The Nine Mental Skills of Successful Athletes Jack J. Lesyk, Ph.D.
You don’t have to be a professional athlete or an Olympic champion to be a successful athlete. Nor do you have to have a room full of trophies, win a state championship, or make the front page of the sports section. Successful athletes that I’ve worked with include an eleven year-old figure skater who has not yet won a competition, a high school golfer with a zero handicap, a middle-aged runner whose goal is to complete her first marathon, a weight lifter who holds several world records, and an Olympic medalist.
What these athletes have in common is that their sport is important to them and they’re committed to being the best that they can be within the scope of their limitations – other life commitments, finances, time, and their natural ability. They set high, realistic goals for themselves and train and play hard. They are successful because they are pursuing their goals and enjoying their sport. Their sport participation enriches their lives and they believe that what they get back is worth what they put into their sport.
There are nine, specific mental skills that contribute to success in sports. They are all learned and can be improved with instruction and practice. At the Ohio Center for Sport Psychology we work with serious athletes of all ages and ability levels to help them learn and sharpen these important skills.
We believe that our work is worthwhile because the same mental skills that athletes use in achieving success in sports can be used to achieve success in other areas of their lives.
Detailed Descriptions of the Nine Mental Skills
1. Attitude Successful athletes: Realize that attitude is a choice. Choose an attitude that is predominately positive. View their sport as an opportunity to compete against themselves and learn from their successes and failures. Pursue excellence, not perfection, and realize that they, as well as their coaches, teammates, officials, and others are not perfect. Maintain balance and perspective between their sport and the rest of their lives. Respect their sport, other participants, coaches, officials, and themselves. 2. Motivation Successful athletes: Are aware of the rewards and benefits that they expect to experience through their sports participation. Are able to persist through difficult tasks and difficult times, even when these rewards and benefits are not immediately forthcoming. Realize that many of the benefits come from their participation, not the outcome. 3. Goals and Commitment Successful athletes:Set long-term and short-term goals that are realistic, measurable, and time-oriented. Are aware of their current performance levels and are able to develop specific, detailed plans for attaining their goals. Are highly committed to their goals and to carrying out the daily demands of their training programs. 4. People Skills Successful athletes: Realize that they are part of a larger system that includes their families, friends, teammates, coaches, and others. When appropriate, communicate their thoughts, feelings, and needs to these people and listen to them as well. Have learned effective skills for dealing with conflict, difficult opponents, and other people when they are negative or oppositional. 5. Self-Talk Successful athletes: Maintain their self-confidence during difficult times with realistic, positive self-talk. Talk to themselves the way they would talk to their own best friend Use self-talk to regulate thoughts, feelings and behaviors during competition. 6. Mental Imagery Successful athletes: Prepare themselves for competition by imagining themselves performing well in competition. Create and use mental images that are detailed, specific, and realistic. Use imagery during competition to prepare for action and recover from errors and poor performances. 7. Dealing Effectively with Anxiety Successful athletes: Accept anxiety as part of sport. Realize that some degree of anxiety can help them perform well. Know how to reduce anxiety when it becomes too strong, without losing their intensity. 8. Dealing Effectively with Emotions Successful athletes: Accept strong emotions such as excitement, anger, and disappointment as part of the sport experience. Are able to use these emotions to improve, rather than interfere with high level performance. 9. Concentration Successful athletes: Know what they must pay attention to during each game or sport situation. Have learned how to maintain focus and resist distractions, whether they come from the environment or from within themselves. Are able to regain their focus when concentration is lost during competition. Have learned how to play in the “here-and-now”, without regard to either past or anticipated future events.