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Mental conditioning is a method of psychological preparation for performance. Often referred to as mental training, mental conditioning is a relatively new concept that is often linked to sport psychology. Sport psychology has been defined as the study of people and their behavior in sport. More specifically, sport psychology deals with identifying and understanding emotional and psychological factors that can affect human athletic performance and personal growth. Mental conditioning represents a division of sport psychology that focuses on applying psychological theories to sport in an attempt to enhance athletic performance. Therefore, mental conditioning is used by athletes and sport psychology consultants to help athletes achieve the appropriate mental state for peak performance.
The Early Years in North America
Although mental conditioning and sport psychology have only recently become well-known throughout the world, their roots go back to the late nineteenth century. Much of the credit for North American sport psychology is given to Norman Tripled, a psychologist from Indiana University, who began to study the psychological aspects of sport in 1897. Triplett, an avid cyclist, wanted to understand why cyclists often rode faster in groups than when they were alone. In the first recorded sport psychology study, Triplett studied the effects of others on the performance of cyclists. During the early years of sport psychology (1895-1920), Triplett and others also studied athletes’ reaction times, acquisition of sport skills, and the influence of sport on moral and character development.
While Triplett is often credited with initiating sport psychology in North America, Coleman Griffith deserves equal billing. Griffith, who is often referred to as the father of sport psychology in North America was the first person to systematically study the mental aspects of sport for an extended period of time. Griffith, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, developed the first sport psychology laboratory and is responsible for two of the most classic sport psychology books, Psychology of Coaching and Psychology of Athletics.
Griffith is also credited for being the first to bring mental conditioning techniques to the attention of athletes and coaches. Using sport psychology principles and mental conditioning, Griffith worked with several prominent athletes and coaches including Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne, pitcher Dizzy Dean, and Hall of Famer Red Grange.
While Triplett and Griffith were supplying the groundwork for sport psychology in North America, the Soviet Union was also beginning to delve into mental conditioning. Beginning in 1917, Lenin began to promote the use of mental conditioning for athletes and soldiers. It was his belief that being mentally and physically strong was an important part of Soviet life. Therefore, mental conditioning was heavily used in both military and athletic preparation.
Beginning in 1919 the Soviets constructed two Institutes for the Study of Sport and Physical Culture that were designed to promote research and the application of psychological and exercise principles to athletic performance. Scientists working at these institutes were provided the opportunity to test their research on elite athletes and develop methods to enhance performance.
Prior to World War II much of the mental conditioning conducted by the Soviets was used for military purposes. However, after the war, they began to employ mental conditioning with their Olympic athletes and thus became a prominent force in Olympic competitions. Soon the mental conditioning provided to Soviet athletes became known as the “Soviet system” and was touted as a major reason for their Olympic success. In the 1980 Moscow Olympics the Soviets won an astonishing eighty gold, sixty-nine silver, and forty-six bronze medals. Much of their success was attributed to their use of mental conditioning.
Noticing the success of Soviet athletes, several European countries began using mental conditioning with their athletes. In the 1950s and 1960s East Germany, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia were introduced into the “Soviet system” and enjoyed success in athletic competitions despite their relatively small populations.
In the early 1950s Czechoslovakia built the Institute for Physical Education and Sport and Bulgaria constructed several sport psychology laboratories in 1966. These facilities were designed to improve athletic performance and housed large numbers of sport psychologists who provided mental conditioning for elite athletes. In fact, during this time Bulgaria had 127 sport psychologists working with high-level athletes.
Several Western European countries were not far behind their Eastern counterparts in the use of mental conditioning. In 1965 Ferruccio Antonelli of Italy brought together the first International Congress in Sport Psychology, attended by more than four hundred professionals eager to learn more about sport psychology and mental conditioning. During this meeting the International Society of Sport Psychology (ISSP) was formed, which further increased the visibility of the field and led to the organization of several additional associations in Italy, Germany, Britain, France, Spain, and Portugal.
