Any athlete can tell you about their performance in terms of what their time was, what the score was, or other outside variables of the competition that lead to their success or failure. However what is rarely expanded upon in sport is the contribution that was made from an athletes psychological skills towards that performance. There may be a couple main reasons why we don’t readily give credit to our psychological skill-set and perhaps the foremost being that the athlete is on the inside looking out. When we can literally see and experience our success, we attribute this to the physical rather than the mental. In addition, our mental skills or psychological state cannot be easily analyzed through data collection methods such as power and/or heart rate files.
From working with different levels of athletes, I have seen athletes struggle and I have seen athletes succeed. What I can tell you about those that succeeded was that they all either had or adapted strong psychological skills to help them overcome or accomplish. So what exactly are psychological skills and how do we use them? Psychological skills may be very broadly defined either as an attribute or an action of the mind. Just as an athlete has physical skills attributes such as power, speed, agility, etc. an athlete also has attributes of confidence, motivation, and ability to cope with adversity. In addition, an athlete may also perform a psychological skill as an action, for example, meditating, positive self- talk, and goal-setting. To answer the question of how do we use psychological skills, I dove a little deeper to say the least.
In 2013 I was an up and coming cycling coach with just a few clients and a grad student in the field of Exercise Physiology. Wanting to know more about the psychology of performance, especially as it relates to coaching cyclists, I designed a study that analyzed the relationship between certain psychological skills, the presence and the frequency of communication with a coach, and how all these variables may or may not be correlated with an athlete’s performance at a major competition. For this major competition, I used Cyclocross National Championships. Although this study became my thesis project a short synopsis of this study may be found here. In short the study showed support for the positive effect of coaching, goal setting, and frequency of communication with a coach on an athlete’s performance. Given the complex nature of psychological skills and their application, I’d like to provide just a few basics for an athlete looking to sharpen up their mental game, without having to dive neck deep in peer-reviewed research.
Goal-setting is arguably the most important element to achieving athletic success or any success for that matter. The more specific your goal is, the greater the chance your actions will follow the path of your goal. Outcome goals, such as winning a race, are easy to say and quantify whether or not the goal was met or not, however an outcome is dependant on external factors such as other’s performance. Performance goals, focus solely on what you did within your own limits, a performance goal might be that “I want to improve my functional threshold power by 10%.” And finally a process goal commits to the way that you raced, i.e. conservative start vs’ aggressive start.
It is equally important to set all of these types of goals, and not one type of goal exclusively. With the goals that are set, develop objectives that guide you towards achieving these goals. This is something that you should discuss with your coach to ensure your goals and objectives are not only realistic but in alignment with one another. The key with all of this, is write them down and know what they are. Be specific! Put your goals in a place where you will see them every day without having to open a document or computer file. Of course having your goals in digital form can’t hurt, but make them be something that you are reminded of.