Mental Strategies to Coach Sporting Professionals into Sporting Champions

The Secret of Success is Achieving More With the Mind.

I was recently asked to visit a newly constructed sporting facility as it proudly opened its doors to the sporting elite. It was billed as the best of it’s kind and I was exceptionally excited to see it in action.

I arrived and met with the other invitees, the press, the sponsors and us technicals. When we saw the building for the first time it was indeed impressive. Even from the outside it looked ultra modern and eerily menacing.

As we walked through the front doors we were greeted by a pristine, clean and busy hub. A state-of-the-art strength and conditioning gym; a lecture theater that would rival most major universities; a rehabilitation clinic many hospitals would sell a patient or two for (or at least their spare parts); a nutritionally managed canteen; a wade pool heated to optimise recovery; and lastly, a team meeting room that would make Google HQ jealous.

However, as we were lead around and proudly shown just what it was capable of, I was struck by just what it wasn’t doing. The more that opened and shut the more it was apparent to me it had been created looking from one aspect only. It was only catering to one discipline of the athlete’s preparation and competitive sustainability – there were gaping holes (in my opinion) in the thought process behind creating this athlete haven.

The physical aspect was truly outstanding, it came with everything: bells, whistles and even the kitchen sink. But so much more mental stimulation could have been built in to enhance and support the physical focus, to craft a more rounded environment for these sporting gladiators to prepare.

At the end of the tour I was asked my thoughts on the facility, and of course I willingly gave them. The centre truly was outstanding – however I do remember saying it was like entering into a 100m race with Usain Bolt having only one shoe on!

I am not too sure if they took my thoughts on board or not, it will be interesting to see!

When you look around at your own training environment, are you taking full advantage of what it has to offer, or is the vital ‘mental game’ missing.

I suggest conducting a walk-through of your facility with fresh eyes, even if you walk through it every day. Look at it with a different perspective. Does your centre:

–       cater to your athlete’s physical and mental needs

–       stimulate practical problem solving

–       condition left and right hemispheres independently and collectively

–       utilise peripheral learning, and

–       create an environment that motivates

The rapid expansion in our understanding of the brain and its capabilities through neural science has uncovered some of its amazing complexities and the more we understand the more we can utilise its natural powers. One such way is through our visual stimulants, those subconscious and peripheral learnings that sneak into our unconscious minds constantly. We know we only acknowledge a small amount of what our eyes can see yet our minds take so much more in.

Here are a couple of the ‘missing’ pieces from my tour:

In the reception there was no behavioural stimulation, no motivational triggers like posters of past champions, current champions, relevant video or stimulating audio. The clinical environment did nothing to lower anxiety or create a sense of calmness or belonging.

The Strength and Conditioning gym had no mental development exercises at all, no hemisphere stimulation games, coordination skill development, spacial awareness or cognitive patterning exercises or even strategic problem solving. When mixing physical and cognitive stimulation a greater degree of development can be obtained in both physical and mental areas.

Our right eye feeds into our left hemisphere of our brain and our left eye feeds into our right hemisphere of our brain so by placing stimulating imagery along the left hand side of a wall (just above eye level) will feed directly into our right spatially aware and ‘global’ side of the brain, whilst placing motivational phrases, or systematic strategies along the right hand side will feed directly into our left, more language and pattern oriented, hemisphere. These will be absorbed and categorised without us having to consciously process them.

This subtle layering has proven to covertly improve the cognitive stimulation and learning process. This strategy could be employed in the lecture theater, the team meeting room, the reception and even the canteen.

The rehabilitation centre was amazing, however little was geared towards the major role neural science plays in rehabilitation both physically and emotionally. I recently worked with a chiropractor who is taking this connection to a whole new level. Our mind controls our actions and so by stimulating the right neural receptors we in turn stimulate the correct body part.

One other area where I feel a great deal of emotional and communicative management benefit occurs is during peer interaction. Creating an open communication environment where team captains, managers and coaches are all on an equal standing with athletes, including juniors, allows different perspectives to add depth to the process. It also engages more productive and targeted communication.

Due to tradition this last aspect is often frowned upon by older players and avoided by organisations as they can feel threatened by the younger players. When handled correctly however it can add multiple dimensions to their influence and produce more targeted outcomes.

So take a look at what you have created and ask yourself, ‘Have I built-in the mental game here?’

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