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Work on your inner game- 5 foundational pillars within MENTAL development:

Updated: Jul 5, 2023

The development of an athlete comes in many forms. Whether its physical, mental, emotional or in character, the beauty of sport is that it requires at all times a special relationship with oneself. To be a good athlete, you have to love yourself. Succeeding in sport requires self-love, a level of selfishness and sacrifice.

At ATHLETE IQ we talk a lot about the outer game and the inner game that needs to be worked on in parallel to each other. Early on in an athlete’s development, it’s all about the fundamentals, about education, developing good habits – creating a strong foundation and investing in the relationship, known as the connection between player and coach.

As the athlete’s journey continues, measuring sticks and performance indicators become very important. However, there is one indicator of feedback that will always be king. Winning or losing. It’s the best form of feedback ‘are you winning’?

This will always determine whether you are doing things ‘right’ and remove the complexities around sport, training and general preparation etc.

Nevertheless, as the athlete matures, measuring athletic success can take some turns and roundabouts. Whilst counting wins, trophies or breaking world records may be important to some they ultimately are the result of a complex process of athlete-coach relationships.

For many coaches, achieving success for their athletes or team doesn’t happen solely through physical prowess and natural talent.

These will take an athlete or team so far and relying on this innate ability will only take performance to a point.

It is through learning and investing in developing the critical mental skills that an athlete will rise to success far beyond imaginable.

For some athlete’s being on a starting line-up, or earning accolades define their success - but it does not make you a successful athlete.

They may be happy with that, maybe that’s all they wanted to achieve, it’s not up to coaches to force or mandate particular goals for an athlete. It’s an athlete’s self-responsibility to be crystal clear with want they want out of sport.

At Athlete IQ we believe that success is found in the pursuit of a goal. In getting the best out of yourself and amalgamating that within the enjoyment of the activity (the sport you love).

And in turn receiving a deep satisfaction equal to the effort given. Its why athletes become addicted to their craft – there’s no better feeling than working hard and reaching your goals. At the same time, there’s no other feeling out there than working hard and failing. Its rock-bottom.

It’s a constant rollercoaster ride, a personal battle and challenge, and is only overcome by help, parents and support networks. Internally pushing abilities and a developing a mindset to allow success but also pain to their furthest extent.

This can be done in a myriad of ways either with the help of mental strength coach, a sport psychologist or a coach well-experienced in this space.

Mental skills are a necessity for peak performance. I see talented athletes and athletes that are physical beasts let themselves down in the mental department, whether that’s attitude, dealing with pressure, work ethic, etc.

Regardless of what athletic event, whether your male or female, mental toughness skills are crucial for sport and non-sports situations as well. In my day, the language was – you have to be mentally tough to succeed, and that was the level of training and communication.

Nowadays with the level of research, behavioural studies and what we know about the brain, mental toughness can only be learned through exposure to scenario’s, situations, pain and suffering.

Note that mental acuity is not found or naturally emerges in an athlete’s arsenal, but carefully learned and developed by any athlete who gives an effort and a training environment that purposefully and deliberately creates situations for the brain to problem solve for the athlete.

If you want to learn more about that philosophy of training, see the GoldMine affect

The coach/es must create an environment of learning, but also an environment of growth. This happens only with struggle and ‘suffering’, where developing the mindset and thresholds of what the brain and the body can tolerate.

Thus, purposeful instruction and practice build not only physical skill, but enhance mental skills as well. Similar to physical challenges, building mental skills involves scenarios that are hard.

The deciding factor if it works is a drive to excel from the athlete. Success therefore is about pushing through and improving and breaking down barriers.

Just like in the strength and conditioning space – the body only adapts under stress. So, if you want to lose weight, or gain muscle, or maintain fitness, the body needs constant changes in stress to promote adaption.

It’s the same in mental training. Treat the brain like a muscle and reap the rewards.

Below are 5 major components to mental strength skill training;

Attitude: Choose and Maintain

Attitude is a little thing that makes a huge difference. Perhaps one of the most foundational skills to be acquired, attitude is a major part of success. Athletes first and foremost need to accept that attitude is a choice. Adopting a positive attitude will help individuals learn from both victories and failures, an important part of pursuing excellence.

It’s important to note that excellence and perfection are separate and distinct. Excellence is attainable and perfection is unreachable. A positive attitude helps an athlete distinguish these and find success through excellence and progression, not perfection. Most importantly, attitude breeds a character of respect; inside the game and out. This mental skill becomes a character trait that acts as a foundational pillar to achieve sustained success for an athlete.

