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Sport Psychology

Training the Mind for Competition

Hammermeister, Jon PhD*; VonGuenthner, Shannon MS

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Current Sports Medicine Reports: June 2005 - Volume 4 - Issue 3 - p 160-164
doi: 10.1097/01.CSMR.0000306200.41691.40
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The identification of an optimal psychologic state for sport performance, and more importantly, the ability to train the mind for that state, has been the goal of sport psychology researchers for over 30 years. Although there appears to be some individual variations, a general profile of the optimal mental climate for sport performance has been established. In a seminal study examining athletes “greatest moments,” Ravizza [1] found that most athletes have the following perceptions: 1) loss of fear, 2) no thought of performance, 3) total immersion in the activity, 4) narrow focus of attention, 5) effortless performance, 6) feeling of being in complete control, 7) time/space disorientation (usually slowed down), and 8) universe perceived to be integrated and unified. The use of mental training tools (such as goal setting, imagery, self-talk, relaxation) and skills (such as concentration, self-confidence, and arousal regulation) have been strongly linked with this profile [2,3•].

Although there is little debate over the importance of this mental climate for superior functioning in sport settings, nor over the role of mental skills training (MST) in enhancing this climate, some disagreement exists in the sport psychology literature over the most effective way to deliver these mental training strategies. After a brief review of the literature on optimal performance states for athletes, this paper examines some of the criticisms raised in the sport psychology field over how to best deliver the mental tools and skills necessary for optimal performance. Finally, we discuss how a new method of delivering these tools and skills may enhance the ability of athletes to optimally train their mind for competition.

The Optimal Mental Climate for Sport Performance

The psychologic construct of flow has been strongly linked with optimal performance in sport [4,5,6•]. Csikszentmihalyi [7] defined flow as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. Athletes frequently define great performances by utilizing terms that describe flow states (eg, playing out of my mind, in the zone). Jackson [4,5] and Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi [6•] have identified the following fundamentals of the flow experience: 1) the challenge of the situation matches the skill of the athlete, 2) awareness and action merge, 3) goals are clear, 4) unambiguous feedback tells the athlete in a passive way that their performance is correct, 5) total and complete concentration, 6) clear sense of being in control of one's performance, 7) loss of self-consciousness, 8) transformation of time, and 9) it is an autotelic experience (ie, it's fun, enjoyable, and very motivating). Although flow states are not limited to sport settings, they seem to be a strong covariate with “best ever” sport performances. For example, in interviews with elite international level athletes regarding their top performances, Jackson [4] found that the psychologic states of these athletes coincided with the characteristics of flow. The athletes described feeling in complete control, confident, completely absorbed in the activity, and perceived a sense that they “could do no wrong.”

Mental skills training is strongly related to the enhancement of this optimal performance climate. MST typically encompasses sport psychology tools such as relaxation, imagery, self-talk, arousal control, and goal setting to improve sport psychology skills such as self-confidence, focusing, and motivation. A wealth of peer-reviewed literature points to the conclusion that these individual psychologic skills and tools are associated with superior performance in athletes. These include goal setting [8–11], use of visualization and imagery [12–14], concentration and focus [15], self-regulation and arousal control [16–19], self-confidence [20,21], and positive self-talk [22–25].

The role that mental preparation plays in enhancing optimal performance states is further supported by the work of Orlick and Partington [2], who sampled over 200 Canadian Olympic athletes in an attempt to assess factors related to optimal mental readiness and psychologic elements of success. Factors such as total commitment to performance excellence, high-quality training with daily goal setting, competition simulation, and imagery training emerged as being most important to the success of these elite performers. Furthermore, Williams and Krane [3•], in a review of the peak performance literature, concluded that athletes are able to achieve an optimal mental climate for peak sport performance by employing the mental tools of goal setting, imagery, arousal control, thought control, the use of competitive plans, coping strategies, and mental routines.

In elite sport populations, Jones and Hardy [26] utilized a case study design to examine how six Olympic athletes from different sports credited sport mental skills training as a component of their Olympic and World Championship performances. When coping with negative aspects of stress, these athletes depended heavily on goal-setting, relaxation, visualization, attention control, and confidence building strategies to aid their performance. Of these, visualization emerged as the most salient tool for enhancing performance. They also found that two specific mental skills, concentration and self-confidence, were the most important psychologic attributes for performance success.

