What To Do With Mental Skills Training

Posted: July 13, 2011 in Coaching Philosophy, Psychology, Team Management

There’s never enough time in the week during a college season.  We start the season around the second week of August, cram 18 games and 2 scrimmages in before November, and then we might go for an extra two or three weeks into play-offs, and then it’s done and we have nine months to think about what we could have done better.

What this means is we have to find time for technical training, conditioning and weights, tactical training, recovery, film, team meetings, and two games a week!  The players are over loaded with soccer, and yet we never feel like there’s enough time to get everything in.  We analyze the games and come up with what we need to work on for the three actual training sessions we get per week, and half the time we can’t get all of that in.

So where do we put Mental Skills training into all of this?  In my Psychological Dynamics of Sport classes we always quote famous coaches who say their sport is “90% mental, and 10% physical.”  Great!  But if that’s true why doesn’t our training schedule reflect the percentages?

There is no way to quantify the actual percentage of success in athletics based on physical and mental skills, but I think most coaches agree that the mental side of sports is a major factor towards achieving goals.  So why don’t coaches commit the time in training needed for players to be mentally prepared for competition?

My personal belief is that mental toughness and sport-specific intelligence makes up 40% of the game, mastery of physical skills specific to the sport makes up 30%, and athleticism makes up the final 30% for college soccer.  Do my training methods during a season reflect this? Not at all!

We spend 45 minutes three days a week conditioning/ lifting, 90 minutes three times a week training technical and tactical elements of the game, 60 minutes a week on recovery, approximately 45 minutes a week watching film, and maybe 30 minutes a week working on mental skills.  The only reasoning I can come up with for this major flaw in my training methods is simply this; I must believe deep down that I can impact the outcomes of our games more with modifying tactics and skill technique rather than improving mental skills.  What else can it be?

So what led to this presupposition?  My personal belief is we are simply creatures of habit.  We replicate what we’ve seen for so long in our playing careers, and what we see other coaches around us doing.

I personally believe that sport psychology and mental skills are the last variable for teams to get an edge on their opponents in soccer.  We’ve mastered physical training (there are always improvements and research going on, but fitness training and conditioning are common place in soccer now).  Tactics are always a changing thing, but the improvements we’ve made in technology with computers, film, and match analysis are better than they’ve ever been.  Sports medicine is taken very serious now with soccer teams at the collegiate level.  With advancements in research and rehabilitation methods injury prevention and recovery are better than they’ve ever been.  Nutrition has also been an area that has seen so much improvement in the last couple of decades.  Timing, science of macronutrients, and education have made a big impact on athlete performance.  And then there are the improvements in equipment and training tools.  Uniforms, training gear, cleats, and training equipment have all made massive improvements that have made a difference in the performance of soccer players in the modern game.

All these variables have impacted the game of soccer, and have given teams an edge on their opponents at one point or another.  But now the playing field is very similar for teams in most of these areas, and the one last area for teams to invest in for an edge is the mental skills of athletes.  The longer I’ve been around the game as a coach the more and more I’ve seen college athletic departments contracting the services of sport psychologist.  Professional and international teams have slowly been adding sport psychologist to the payroll over the last decade because they’ve seen the value of intentionally developing these skills in the players.

All we can do is continue educating ourselves, and making mental skills a priority with our own teams so it starts to become part of the habits they experience and take with them into their coaching careers.

Mental skills target things like relaxation, energization, stress management, motivation, and attention.  How can we work these elements into the training sessions that are already in place for our teams?  First coaches need to educate themselves on the elements that will help their specific teams and the unique challenges they face.  We need to prioritize the elements that we are going to train with our teams.  Once we’ve established the top three or four elements that we are going to develop then we need to  determine how to incorporate mental skills training into our current practice schedule.

For example, teaching our players relaxation methods should be included with recovery sessions.  Que words, muscle control, breathing, and mental awareness can all be incorporated with a recovery training session, and should.  We can teach players to visualize success as they are waiting for their group to jump into a finishing activity.  Mental rehearsal before actual performance can be very beneficial, and why not practice visualization while they are waiting to join in?

I think its going to be a continual process of finding things that work and what needs to be changed, but as a coach I have to make a commitment to implementing mental skills more and more every year.  If mental skills are really a priority in my coaching philosophy, than it needs to be reflected in my training philosophy as well.

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