Put your mental where your mouth is
November 8th, 2012

As we enter the twilight of 2012 we keenly await some huge sporting fixtures – well, certainly those of us that follow the “Big 3” in South Africa. Winning rugby tests overseas has been shown to be tougher than we think. Winning cricket test series in Australia is no park stroll and soccer on a weekly basis, both locally and internationally, serves up some huge fixtures. One thing I can assure you about all these games is that in the pre and post-match pressers there will be talk of ‘the processes’, learning ‘going ahead’ and ‘overcoming mental hurdles’. Why? Because I believe that at the top level, people have started to realise just how important the mental approach to  sport is – or have they?


Personally I think there is a shift in that direction, but those with the power to do so aren’t  necessarily consciously go about trying to improve the minds of their players, nor for that matter, do they know how to. And why should they. More often than not it’s a coach’s technical competence that gets him/her noticed early on and the man-management side of the role is seen as a bonus. If however we are constantly going to talk about how important it is to be mentally sound as a player or as a team, then I believe it’s time we started to look at how to achieve this. More so that we upskill our coaches in this area otherwise we are going to remain scratching our heads at poor results. It’s a fact that in the London 2012 Olympics only 21 % of the athletes achieved their season’s best when it really counted.  Scary!

So,  what I have finally come to realise – and I have tested my thinking with a current Springbok stalwart, a Super Rugby coach, and a professional soccer coach amongst others – is that in order to improve mental performance it requires a team effort from all coaches and influential leaders. What improving mental aptitude in a team is not, at elite level anyway, is a series of workshops delivered by one person on an irregular basis where players are spoken to and invited to contribute for an hour and then seen the following week. How could it be – there are 168 hours in a week that may affect a mindset and to expect to influence the mind significantly in just 1 hour of that week is a tough call. Any change here would be rare. In these sorts of sessions the benefit is more to do with team dynamic and building collective energy towards a task – useful of course, but not the Full Monty by any stretch of the imagination.


Improving mental aptitude is looking at the player and team as a whole, and examining all the inputs that affect them and whether they lead to the desired outputs on any given match day. It is looking at how the current technical work and physical work being done by the player is affecting the performance. It is then looking at what kind of thinking patterns the player may have, how connected to his teammates he is, how trusting he is of the management, how he’s feeling about his game and the rest of his life, what beliefs and pictures he holds in his head that may be helping or hindering him and what routines he has for himself. All these aspects can be worked on by a mental coach, but if one examines them closely, all are equally affected by his coach, his teammates, his physical trainer and his family as well. So what does this mean?  In essence, it means that improving players’ mental aptitude and their ability to perform is a combined job of all the coaches as each one of the departments will affect each other. For example – you train well in the gym and you may start to believe more in yourself.  You work hard on your concentration using focusing techniques and this immediately helps you in analysis sessions or skills sessions and thus technically you improve. You improve your fitness and this begins to help you in training and thus your technical coach can work better with you. You discover your true purpose for playing and do some inner-searching and this in turn helps you work harder for your physical trainer in the gym. The list goes on – the fact is that the mental, technical and physical side all impact each other interdependently and thus to bracket any department (and this usually happens to mental work) is counterproductive.

At a recent Neuroscience conference it was suggested that the human brain makes 10 000 unconscious decisions for every 1 conscious decision made. This adds further to the argument that to compartmentalise things is wrong. When a sportsman plays he plays largely on instinct and thus has less ability to distinguish between the messages he has heard from numerous coaches in different departments.

In a team sport therefore, the most important predictor of performance is often the culture that is created by all coaches working together to create a mindset that enables performance. The mental coach should act as someone who helps individuals overcome any barriers that may exist personally, who advises and assists the other coaches in creating the culture that is best for that particular team and who helps facilitate energy and trust within a team when needed, but always in conjunction with the rest of the coaching staff.

If getting players to execute their skills, stick to plans, make good decisions under pressure and show commitment and bravery are the desired outcomes, it is vital that the work done mentally, technically and physically is in synch at all times, is well thought out with a clearly defined outcome. Thus the culture that is built within a team is one that promotes high performance and strong minds. Constrain the mental coach to the classroom and he’ll be just that – someone with influence in the classroom but less on the field. Integrate the players’ minds into all your work and you will begin to see improvements and ultimately results.

Having reached this conclusion I am able now to look back at what has worked and what hasn’t, both for myself and for other mental coaches, with a far greater understanding.