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Six Key Mental Skills of Elite Athletes


What makes a great athlete?


First off, it usually starts with great natural talent that translates to their sport. For example, a hockey player who seems to have been born with skates on their feet; A soccer player whose footwork is so effortless it's like a dance on the pitch; A golfer whose swing is so free and easy it's as if they could do it while sleeping. These, and many other physical qualities, are absolutely true, but what else comes to mind when thinking about what skill sets an elite athlete possesses?


It's usually a mindset - a powerful focus, sky high confidence in their own ability, a composure to stay cool at critical moments.


There a number of common mental skills that elite athletes use to continue to maximize their natural, physical qualities. As we look to the research, many studies point to six mental skills that are linked to athletes at the top of their sport:


  1. Imagery

  2. Focus

  3. Maintaining concentration

  4. Anxiety control

  5. Positive self talk

  6. Goal setting

Let's talk a little about these.


Imagery - The words imagery and visualization have been used interchangeably. But the idea here is to put yourself in the action, using your mind's eye, as much as possible. It could be small and quick, like the golfer visualizing his approach shot in the middle of a round. Conversely, it could be more involved and lengthy such as a visual of going though each hitter you are going to face as a pitcher before a game (World Series champion Jon Lester would do this before his starts).


The idea here is put yourself in as vivid of a scenario as possible. From there, then, you see yourself executing your skill. Make it a consistent element of your program. It can enhance practice, help with your own rehearsal of the skill, and it has also been shown to help with athletes coming back from injury.


Focus - The emphasis here, I believe, is on the here and now. This is not outcome based. You are zeroing on the specific execution that needs to happen in that moment. As a golfer, you should be focused on the putt for a birdie that is in the present, not trying to make up for a couple of bogeys on past holes. As a hockey player, you're zeroing in on what needs to happen in that moment that your team has the puck, not on what happened a couple of shifts ago. The key element here is to hone in on specific process objectives that you need to execute your skill in that very moment.


Concentration - I am talking here about an extension of focus, meaning to stay in the present moment despite distractions, both physical and mental. Concentrating means recognizing when you are dwelling on a past mistake for too long (I struck out and now I am still thinking of that at bat while I am in the field), using a routine to regroup and let go of that mistake (I whiffed. That stinks, but I am not taking it out here in the field with me. I use a routine of taking my batting gloves off first, then my helmet, then put my in the bat rack, then go to the rail and cheer on my teammates), and refocusing on the next play (I get set for the next pitch and the next play).


Anxiety control - We all have a sense of anxiety and nervousness that is a part of competing and performing. That is natural. What can happen, however, is your anxiety levels get so high in the moment (a soccer player on a penalty kick) that it constricts your natural physical ability to execute the shot, play or skill needed in that moment. There can be a myriad of reasons why this takes place, from being to outcome result oriented, not trusting your skills, or letting the moment be more than it should be in your mind.


So, there can be some ongoing work you can do with a mental performance coach that can help manage expectations, play with high confidence and help with trust as a long term solution. There also can be some short term, in the moment, exercises, such as mindfulness, breathing exercises and other relaxation techniques that can alleviate some of that anxiety before you make that kick.


Self Talk - We hammer ourselves mercilessly when using self-talk. (Yes, we do talk to ourselves). We say things to ourselves that we would never, ever think of saying to other friends and those close to us. Yet we consistently use negative self-talk within us in a variety of situations.


We need to recognize when we are berating ourselves and snap back into a more positive self-talk environment. Try practicing writing some self-talk phrases that you would use with someone else in a similar situation. Now start practicing using those phrases on yourself. It doesn't have to be Staurt Smalley pollyanish stuff. It can be absolutely real and genuine.


Goal Setting - These can be short, medium and long term goals - The trick with these is that they want to be real, authentic, attainable, but not used as judgements on ourselves. Use these as guides without having to be beaten down by them if not met. So, be intelligent when looking at goals. Choose process goals to help you stay in the moment. Choose small, manageable goals to keep you on task. Doing this will help you get to more of those medium and long term goals that you set for yourself.


There are a number of other skills used by top athletes. Following these six common threads will help anyone reach for the top and help become the best versions of themselves that they can be on the playing field

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