The Importance of the Mental Game

**The following article was published in the summer 2013 edition of the Washington Coach Magazine**

“The mental part is the hardest part, and I think that’s what separates the good players from the great players.” – Michael Jordan

Sport Psychology, Mental Skills Training, a strong Mental Game, Mental Conditioning, Mental Toughness, being in the zone… These are some of the buzz words these days in sports. But what do they mean exactly? Isn’t sport psychology for crazy people or athletes who are weak and just can’t hack it? Unfortunately, that tends to be the perception “either you’re born mentally strong or you’re not.” Portland Timbers ex-coach John Spencer infamously stated. “You can’t teach mental toughness.” just weeks before being fired because his team could not hold a lead or win on the road.

Sport psychology and the mental game is the next evolution in reaching peak performance in sports. A strong mental game is something that a player can learn, grow, and improve on. It’s this decade’s Strength and Conditioning or Sports Nutrition piece of the well-rounded athletic puzzle. As coaches of young athletes, we wear many hats both on and off the field. There are typically four main on-field areas that athletes must be strong in to be able to compete:

-Technical – (Skills)

           -Tactical – (Strategy)

           -Physical – (Athleticism)

           -Mental – (Confidence)


For the most part, this list is in the order of importance, at least in regards to time spent by coaches. The mental part of the game is often underserved, because the others are so important, especially at a young age. As players get older and older, the mental game begins to separate the good players from the great, as Michael Jordan metioned in the quote above.


But if coaches are expected to teach all four of these categories, and mental skills are the least taught, what does that mean for our young athletes, who are developing at vastly different rates?

Ex-NFL coach and current analyst Eric Mangini puts it this way:


“All the time, we talk to our athletes about ‘move on to the next play,’  ‘make sure you envision this,’  ‘be in a zone,’ all those different things.  We always talk about it, but nobody teaches it.  Nobody teaches the athlete how to move on to the next play, nobody teaches the athlete how to get in a zone, and there’s a whole new field based on mental training…”


Coaches must make an effort to make sure their athletes have not only the tools to catch the ball, jump higher, and read the defense, but also to maintain focus, confidence, and a positive mindset. Here are some of the best strategies for coaches to keep in mind to keep the mental game at the forefront:


-Set team and individual goals, and check on them regularly

           -Set team expectations and rules, and be consistent with them

           -Create ways to allow players to have ownership in team decisions

           -Consistent and clear communication

           -Be positive in approach, tell players what ‘to do’ instead of what ‘not to do’

           -Encourage ‘process’ over ‘results’


You can also consider bringing a sport psychology professional in to talk to your team. At SPINw we work with teams and athletic organizations in a number of ways to help improve performance. (

Having worked with athletes for over 10 years now, the majority of my clients have been high school aged. And a majority of those athletes are high-end athletes, looking to play in college or maybe even professionally. So why do athletes come seek out help with their mental game?


            -Lack or loss of self-confidence

            -Having trouble dealing with pressure (from peers, coaches, parents, and even themselves)

            -Tentative in returing from an injury

            -Problem with coach or teammates

            -Time management, lack of direction or focus

            -No real issue, just want to get the edge over the competition


As a coach in my younger days, I would have loved to have had this list, to help me in the right direction as far as motivating my players and getting the best out of them, and making sure their athletic experience was the best it could possibly be. I hope this will help you in the same way!


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