February 4, 2007



It is safe to say that athletes are always looking for ways to improve their skill level. Some athletes try risky methods like steroid use or blood doping. Others are more rational and learn to use the power of their mind to enhance the execution of their physical skills. The purpose of this article is to introduce seven mental skills that will help athletes at all levels of competition, from recreational to elite, acquire optimal performance in their sport. As an athlete learns, uses and refines these seven mental skills, there is an increased ability to cope with adversity on and off the field.

The National Institute of Sports Professionals is teaching counseling professionals, who have a passion for sports, how to work with athletes, coaches, trainers, teams and parents. One goal is to set-up programs that educate athletes how to achieve excellence in their sport. One objective of a Sports Counselor is to teach an athlete how to pack a "Sports Psychology Bag", which carries a number of psychological skills and tools that when used, can help an athlete be prepared for anything that might occur during competition. Learning how to use these skills takes time and effort, there is no "magic wand".

The easiest way to make a Sports Counselor cringe is to ask him or her for a "magic wand" that will immediately solve a game-related performance problem. There is no "magic wand" to help a coach develop an instant rapport with the team. There is no "magic wand" to help an athlete develop self-confidence over night. These two goals are attainable, but it takes time and effort to attain them. The good news is that once the mental skills are mastered, the effects are longer lasting than what can be done with a "magic wand". Lets cut to the chase. Here are the seven mental skills that can help an athlete and the team improve their game:

1) Attention control skills.
2) Emotional management skills/Arousal regulation.
3) Goal setting.
4) Imagery skills.
5) Cognitive skills.
6) Communication skills.
7) Stress management skills.

Tool # 1) ATTENTION CONTROL TRAINING: Concentration skills are important. A lapse in concentration could mean the difference between success and defeat. An elite athlete has learned how to pay attention to what is going on inside of his/her head and within the environment during practice and a game. The athlete can analyze, mentally rehearse and execute a performance in a matter of seconds. Concentration skills help an athlete deal with pressure/tension, manage internal stimulation and cope with distractions. How can the athlete use their internal dialogue to their favor? How does an athlete shift their way of thinking to avoid obsessing over a mistake? Is the focus more on the outcome of the match or on the process of getting there? How does an athlete clear the mind of distractions like self-doubt and fear which can lead to worry and anxiety? How does an athlete learn to use the power of concentration to overcome adverse mental distractions or intrusive thoughts that are contraindicated to optimal performance?

One mental process that creates a stable base to help with performance is called, "CENTERING". The athlete learns to focus on their breathing to feel more grounded and relaxed. This "CENTERING" process gets rid of racing thoughts that can impair athletic performance. Focusing on our breaths is the first step to an increased ability to mentally concentrate and pay attention to what needs to be done on the field.

Another "Attention Control" tool that keeps an athlete internally focused, which helps clear the mind of distractions and manage physical tension, is called, "SELF-TALK". The objective is to mentally focus on one or two key phrases to help decrease muscular tension to help improve performance. During a race, a runner might say to himself, "Run fast". A batter on a baseball team could say something like, "Watch the pitcher's rhythm as the ball is thrown; see and hit baseball". The athlete's objective is to shift the focus from external distractions and muscular tension to the task at hand.

An awareness of the breathing rhythm will help provide the structure to accomplish the need to be internally focused so energy can be spent on the task at hand. Specific "self-talk" phrases that help to mentally rehearse what needs to be done can decrease distractions and refocus energy.

Tool # 2) EMOTIONAL MANAGEMENT/AROUSAL REGULATION: The arousal continuum has a range starting with deep sleep and extending to extreme excitement. Feelings cannot be controlled, but they can be managed. An elite athlete knows how to emotionally prepare for an event, yet is able to pace him/herself. This means having the ability to manage the physical symptoms (increased heart rate, sweating, muscle tension, dry mouth, increased urination) associated with an increased arousal state. The athlete's interpretation of the event makes the difference between coping with the anxiety and not coping with it.

There are two sets of techniques athletes can use to manage the arousal state:

A) Muscle to Mind: This includes progressive relaxation skills, which is the process of tensing and relaxing each muscle group in the body to learn how to identify the difference between tensed and relaxed muscles.

B) Mind to Muscle: This includes learning skills like meditation imagery and self-hypnosis. The athlete takes time to focus on his/her breathing, as one example, and then says to him/herself, "My heart rate is calm and regular."

In contrast, some athletes may need to learn how to induce an arousal state to prepare for a competition. Here are a few examples:

A) Teammates can talk to each other in a competitive mode.
B) Listen to music.
C) "Self-Talk" can include the use of active words like, "EXPLODE" or "RUSH".

Tool # 3) GOAL SETTING: A simple but powerful tool. This tool provides structure for an athlete to achieve optimal performance. Some guidelines:

a) Be specific.
b) Be realistic.
c) Progress from making short-range goals to making long-range ones.
d) Focus on performance goals rather than outcome goals.
e) Set goals for practice as well as for competition.
f) Be positive rather than negative. "I want to hit the ball" vs. "I don't want to strike out."
g) Establish a target date for achieving goals.
h) Make sure goals are measureable.
i) Use a training journal to record progress.
j) Evaluate progress, get feedback from others.
k) Enlist the support from others when setting goals to decrease self-sabotage potential.

