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Posted 07/17/2021 in Category 1

Mental Skills Training for Sport

Mental Skills Training for Sport

Many athletes and coaches are interested in sport psychology mental skills to improve performance. Sport psychology practitioners have adapted and developed a number of mental skills for use in sport (e.g., imagery, positive self-talk). Although a number of ‘psychological training packages’ and ‘psychological techniques’ exist these are usually variations of basic psychological skills.  

Four basic psychological skills have been identified and these are self talk, goal setting, imagery and relaxation (while most relaxation strategies primarily target physical arousal these can also impact cognitive arousal).  In general, the aim of these techniques is to change cognitions which will impact behaviour (and therefore performance, adherence to injury rehabilitation programme etc.). Simply, we can control what we aim for and how we judge success (goal setting), what is going on in our mind (imagery and self-talk), and how relaxed or “pumped-up” we are (relaxation). Below is a brief description of each of these skills.   

Goal setting

A Goal is simply what we are trying to aim for.  Goals give us a focus, can help with long-term planning, mobilise and help maintain effort until the goal is reached. In order for goals to be helpful we should set high realistic goals to provide the motivation, particularly in daily practice.  


When we talk about our psychological approach to competition we often mean what we think. It is no surprise that what we think, and in effect ‘say to ourselves’ can influence how we feel. The types of thoughts in our mind when we play can be considered our own ‘personal coach’ that can help us play well – or, all too often, can also make us play badly. What we say to ourselves can serve many purposes. Our self-talk can be motivating (“keep going”), it can help control anxiety (“relax”), it can be a boost to a positive attitude (“you have been striking the ball well on the range”), or it can be a blow (“my opponent looks good”). It is too simplistic, and indeed wrong, to say that all negative self-talk (e.g., “my opponent looks good”) is always going to make us play badly because self-talk of this nature can have positive effects on our performance, for example, increasing motivation. 

Imagery (Visualisation)

Imagery can be described as simply running an action over in our mind.  It is an important part of mental preparation and we can use imagery for many things including:

  • Imagining success. For example, receiving a gold medal at a World Championships.
  • Imagining Coping Effectively with Challenging situations. For example,  imagining feeling confident while climbing a difficult rock face or being focused prior to a crucial penalty kick in a rugby match.
  • Imagining feelings such as relaxation, stress, arousal and anxiety in conjunction with sport competition. For example, imagining feeling anxious as you take a crucial penalty kick in a soccer match, or feelings of excitement as you take the field for your first-ever international match in cricket. 
  • Imagining specific sport skills, such as, executing a perfect golf drive or a vault in gymnastics.  
  • Imagining competitive strategies. For example, a point guard imagining the execution of a full court press in basketball or a field hockey player imagining a particular short-corner play.  


One way in which it is possible to control the arousal levels of athletes is through the use of physical relaxations techniques.  Examples of physical relaxation techniques include progressive muscular relaxation, meditation, and breathing control.  Although there are differences between each of the techniques, to greater or lesser degrees, each strategy aims to reduce arousal by slowing the breathing down, provide a relaxing or non-threatening focus of attention, and removing tension in the muscles.  Research has shown physical relaxation strategies to be effective in reducing arousal levels in a range of sport settings

In developing an approach to mental skills in sport for performance enhancement it is important to recognise the importance of regular practice. Mental skills training in sports is just the same as physical skills training. Both are required to become a successful athlete. Just as it takes time to master physical skills it can take time to become mentally tough. The thought and feelings athletes have can be changed in a way that makes success in sport more likely. Further working with a sport psychologist in developing a programme can help athletes deal effectively with the range of situations they will encounter, particularly, but not exclusively in high level sport performance situations.

To illustrate how mental skills are used in sport we now turn to consider some examples from well known athletes.

Examples of Mental Skills in Sport

Many athletes across various sports have utilized sport psychology techniques to enhance their performance. Here are a few examples:

  • Michael Jordan (Basketball) was known for his extensive use of visualization techniques. He would mentally rehearse and visualize successful performances before actual games, helping him build confidence and focus.
  • Usain Bolt (Track and Field - Sprinting) used positive self-talk to maintain focus and confidence. He often repeated affirmations to himself, reinforcing a positive mindset that contributed to his success on the track.
  • Serena Williams (Tennis) is known for setting specific and challenging goals for herself. Goal setting is a key aspect of sport psychology, and Williams' commitment to achieving specific targets has been instrumental in her success.
  • Lindsey Vonn (Alpine Skiing) has spoken about using controlled breathing to calm her nerves before races. Deep breaths and mindfulness help her stay composed and focused on the task at hand.

These examples highlight the diverse ways in which athletes apply sport psychology principles to enhance their mental skills and, consequently, their overall performance. Different athletes may focus on different aspects based on their individual needs and preferences. If you are interested in developing your mental skills it is always best to speak with an expert. You can search our directory of sports performance professionals for a sport psychologist or mental skills coach to work with. 

Image by Daniel Reche from Pixabay