In another study examining the link between mental training skills and athletic performance in elite athletes, Gould et al. [27•] compared four Olympic teams in the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games that were expected to medal but did not, to four teams that were expected to medal and did. Both coaches and athletes were interviewed. The four teams that did not medal had these commonalities: 1) mental skills training was not consistent or sufficiently emphasized, 2) team cohesion was inconsistent, 3) communication was lacking, and 4) environmental stress of living in the Olympic Village was not adequately prepared for. The teams that did medal also reported several commonalities, including 1) strategic and consistent planning with a sport psychologist, 2) event planning (opening ceremonies and living arrangements), 3) training for positive mental attitude, 4) team cohesion, and 5) adherence to peak performance mental plans.

Finally, Greenspan and Feltz [28] confirmed the strong links between MST programs and sport performance. In a review examining the effectiveness of MST programs, they found that sport psychology interventions produced positive performance effects in 17 of 23 published studies across many competitive sport settings, including such diverse sports as golf, karate, skiing, boxing, basketball, volleyball, gymnastics, baseball, tennis, and figure skating.

Limitations of Mental Skills Training Programs

Despite what seems to be considerable support for the use of MST programs, there are several limiting factors to the strength of these conclusions. Sport psychologists and performance enhancement consultants have suggested the need for more controlled studies to provide more definitive results and more clearly identifying the directionality of the treatment effects on performance [29,30]. Several researchers have emphasized the need to further evaluate the effectiveness of MST programs on not only performance measures, but also on knowledge acquisition and actual usage of mental strategies [31]. Suggestions have been made that research employing single-subject designs is needed to further investigate program effectiveness because it takes into account individual differences [32]. Other suggestions include examining efficacy of programs over extended length of time [31], a need for more specific description and standardization of interventions [32,33], and more accountability for individual and situational differences which may impact MST effectiveness [34,35]. The most prevalent limitation/conclusion from an evaluation of the MST program literatures is the need to focus on individualization of programs to address the specific needs and goals of each athlete [31,36–38]. Furthermore, there is a consensus in the literature indicating the need for more controlled studies investigating different and more systematic methods of implementation and the use of idiographic designs for more detailed investigations of individual effects [29,30,36,38]

Models of Mental Skills Training Delivery Programs and Interventions

One of the limitations in evaluation of the effectiveness of MST programs is the lack of standardized methods or an established paradigm of program delivery. Although MST interventions are generally considered beneficial, there is a lack of knowledge regarding the method of delivery that is most effective for the advancement of knowledge by athletes. According to Weinberg and Gould [29], MST packages should generally incorporate three phases: education, acquisition, and practice. In the education phase, participants learn the basic concepts of, and the value of mental skills to their performance. In the acquisition phase, the focus is on strategies and techniques for learning the mental skills. Finally, in the practice phase, skills are automated and integrated into practice and performance situations. However, in reality, every sport psychology consultant is different and applies different methodologies to create what is hoped to be an effective MST program. Programs are made of varying techniques including group sessions, individual sessions, educational presentations, problem solving interventions, and workshops. MST programs can also vary in timeframe, evaluative protocol, and intervention follow-up.

In response to this lack of standardization, several sport psychologists have put forth suggestions for guidelines in designing MST programs. For example, Boucher and Rotella [39] designed a MST program specific to closed-skill performances in sport. Taylor [40] theorized that MST programs should be dependant on the needs of athletes relative to the demands of their specific sport (length of a competition, physical demands of the skills, amount of time in actual performance vs downtime). Unidimensional versus holistic approaches incorporating environmental and personality factors have also been put forth [41].

Leffingwell et al. [42], suggest the development of sport psychology interventions tailored according to athlete's stage of change based on the steps of the transtheoretic model [43]. Similar to fitness program implementation, the stages of change model take into account the temporal and motivational aspects of learning and change. Sport psychologists must attempt to match interventions to the stage of change the individual athlete is in and it will increase adherence and learning. Utilization of the transtheoretic model may also prove valuable in evaluating the effectiveness of MST programs in measuring the rate of psychologic skill attainment or stage of learning and technique utilization [42,44].

Other theorists have recently put forth models of MST program delivery based on the tenets of periodization [36,45]. Commonly known in the realm of exercise physiology, periodization is a framework for dividing training into periods of progressive phases (preparatory/conditioning, competition, peaking, and transition/rest) based on a balance of key training variables (ie, volume, intensity, specificity, and rest) designed to achieve optimal performance during important competitions [46]. Several sport psychologists suggest that periodized approaches to physical training can also be applied to mental training. The periodized approach should provide a systematic and structured method of program delivery that facilitates long term adherence and appropriate skill development for individual athletes throughout the training cycle (B. Holliday; Unpublished data, 2004).

