Sports Psychology: Integrating Mental Skills Training in Effective Coaching.

Sports Psychology: Integrating Mental Skills Training in Effective Coaching.

We all agree that developing mental skills is an essential part of being a successful athlete.

The ability to perform under pressure, the capacity to remain confident and resilient when competition conditions get tough, the skill to be able to relax and stay focused when feeling pain and fatigue in competition, concentration, visualization……coaches and athletes are unanimous that spending time developing mental skills is time well spent.

However, figuring out the best way to develop mental skills – particularly mental skills which can directly enhance the competition performance of athletes is another matter.

We all think working with a Sports Psychologist is a good idea but Sports Psychologists are like life partners……we know that having one is probably a good idea but it is next to impossible to find a good one.

Psychology is a relatively young profession and sports psychology is even more in its relative infancy. However, the potential impact of working with a mental skills professional who can successfully integrate a winning mind with a winning body is enormous.

Now let’s be honest. The relationship between coaches and sports psychologists has been as bumpy as an old country dirt road. There is fault on both sides.

Coaches have believed that the development of mental skills has been their exclusive domain and that they are responsible for enhancing the mental skills of their athletes.

Sports psychologist in general, until recently, also feel they have the exclusive rights to mental skills development.

And to make matters worse, sports psychologists have often operated behind closed doors (understandable considering the need for privacy, confidentiality and professional ethical behaviour standards) which has led to coaches mistrusting sports psychologists.

Clearly, the smartest thing to do is to look at the overall performance environment and create an integrated, cohesive, open, transparent partnership between the athlete, the coach and the sports psychologist.

In recent years, there has been an emergence of life coaches, performance coaches and others who offer their services to athletes and coaches promising improved performance through enhanced mental skills.

Without getting into a debate on semantics with the sports psychology professional membership associations, let’s refer to anyone who works with athletes to enhance their mental skills to improve their performance as a mental skills professional.

So where is this heading? How can coaches and athletes best utilise the knowledge, skills and experience of mental skills professionals to enhance the performance of athletes in training and competition?

  1. Get them off “the couch”– Whilst there are no doubt times where the need for privacy and confidentiality is critical, most of the time, mental skills professionals – like all sports scientists who want to make an impact on performance – need to be at the coal face working with athletes and coaches at training. Get them off the couch, get them out of the office and get them down to the court, the gym, the pool and the track;
  2. No secrets: it’s a performance partnership – there is no room for ego in high performance sport. Everyone needs to be working together as equals in a performance partnership with a common goal: to help each athlete realise their full potential;
  3. Think differently about thinking differently – change the way you think about integrating a mental skills professional into your program. Only a small percentage of the mental skills industry is dealing with mental illness – the vast majority of the industry is about enhancing performance, improving thinking processes and maximising potential. The only thing crazy about mental skills and sport is not using someone to help you enhance them!
  4. Work side by side: be inclusive – What’s stopping a tennis coach from hitting balls from one end of the court, while a mental skills professional works with the athlete at the other end of the court? Think of the benefits of having a mental skills professional out on the field with a football coach suggesting ways of enhancing the learning environment of players executing drills and skills? Imagine the advantages of incorporating a mental skills professional in gym work to help athletes with focus, concentration and visualisation techniques during actual training sessions? To get the best out of mental skills professionals….Integrate – Incorporate – Include.
  5. Coaches need coaches – there is no doubt that the faster coaches can accelerate their own rate of learning and development, the faster they can accelerate the rate of learning and development of their athletes. Having a mental skills professional working alongside coaches and helping to understand coaching, communication and themselves is a brilliant way to learn, grow and improve.

The smart integration of a mental skills professional into your coaching program can give both coaches and athletes a real performance edge.

Find someone who is well trained, experienced and qualified to do the job you want them to do but most importantly, find someone who can work as a partner in your performance program, someone who will respect the coach as a fellow sports performance professional and someone who is prepared to learn as much as they are prepared to teach.

Wayne Goldsmith


  • mick miller Posted January 24, 2010 8:24 pm

    Dear Wayne,
    Would it be fair to say that your latest article on mental skill professionals was great?
    keep up the good work !


    • Wayne Goldsmith Posted February 2, 2010 4:39 am

      Thanks Mick. Appreciate the support.

      I know people will get upset about this article and write to tell me the difference between sports psychologists, life coaches, performance coaches etc – but in the end, you have to find people who want to work with the coach and athlete, who can develop a rapport and understanding with coaches and athletes and are prepared to partner with coaches and athletes: it is a team effort with shared responsibilities and accountabilities where everyone is respected, listened to and trusted.


  • Gary Pritchard Posted January 29, 2010 11:29 am

    Wayne, good stuff…You’re spot on . there is plenty of theory out there. More practical application is the key for coaches and their athletes.
    Education on how to build the mental piece in with out sacrificing valuable practice time. creating adversity/ raising pressure/ “game like” conditions/ coping strategies / routines etc.. now we’re talkin’

    • Wayne Goldsmith Posted February 2, 2010 4:36 am

      Thanks Gary.

      Lots of people use phrases like “the game is all mental” or “it’s 99% mental” but who is actually incorporating mental skills training into every training session? Mental skills training is at least as important as technique, sports skill and physical preparation and in some sports it is THE most important skill.


  • AG Posted February 17, 2010 5:33 am

    Interesting. I just had this conversation recently with my husband who coaches. We (in Canada) do a tremendous amount for ‘supporting the athlete’ but very little for developing psychology for coaches. A couple of years ago I approached a colleague (sports psychologist) on developing tools for coaches because I was needing something for my own coaching practice. It made a huge difference for me.

    • Wayne Goldsmith Posted February 18, 2010 9:47 am

      Thanks AG,

      It is amazing how many coaches, athletes and the general public will say, “The game is all mental”, but then spend 99% of time preparing exclusively by physical training.

      And when they do work on mental skills training it is often in a classroom or consultation room and is not really integrated into the training environment.

      Mind and body working together in harmony – everyday – in all training and competition activities is the key.


  • Gareth Posted March 25, 2011 6:15 pm

    WG –

    Love the analogy about finding a good sport psych is like finding a good wife (b. impossible). As sport psychs ourselves we know this to be true and although there are many reasons for it the two biggest are:
    1. confusing titles (sport psych, sport and exercise psych, performance psychs…and that’s just us)!
    2. Many qualified sport psychs do a poor job and some non qualified mental coaches do a good job.
    Cheers, Gareth

    • Wayne Goldsmith Posted March 26, 2011 8:28 am

      Thanks Gareth,

      I think you are right. I am a big fan of the sports psychology “business” and believe that a good sports psyche / mental skills professional is a potential winning edge for your team but there are very very few of them available.

      My experience is that most people promoting themselves as sports psychologists – i.e. focused on sports performance, are in reality what I would call sports welfare psychologists – i.e. really good at working with athletes with anxiety, depression, mood disorders, social anxieties etc but don’t really understand concepts like “winning” and “living on the edge”.

      As a result, because a lot of your colleagues are focussing on fixing what’s broken instead of enhancing performance, the “one week wonders” – e.g. those people who do one week NLP courses and call themselves mental skills coaches – have found an opportunity and a niche in the sports industry.

      My opinion is that motivated people like you have to start kicking your professional association and the Universities to change the way they train, educate and develop the next generation of sports psychologists – and teach them to focus on winning rather than welfare.

      Incidentally my wife of 14 years is a psychologist so I managed to find both a great partner and an excellent professional!


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