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Mental Muscle

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Somebody said to me the other day, 'gymnastics is 80% a psychological game, and 20% skill.’

It isn’t the first time i’ve heard that saying, or at least something similar.

I don't disagree, and it's not just gymnastics where that can be applied, it's pretty relevant to most aspects of life.

But if that is the case, and coaches truly believed it, why do they not allocate time within the training program to work on the mental muscle power of their athletes?

Logic would suggest that if gymnastics was 80% a mental game, then 80% of training time would be spent focusing on just that.

You probably think i’m being ridiculous now, and in some respects I am, for good reason. It would be impractical to spend 80% of training time on non physical/technical activities, but the point is clear; coaches understand the importance of mental skill development for their athletes, yet rarely implement the strategies to build them.

Many clubs host specific interventions within their season and invite a sport physiologist in every 6 months, but how does once or twice a year stack up against the 80% ratio we attribute the mental side of the sport to?

I'm no psychologist, but it doesn't require a degree or phd to respect the important role that emotional intelligence, mental resilience, mindfulness or coping strategies would have on athlete performance to name just a few.

I'm not suggesting that a sport psychologist is even necessary (although could be a good option), just dedicated time in the weekly or monthly schedule which is devoted to building mental muscle. Great coaches will have those tools in their armoury.

I’ve been on several first aid training courses, and the recommended refresher every two years or so, but give me an athlete with a broken arm or nose and i’d struggle to remember ‘protocol’ even a few months after taking the course. I (fortunately) don’t need to deliver emergency aid on a daily basis, but as a result of that it’s easily forgotten. Just like mental training sessions and interventions which are held only once or twice a year. The mind, like other muscles, can be trained to improve, and just like every other muscle, it needs frequent training in order to do just that.

Drip feeding mental these messages throughout frequent interventions, further reinforced by a coach echoing the same messages in training is a great way to ensure the athlete has proactively been prepared for the many challenges gymnastics throws at them OR will just optimise their mindset for performance.

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Comments (10)

   
Frithy77

I entirely agree, there needs to be greater emphasis placed on mental skills as part of overall athlete development and it is a frustration of mine.

If I can offer one potential aspect of an overall explanation. I work to apply the research of Prof. Carol Dweck across a number of settings both educational and sport. The Mindsets can be over simplified sometimes which leads to confusion and misapplication. The relevant factor to this conversation is that we can hold fixed and growth mindsets about a number of different things. For example you could be quite growth minded about developing flexibility but quite fixed on developing speed.

We have seen that coaches are much more inclined to hold fixed mindset beliefs about mental toughness (resillience, performing under pressure, motivation, determination etc) than they are about skill development where they have more of growth mindset. Ironic perhaps that people can have a fixed mindset about growth mindset behaviours! The impact of this belief is that coach behaviour moves towards identification of mental toughness vs. the development of it. After all if you believe something is fixed why would you try and develop it? At the core of a fixed belief is generally a lack of knowledge around the process of developing mental toughness and by exposing people to a rationale and process of shifting any aspect they tend to become more growth minded about it.

We have seen similar trends with decision making, leadership and tactical components.

Interested in others thoughts.

30/11/16
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NickRuddock

Thanks Jeremy for your comments, interesting read. I think that one contributing factor here is that it is simply less enjoyable and interesting for (most) coaches to spend time on these mental tools as it is coaching exciting skills and techniques/drills etc. I certainly see that in gymnastics ... it therefore doesn't sit high on their priority list!

01/12/16
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Frithy77

Thank you for posting. From a personal perspective I understand that as we love the 'doing' bit of our sports, the things we've spent more time consciously doing.

My route in to psych was the frustration of people with the technical competency to perform at a higher level underachieving and questioning why. A lack of psych elements was the biggest challenge I faced within the context I worked so it was where I ended up spending the most time learning.

I actually went to a local BPS Psychology in the Pub session last night and we talked about psychologists sometimes loving language that isn't always accessible to the average person. I often say to my colleagues who are Educational Psychologists, who become frustrated at people not understanding or knowing what they did, that if they called themselves learning coaches who address barriers to learning people would understand what they do a lot quicker. But obviously with the term psychologist comes the professional integrity and acknowledgement of a professional code of practise.

