The Mind - Sports’ Final Frontier

Consider these two questions:

What proportion of your sports performance is determined by the mind rather than by physical factors? 

What proportion of your training is spent actually preparing the mind rather than the physical factors?


For most people, there is a huge discrepancy between their two answers. Virtually everyone acknowledges the important role which the mind plays in sport, yet only very few sportsmen and women actually train this aspect properly. The good news is that it means that in a sporting context where most other things are equal, the mind offers a great opportunity to get an edge over your opponents.

The main reason why so few athletes actually work on their mental game is simply that they do not know how to do so. Many coaches are able to offer little more than simple instructions to ‘concentrate’, or to ‘try harder’, but are unable to explain what this really means, let alone how to actually achieve it.

This is where sport psychology has a role to play. You know yourself, your coach knows your sport, and the psychologist has information on optimising the mental aspects of the game. The challenge is to put these three sources of information together in a way that is practically useful when you go out to compete. 

The past three decades has seen the collection of a large body of scientific research documenting the positive effects of many sport psychology interventions. Some of the areas in which these are helpful include:

  • general mental preparation for competition
  • building confidence
  • focusing under pressure
  • staying calm under pressure
  • thought control
  • communication skills 
  • motivation
  • psychological aspects of injury rehabilitation

As the pressure on our sportsmen and women continues to grow - including and perhaps even especially so at school level - psychological factors are becoming increasingly important. There is a saying that training is 10 percent mental and 90 percent physical, but that competition is 90% mental and 10% physical. After all, it is your mind that determines whether everything that you have trained in over the months, is able to be brought out at the moment when it matters most.

Most athletes do indeed develop psychological skills over time through trial and error. Unfortunately however this means that many ‘get it right’ only once they are ready to retire from competitive sport. Hence by teaching the appropriate skills, sport psychology aims to short-cut the learning process.

This should ideally be done in a pro-active manner, just as you deliberately set out to improve your technique, fitness or equipment. Too many athletes wait until there is a crisis, and then look to psychology as a last resort. Mental skills take practice just like physical skills do, and the earlier that you start training them, the greater the benefit. Having said this, research suggests that the best time to actively develop your mental skills is between the ages of about 14 and 18. The good thing about this is that not only will they help to optimise your sports performance, but potentially also other areas (such as in exams or even in social situations). 

There are a number of psychologists around South Africa who have significant experience in sport. Here is a list of some of these:

Additionally, there are increasing numbers of life coaches and other mental trainers (from various backgrounds) working in the field. If you are going to work with someone though, just make sure that they have the appropriate experience, and that they understand the sporting context - don’t be afraid to ask a few probing questions before making an appointment!

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