Modern History in North America
In the 1970s and 1980s sport psychology and mental conditioning began to flourish in North America. In 1978 the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) recruited sport psychologists to enhance elite athletes’ performance. In 1983 the USOC established a registry of qualified sport psychologists to provide mental conditioning for Olympic athletes. This involvement with high-profile athletes further increased the stature of mental conditioning as a tool for athletes.
In 1985 the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology (AAASP) was formed. This organization still serves as the predominant worldwide organization for sport psychology professionals. In 1991 AAASP implemented guidelines for certification of sport psychology consultants. These guidelines allowed the organization to monitor the provision of mental conditioning by sport psychology professionals.
Mental Conditioning Basics
Most athletes agree that anywhere from 40-90 percent of athletic success is mediated by mental factors. In fact, mental readiness has been shown to be a major factor in Olympic performances. Therefore, mental conditioning is used by athletes in an attempt to achieve peak performance by eliminating psychological barriers to performance. More speciically, athletes often use mental conditioning to achieve a mental state conducive to peak performance. This ideal state has often been characterized by a lack of fear, intense focus on the activity, effortless performance, minimal thinking, feeling in control, and a total immersion in the activity. In their attempts to achieve this, athletes will often seek out the services of sport psychology professionals.
Sport psychology professionals provide mental conditioning to athletes through several different frameworks, including psychophysiological, social-psychological, and cognitive-behavioral orientations. While these frameworks differ on some levels, at their core they are all designed to help athletes develop strong psychological techniques that will aid their performance.
The psychophysiological orientation focuses on the physiological processes of the brain and how these processes influence athletic activity. Sport psychology professionals who work from this orientation generally use as-assessments of heart rate, brain wave activity, and muscle action potentials to improve athletic performance. An example of this is the use of heart rate assessments to teach marksmen to fire their rifles between heartbeats, thus improving their accuracy.
The social-psychological orientation is based on the belief that athletic performance and behavior are based on the interaction between the inherent traits and makeup of the performer and the environment surrounding the performer. Sport psychologists working from this viewpoint attempt to identify the effect that the environment has on athletes’ behavior and how their subsequent behavior affects their environment.
The cognitive-behavioral orientation is focused on the thoughts of athletes. This approach is based on the belief that thought is the driving force in behavior. Sport psychologists working from this framework are interested in self-confidence, anxiety, and motivation and their effects on performance. After assessing these, sport psychology consultants will use mental conditioning to improve athletes’ abilities in these areas and thus, in their estimation, improve athletic performance.
Mental Conditioning Techniques
A complete mental conditioning program consists of several different mental skills. An important aspect of mental conditioning is the understanding that the skills build on one other and a truly “mentally tough” athlete has been introduced to and trained in all of the aspects of mental conditioning. These aspects include but are not limited to goal-setting, imagery, arousal, concentration, and confidence.
Some athletes begin a mental conditioning program with the goal of eliminating a current performance problem; however, many elite athletes believe that mental conditioning is a vital part of their overall preparation. Therefore, while some athletes may focus on a specific skill or aspect of mental conditioning, the majority practice several skills, believing that this overall knowledge will allow them to effectively deal with any potential performance obstacles.
Setting goals is one common technique of mental conditioning that athletes use to enhance their performance. In the course of goal-setting, athletes will employ several types of goals, including outcome, performance, and process goals. Outcome goals focus on the result of competition, for example winning a game or a conference title. Performance goals are based on personal improvement and may include increasing a batting average or shooting percentage. Finally, process goals specify the procedures in which athletes must go through to perform at their desired level—for example, a proper follow through on a jump shot or golf swing.
Goal-setting has been shown to be a very powerful technique for improving performance. Several different theories attempt to explain this connection. Many people believe that goals help direct a performer’s attention to appropriate aspects of performance. Goals have also been shown to increase motivation and effort in the immediate- and long-term. Finally, goals appear to have a positive effect on an athlete’s confidence and self-efficacy.