Coaches need to make sure that they educate and make clear the importance of sound attitude. Athlete’s with great attitudes have the most important thing an athlete can have – which is the ability to learn. They are open to feedback, they are curious, the love trying new things, reflection and analysis are easily executed and athletes therefore can adapt to pressures and challenges more easily. The athlete has the capacity and mentality to adopt a growth mindset, instead of a fixed mindset.

Motivation: Discover and Retain

Without motivation, athletes would find it impossible to continue toward their goals. It is a mindset of awareness, a drive to tirelessly push forward. It develops persistence, which fuels participation. Instead of searching only for the goal, athletes benefit from the participation itself. Motivation can be found in the little things throughout an athlete’s training, such as increasing intensity or accomplishing daily objectives. Instead of an athlete always pushing for results, they discover motivation through participation in an athletic activity they are passionate about. Know that you will not always be motivated so you need to develop self-discipline.

Goals: Set and Pursue

Goal setting theory is a widely used and evidence-based approach to assist people in their own journey. Goal-setting theory refers to the effects of setting goals on subsequent performance – this was developed by Researcher Edwin Locke who found that individuals who set specific, yet difficult goals performed better than those who set general, easy goals. Locke offered five basic principles of goal setting: clarity, challenge, commitment, feedback, and task complexity.

Whilst goals do not need to be ridiculous, far-reaching or extravagant, the goals do need to be set realistically at an attainable level while still being challenging. Time and ability are the best goals to set because they can be measured, and their improvement develops more motivation.

Athletes must have awareness of their level and progress. Being honest with themselves will result in better and more accurate goals. Once goals are set, a successful athlete creates a plan to reach those goals in a timely manner. They can only be met through commitment, resilience and a plan. Know that one of the most effective ways to stay motivated is to set goals for yourself. However, the type and quality of goals you set affects how well they will work.

Emotions: Accept and Regulate

Emotions, especially anxiety, can quickly arise when it comes to athletic activities. Sports, competitions and races offer athletes the opportunity to practice an extremely important mental skill: accepting emotions as they come and learning how to deal with them. Emotions can distort or bolster other mental skills, so understanding and regulating them distinguishes the most successful athletes from the rest. Regulating arousal levels pre and mid performance is a vital skill to learn. It can conserve energy, delay fatigue, bolster problem solving ability and help execute game plans for efficiently as controlling emotions can assist in thinking and acting logically and rationally instead of acting on emotion. Make no mistake, great athletes use emotion as fuel, to help inspire, motivate and remind themselves what is required to perform. They tap into that source and elevate their game accordingly when they need to.

Feeling emotions and accepting their presence is the first step. Realizing they can be channelled into productive effort is the second step. The third is knowing when to temper emotions that are too strong and having the awareness to do so.

Concentration: Possess

Learning to concentrate, takes years of practice. First and foremost, emerging and elite athletes must know that a lack of concentration in a world full of constant distractions is the single biggest challenge for them. The best athletes are centred, whereby they live in the here and now, ‘the moment’….they ask what can I do right now? Or “what am I doing right now?

Resisting distractions is a mental skill that easily translates to both athletic and non-athletic activities. But rarely do athletes practice concentration. Only the high resourced clubs and players can afford that luxury. It requires planning. Athletes who want to be successful learn how to concentrate on the task at hand, even if it means blocking out the fans, blocking out the rivalry, and maintaining focus on what needs to be done.

Athletes who develop concentration can use that skill in myriad other life aspects, which in turn makes them better people. Whether it is completing a project at work or creating a piece of art, concentration leads to less errors and most importantly ‘higher quality work’. The buy in for athletes is that – you want a higher quality piece of work – learn to concentrate.

Engaging fully in an activity, as opposed to just giving an unfocused effort, will draw more satisfaction whether it involves athletics or life in general.

Once practiced enough, athletes can enter a state of hyper-focus. The peak state for performance together with ‘flow’. This is where problem solving ability increases. Part being a great ‘concentrator’ is to know when you are distracted and using tools and triggers, like self-talk and imagery to help you get back to being focused.

Athletes who are here-and-now, stay present and pay attention not only to the game, but the strategy, their opponents plan, and most importantly to themselves. You can watch great athletes who are practicing the mental skill of concentration all the time. Skills to possess for long – constant vigilance, and concentration on the present activity, increase success and satisfaction. For the athlete, as their level progresses, the game becomes more sophisticated, thus concentration and their ability to execute that skill may be the difference in winning and losing.


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