Why Mental Training Doesn’t Work

Why Mental Training Doesn’t Work

Hi, everybody.  I’m Coach Rebecca Smith, and I’m here today to talk about mental training.  Many people in the sports psychology industry tell athletes to develop a toolbox of techniques – techniques to help you with improving focus, finding confidence, and gaining motivation.  They help athletes cope with big emotions when they come up, and then they can be perfect on command.

That’s what athletes are looking for – they want to be consistent and they want to be perfect and they want to be able to do it when their coach asks them to do.  Then, everything will be wonderful.

Common Coping Tools for Mental Training

Obviously, I’m exaggerating a little bit, but stay with me.  Have you ever been told to:

  • Visualize something
  • Take a deep breath
  • Be positive
  • Stop being so negative 
  • Say some affirmations
  • Journal
  • Stop crying
  • Stop worrying
  • Relax

…. and none of it worked?

I’m raising my hand for all of those things.  I have tried all the things that people have told me to do, and at a time in my life, they did not work.

What Your Athlete Hears When You Suggest “Mental Training”

When athletes hear their parents suggest mental training, they think, “I’m doing mental training because I’m trying to learn how to be perfect on command.  No crying, no blocking, no baling.  I’m going to learn how to distract myself from my fear, make like Nike, and just do it.  I’m going to just be able to chuck my skills and it’s going to be so great.”

Common Questions from Parents

This is not the right approach.  Really what the parents want is, “How do we get her back to being perfect like before?  How do we get her to be confident like before?  How do we get her to do what her coach asks her to do like before?  Some of the questions I get from parents sound like, “How do we get her to stop crying when she’s freaking out at practice?  How do we get her to go for the skill again?”  The athlete would ask, “How do I get myself to start doing what my coach asks of me?  How do I just go for it?  Teach me how to just go for it.”

When people first come to me, they usually want instant results because they have a competition coming up or because their athlete used to be able to do a skill and she should still be able to do it.  These are all good intentions.  All those tools, great.  All these questions, great.  Of course I want you to be able to be successful.  I want you to have what you want, but there’s a reason why they don’t get you what you’re looking for and they actually can make the problem worse.

Finding the Real Issue

When you’re trying to just get the athlete to be able to go for a skill again, you’re putting a bandaid on the actual issue.  What’s actually causing the issue is lack of confidence.  If you’re able to temporarily get an athlete to hold it together and do the skill for a meet, a practice, or even for a month, you’re actually kicking the can down the road.  At some point, the athlete is going to have to deal with the real issue.  Or, like me, it will take them out of their sport.

Compliant Athletes

It’s not about becoming more compliant.  As a former coach, I loved coaching those athletes who did everything I asked them to do.  They didn’t make waves, they didn’t talk back. and they didn’t get scared.  They just did what I asked of them.  Compliance is a wonderful trait in an athlete that you’re coaching.  I loved the perfect ones.  I loved the ones that scored well, but let’s be real, that’s not the norm.  And also, that’s not necessarily good.

There are a lot of miserable, compliant athletes out there who don’t have a voice.  Well, they don’t have their own voice, or they don’t understand consent.  When they’re not perfect, they feel worthless and they feel like failures.  If they’re used to succeeding, saying, “Yes, Coach.  Sure.  How high.  I’ll try it.  Let’s go.  I’ll do whatever you ask coach,” and they start to have this feeling inside of them that maybe it doesn’t feel safe or it doesn’t feel right, or they don’t feel ready, they’re going to do it anyway because coach asked.  They can only go so long in that state of internal conflict before an issue is going to come up.

Bandaid Fixes

You could come up with some techniques that would allow the athlete to ignore the fear or hold it together temporarily, but eventually, they’re going to start freezing off.  They’re going to start avoiding having reactions that take that perfect athlete and turn them into the headcase of the team.  This happens because they feel like their whole value comes from being the best or being perfect.  If they don’t solve the real problem, this will continue to be an issue.