The work we do in schools we often see terminology intimidating teachers and some terms that seem obvious to us not being entirely understood by teachers. I think the added challenge linked to Barb's comments that psychology needs to be seen as practical and integrated in to every day practice, rather than something that happens within a classroom. I've learned so much from working with the Educational Psychology Service. One reflection I have is when working with young athletes its probably as beneficial to think about barriers to learning as much as it is about performance.

The challenge for coaches is to think beyond the technical, tactical and S&C components (those things that are more visible) whilst the challenge for psychologists and coach educatiors is to make psychology practical and relevant for coaches and move it beyond a classroom.

I think from the looks of the new coaching plan things seem to be heading in that direction.

I've written a book with a colleague translating Dweck's work in to sport if you are interested www.frithsykes.com/growthmindsetcoachingkit

01/12/16
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Simo

Hi Jeremy- Just ordered a copy, looking forward to reading it.

02/12/16
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Frithy77

Interested to hear any strategies other coaches have for developing this. Hopefully helps in some way.

02/12/16
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Simo

Thanks Jeremy, I have thought for some time about how I might formally introduce practices and work focussed on developing mindset which instantly drew me to this discussion. I'm looking forward to using the Growth Mindset Coaching Kit and starting to formally plan sessions with 'learning muscle' outcomes into my practice.

04/12/16
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Frithy77

If you've got any questions or reflections at any point get in touch.

04/12/16
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andrewb62

An important post, and a timely one, perhaps, given the release yesterday of the Coaching Plan for England.
The centrality of psychology to performance needs to be re-emphasised in coach training (initial and CPD); coaches need to believe that mindset matters, and more importantly that growth mindset (and "resilience" or grit or adaptability) can be coached.
Ironically, the tendency to look to former top-level performers as future performance coaches might exacerbate the perception that psychological skils are somehow inherent in star players. Perhaps it takes someone who has experienced failure but carried on trying to get better, to really believe that improvement _from a reativelymlow starting point- is always possible.

30/11/16
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BarbAugustin

I have limited time with my athletes. For example, I have 1-3 sessions of 45-60 minutes per week with my runners. The warm up takes 30 minutes, so I effectively have 15-90 minutes per week with them. I cannot afford to spend time delivering a mental skills lecture. However, there are ways around this - give them (occasionally) a particularly hard workout to develop grit and confidence (if training is harder than racing, races are easy!); post short articles/infographics on facebook; there is time to chat when they're doing some of their warm up, but these chats need to have some immediate relevance (e.g. reinforce how well someone did in overcoming adversity at a race the day before); by example - if the coach is centred and in control, this gives the athlete an example to follow.
I would like mental skills covered more in coach education ALONG WITH practical ways coaches can build athlete's mental skills during training (rather than by lectures).

30/11/16
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NickRuddock

Thanks Barb. Yes, I agree, it's easy for me to say when gymnasts are training upwards of 25 hours per week! But it's clear that this education still sits high on your priority list and is regarded as being an important aspect of your time with the athletes.

01/12/16
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Frithy77

Hi Barb

You might like the idea of split screen learning- borrowed from the educational world. It's the concept of teaching a technical skill alongside a psychological skill. Psych' is too often delivered in the classroom where it needs to be practical. EG Today we are working on x technical skill and looking at performing under pressure. The technical skill is then set up with a performance element eg 'one chance' and the coach explores the technical component and performing under pressure within the same session. The appropriateness of what technical skills fit with which psychological skills is obviously dependent on sport and age of stage of development. Google 'split screen learning' and I'm sure you'll get loads of ideas.

Jeremy

30/11/16
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BarbAugustin

Thanks Jeremy. It took a bit to sift out all the "classroom" stuff, but I eventually came across this: https://www.youthsporttrust.org/sites/yst/files/resources/documents/Module%20Overview%20example.pdf
Which isn't dissimilar from what I do, but is more explicit and more structured. Thanks again.

