Video Presentation by Bo Hanson, 4x Olympian and Coaching Consultant
It’s now accepted that it is the mental game that ultimately wins any race or competitive game. It is what distinguishes the very top athletes from the ordinary. So, why are mental skills so important for success in sport? Find out what Bo Hanson has to say on this critical topic in the below video. In the end, having solid mental skills can be more important for elite performance than an athlete’s physiological capabilities.
The Importance of Mental Skills in Sport
Often people put too much emphasis on the physical capabilities of an athlete, when the mental skills they may have, or lack, are just as critical to their success. It’s as though they don’t acknowledge the fact that mental skills, self-awareness and the ability to understand and work with other people, are just as vital to your success as being able to run fast or step off of both feet, or throw a long ball.
Imagine that elite performance is about creating a perfectly circular wheel with spokes shooting out from the hub. The spokes represent all the different elements needed to create peak performance. This includes physiology, tactics, strategy, mental skills, conditioning, nutrition, and physiotherapy. In essence all of these spokes combine to create a perfectly round wheel which runs efficiently.
The New Zealand All Blacks used this analogy. However, in working on all of these different elements they found they couldn’t achieve the big breakthroughs they wanted. So, they re-thought their approach to mental skills. They questioned, are mental skills really a spoke, or are mental skills more important than a spoke? If mental skills are more important than a spoke, what do they become instead? They reasoned, mental skills become the hub of the wheel and the breakthrough was made.
Think about mental skills being an athlete’s hub. Every single decision they make is processed by their brain. So it is critical to acknowledge it is the hub of everything we do. It is not just an outer piece of the puzzle, it is a central and major piece of the puzzle. Consider your own experiences in sport. You have likely encountered athletes who didn’t have all of the physical attributes that plenty of others did, but what they did have going for them was their ability to excel at the mental side of the game. These athletes are ‘mentally tough’ and this is just as important, if not more so, than their physical abilities.
The most valuable lessons on mental skills I’ve learnt were from the US Navy SEALs. Their approach is to:
- Set short term goals
- Talk positively to yourself
- Manage your emotions
- Visualize your successful end result
Set short term goals
Setting short term goals keeps an athlete focused on productive actions. This avoids the mind wandering off into unproductive thoughts, which in turn impacts emotions and physiology. When I rowed, as a crew we would have technical focus points for 20 strokes, after each set of this, the focus moves to the next logical part of the stroke or race plan. After a series of these focus points the race is close to over and our mind had stayed on task.
Talk positively to yourself
Talking positively to yourself is about knowing your internal dialogue. People who are mentally tough, have a sense of positive self-efficacy. They inherently believe they are going to achieve a positive outcome and their thoughts express this. The SEALs would speak encouraging words out loud which also benefits others around them. What an athlete says to themselves when they are behind on the scoreboard has a massive impact on whether they stay behind or take action to turn it around.
Manage your emotions
The ability to manage your emotions to ensure you are in the most productive state to compete is a skill most elite athletes develop to some degree. It also includes the ability to stay composed to make quality decisions. The difference between an athlete and a SEAL is the life and death situations. Athletes will never be in the position of SEALs. Staying composed as an athlete is a relatively simple task compared to what a SEAL must do.
Visualize your successful end result
Visualizing a successful end result is a hallmark of mental toughness. Every coach knows that visualization is a key skill athletes can develop which helps them to become better at performing at their sport. This vital mental skill prepares an athlete’s body to execute under pressure and to keep doing so in the heat of competition.
What I like most about the SEALs approach to mental toughness is not only the fact that these people truly know about mental toughness, but also the fact that each of these four areas can be learnt. Mental skills can be taught. It takes time and effort like any other aspect of becoming excellent. In many ways, developing mental skills takes far less effort and is far less stressful than physically training hard. To become excellent in this area requires acknowledgement of its value in what differentiates the best, when many other areas are almost equal.
I really enjoy the teamwork in hockey – indoor, ice and field. Well differentiated roles and so many different theories on positional play, attack and defense. Recently, I watched a field hockey team win a national championship and their playing strategy was a great example of just how effective a focus on short-term goals can be.
In conversations I have, coaches often say to me: “So I have this athlete, and they have great physiology, they’ve got a massive VO2, and a really good motor. But they can’t concentrate, are undisciplined, doesn’t listen to me…but they could be such a success”.