Basing Value on Success

No amount of techniques meant to make you superficially perfect will solve this problem.  The actual problem is that you feel like you have to be perfect in order to feel like you’re good enough, or you’re valuable, or like you belong.  To an adolescent athlete, all you need in the world is to feel like you’re good enough and you’re going to be okay and you belong and you have value.  If you connect success and positive outcomes to having value, your confidence gets shaken if you hit a wall.

Accepting Failure

Every athlete hits a wall at some point.  Their confidence is shaken and they think, “Whoa.  That didn’t feel right,” or, “Huh.  That’s interesting.”  When that first thought of, “Oh, I’m mortal.  I can actually get hurt,” or just some sort of upset, mistake, or failure happens, they go into this fight or flight response in their brain.  A lot of coaches and parents will ask, “What are you afraid of?  You’re not going to get hurt.  You’re fine,” but the fear is not being afraid of hurting themselves.  Sometimes it is, but interestingly enough, for the most part, it’s this fear that they’re going to have to endure disappointment, they’re going to be left behind, or they won’t be lovable or they won’t be worthy of their coaches love or time from their parents love if they are not performing.

Getting Lasting Confidence

In order to get true, lasting confidence, to get to that seven-year-old state of mind where everything’s just fun and you’re just going to try it, you have to have a complete perspective change.  This is not something that a little bit of visualizing and some affirmations are going to solve for you.  This is not a workbook type of thing.  You have to first get aware that this is what’s happening – that you have put so much emphasis on your need to be perfect, your need to please, and your need to be exactly what everybody else thinks you need to be.

Knowing Your Value

You also need to find your true value.  You need to know where your worth really comes from, which will prevent the fight or flight from coming up when things don’t go your way, because let’s face it, we are in a world full of unknowns.  Then you’re not going to have the fight or flight when things get funky.  You’re going to have the knowledge that when things are funky, you believe in yourself no matter what.  The outcome is not the most important thing.  You don’t have to have those big emotions about things not going your way.  You know that things are not always going to go your way.

Embracing Imperfection

Imperfection is inherent in all of us.  When you embrace it, you don’t have to fear failure, and you can deal with pressure so much better.  That’s the real solution. That’s what I want for you.  I want you to be able to prevent that perception of failure which prevents you from wanting to make mistakes, that makes you really tense, that makes sport not fun, and that makes none of these mental tools stick because you feel like you have to be perfect at mental training, so you can be perfect at gymnastics, so you can be lovable.

Process Not Perfection

We want it to be the other way around where you can embrace and accept your mistakes.  I want you to see them as part of the process, to know how to bounce back quickly, and not be afraid of failure because you realize it’s one of the most important teachers that you have in life.

Finding Confidence in Your Abilities

Once the fight or flight has receded and you’re able to think clearly, then you can breathe.  You can visualize, you can say something positive, and you can have confidence in yourself to just perform.  Imagine a year from now, if you’re the athlete freezes up on a skill, they have one of those confidence shaker moments, but this time, they know exactly why it happened.  They can find the clues, communicate with their coach, and then they are not worried.  They don’t make it a big deal and they know exactly what to do next – they know what the next baby step is getting the confidence to build momentum. Most importantly –

They know they don’t need to be perfect.

They know that perfection isn’t even real, but they’re getting better every day.  Your athlete can finally trust themselves to speak up, to own their truth, and to see when things are not right – to sniff out abusive coaching or unfair coaching practices, even toxic teammates – they can speak up and stand in their truth, knowing,

“I am not my sport, but I’m really good at it.”

Remember, it’s not about the bandaids, it’s about that relationship with yourself.  That is the key.  Here’s the really cool thing – when you solve that relationship with yourself, not only do you get better at sport, you get better outcomes (even though you’ve taken the emphasis off of them) and you get better in life.  You become more confident, more resilient, and more flexible.  Then you can just go with whatever life has to give you.  That’s what I hope for you – not to just learn the tools and the techniques, but to gain confidence and self-trust in order for them to really work.

Click here for my Sport Confidence Roadmap.  This is one tool that will help you on your way to lasting confidence!

Thanks for listening.  I’ll see you soon.


Why Mental Training Doesn't Work

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