Many athletes write off mental training as something they don’t need to worry too much about—after all, it doesn’t immediately feel like you’re gaining those hard-earned results that a rigorous workout would give you, right? As a result, many procrastinate or ignore their need for mental training. But what if I told you that mental toughness only takes a few minutes out of your athletes’ day? Here’s how to build a consistent daily mental toughness practice that will transform your athletes’ performance.
Step 1: Understand the components
Mental fitness training can and should be applied in the same way as physical fitness training. When a coach designs a fitness plan, it is important that they understand the five components of physical fitness: strength, speed, suppleness, stamina, and skill.
On the other hand, to build a mentally tough mindset you need to understand the essential “Five C” components: commitment, courage, concentration, control, and confidence. Learning about each component is a good start to being able to implement a solid mental fitness training plan. Commitment signifies the athlete’s dedication to their previous established goals. Courage and concentration are all about the athlete’s desire to challenge themselves and steadfastly push through their greatest training adversities. Control encompasses their ability to manage emotions as they ride out the emotional waves presented by race day. And confidence, is pretty straightforward—how does the athlete feel about their ability?
Step 2: Assess strengths & weaknesses
Now we understand the five components of mental fitness, it is time to test. Similar to how we’d kick-off any coaching plan, we have to test the athlete in order to assess their starting ability. The easiest way to do this is to complete a profiling test. The athlete starts by listing the individual components of their sport and rating themselves on a scale from one to 10 for that component. These components are flexible and depend on the athlete’s sport(s) of choice. They can include different sport types, skills, or even distance blocks.
For example, a road cyclist may rate their confidence while descending as a five out of 10. This may be because they feel comfortable with low grades but get really nervous when the grades and speed increase.
Step 3: Choose applicable exercises.
Next, review the test results and decide what components most urgently need to be addressed. Then, start creating exercises that properly address each component. In the same way you’d build out exercises to develop one aspect of physical fitness, such as intervals, hill repeats and tempo sessions, we also create exercises to build mental fitness.
These exercises may include goal setting, self-talk, visualization, controlled breathing and progressive relaxation. For example, you may have an athlete who needs to control their pre-race anxiety, so starting a deep breathing practice may be helpful before a particularly challenging workout.
One thing to note: like all training, suddenly introducing an exercise for the first time the day before or on the morning of an event, is pretty much useless. Your athletes need consistent repetition of the exercise in order to get the best results.
Step 4: Add structure.
This is where the most mental fitness plans break down. In this step, we implement the exercises directly into a structured plan. In many cases, athletes have a coach-prescribed list of psychological exercises that are largely ignored because they’re either too focused on their physical workout or are intimidated by all that the exercises encompasses. In order to create a successful, daily plan of mental exercises, individual tasks need to be brief and specific. This makes it much more difficult for your athlete to skip over them or write them off as too intimidating.
Let us take visualization, which has been shown to have a big impact on performance, with benefits ranging from event preparation, speed skill learning, to anxiety control. Below is a sample of how you can implement this brilliant exercise into a weekly plan, along with other mental skills exercises, such as self-talk and deep breathing.
Monday Rest day Set goals for the week Practice deep breathing with extended exhales: 3min.
Tuesday Workout Visualize finish line feelings/success after a workout while stretching: 8min.
Wednesday Workout Self-talk during a workout. Use positive self-talk during intervals such as “this is mine…push, push, push!”
Thursday Rest day Practice deep breathing with extended exhales: 3min. Visualize your race or event in as much detail as possible: 8min.
Friday Double Workout Use self-talk during intervals such as “I can do this, drive, drive, drive…” Visualize your race or event after a workout during stretching: 8min.
Saturday Workout Use positive self-talk during intervals such as “this is mine…push, push, push.”
Sunday Group long ride On hill climbs use self-talk “stay on the wheel, I can do this”
Step 5: Reassess and change the plan accordingly.
This final step is an important part of all training plans. You need to make sure the exercises are working for you. Take time to go through the profiling test from earlier to see if you have managed to increase the component’s scores by a couple of points.