Mental skills training Essay
Performance and competition are key matters in sports - Mental skills training Essay introduction. Performance is the result of both physical skills and psychological factors. It is a well known fact that elite sports performers make great use of psychological techniques before, during and after sports performance and the psychological demands on the performer are greater when the level of competition is higher. In such circumstances many sport psychologists place a great emphasis on the psychological preparation for sports performance. Both athletes and theorists in human performance or coaches reached a consensus regarding the influence of psychological factors in the performance of motor skills, particularly when higher levels of performance are aimed.
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The result of such concern is a large body of research dedicated to finding out not only how to prepare athletes mentally for high-pressure situations, but also what psychological factors are specifically determinants of performance (Kimbrough et al 2007). This is the reason why understanding the importance of psychological preparation in sports is essential.
Athletes’ ability to control mental and emotional elements are reflected in their performance but leads to the creation of a psychological foundation for confidence and well-being as well (Boyd & Zenong, 1999, cited in Behncke 2004). The feeling that the individual possesses a degree of self-mastery in relation to psycho-somatic function is important for the motivation to continue with one’s efforts in attempting to increase performance (Wuff & Toole, 1999, cited in Behncke 2004). The most important areas of concern related to psychological functioning were: Relaxation, Motivation, commitment and goal setting, Self-confidence and self-efficacy, Arousal and activation, Stress and anxiety, Coping with injuries and self-healing, Focusing and improving concentration, Attention, Distraction control, Mental practice, Psychological preparation for peak performance.
For instance, positive results concerning the effect of mental imagery on performance were put forth by Martin, Moritz, & Hall (1999). They provided a meta-analysis of 200 studies on this topic and found that imagery improves physical performance of a certain skill for a particular sport. On such basis, mental imagery is frequently included in mental training programs for athletes as a strategy for improving skill acquisition and performance. Cognitive general imagery was proved effective as well in a study that took into consideration a variety of sports (Martin, Moritz, & Hall, 1999).
Another important psychological skills training area for an athlete is goal setting. It is very important in everyday life and especially in sports to be able to make clear, concise goals. Goal setting can be used to motivate an individual and to assess improvements. Many studies comprising reviews of literature have found very strong support for the effectiveness in sports performance of setting specific, challenging goals rather than having a “do your best attitude” (Weinberg, Stitcher, & Richardson, 1994). There are many variables to consider when setting goals. Athletes must consider the attainability of the goal, the duration of the goal, and goal specificity (Weinberg, Stitcher, & Richardson, 1994). Other important techniques include positive self talk, a very important skill for an athlete that enables him to keep away from doubting himself while trying to obtain his goal. Overall, many skills training techniques will be more efficient if combined with other skills to improve concentration, motivation, and overall performance.
Mental skills training has been recognized as an effective method to enhance the psychological component of physical movement (Driskell, Copper, & Moran, 1994; Feltz & Landers, 1983, cited in Behncke 2004). Behncke (2004) in his review on the literature on mental training acknowledged the fact that mental skills training has been triggered by the necessity of athletes to learn more about their individual mental life while allowing a degree of control in coordinating effective movement through various psychological states of performance (Martens, 1987; Rushall, 1992, cited in Behncke 2004). The author cited above also summarized the methods of developing mental skills into cognitive and somatic. Cognitive methods include mental rehearsal, mental imagery and visualization, visuo-motor behavior rehearsal, and cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT). Somatic methods include biofeedback, progressive muscle relaxation and meditation.
It appears that in order to elaborate a mental skills plan several stages need to be followed. Assessment and testing of athletes, phase in which information and knowledge about the features of the athletes is gathered, design and delivery of the training, based upon the identification of the skills useful for the athletes, one-to-one coaching and group work are the most important. The complexity of such an endeavor resides in the fact that different people assimilate better different skills, and overall, choosing many skills training techniques will be more efficient to improve concentration, motivation, and overall performance. This paper is concerned with three of the most important tasks of a sports psychologist reflected in mental training design: assessment, design, and implementation.