01/12/16
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Ailien

Thank you for posting this link Barb, it is a very helpful example which I can easily adapt to use in my own lesson plans. Love it.

07/12/16
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Woodo

To create mental muscle and memory can I suggest working on your non dominant side for example work 80% non dominant and 20% on your dominant side this will create the players all round ability and this will become the norm as your body has made this muscle memory this approach is ideal for football,rugby type athletes and will support decision making when under pressure that will lead to the desired outcome of player development and team results

02/12/16
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ianbarker

I completely agree that the mental side of training an athlete is huge, and more so the higher the level they are performing at. Time is the enemy if you think about delivering the "Psychology" bit as a module, but if you do it day in, day out as a matter of course then it could become easier and deep rooted in the Athletes mind. I always liked the mantra "Train like you race, and you'll race like you trained". Very simple line, but if you dig a bit deeper into it meaning you will see it has many facets which will prepare the athlete for the challenges to come. The main one though, is that if the athlete, in everything they do, treats it as if it was a day at the World Championships or Olympics, they will train harder and push themselves harder to achieve more. But more importantly when the big day does arrive they will be in a much better position to attain their dreams as it is less of a stretch, and closer to their normal training.

02/12/16
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BarbAugustin

If you don't already know about it, have a look at hive learning (run by the IOC). There's a comment that fits nicely with this thread:

"We did very little mental training. Every session that is done has elements of psychology in it....the psychology for me is embedded in the training."

Olympic gold medal-winning coach Toni Minichiello has been answering your questions in the Community all week and has just posted some great insights about sports psychology.

You can read his answers here: https://www.hivelearning.com/groups/2124865311/page/1048874/comment/30854

09/12/16
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Ailien

Hi Barb, I wish I could read the information on the link you provided, but apparently you need to be a member. There is a sign in request, but the site doesn't provide any information how you can register. How does this work?

10/12/16
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BarbAugustin

Hi Ailien. You do have to be a member, but it's free and it's run by the IOC so you don't get spammed. There's also heaps of good stuff in there.

11/12/16
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SteveRuis

I must say that I think that saying any sport s 80% or 90% mental is lunacy. If one is talking about a sport performance, then there are some things along this line one can say. One's physical skills in a sport are developed over many, many hours of effort, designed to hone specific skills and make them as subconsciously accessible as possible. Then, during performance, those skills express themselves in a natural way. Unfortunately we do not spend as much effort practicing our mental game, so we need often to focus more on it during performance. If we were to practice the mental side more, would it not be as easy as the physical side during performance.

The next time you hear someone say that, say. weightlifting is 80% mental, ask them to lift a barbell with their mind.

11/12/16
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BarbAugustin

I'm with you! Think back to the 50s or 60s. There weren't many (any?) sports psychologists around then and, from what I've read, people didn't "visualise". What they were, though, is determined and driven. Likewise, I was at a lecture recently where an elite Kenyan distance runner was asked about what sports psych they did. He didn't understand the question! What makes the Kenyans mentally strong, I believe, is that they train in huge groups and they know to make the Olympic team they have to be the best of the best. Further, they're more interested in running for money, as that supports their family/village. You can't win an event on physicality alone, but spending large amounts of time visualising how you're going to lift that barbell isn't going to get it lifted, either. Approach the bar with determination and the will to lift it - THAT's what will get it off the ground.

11/12/16
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andrewb62

Hi Ailien
This seems to be a little complicated, but I might have found the solution...to read the post by Toni Minichello, you need first to register on the IOC's ‪Athlete Learning Gateway (http://onlinecourse.olympic.org), then visit the Community tab (menu option from the top of the page), and then (on the hive site) elect to join the community.
And then you should see Toni’s post, and comments from him and other coached.
Once you have registered (on http://onlinecourse.olympic.org) and joined the community (on hive) the link that Barb posted appears to open the discussion directly.

The Athlete Learning Gateway is interesting by itself – as the title suggests, it is designed for athletes, but there are items and online courses for coaches, as well.

11/12/16
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