26 August 2008

Mental skills

Elite coaches recognise that at the top of their sports, athletes need a large toolbox of psychological and mental skills they can draw on: adaptability, the ability to only focus on the controllable elements in the immediate present, the ability to manage emotions, mental stamina and self-confidence.

And like the physical skills, these mental skills are trained. You may luck into individuals with these skills already well developed, but you can be pretty certain that a majority of the athletes holding up medals at the Olympics this year trained their thought processes. You cannot tell an athlete to be "focussed" - it requires ongoing teaching, communication, review and appropriate challenges.

I enjoyed reading how one coach, Bob Bowman, deliberately exposed his athlete to hiccups, hurdles and pressure. He didn't comment when he noticed his athlete forgetting to take equipment to a key event. He damaged other equipment so it would be faulty during a race. This was all followed up with constant communication with his athlete about how to manage adversity.

So at the Beijing Olympics, when his goggles filled with water mid-race, and with the unbelievable expectations of winning eight golds on his shoulders, that athlete, Michael Phelps, swam on to claim the fourth gold of an eventual eight. He had faced pressure before and knew it well.

Bob Bowman has been crafting the skills of Michael Phelps for years.

And I am keen to learn about the training of Zhang Juanjuan of China, who won the Women's individual archery, to break open the 24-year long stranglehold that South Korea had held on the event. Her quarterfinal opponent was the 3rd seed - a South Korean. Her semi-final opponent was the 2nd seed - a South Korean.

Her finals opponent was the number 1 seed, reigning Olympic champion and Olympic record holder, South Korean Park Sung-Hyun. Zhang defeated her by a single point. Quite a story for someone who used to suffer target panic.

Has your team been trained to handle a wet disc, lost cleats, small fields, late transport, changing opponents, missing players, broken limbs, cyclones and anything else that happens?


  1. Anonymous11:52 pm

    from a very young age, tiger woods' dad would do the same thing. cough right before he was teeing off, various distractions to make him mentally tough during pressure situations.

  2. Seems like you could simulate some of these by practicing with less-than-perfect discs. Warped ones, low quality ones, smaller discs, discs sprayed with silicone. Could play 8 on 7 in zone.

  3. Some good ideas there Jim. We Dingos had a brief throwing session where the thrower had a mark, an oily disc, distracting teammates and a stationary receiver. You could only stop when you made five throws in a row - throwing became hard.