Athletes use imagery to create or re-create certain experiences in their mind through the use of all their senses. In doing this athletes are able to relive exceptional performances and prepare themselves for future competitions. Imagery has been shown to be an effective tool for skill acquisition and development, preparation, confidence building, and injury recovery. Athletes who use imagery can create a picture in their minds of them successfully completing a task. Through numerous imagery sessions, athletes can improve their abilities on certain tasks. Quarterbacks will often use imagery to prepare for various defenses they might encounter during their next game, and golfers use imagery to prepare for different course and weather conditions. Imagery can also build confidence; by imaging successful performances, athletes can elicit positive feelings resulting in greater confidence. Finally, by imaging successful rehabilitation and strengthening of injured muscles, athletes can speed their recovery time.
Arousal and Anxiety
Most athletes acknowledge that they perform at their best when they are experiencing low levels of anxiety and ideal (i.e., not too high or too low) levels of arousal. Therefore, athletes will often use mental conditioning to lower their anxiety levels and reach their desired level of arousal.
Sport psychologists often teach athletes relaxation skills to help them deal with high levels of anxiety. Relaxation can include breathing and imagery that helps lower competitive anxiety. Athletes will also use relaxation techniques to lower their arousal if they feel they are at an unusually high level. Some researchers have suggested that athletes will perform optimally at high levels of arousal while others believe that high levels of arousal can be detrimental to performance. Recently, sport psychologists have suggested that each individual has an optimal zone of arousal that can best aid their performance. For example, golfers generally desire low levels of arousal prior to making a swing, therefore, they might practice relaxation to decrease their arousal prior to a shot. Conversely, many athletes use mental conditioning to increase their arousal prior to competition; for example, football players may use energized breathing and imagery to heighten their arousal levels prior to games.
Over the course of a game or season all players are susceptible to lapses in concentration. To combat this, athletes use mental conditioning techniques to improve their focus and concentration during competition. Since different sports require different levels and focuses of concentration, mental conditioning can help athletes practice several different types of concentration.
A broad external focus is wide in range and focused on the surrounding environment. A golfer might need this type of focus when surveying a hole. A narrow external focus is concentrated on a small portion of the environment. A quarterback might employ this focus as he prepares to throw to an open receiver. A broad internal focus is wide in range and focused on inner thoughts and feelings of the participant. A runner might use a broad internal focus to assess his or her abilities to increase the speed for the final “kick” in a race. A narrow internal focus is directed at a specific thought or feeling. A tennis player might use this type of focus to ensure proper placement of the left foot while stepping into a forehand.
Confidence is considered by many to be the most crucial component of mental conditioning. Confident per-formers generally execute important tasks with greater proficiency and success than their less confident counterparts. While some athletes naturally possess high levels of confidence, many others use mental conditioning techniques to increase their confidence.
Athletes often build confidence through thoughts of previous successful performances. Through imagery or video, athletes can relive an exceptional performance that often reminds them of their abilities and subsequently increases their confidence. Confidence can also be increased through viewing others who have accomplished a desired goal. Inspirational movies or highlight videos often increase athletes’ feelings of confidence even if the images they are viewing are not of them.
Mental conditioning is a vastly growing method of performance enhancement. The U.S. Olympic Committee continues to employ increasing numbers of consultants to work with elite level athletes. The number of graduate programs is also increasing across the world and producing many sport psychology professionals qualified to provide mental conditioning services to athletes.
The amount of youth, high school, collegiate, and professional athletes who are using mental conditioning is also dramatically increasing. Several universities and professional teams have started to employ full-time sport psychology consultants to provide mental conditioning to their athletes. As this trend continues, one might expect mental conditioning to become as widely accepted and used in sport as weight training currently is.
The growth and use of mental conditioning within sport has led to advancements in its use across disciplines. In fact, mental conditioning has become popular for actors, musicians, doctors, and performers in all arenas. The principles of mental conditioning that have been used to improve athletic performance are now being applied to several different performance settings. One can expect this trend to continue, resulting in increased awareness and use of mental conditioning around the world.
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