WHAT ARE MENTAL SKILLS, EXACTLY?
How much of your success in performance would you attribute to mental skills such as confidence, anxiety management, focus, etc.?
Most of us would probably agree it is quite high. Now, think of how much time you spend on developing and mastering these skills.
Unless you have committed to a formal mental training program, most people spend little time actively honing these skills. Part of the reason for this is that there is a lot of ambiguity regarding what mental skills are, and how we go about training them. But if we don’t spend an adequate amount of time going to the mental gym we are potentially missing out on an increase in performance as well as in well-being.
Sam Harris—neuroscientist, philosopher, and New York Times best-selling author, puts it this way: “Your mind is the basis of everything that you experience and of every contribution you make to the lives of others. Given this fact, it makes sense to train it.”
DEFINING MENTAL SKILLS
There are many mental skills that with training, can be significantly improved. However, unlike physical skills like strength, endurance, or flexibility, mental skills are very difficult to measure and track. If you do bicep curls in the gym, you will most likely see the gains you make over time. This is not so easy with skills like focus, for example. Another problem is that mental skills are pretty subjective, which adds another layer of complexity.
But subjectivity can be put to use by applying the right tools. In my work with athletes I like to utilize a psychometric instrument called the Ottawa Mental Skills Assessment Tool, or OMSAT for short (OMSAT-3 © Durand-Bush, N., Salmela, J. H., & Green-Demers, I. 2001). The OMSAT assesses the current mental strengths and weaknesses of athletes and other high achievers and is a starting point to design appropriate training programs for performance improvement. Based on the results, I can provide athletes with scores on 12 mental skills that research has shown to be utilized by top performers in a variety of sports on a consistent basis. These mental skills are:
Goal-setting is the process by which you establish objectives or goals that provide
you with a direction or a means for accomplishing what you set out to do.
Believing in yourself is synonymous with being confident that you can accomplish
your goals and overcome difficult situations.
Commitment provides the intensity and dedication required to achieve your goals.
Stress occurs when you feel nervous, worried or uncertain about something.
Reactions to stress can be positive or negative.
Relaxation is a skill that can allow you to free your muscles of tension, lower your
heart rate, and control your focus of attention.
Fear can arise when you perceive situations to be dangerous, when you are faced
with potentially worrisome events or when you lose control of a situation.
Energizing yourself is the opposite of relaxing. It is a skill that allows you to
increase your physiological and mental states in situations where a boost of
energy is needed.
Focusing or "concentrating" is the ability to direct and maintain attention on what
is required to perform.
Imagery or "visualization" is the ability to create images and feel actions in your
Planning for a competition involves setting some time aside to think and plan
things you want to do before, during and after a competition.
Mental practise is the planned use of your imagery skills. It involves setting aside
time and space to rehearse a performance or segments of a performance in your
Refocusing is the ability to quickly regain an effective focus in the face of
distractions. Mindfulness training has been shown to be very effective in training
“Your mind is the basis of everything that you experience and of every contribution you make to the lives of others. Given this fact, it makes sense to train it.”
According to the researchers and authors of the OMSAT, the mental skills of goal-setting, commitment, and confidence and the ones that most commonly differentiate elite high performers (Olympic/world class level) from average performers. Although there is much debate on what other skills can be considered psychological skills (grit, mindfulness, self-awareness, etc.), it is a useful starting point to build some awareness of where your strengths and weaknesses lie.
WHICH SKILLS ARE MOST IMPORTANT?
The simple answer to which skills are most important is that all of them are important! But just because you are strong in a few, and low in others doesn’t mean you are somehow better than someone else. It just means that these particular skills work best for you. Everyone is unique and applies psychological skills training differently. However, training all of these skills increases your likelihood of performing at your best.
I have compiled the data of 207 athletes who completed the OMSAT to see which skills are considered to be the strongest and weakest amongst athletes. This is not a thorough scientific study, so keep this in mind. But what I found was quite interesting. Overall, athletes scored 67.6%, which can be considered moderately “mentally strong”. Not great, but decent. Let's take a deeper dive and look at which specific mental skills are subjectively rated as the strongest and weakest.
Most athletes rated their commitment as their highest skill. This of course, is subjective, but not that surprising since this population was a group of high level athletes committed to improving their game. Fear control, and confidence rounded up the top 3. For the weaker skills, relaxation seemed to be in need of improvement, with competition planning and mental practise (the physical practise of imagery skills) a close competitor.
Overall, athletes scored 67.6%
As you can see, there are a variety of skills that most would consider crucial to performing well, such as relaxation, stress control, or re-focusing. Yet the scores were only moderate. If we spent some time working on improving these skills the likelihood of success would be greater. Even improving in one area can have a positive effect on another. For example, by improving your stress control and relaxation skills, your ability to focus would be improved indirectly.
What cognitive skills would you consider as your weak points? Or, if you want to broaden that perspective, what overall skills do you need to improve? Mental skills are just one part of the process to achieving optimal performance. Think of your journey as a building with four pillars, each with specific components that require your attention:
We need to make sure that each pillar is taken care of, otherwise the whole roof collapses on itself. Maybe you are strong physically and technically, but not very confident. Or, perhaps you are confident, but lack the technical skills. Part of the mental training journey is developing self-awareness to know which area needs the most work. Recovery is also essential, thus it is at the foundation of optimal performance.
So spend some time reflecting on what areas of your performance needs improvement and start training piece by piece. Don’t overwhelm yourself with trying to fit everything in at once, but rather start with the simple things and progress from there. Mental training is often over-looked, but is a vital piece to the overall puzzle. Hopefully by understanding what some of these skills actually are, it will be a starting point for mental mastery.
Durand-Bush, N., Salmela, J. H., & Green-Demers, I. (2001). The Ottawa Mental Skills Assessment Tool (OMSAT-3*).The Sport Psychologist, 15, 1-19.