Balague [36] proposed a model based on this periodization framework suggesting that, just as physical training is divided into progressive phases, mental training can also be divided into periods, including 1) foundational mental skill development (preparation phase), 2) skill learning to aid in technique development or to be utilized during competition (competition phase), 3) mental skills specific to competitive peaking and optimal performance situations (emotional control, concentration and focus— peaking phase), and 4) mental recovery and skill maintenance (transition phase). Mental tools that are appropriate for each period can be more effectively learned and utilized. The mental skills training would need to coincide with the demands of the specific physical training phase and performance goals toward which the athlete is working. Application of this proposed model of periodization of mental skills training has not been empirically tested.

Burton et al. [45] have also developed a model for periodization of mental skills training. The key periodization variables of volume, intensity, specificity and rest are operationally redefined for mental training. Volume of mental training incorporates the amount of targeted mental skills to be learned (eg, visualization or goal-setting), the amount of mental training techniques or exercises used to acquire these skills, and the duration of time spent practicing or completing these techniques or exercises. Intensity of mental training refers to the level of mental exercise difficulty and increasing similarity of the location of the training session to actual competition situations (eg, at home, in practice, or in competition). Specificity of mental training is the degree that the mental training actually matches the actual demands of the physical task. Mental training recovery addresses the need to escape from mental fatigue usually following strenuous mental activity. Each of these mental training variables will vary in accordance to the particular phase within the periodization framework to ensure appropriate learning and practice during the proper time [45].

A New Model of Mental Skills Training Program Delivery

Burton et al. [45] proposed that this periodized model of MST program delivery may effectively address and solve some of these methodological issues commonly cited as MST intervention limitations. To further develop the idea and structure of a complete MST program, the periodization framework [45] was linked to the Mental Skills Menu developed by Hammermeister [47]. The mental skills menu is a progressive list of exercises for various mental skills (eg, goal-setting, visualization, arousal control) that is systematically varied in type and number across each of the periodized phases in order to ensure proper training volume, intensity, specificity, and recovery of mental skill training. The menu also allows sport psychologists to organize the mental skills taught in an individual training program based on the specific strengths and weaknesses of each athlete. The menu format is also an easy framework for the athletes themselves to access and implement of their own accord, thereby effectively helping athletes to be more proactive in their mental skills training and elicit more positive experiences for individual athletes. The menu format, based on periodized phases of training, provides a single tool that can be utilized by sport psychologists to develop highly individualized programs.

Hammermeister [47] informally used this model of MST in his work with the US Olympic cross-country ski team. The physical and mental skills of the elite skiers were assessed at the beginning of the season. Then, a schedule of mental training exercises was developed for each athlete by picking and choosing from a systematically varied menu of skills based on appropriate mental skill needs for each periodized training phase. Even though the athletes were not made formally accountable, anecdotal results indicated that a majority of the Olympic team coaches, staff and athletes responded in a positive fashion, supporting the notion that the periodized menu format helped the athletes to practice mental skills in a more systematic way [47].

The anecdotal work of Hammermeister [47] paved the way for an empirical test of this new program delivery model. Anderson and Hammermeister [48] designed a season-long periodized approach to MST utilizing a mental skills drill menu. Six members of the United States Ski Association Cross Country National Developmental Group (NDG) participated in the intervention. The intervention included an 8-week educational phase followed by the development and implementation of a periodized individual mental training program based on the unique needs of each athlete. A single-subject, nonexperimental case study design was utilized. An examination of the intervention effects for each individual showed an improvement in mental skill knowledge and usage across all skiers. The NDG skiers also reported increases in both task and ego orientation as well as improved trait sport confidence and decreases in trait, somatic, and cognitive anxiety as well as concentration disruption. NDG skiers also reported subjective improvements in performance directly related to their participation in the MST program. Furthermore, feedback given by NDG athletes and coaches indicated a preference for this type of delivery format in the future. These positive results provide strong preliminary evidence for the usefulness of a periodized model of mental training and a mental skills drill menu for enhancing delivery of sport psychology tools and skills.


An optimal mental profile for sport performance has been identified in the sport literature. This optimal climate is defined in a manner similar to a flow state. This state has been strongly linked with “best ever” performances in sport settings. The sport psychology literature also seems to support the notion that MST programs work in helping to produce this state as well as in improving athletic performance. However, there is disagreement in the sport psychology literature on how to best deliver these MST program components. The preliminary work of Anderson and Hammermeister points to the possibility of a promising new delivery paradigm. The design of this periodized MST program with its individualized “drill menu” format successfully addresses some of the specific concerns that sport psychology researchers have regarding the delivery of MST programs and their evaluation. This new periodized model may represent a better “mousetrap” for training the mind for competition.

References and Recommended Reading

Papers of particular interest, published recently, have been highlighted as: • Of importance, •• Of major importance

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© 2005 American College of Sports Medicine