Athletes at the top of their game are used to training their bodies for success, but weightlifting and practice drills don’t always offset anxiety and other factors that can hinder performance. A recent study at the University of South Alabama shows that a daily exercise regimen for the mind is also crucial to an athlete’s well-being.
During their year-long training and racing season, six elite cross-country skiers, including four Olympians, participated in intensive cognitive skill development. Each met with a sports psychology consultant who designed a periodized mental skills training (PMST) program, much the way a personal trainer tailors an exercise regimen at the gym. Like physical exercise, the mental exercises performed varied in duration and intensity over the course of the ski racing season.
The program’s four phases coincided with the athletes’ physical training: preparatory, competitive, peaking and recovery. The preparatory phase gave the skiers their basic mental skills education, consisting of weekly lessons, handouts, workbook assignments and discussions.
Skiers then chose different activities from a “mental training drill menu” addressing their strengths and weaknesses. Regular evaluations let them tweak their plans according to need.
Their skills became more focused during the competition phase and included anxiety reduction techniques, confidence building exercises and exercises in emotional control and energy management.
Training shifted during the peaking phase and included strategies on handling major event pressure, coping and refocusing, and using mental plans. Cognitive skills during the final, recovery phase, focused on relaxation, goal evaluation and retrospection.
As the skiers traveled throughout the Nordic world for training and races, their contact with a sports psychologist was limited to weekly intensive one-on-one phone calls or e-mail. This less-than-ideal consulting environment gave them more independence and responsibility for their own mental development, adding robustness to the study results.
The principal researcher traveled to training camps or competitions to consult with skiers and collect data at the end of each phase, using the Cross Country Skiing Mental Assessment Questionnaire. Components in the questionnaire measured performance strategies, self-confidence and anxiety. A fourth section let skiers and their coaches provide feedback at the end of the program.
The skiers reported that the PMST program improved their physical performance by 8 to 110 percent, with an average of 58 percent. For elite athletes at the top of their sport, even 8 percent better is a “substantial amount of improvement.”
In addition, the PMST program design “increased utilization of valuable mental skills during both practice and competition for almost every athlete in virtually every skill area,” with improvements ranging from 11 to 129 percent. Skiers could “really tell a difference at practice” and observed, “That really helped me today.”
Personal accountability sets PMST apart from other mental training programs. Most mental skills training programs suffer from a lack of follow-through. Daily reminders to the skiers about mental training practice became part of their overall routine, and most of them combined their PMST calendar with their physical training log.
Far from being a “quick fix” cure, the PMST became a lifestyle change. Positive feedback from coaches, staff and athletes prompted the U.S. Ski Team to adopt this type of training.
“Smoke and mirrors or wave of the future? Evaluating a mental skills training program for elite cross country skiers,” Journal of Sport Behavior 33.1 (March 2010): p3(22). (7974 words)