Mobilising Athletes' Mental Resources During Training

Ask any athlete or coach and they will readily acknowledge the mental side of training. @@The mind is an integral part of training the body@@. For instance, how an athlete perceives the training prescribed can be hugely influential in determining their experience of it. In turn this perception can affect how the athlete responds to the training performed. Despite their apparent importance, mental aspects of the training process are typically not accounted for in any structured or meaningful way. In this post we will elucidate what these critical elements or 'mental resources' are in relation to athletes' training. We will then explore how each of these aspects can be accounted for and harnessed to best effect in the way athletes' training plans are presented and delivered.

In a seminal publication, Ives and Shelley (2003) introduced the notion of 'psychophysics' in relation to strength and power training. Specifically, the authors identified three key themes or psychological aspects pertaining to the training process:

  1. Attention
  2. Intention
  3. Directed Mental Effort

Each of these aspects can have a profound influence during the training process, and in turn affect the outcome of training. We will return to this discussion and explore each of these aspects in detail later on in the post.

FIRST THINGS FIRST, ENLIST THE ATHLETE...

Firstly, and as we have spoken about in previous posts, @@we need to conceptualise training as a process in which the athlete is an active player@@. This is an important distinction. Too often the athlete by default assumes a passive role in the processes of programming training and administering the training prescribed.

Redefining training as a process where the athlete plays an active role is therefore our starting point. @@In order to engage the athlete they must feel they are integral to the process@@. Once the athlete feels like it is their programme, as opposed to the coach's plan, they are far more likely be fully invested and committed to the physical preparation prescribed.

By definition, @@each athlete is also the most rich source of feedback and information available to the coach@@. Even under the same external load, each athlete's experience of a training session (i.e., 'internal load') is highly individual. Therefore, as coaches and practitioners we must also seek to enlist the athlete as an integral part of the ongoing monitoring and review process.

Clearly for all this to work the athlete must be prepared to take a level of ownership of their training. Equally they must engage in learning and invest the time to gain an understanding of the training process. With those caveats, the ultimate objective is that over time the athlete will become sufficiently involved and informed that they attain the right to directly input into the plan and the process of programming training.

TRAINING AS PROBLEM-SOLVING...

From a motor learning viewpoint any training task represents a problem-solving exercise for the athlete. Once again, as we have spoken about in previous posts, this re-frames the role of the coach or practitioner as being one of a guide during the process. Essentially, the coach is there to define the task and associated constraints, and then assist the athlete in working through the challenge and figuring out solutions that satisfy the conditions imposed.

DEFINE THE TASK AND RELATED PARAMETERS...

The first job of the practitioner is to provide clarity on what the task is. The most straightforward way of doing this is to first demonstrate the particular exercise. To complement this, the coach must then define the task in a simple and straightforward way that the athlete is able to understand and process.

Depending on the type of training, the bandwidth for what constitutes 'acceptable' execution of the task may be quite narrow, for instance this is typically the case in the weights room. Conversely, for more complex athletic training there will be greater freedom for the individual to explore a variety of solutions that satisfy the constraints of the task, and what options are available to them given their unique capacities and capabilities.

MAKE SURE THE ATHLETE IS CLEAR ON THE 'WHY'..

Once the athlete has a clear understanding of what the task is, and what constraints or conditions must be satisfied to execute the task successfully, the coach must promptly turn their attention from the 'what' to the 'why'. This point is often missed; however it is absolutely critical that the athlete is clear on the purpose.

Too often as coaches or practitioners we assume that the purpose is obvious; in essence, that it goes without saying. It can be highly instructive in these instances to ask the athlete what they think the purpose of the exercise is, or how it relates to their sport. My experience is that many times the athlete is not clear on the purpose or rationale, and this is the case particularly with younger athletes. On that basis, it cannot be assumed that the athlete understands the 'why'; very little goes without saying.

Clearly, it must be explicit what the function of the particular training is, and why it is important in the context of the athlete's sport and their specific needs or goals. Only once the athlete has a clear understanding of the purpose and how it relates can they be expected to fully invest their mental resources in performing the training prescribed.

Defining the 'what' and 'why' therefore both involve relating the task to what the athlete knows, and providing them with context of where it all fits with respect to goals and outcomes. Each of these elements are critical for capturing athletes' attention, which is the first of the three critical mental resources identified.

UNDERSTANDING PURPOSE CAPTURES ATTENTION...

Many authors in different areas speak of the importance of being 'mindful', or 'purposeful' in one's practice. By definition, the athlete must first have clarity on the purpose in order to be 'purposeful'. Likewise, it must be clear to the athlete why the training is important and how it will serve their needs and goals in order to capture their interest and attention sufficiently for them to be 'mindful'.

In addition to simply paying attention, the coach or practitioner can also steer where the athlete's attention is focussed. Specifically, an internal focus would be on a particular segment of the athlete's own body, whereas an external focus would be directed on a feature within the environment, or a location that is external to themselves. For instance, a number of studies have examined the effects of directing a performer's locus of attention and what effect this can have on both acute performance and the retention of learning.

GUIDE INTENTION DURING REPETITIONS AND SETS...

The second area where the coach or practitioner can provide direction on how the athlete executes their training is intention. Guiding the athlete with respect to intent, or setting them a specific objective when they perform each repetition can be powerful in directing their behaviour or output during the task.

One example might be 'I want you to violently explode off the line and project yourself as far down the track as you can with each step'.

As you can imagine, providing cues of this nature to steer the athlete's intention when they perform a repetition of the exercise is likely to result in very different task execution or output.

SHINE A TORCH TO STEER THE ATHLETE'S FOCUS...

Much like intention, it is important that the athlete not only summons the requisite level of effort during training but that this is also directed appropriately. Which brings us neatly onto the third and final mental aspect to account for and harness during training: directed mental effort. Practically, this might entail directing the athlete to salient aspects of the task or the movement in order to guide the learning process.

As we spoke about previously in relation to attention, the coach can also help direct the focus of the athlete's efforts to best effect during the training task. This mental effort might be directed through a particular segment of the kinetic chain of the athlete's own body (internal focus), or steered towards something external to the athlete (e.g. an implement or the ground) or a location in the task environment.

IN CLOSING...

The three themes we have covered (Attention, Intention, Directed Mental Effort) will be important considerations regardless of the type of training involved. These aspects are applicable to all settings, from the weights room to a rehabilitation context.

As we have spoken about, attention, intention and directed mental effort should be considered when programming training. The themes should also be applied when presenting the session plan or introducing a particular exercise to the athlete. Finally, and perhaps most critically,  these aspects should be accounted for in the way in which training is delivered and the coach's interactions with the athlete on a day to day basis.

In closing, there is a strong argument that coaches in different sports and practitioners across disciplines would benefit from being aware and mindful of these aspects in their practice. Enlist the athlete, engage them in the process, and seek to apply the principles of attention, intention and directed mental effort to best mobilise athletes' mental resources and optimise training.

Enjoyed the read? For more on the science and art of training athletes see the Books section of the website.