By Sarah Dybka, BSc (Hons), MA Sport Psychology
Athletes are highly committed to excellence. They spend countless hours pushing their bodies to their limits in training driven by the desire to get better. They do this day in and day out in order to be ready to test themselves against the best in their sport during competition. The physical demands of an athlete are incredibly high. One of the most basic accepted facts in sport is that if you want to be the best, you need to train the hardest.
The physical aspect of sport, though a critically necessary and significantly vital aspect, is just one of the required components to achieve athletic excellence. Focusing solely on any one aspect such as physical training, is like buying a brand new, latest and greatest, top of the line computer and then installing Windows 95. What you have is a pristine, high powered machine that isn’t capable of taking full advantage of all of its resources. It isn’t able to perform to its maximum capabilities because it is lacking the necessary “software” to enable it to do so.
A well trained athlete who is in peak physical condition and possess all the required skills, techniques and abilities is just like the brand new, Windows 95 equipped computer. From the outside, both look more than capable to do whatever is expected of them, but the internal operating system could be hindering performance depending on what is expected. With these internal hindrances, the athlete can still perform but not to the level expected of a “computer” of that caliber. Renowned Sport psychologist Dr. Paul Dennis once told me that if athletic skill and ability is the athletes’ hardware then their mind is the programmed software. Athletes’ ‘hardware’ is developed and perfected during physical training with the guidance of coaching. Sport psychology professionals are responsible for ensuring that their ‘software’ is up to date by providing mental training.
Mental training is a segment of sport psychology that concentrates specifically on helping athletes train and develop their mindset to guide them towards peak performance. Mental training develops, upgrades, restores and resolves any ‘software’ issues. Mental skills, just like physical skills, take repetition, practice, and game-time application to develop. When an athlete develops the mental skills and strength to compliment the demanding physical demands of sport, higher levels of performance become more consistent and consequently increase the probability of improved competitive outcomes. Much like your new computers performance will be enhanced by upgrading from Windows 95 to Windows 8, an athlete’s performance can be dramatically enhanced by adding mental training to the pre-existing physical training regime.
The work of a sport psychology professional is often associated with sport “problems” such as mental blocks or debilitating competition anxiety. Although these issues are certainly within our scope of practice, the main purpose of mental training is to help athletes develop an overall competitive edge and to help take them to the next level of athletic performance. You don’t need to have a “problem” to benefit from mental training. Dramatic improvement is possible even for well adjusted, “normal” athletes. Our overall goal is to ensure that all athletes are running on the latest enabling software.