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Sport Psychology: How Much of Performance is Mental?

By Doug Jowdy, Ph.D.
Sport Psychologist
Former Team Psychologist for U.S. Speed Skating

When I present to groups of athletes or coaches I typically start out with the question – What percentage of your performance is mental? I usually get responses that range from 50 – 99%. Just a few weeks ago while conducting groups at a gymnastics camp, a nine year old initially said 100%. But then she changed her mind and said 99% because in her words, “If it was all mental we would not have to train.” Can you imagine a nine year old who believes her performance was 99% mental? I found that to be impressive.

My next question to groups is – What percentage of the time do you spend training for the mental side? Then I get a lot of blank faces and people shaking their heads. In over 25 years practicing sport psychology, the highest I have ever heard was 10%. That came from a runner who listed to music prior to a race to get mentally prepared. And I am talking about athletes that range from the recreational to the elite and I have never hearing more than 10%. So what is the moral of this story? Athletes believe their performance is mental but they don’t train for the mental side. Could this be you? Just think of how many times a coach, parent or sports writer will say a game was won or lost because of confidence, momentum, passion, focus or determination. Referring back to a blog I wrote from last month, it is precisely one of the reasons I thought the Super Bowl was such a great game. It was a perfect example of how the outcome was a function of the mental side. You can boil it down to hunger, pure unadulterated hunger. And hunger is a mental thing. Furthermore, that is something you can train for. Or coaches can develop in their athletes.

It is really understandable athletes rarely train for the mental side. Many do not know how. Were you educated about how to use visualization training correctly? I know you daydream about performing. But I am talking about sitting down and using your mind’s eye as a way to achieve a range of results, i.e. improving your putting. Just as there are very specific ways to execute a complex dive off the 3-meter board, there are very specific ways to visualize so that you achieve the most “bang for your buck.” Currently, I am writing a book about training for the mental side. It will be called – The Gold Medal Mind. There you will find a thorough description about how to use visualization training among many other ways to develop a mental training program.

In my blogs that you will find on this website I will address different ways to at least get started. My blogs will be featured the 2nd and 4th week of every month. Tune into the next blog for more detail about training for the mental side, something that still continues to see like a mystery.

Be in touch if you would like to learn more about sport psychology and enhancing your performance.

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