Every top-level athlete benefits from mental training

14 July 2022
2 min reading time

What exactly is mental training, which is increasingly used by professional soccer players? How do you recognize that mental problems are the cause of poor performance on the field? Does everyone need mental training? Is mental training and working with a sports psychologist the same thing? We talk to Konrad Czapeczka, a mental trainer working with Stal Rzeszów.
You hear a lot about mental training, that professional players or those who aspire to it, use such classes. Explain to us what mental training actually is?
This is a good question, for the reason that despite the fact that there is a growing awareness in the psychological area in sports there is still confusion about certain roles.

Mental training is a process aimed at mastering mental skills to help an athlete achieve successful athletic as well as personal well-being.

Basically, mental training is aimed at developing skills rather than solving personal problems.It also happens that a football player comes to us to work on developing mental skills, but in the course of the meeting it turns out that the personal problems that are bothering him affect his disposition on the field. If the person who works with this player is qualified to help the player and deal with non-sporting troubles, then by all means this cooperation can take such a direction. Going already beyond mental training, mental training is certainly not clinical work with a psychotherapist or psychiatrist.
Can the roles of mental trainer and sports psychologist be used interchangeably? Are mental training and working with a sports psychologist the same thing? Or are they different concepts? My impression is that they are used interchangeably, and even more often mental training than working with a sports psychologist.
I would venture to say that every sports psychologist is a mental coach, because in his arsenal of influences and knowledge he should have areas and techniques related to mental training. In contrast, not every mental trainer is a sports psychologist. To call oneself a sports psychologist, one must have a master’s degree in psychology and at least a specialty, or preferably a specialty in sports psychology. As for the field itself, sports psychology has a broader scope than mental training. Mental training is a component of sports psychology. To illustrate this I will give an example: psychology is the universe, sports psychology is the planet Earth, and mental training is a continent on Earth. I notice that the nomenclature of mental training is used more often, as it is closer to athletes, because they are in training all their lives. Calling this process training conveys the idea of mental training, because it is not a single conversation with a specialist, but a process of repeating certain behaviors, ways of thinking, techniques and using tools, in order to develop certain skills that will translate into results. Here we have an analogy with motor, tactical or technical training. The second reason why it is more common to talk about mental training rather than working with a psychologist may still be due to the fact that, despite everything, psychologist or psychology may be associated by people with clinical psychology, i.e. disorders, psychotherapy, psychiatry, which mental training is not.
Who needs mental training? Does every soccer player aspiring to be a professional need to or should benefit from it?
I would venture to say that most athletes do mental training. Not necessarily being fully aware of it, but intuitively, that is, they have come to certain techniques, ways, routines that help them embrace their head during starts, matches, etc. On the other hand, there is also a part of athletes who do this fully consciously using the support of mental coaches or sports psychologists. Every athlete at the highest level consciously or unconsciously uses mental training. As for the intentional use of mental training, I will use the words of Pavel Habrat, sports psychologist of Lechia Gdansk: “Football used to exist without sports psychologists, mental trainers. On the other hand, sports never existed without psychology.” We get to the point where an athlete can handle pressure, focus, motivation, self-confidence, managing emotions, working with attitude, communication, team cooperation, etc. well, or feels he could do it better, but doesn’t know how. In such a situation, it’s a good idea to enlist the help of an outsider to show you how and what you can do to develop these mental skills, and thus perform better in training and starting situations.

Not everyone needs to benefit from mental training, but there are a grope of athletes who can benefit from it.

How to recognize the need for mental training? As we know, poorer performance on the field can be due to many aspects, and not everyone may have this awareness that the problem is mental.
I have two groups of charges who approach me. One, which is a bit narrower, are football players whose motivation to start the mental training process was no problem at all. They simply wanted to develop in this area as well, just as they take care of other aspects of individual training, so they wanted to work on the mental sphere in a methodical and conscious way. The second group, those who feel that something is not right and notice that they have a problem in matches or training. How do you recognize that this problem may be due to mental? There is no definite answer to this. On the other hand, if you, dear soccer player, take care of the fundamentals, that is, physiology – get enough sleep, hydrate and eat properly, and you still see these problems on the pitch. If you in training or matches from a technical and motor point of view are able to perform certain things, and in other matches you can’t do it, and you take care of physiology at the same time, this is a signal that the problem is in the head, not in the technical-tactical or motor preparation. If this is the case, it’s worth doing some research, looking for information on the subject. The second signal that can inform that the problem is mental in nature is the occurrence of unpleasant emotions or stress, which causes the player to be easily distracted, not to deal with emotions, and his confidence is shattered and lacks the desire to be fully committed in training or in the match. I remind you that the basis is physiology, that is, taking care of sleep, hydration and nutrition. If these symptoms appear despite taking care of physiology, it is a signal to look for the source of the problem and then the solution.
Work and results – how much time should be devoted to the problem of the mental sphere to achieve the desired effect? What when the work does not produce results?
Mental training is a process just like physical or technical training, in order to master some skills and develop certain habits time is needed. Studies say that the average time to build a habit is 66 days. I would tend to work for several weeks or several months, rather than a few days. On the other hand, it so happens that when working with a specialist, the effect associated with a change of perspective on a given situation, and thus removing a certain emotional burden from the player, can come from hour to hour. The athlete will talk, we will help him look at a given situation in a different way and the effect can be immediate. Yet there’s no fooling oneself into thinking it’s related to skill mastery, because it won’t be.

Skills are built over weeks, months, years.

What does such work on a given problem look like? Can we illustrate it with a given example – lack of confidence during meetings? What should such a boy do to build this confidence through mental training? What are examples of techniques and exercises that can help such a player?
This toolbox is heavily developed. The classic mental training techniques are those related to control of internal dialogue, relaxation techniques, imagination, goal setting.
Referring to the casu that was presented, that is, a player who has low self-confidence during meetings I will probably disappoint you, but I must say in psychological terms (laughs) that it depends. The first step is self-awareness, that is, we need to discover what is the reason for low self-confidence, what is the source of this problem, and these can be many. Once we discover the source of the problem then we need to set a strategy on how to raise that confidence. Is it related to the management of one’s emotions and that makes this self-confidence limp? It is necessary to learn and accept what they are and how to deal with the emotions that arise. This includes learning how to control arousal – raising or lowering it, through breathing techniques. Could the reason for low self-confidence be the perception that one’s soccer skills are poor? Self-confidence, as a rule, is situational, that is, once I can feel confident, and in a few hours in another place I can feel completely insecure. What does it depend on? In the main, it depends on my conviction, whether I and my skills, experience are sufficient to cope with the challenge I am facing, that is, in the case of a football player, it is about the match. It’s hard for me to imagine a situation where a player is unsure of himself when he faces guys much younger than himself or a team that plays three leagues below him on a daily basis. The conviction that he will cope in such a match is probably higher. Unless the source of the low confidence is that the player is afraid of the coach’s or parents’ evaluation. First, we need to identify the source of the problem so that we can move on to further action and a work plan. Self-confidence in soccer will always be built primarily on my motor preparation, technical training, tactical preparation, and at the very top of this pyramid are mental skills. In other words, it is easier to be confident when I feel well prepared in these four areas. However, when I feel prepared in these four areas, and I’m still insecure, it’s a conundrum, and it’s worth digging deeper, because it may be related to low self-esteem, a much broader area.

Mateusz Łagożny

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