of applied sports psychology, i.e. sports counseling.
A long time ago, at the beginning of the 20th century, sports coaches, psychologists, and sports workers noticed that mental fitness, motivations, emotions, attitudes, beliefs, and anxiety level or pre-competitive jitters affect the athlete’s results. Of course, all the factors above are only an upgrade to work done in training with properly programmed and conducted training process. However, when it comes to athlete’s success, let us assume that 90% is the athlete’s own responsibility, whereas the other 10% is shared by the coach, psychologist, factors out of control, etc. Based on this, it seems that if all the factors are met, the mental fitness of an individual – taking up no more than 2-3% – can be crucial in moments in which little things decide on the success of their performance. Of course, the 2-3% is only a rough estimate. However, if athletes are not mentally prepared, they are facing a far greater loss than the mentioned 2-3%. Loss of motivation, nervousness, fear, and loss of focus in key moments (in a game, match, race, etc.) do not mean 2-3% anymore: they mean all or nothing, victory or defeat…a 100% loss. The question is how can we control that 2-3 % to work to our advantage?
There are many techniques today offered to young and elite athletes in attempts of improving their performance, mental control, fear control, jitters, excitement, thoughts, and emotions in general. However, the question is to which extent are athletes really similar for one book or template to match all their needs? Is there a rule they should all stick to? If yes, it means that one book would be enough to describe all the athletes in the world – not just athletes, but people, too. Of course, things are far more complicated than they may seem in the media and in sports circles. The fact is that we all have things in common, but it is our differences that make us unique and differentiate between top and average athletes. The same rule applies to sports psychology. There is no simple recipe for success valid for all athletes because the ingredients have to be selected carefully for every individual. Therefore, the process of mental preparation of athletes is not a simple process. But for athletes who aim using not just 98%, but 100% of their abilities; those who insist on winning, and not running from defeat, mental preparation becomes an inevitable part of training.
Although the approach to mental training is mostly individual, there are some common topics and techniques used with most athletes. Indeed, important individual differences appear depending on the type of the sport and on how fast the techniques are taught and adopted. When working individually, the counselor (psychologist) uses techniques for improving motivation, learning, concentration, emotional and thought self-control, awareness, and communication. When working in a team, the counselor often works on group cohesion, dynamics, leadership, and team building. Although most subjects are directly related to sports, some of them are not so but leave a strong and clear trace on individual performance. While in the office, the counselor and the athlete spend most of the time talking in an effort to find a solution for the difficulties the athlete faces. However, the counselor spends a good proportion of time teaching the athlete new techniques and exercises (like breathing, meditation, and visualization), and how to apply them in a sports environment. When conducting the mental training program in a group, the pace of work is already predetermined to some extent and the techniques taught are suited to fit the majority. This type of work is especially suitable for team sports, although it is important not to have too many members in a group. This way, taking care of the individual needs of every participant is still possible. Group counseling of athletes can be extremely beneficial, but it must be pointed out that the individual approach is far more suitable and precise for both the athlete and the counselor if possible. The individual approach means the athlete is not affected by any distracting factors (i.e. they do not depend on the interrelationships between the team members, their needs, closeness, etc.).
Either way, training athletes mentally is an extremely important part of the training process that can eventually decide on win or defeat, success or failure. Although we are only talking about the few last drops in a cup of success, they may leave the athlete thirsty in the end.