6 Mental Skills All Athletes Should Develop

Great mental skills don’t guarantee success, but they do increase your chances of performing at your best and excelling in those critical moments. In this article, we’re going to delve into what mental skills training is, what techniques can be used to improve mental skills and their benefits on performance. So, let’s get started.

What is mental Skills Training?

Mental skills training, also known as psychological skills training, is an umbrella term that covers several techniques used to enhance mental qualities that improves performance. These techniques include:

1. Self-Talk

2. Mental Imagery

3. Goal Setting

4. Emotion Regulation

5. Relaxation

6. Self-Efficacy

Similar to physical, technical and tactical skills in sport, mental skills take time to learn and develop. They must be practiced on a regular basis for them to have a benefit on performance.

Mental Skills #1: Self-Talk, the voice in our head

Self-talk is the little voice in our head that talks to us every day, this voice can influence our thoughts, feelings and actions depending on what we say to ourselves. Our voice can be a bit like the angel and devil on our shoulders.

The angel is our positive self-talk, it is the little voice in our head that is encouraging (e.g., “come on!”), motivational (e.g., “I can do this!”) and provides us with instructions (e.g., “keep your head up”). Our angels’ voice can increase confidence, control anxiety and helps to focus our attention on the task at hand, which in turn, enhances performance.

However, our little voice might not always sound like this and our devil, also known as negative self-talk, might pipe up. Our devil is emotional, anxiety producing and focuses on the what if’s, could haves and should haves. It might sound like “don’t miss,” “what were you thinking, you idiot!” or “I should have scored.” This is associated with worse performance.

It is first important to know what the different forms of self-talk are and be aware of how you speak to yourself. The next step is to refine how you speak to yourself and dial up the volume of your angel’s voice.

Mental Skills #2: Mental Imagery, our mental theatre

Mental imagery is also called visualization or mental rehearsal. It involves creating or re-creating a sensory rich experience in our mind, using all of our senses (sight, taste, sound, smell and touch) to make the experience as realistic and vivid as possible – almost like having a theatre playing in our mind.

The experience can involve an athlete visualizing themselves performing a specific task in a specific environment. They can use an image from a successful performance in the past or build a scenario in the future and walk through it step by step completing each skill perfectly.

Mental imagery is a powerful technique to enhance performance. The brain perceives imagery experiences as real, so it sends out the electrical signals as it would when the athlete actually performs the skill. It also enhances confidence, motivation and allows an athlete to rehearse performances when injured.

Mental Skills #3: Goal Setting, our road map

Every athlete wants to win, but many athletes show up to training, complete the session the coach has planned for them and then goes home. With this, it is easy to go through training and an entire season with every intent on wanting to win, but little purpose or direction on how.

Setting goals can be our road map to guide us from where we are now to where we want to be. It can provide us with direction, purpose, focus, motivation and a clear way to measure our progress.

A good goal is specific, measurable, attainable, practical, time-bound, motivating and is best when shared with others. Goals can also be split into short-term and long-term goals and be process, outcome and performance goals.

Mental Skills #4: Emotion Regulation

Who would have thought sport could produce so many different emotions? These emotions can produce many different responses, which can be either functional or dysfunctional.

Let’s take anger as an example – anger can be functional for an athlete if it motivates or hypes them up ready for a game, but at other times, it can be dysfunctional if an athlete becomes angry at the referee’s decision. If an athlete’s emotion remains dysfunctional, it might result in a yellow card and negatively influence their performance.

When an athlete’s current emotion is dysfunctional, they must alter their emotion to a more desired emotion which will require them to employ emotion regulation strategies. This involves the automatic or deliberate use of strategies to initiative, maintain, modify or display emotions. These strategies can be hedonic or instrumental.

Mental Skills #5: Relaxation

Sport can be stressful and intense; it can lead to all sorts of thoughts running through our head and tension in our body. When this happens, how often do you take a step back and relax? Now, I don’t mean the type of relaxation where you put your feet up and relax on the sofa with a cuppa, I’m talking about a slightly different type of relaxation.

The type of relaxation I’m talking about can be used to reduce physical arousal (e.g., muscle tension, nausea, shaking etc) and anxiety (e.g., stress, worries, doubts etc) while increasing our focus on certain tasks.

Strategies to do this can be categorized as either physical or mental. Physical relaxation strategies include breathing exercises and progressive muscular relaxation whereas mental relaxation strategies include mindfulness meditation and autogenic training.

Mental Skills #6: Self-Efficacy, our inner belief

Have you ever met someone who never doubts their ability to successfully perform a skill? They have full belief in themselves that they will score a goal or make that all important pass, this is known as having high self-efficacy. It is confidence in a specific situation.

Having high self-efficacy has many benefits – athletes who have high self-efficacy, typically embrace challenges, are persistent when the going gets tough and generally work harder – which is a great mindset to have in sport and will benefit performance.

Summarising Mental Skills Training

Self-talk, mental imagery, goal setting, emotion regulation, relaxation and self-efficacy are all mental skills we can use to enhance our mental qualities, which can support us during those critical moments in our athletic performance.

Remember, just like physical skills, there is a “use it or lose it” element, which means these mental skills must be practiced and included in your weekly training schedule.

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • Dingley, E (2021). 6 Mental Skills All Athletes Should Develop. Available from: https://sportscienceinsider.com/6-mental-skills-all-athletes-should-develop/. [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].

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Emily, co-founder of Sport Science Insider, graduated from the University of Leeds in 2020 and went on to become an accredited S&C coach with the UKSCA in 2022. A former athlete herself, Emily has since gone on to deliver S&C coaching for the Southern Academy of Sport, GB Rowing, GB Taekwondo and works currently as a full-time S&C coach at the University of Leeds.