Suinn (1997) recommended in a study concerning mental training as the most important areas for practice the following: (a) teaching imagery skills, (b) relaxation, (c) increasing repetitions of trials, (d) defining the content precisely, (e) using stimulus and response propositions, and (f) alternating physical and mental practice.
Therefore mental plans designs are based on a multiple approach. The skills need to be combined and learned in a period of time. A mental plan must always be evaluated and refined after the implementation phase. At this point it is important to note that not all mental plans will necessarily be successful. Each athlete must be educated on mental plans in order for them to believe that what they are doing will increase their performance. Another important issue is the timing for the delivery of the psychological skills training (PST). The optimal time to begin a PST is either on preseason or post season because then the athlete is able to spend some time practicing their newly acquired mental skills. A mental skills training practice session is estimated to be optimal if it takes around 15 to 30 minutes. The psychological skills training is not a quick fix, it should be implemented throughout the athlete’s career, in life and in sport.
This paper aims at suggesting a yearly mental skills training plan for a basketball team. Assessment of the team and design of the training will be detailed below.
Description of the team
The team is called White Lakes, a National Basketball Association team based in Boston Massachusetts. The White Lakes play at the FleetCenter in Boston, Massachusetts, and the team wears jerseys of white and blue. The team have captured 14 NBA championships since their founding in 1950. The team won game after game in confrontations with other important American teams. Their steady line of successes started to diminish in the last few decades. In several recent games, the team did not succeed in scoring in the second half of the game. Their play seemed very professional in the first half of the game but as the end approached the members lost concentration and performed poorly. After decades of great performance and winning NBA’s in a row, currently the lakes display a mediocre performance. Another important fact is several young talents have been brought to the team in the last few years. Though the team seems to enjoy rough competition and sense the taste of success, the coach feels there are some skills the team needs to acquire to reach their maximal potential. It appears that the physical training and strategic training is very good, the team benefits from the expertise of the best specialists in the country but, however, the team seems to be deficient in motivation and morale. In order to clarify the problems and provide solutions, the coach has approached the sport psychology consultant (SPC) to help the athletes improve their potential. The team received the idea with enthusiasm and agreed to meet the consultant for an evaluation.
The sports psychology consultant prepared an interview and a testing session for the team players. The testing session consisted of the administration of tests to establish the anxiety levels in athletes. The reason is the SPS suspected the diminishing in concentration may have been due to high anxiety levels. In order to establish the truth of such an assumption, he decided to administer Competitive State Anxiety Inventory-2 (CSAI-2) and the Sport Competition Anxiety Test (SCAT), the best instruments available to test anxiety.
Competitive anxiety contains two components: cognitive and somatic anxiety. Cognitive anxiety is characterized by negative thoughts, inability to concentrate and disrupt attention, while somatic anxiety is provoked by ones’ perception of their physiological arousal such as rapid heart rate, tense muscles, and butterflies in the stomach.
Competitive State Anxiety Inventory-2. The Competitive State Anxiety Inventory-2 (CSAI-2) is a self report, psychometric state anxiety inventory which contains a total of 27 test items with 9 items for each of the following three subscales: cognitive state anxiety, somatic state anxiety, and self confidence (Martens et al., 1990). According to Martens et al., 1990, the CSAI-2 should be given within an hour of starting competition and is used to determine pre-competition levels of anxiety, self-confidence, and mood states. The CSAI-2 normally takes less then five minutes to complete and SPS administered the test ten minutes before competition. Before allowing subjects to begin completing the CSAI-2, instructions were clearly explained. Each of the 9 sub-scales may range from 9 to 36. Higher scores on cognitive and somatic anxiety indicate higher levels of anxiety whereas higher scores on self – confidence sub – scale correspond to higher levels of self-confidence (Martens et al. 1990 and Mckay et al. 1997).
