What Does Psychological Skills Training Entail?

Psychological skills training (PST) refers to systematic and consistent practice of mental or psychological skills for the purpose of enhancing performance, increasing enjoyment, or achieving greater sport and physical activity self-satisfaction.

The methods and techniques that are standard elements of PST originally came from a wide range of sources, mostly within mainstream psychology. These areas included behavior modification, cognitive therapy, goal setting, attentional control, progressive muscle relaxation and systematic desensitization.

Coaches and athletes all know that physical skills need to be regularly practiced and refined through literally thousands and thousands of repetitions.

 Similar to physical skills, psychological skills such as maintaining and focusing concentration, regulating arousal levels, enhancing confidence, and maintaining motivation also need to be systematically practiced.

PST programs can sometimes be comprehensive and involve a variety of skills. Or they might focus on just one or two skills. The practical constraints of a situation (e.g., only a few weeks to learn and implement a PST program) might dictate the type of program that would be most beneficial. However, regardless of the specifics, mental training is important and following some general guidelines will make it most effective.

Why Is PST Important?

All sport and exercise participants fall victim to mental letdown and mistakes. Which of the following sport and exercise experiences have you had or have you known others to have?

  • You walked off a playing field in disgust after losing a game you believed you should have won.
  • You choked at a critical point in a competition.
  • You felt depressed because you weren't recovering quickly enough from an injury.
  • You lacked the desire or motivation to exercise.
  • You mind wandered during a competition.
  • You became angry and frustrated with your performance and put yourself down.

Chances are you have had at least one of the experiences on this list. Conversely, most sport performers also know what it feels like to be “in the zone,” where everything seems to come together effortlessly and performance is exceptional.

Mental and emotional components often overshadow and transcend the purely physical and technical aspects of performance.  

The importance of mental skills is seen in the highly valued attribute of mental toughness. For example, in a study of elite athletes, it was found that mental toughness was perceived to be the most important determinant of success in sport. In addition, Olympic gold medalists perceived mental toughness as a crucial prerequisite of athletic success.

Although mental toughness is defined different ways, it usually has to do with an athlete’s ability to focus, ability to rebound from failure, ability to cope with pressure, determination to persist in the face of adversity, and mental resilience.

Because mental toughness is perceived to be critical for athletic success and PST targets building and developing these mental skills, the importance of PST is obvious.

In fact, most coaches consider sport to be at least 50% mental when competing against an opponent of similar ability, and certain sports, such as golf, tennis, and figure skating, are consistently viewed as 80% to 90% mental.

Jimmy Connors, known for his mental tenacity and toughness, has often stated that professional tennis is 95% mental.

Tiger Woods said that at the Masters in which he won by a whopping 18 strokes, he just needed to remain focused and get his “mental game” in order.

Physical ability being fairly equal, the winner is usually the athlete who has better mental skills. Consider fluctuations in your own day-to-day performance. How is it that on some days you can’t do anything wrong, whereas on other days you can’t do anything right: You know you haven’t lost your physical skills-rather, your mental skills fluctuate.

Still many serious athletes and teams allot 10 to 20 hours weekly to physical practice and little, if any, time to mental practice. This proportion doesn't make sense.

Why Do Sport and Exercise Participants Neglect PST?

If psychological skills are so important for success, why do people spend so little time developing psychological skills to enhance performance? There are three basic reasons why PST is neglected by many coaches and participants.

  • Lack of Knowledge: Many people don't really understand how to teach or practice psychological skills. Coaches and teaching pros have told me that they simply do not feel comfortable teaching mental skills. They know about skill execution and technique (or "xs and Os") but not about how to teach specific mental skills.

  • Misunderstanding About Psychological Skills: People don't enter the world equipped with mental skills-it is a misconception that champions are born rather than made. Great athletes were blessed with a congenital mental toughness and competitive drive as part of their personality, it doesn't quite work that way. Yes, we are all born with certain physical and psychological predispositions, but skills can be learned and developed, depending on the experiences we encounter.

  • Lack Of Time: A third reason that coaches and athletes cite for not practicing psychological skills is too little time. Some coaches say that their players barely had adequate time to practice physical skills, much less mental ones. Yet people reason that they lost a particular game or competition because "I wasn't up for the game today," "I just couldn't seem to concentrate," or "I got too tight and choked." The issue is one of priorities.

When Is The Best Time To Implement A PST Program?

It is best to initiate a program during the off-season or pre-season, when there is more time to learn new skills and athletes are not so pressured about winning. Some athletes can take several months to a year to fully understand new psychological skills and integrate them into actual competitions. Mental training is an ongoing process that needs to be integrated with physical practice over time.

Let's talk about it.