Tool # 4) IMAGERY: Using all of the senses to create an experience in the mind. The ability to mentally rehearse one's performance from beginning to end before it actually happens. Types of imagery: To be able to watch oneself perform from a 3rd party perspective as well as from one's own eyes. Uses:

a) Skill acquistion and refinement.

b) Visualizing all of the plays in the playbook.

c) To increase self-awareness. Do legs feel heavy while running? Imagine legs as pistons in an engine.

d) Use imagery to see oneself going to talk to the coach to decrease feelings of intimidation.

e) Recovery from injury. Imagining that physical skills remain sharp while out on recovery. This helps to cope with the pain and speeds recovery.

f) Helps to calm the mind to help with the execution of fine motor skills.

When practicing mental imagery, be aware of distractions like negative self-talk. Be aware that self-talk can either enhance or interfere with our performance. While practicing mental imagery, use all five senses to mentally rehearse overcoming adversities like negative self-talk to decrease chances of becoming distracted during a game. A Sports Counselor can guide an athlete through this process.

Tool # 5) COGNITIVE SKILLS: Our thinking affects our feelings and actions. An athlete's goal: To develop specific thinking habits like "mastery of a task" (mentally preparing for a game), and "learned optimism" (a predisposition to stay focused on the positive by using self-talk as a key to this type of cognitive control). The Sports Counselor's goal: To help athletes think more effectively. This could mean teaching athletes to focus on strengths and desired outcomes and the "here and now" rather than deficits. A golfer would focus on hitting the ball on to the green (positive) instead of not hitting the ball in to the water (failure).

Self-talk is verbal persuasion used to influence one's expectation to succeed at a specific task. It helps us to focus on what we want to do; the point of power is on the "here and now". For a bowler, this means bowling one frame at a time. Athletes need to monitor their self-talk during practice and competition. Sports Counselors help athletes become aware of their self-talk to help them be in more control of their game.


a) Thought stopping - "STOP" the racing thoughts.

b) Cognitive restructuring - Using positive self-statements to focus on what can be done. This increases self-confidence.

c) Reframing - Rather than think/say, "I am tense and anxious", say, "I am excited, I am ready!"

d) Rational thinking - Focusing on the task at hand rather than the whole game. This decreases mental pressure and perfectionistic thinking.

e) Affirmations - Repeating constructive statements over and over that reflect a positive attitude and image of oneself. A golfer might affirm, "I am a consistent putter."

Tool # 6) COMMUNICATION SKILLS: This set of tools is the foundation for any winning sports program. Communication inspires motivation, team dynamics, setting goals and objectives and expectations of athletes and coaches. One chief complaint of many athletes, "My coach won't listen to me." Another role of a Sports Counselor is to teach the team how to build rapport, how to attentively listen to each other, and how to earn each other's trust/respect.

Just like in any marriage, conflict resolution is important. Learning how to express feelings constructively helps to increase understanding/empathy among team members. This builds a strong marriage between team members! Problem solving, decision making and assertiveness training are other communication skills that can be taught by a competent Sports Counselor.

Tool # 7) STRESS MANAGEMENT SKILLS: These skills are an integration of tools 1 thru 6 above. They enhance an athlete's ability to cope with adversity by reducing distress. There are three different approaches to take:

1) ENVIRONMENTAL - Preparing for different conditions like travel and weather.
2) SOMATIC - Using relaxation techniques, physical exercise, nutrition and injury recovery.
3) COGNITIVE - Using self-talk to cope with arousal.

INTRODUCTION, INTEGRATION, IMPLEMENTATION: It is the job of the Sports Counselor or coach to introduce the seven mental skills to the athlete/team. Everyone from the recreational to the elite athlete can benefit. Off-season, pre-season or even year round is the best time to implement. Athletes benefit the most when skills are practiced during the first or last 15 to 30 minutes of practice. Set specific mental goals each time. The head coach needs to be present during this time to add value to the mental skills training program. If a Sports Counselor initiates the program, it is a good idea to analyze and evaluate it down the line. The counselor needs to get feedback from the coaching staff and athletes.

POTENTIAL PROBLEM AREAS: Player reluctance to participate, lack of time spent with individual athletes within a team setting and less than full cooperation from the coaching staff.

Athletes need to be encouraged to use and refine these mental skills so that these tools can be pulled from their Sports Psychology Bag at any time, even when faced with adversity. Learning how to cope with adversity decreases the chances of an athlete becoming dependent on the Sports Counselor.


Thanks to Dr. Sharon Colgan and Dr. Jeff Jones, who presented the information in this article at a Sports Counselor conference in San Antonio, Texas in 2001. Portions of this article have been paraphrased from their audio cassette tape.

Written by,
Mark S. Rogers, LPC.
Licensed Professional Counselor and
Certified Sports Counselor, Diplomate.
Robert and Abby sporting their Stooltime Counseling ball caps. Thanks for your support! Note how the bill on each cap protects your eyes from potentially damaging sun rays.

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