Sport Competition Anxiety Test (SCAT) was used to measure competitive trait anxiety (A-trait). This tool is a self – report psychometric inventory of A – trait consisting of 15 items, 5 of them being spurious items (Martens et al. 1990; Winberg & Gould 1999). The 15th questions refer to how performers feel about sport in general. Each question is marked on a scale of “Hardly ever” to “Often”. This test is scored between 10 – 30. Trait anxiety concerns the performer’s predisposition to be affected by stressful situations; research proves that one who has high trait anxiety will often have high state anxiety.
It is important to use both tests as there is a link between A- trait (measured by SCAT) and A-state (measured by CSAI-2). Martens et al. (1990) discuss how these constructs interact and influence performance: the predisposition A –trait of an athlete will determine the response, or A – state, which will inevitably impact on motor performance. In other words, it appears that the relationship between competitive A -trait and motor performance is mediated by A – state.
The interview aimed first of all to identify the mental strategies or skills applied by athletes before, during and after the game. These strategies are inferred from the respondents’ answers concerning game situations. The questions used by the consultant are attached in the Appendices (some of the questions were taken from or inspired by an interview with Dr. Alan Goldberg).
The scores of the two tests showed high levels of both state and trait anxiety before competition, manifested in low self-confidence, negative thoughts and acute physiological reactions related to competition stress. Previous research also suggests that cognitive and somatic anxiety are higher in competition than in practice (McKay et al. 1997).
Research discovered a relationship between anxiety and both the level of competition and the importance of the athletic event. Klavora (1974, cited in Thomas, 1996) noticed that state anxiety was lower in pre-season practice than prior to competition in high school and college basketball and football players, and that state anxiety is higher for college basketball players from regular-season games to playoff competition. In addition to this Gill (1980, cited in Thomas, 1996) made clear that state anxiety for competitive basketball players is higher prior to competition than during practice sessions.
In order to establish a clear picture of the teams’ problem, the quantitative measures were doubled by a qualitative measure represented by the interview.
The interview revealed that the team lacks in strategies to deal with distraction, cannot tolerate and are under permanent pressure to score, are not able to deal with their mistakes on the field and are very slow to rebound from the mistakes. Moreover, they lack in skills that would enable them to anticipate success and motivate themselves individually and as a team.
A tough basketball player remains calm and focused no matter what, from the beginning of the game till the end. A great performing player is aware that a good throw is not based just on physical practice but also on mental practice. Many players acknowledge that foul shooting is 90% mental. The solution suggested to the team in this case was to learn to relax under pressure, focus on what’s important, block out distractions and let go of missed shots. In this situation, it appears that the priorities of a mental training program are: relaxation, building self-confidence, parking of errors.
Research has attested the beneficial effects of such practices. For instance, directing athletes’ attention to using imagery can improve imagery, and cognitive functions in general. Moreover, regular instructions in training sessions about the use of imagery and particular performance features have the potential to increase the quality of athletes’ application to practice activities (Cummings and Ste-Marie 2001). Researchers have found concerning the self-talk technique that it has multiple advantages on athletes, such as (Araki et al. 2006): it represents a motivational strategy (Hardy, Gammage, & Hall, 2001), augments skill acquisition (Landin & Hebert, 1999; Ming & Martin, 1996; Perkos, Theodorakis, & Chroni, 2002), helps control attentional focus (Gould, Eklund, & Jackson, 1992; Landin & Hebert, 1999; Papaioannou, Ballon, Theodorakis, & Auwelle, 2004), enhances self-confidence (Landin & Hebert, 1999). In addition, self-talk has been found to effect performance (Highlen & Bennett, 1983; Mahoney & Avener, 1977; Papaioannou et al., 2004; Van Raalte, Brewer, Rivera, & Petitpas, 1994, cited in Araki et al. 2006).
Added to this, evidence exists proving that establishing clear goals and performance tasks lead to increased imagery use (Harwood et al 2003). It appears clear the relationship between teaching athletes multiple skills.
Once the interviews and tests were completed an intervention was designed based on the coaches concerns, the athletes’ concerns, the outcomes of the interviews and the results of SCAT and CSAI-2. The intervention program was developed for the athlete to use starting in the off season and it focused on three main aspects which include imagery, relaxation, and self-confidence enhancing strategies. The program consisted of three 4-hour sessions, delivered in two days.
