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To what extent are the very best athletes mentally stronger than their competitors?
Without the physical talent and proper training methods an athlete’s fate is determined by physical standards: clocks, scores and performance; measurable factors we can easily identify with. However, possessing physical talent and the dedication to train does not necessarily complete the athlete. Without the right mental toughness or confidence, it may not be possible to achieve the competitiveness we strive for.
Coaches and athletes who continue to find new ways to improve training practices often seek out the scientific realm for training and adopt new technology, to gain an edge. Psychological training is often misunderstood and overlooked therefore coaches rely on professionals to provide mental training.
Nicholas R. Powell is a Sports Psychologist, with a Masters degree in Sports and Exercise Behavior. He is a former athlete who competed in Jamaica for ten years before turning to coaching for nearly a decade. He earned a BA in Psychology and BS in Physical Education. Powell is a member of the Association of Applied Sport Psychology
“I have worked with many national champions and many NCAA All-Americans (winning several championships) at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri”, says Powell. “My goal is to work with athletes and non-athletes aspiring to improve their performance and become that much better at what it is that they do.”
Powell is the CEO of The Mind Game, an applied sport psychology consulting company. Providing individuals with the mental tools to help improve confidence, reduce anxiety and increase concentration in order to enhance performance.
Powell has recently joined Sprint Management as Sport Psychologist. Sprint Management is a full-service track and field agency headed by Kris Mychasiw who is Chief Operating Officer and an IAAF Authorized Representative.
Christopher Kelsall: Training methods appear to have come to a point where the differences between programs are becoming less and less. Do you feel that sport psychology is one of those ingredients that remains for the most part untapped?
Nicholas Powell: Often both athlete and coach have invested a great deal of time and money to ensure that they have the latest technology and workouts to help them level the playing field as much as possible. But one of the best kept secrets seems to be the work of sport psychology and mental training. No matter how well prepared an athlete is physically, without proper mental training, that athlete is at risk of not reaching their full potential.
CK: Can you expand on proper mental training?
NP: Proper Mental training provides athletes with the tools to minimize or eliminate factors which could negatively affect performance. Proper mental training also assist athletes in getting the most out of their workouts. That being said, mental training should start the same day an athlete starts physical training.
CK: As an athlete yourself, did you have access to a sport psychology expert?
NP: Growing up in Jamaica, I remember my high school coach always saying “its your mind, boss”, whenever an athlete said they could not do something, or “I need you to sit down and focus on your race”. But never did we have a formal mental coach to teach us (athletes) what it meant to be focused and overcome the fear of major competition. It was not until I graduated from college and started grad-school that I first came in contact with a sport psychologist.
CK: Have you studied the work of Norman Triplett in his development of social psychology and social facilitation?
NP: Yes as with Social Facilitation I have found that people tend to perform better in the presence of others, at tasks they think they can do well. It has also been stated that performance tend to deteriorate when an individual is uncertain of their ability to effectively perform a task, in the presence of an audience.
CK: You can really recognize this in a sport like golf, where there is so much motor skill connected to the mind. Do you get an opportunity to work with athletes like golfers?
NP: Most of the things I teach my clients are things I have tried for myself or have been proven over and over by other clients. While I have never worked with a golfer, I do play a little and have taught a few friends a thing or two (laughs).
CK: It is a well known fact that confidence can make the difference despite the competence. You can really see this in the professional team sports like the NHL and NBA where teams may play 80-plus games in a season, the season is so long that players experience slumps, yes?
NP: Yes confidence does play a major role in determining how well an athlete or team will compete. If an athlete lacks confidence against an opponent, his or her approach will be less focused and more forceful no matter how skilled they are at the task. While the confident athlete tends to be more controlled, relaxed and takes greater risk.
CK: Is there a preponderance towards athletes needing help specific to training stresses like perhaps the drudgery of automation or is it more common that general life stresses get in the way and pre-competition stress?
NP: That’s a great question, its a combination of all three of the above. Every individual is different, so the approach used for one athlete preparing for an event, could be very different from the approach used for another athlete preparing for the same event. As stated earlier, the role of sport psychology is to help prepare athletes to deal with stress, so it does not take away from the months of training and hard work that they have put in.
CK: How about dealing with being in the moment during competition, is this a mental skill that you help athletes with directly?
NP: While it is recommended that the Mental Training professional provide this kind of training, it is also important for the coach to understand how to help the athlete get to that “mental intensity” (game-focused) on game day. Even though I am hired by the athlete, the athlete has to communicate with their coach to ensure that everyone is on the same page (Team-Success). The mental coach will not be at the track on a daily basis to remind the athlete of the things they need to work on. Having the coach aware of what the athlete needs to work on, makes it easier to include mental prep work into workouts.
CK: How would you deal with an individual, let’s say a distance runner, who has done all the training and appears to have the talent, but does not demonstrate the killer instinct or perhaps absolute confidence to pull it off on the day? I assume you or the coach recognize patterns in speech and behavior in advance of competition?
NP: Should this happen, I would suggest that someone who has a very good rapport with this athlete to talk to him. The person would do their best to reassure the athlete of the competition goals and race strategy, highlight strengths and purpose for being here. But if this athlete did not have prior mental training, then this intervention could be temporary.
CK: Can you tell me about your relationship with Sprint Management?
NP: My relationship with Sprint Management came by ways of a mutual client I have been working with for the past three years. I was recently introduced to Kris (Mychasiw) and upon discussion, he saw where the services of The Mind Game could be very beneficial to his other clients.
CK: How does the Mind Game work at, “providing individuals with the mental tools to help improve confidence, reduce anxiety and increase concentration in order to enhance performance”.
NP: The Mind Game takes a cognitive-behavioral approach to athletic training, helping clients to realize that it first starts in the mind. “The man who thinks he can and the man who thinks he can’t, are both right”
My job is to help athletes realize and work more efficiently by developing the mental skills needed to develop confidence, which will help to reduce anxiety and increase concentration. The more confidence an athlete has in their performance, the more focused and productive the workout sessions will be. Athletes are also provided with mental cues to aid them during practice which also helps to increase productivity in each training session. At the Mind Game, we service our Client through various medias such as Skype, email, phone calls and text messaging as well as having face-to-face sessions.
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