The objectives of the mental training program
The assessment of strengths and weaknesses of the players as a result of the methodology applied suggests the following objectives set by the sports psychology consultant:
1. Enhancing self-confidence
2. Practicing relaxation
3. Working on concentration, clearing the mind and focus.
4. Using imagery
Each of these objectives was transformed into concrete activities by using specific techniques. The mental training design, based on the above stated objectives.
The design of a mental skills training for basketball players
The mental skills training consists of several sessions. The outline of each session will be described below.
Session 1 – 4 hours
Aim: teaching and practice self-confidence enhancement strategies
Techniques: self-talk, creative visualization
1. High levels of self-confidence may be enforced by referring to past accomplishments. Self-efficacy is related to self-confidence in athletes increases when they are successful over a period of time. Feedback is the best source in maintaining and increasing self-confidence levels. In order to increase self-confidence, the following are important to consider for the case of the team (adapted from an on line article retrieved from xplore.nun.org.uk/downloads/ap.pdf, no author available):
● Reassess and ensure specificity in the long term goals
● Set a series of short term goals to achieve this, such as improving certain skills etc.
● Introduce self activation to improve arousal for less important games not just for important games
● Go over past accomplishments of the team and use them to create positive images.
In order to achieve these goals, several techniques need to be exercised, each underlying positive thinking.
1. Self talk consists of positive affirmations instead of negative thoughts. A regular practice of such positive affirmations helps developing a positive self-image and self-confidence. The team members are encouraged at this point to develop the habit of praising themselves for a job well done, for trying something new or for any other behavior they would like to encourage. Distinction is to be made between positive and negative self-talk. Examples of each are provided below (Araki et al 2006). Positive self-talk is of several types: calming/relaxing (“Take a deep breath”), instructional (“Bend your knees”), motivational (“Yes! Come on, let’s go!”), and focus (“Don’t think about anything, just concentrate”). Negative self-talk is referred to as performance worry (“This is too hard”), self doubts in ability (“I can’t do this”), and frustration (“This makes me mad”). Players are encouraged to write down on cards positive affirmations and repeat them as often as possible. Other examples included may be: “I have made great progress this year.” “I am mentally tough” “I love the challenge of critical situations” “I focus well under pressure”. (Lefkowits and McDuff). Moreover, positive-self-talk can be based on past achievements. For instance players may tell themselves: “I played great at home this year.” “I led the team in steals last year” “My defensive stop, free throw, assist, three-pointer won the game last month” and are encouraged to develop their own positive self-talk with personal significance as a team player.
2. Creative visualization is especially linked to goals and positive thinking. Visualization helps people achieve their goal. A basketball player may visualize himself sinking a free throw with perfect form. Players are taught to visualize each detail of a game, their behavior before and during the game. The visualization of perfect throws lead them to success and increases self-confidence.
Session 2 – 4 hours
Aim: Teaching relaxation skills
Techniques: progressive muscular relaxation, breathing control
1. Progressive muscular relaxation is a physical technique for relaxing the body when muscles are tense. The procedure is based on tensing up a group of muscles so that they are as tight as contracted as possible, and then they are held in a state of extreme tension for a few seconds. Then the muscles are relaxed to their previous state. The mechanism is repeated several times. The technique may be applied to different muscles’ groups, to one group or to the whole body. Coupled with breathing techniques and imagery leads to maximum relaxation.
2. Breathing Control is based on the technique of deep breathing also used in meditation. Team members are also taught to practice sigh breathing and diaphragmatic breathing. Sigh breath may be used in high tensed moments such as an important throw.
The sigh breath is based on the following steps, each leading progressively to relaxation
(retrieved from site http://www.pe2000.com/breathe_sigh.htm):
1. Mentally think or say to yourself Stop!
2 Breathe in through nose and, pausing only briefly, let the air out quite slowly through your nose. This inhale is a moderate (rather than very deep) in-breath. The outbreath is the key to the method. Be sure to prolong – to l-e-n-g-t-h-e-n – your exhale.
3. As you let the air out let go! Relax your muscles, especially your shoulders. Let go of tension in your chest and stomach. Let your arms and legs relax. Let your jaw relax. Let your forehead relax….
Diaphragmatic breathing is used several times a day to improve both physical and mental skills. It implies the following steps (retrieved from site http://www.pe2000.com/breathe_sigh.htm)
1. Lie flat on the floor with the knees raised.
2. Put one palm on your upper chest and the other over your navel. (
3. Breathe out fully – and then a little bit more. With practise you will find you can do this by drawing in your abdomen. Pause for 2-4 seconds.
4. Allow the air to naturally flow in again.
Slowly and calmly repeat this cycle a few times.
Session 3 – 4 hours
Aim: teaching imagery in relaxation
Techniques: imagery use, thought awareness.
1. Imagery use is based commonly on imagining a scene, place and event as peaceful, beautiful or happy. In this case the players are asked to imagine the perfect game, a successful game with them as participants. Imagery training is the mental practice of a skill or given task without actually doing it. It involves more than visualization, by including all other senses: smell, hearing, touching, tasting. Examples are: the sound of the whistle, the voices of other players, the coaches shouting instructions (hearing); the ball leave your hands on a pass (touching) etc. Imagery is used to deal with difficult past or future situation by imagining the situation in detail and solving the problem accurately.
2. Thought awareness is the process of observing one’s own thoughts in a certain moment, especially negative thoughts and eliminating them. The basketball players are taught to observe the thought come and go and focus on the current performance.
Implementation on a yearly basis
The skills designed above are integrated in an yearly mental skills training plan. The plan is design by taking into account the three major seasons in basketball: off-season, pre-season, and regular seasons.
In off-season the skills need to practiced one a day. More emphasis is given in this stage to the skills presented in session 1, related to the development of a more positive thinking. In addition, in off-season the team may study video tapes with their game and other professional games and discover the mistakes, and then reflect how they were influenced mentally by them.
In pre-season the skills need to be practiced at least twice a day, with a focus on imagery skills presented in session 3. imagery should be used coupled with relaxation techniques. The players are to establish clear goals towards the play and need to write down their thoughts and feelings. Emphasis is placed on positive reinforces, self talk and feedback from the other team members and from the coach is solicited. Such an approach will increase team cohesion and self-confidence and create a positive frame for the approaching competition.
During the season, the members need to practice the skills once a day, insisting upon the relaxation and imaginary techniques. Upcoming games are imagined in detail and successful terms. Moreover, positive self talk is of major importance as well.
The athletes were assessed in pre-season and the training was delivered in two consecutive days during the off-season. During the off-season the performance was monitored, in the first month once a week for a full month, and then once a month, and during this time the skills were refined.
The final conclusions of the sports psychological counselor are based on the idea that mental skills are effectively learned and can be improved through instruction and practice.
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Semi-structured interview for assessing basketball players
What do you think before of a big game?
How do you feel physically before great competitions?
3. How do you prepare as individual and as a team before a big game? What do you say to each other to increase motivation and morale?
4. Can you handle your mistakes out on the basketball court?
5. How do you feel at that point, when making a mistake or a bad shot?
6. How long does it take you to detach from such negative feelings so as they don’t follow you around the whole game?
7. The true mark of a champion is how he/she deals with mistakes. When the coach yells at you for blowing it, can you separate his message from your self-worth?
8. Can you correct the mistake and confidently put it behind you?
9. Think about a game when you played “out of your mind”, when you were thinking that you couldn’t miss. Remember how easy it felt? How effortless? You’ll always play your best when you’re trusting yourself and letting the game come to you.
10. One thing is important here. “Trying” to play well will always get you playing terrible! Pressuring yourself never gets you were you want.
11. How do you handle failure when your team loses the game? Do you think you have a certain responsibility for the teams’ failure? Why or why not?
 This is a fictive name. The team does not exist and is taken as a representative case.