Where were you ten years ago? If I knew then what I learned this afternoon, I'd still be playing in the NHL."
Former NHL Player
The Development Of Mental Skills In Canadian Athletes:
This study relied upon key informants to gather information about the mental skills and strategies used by our developing athletes. Despite the limitations of this approach (eg., representativeness; validity of the informantís perceptions), key informant studies are used extensively as agenda-setting devices. They draw attention to issues and provide leaders and decision makers with a general sense of the state of affairs thatís under consideration. If what is addressed is regarded as important and relevant, then the wise decision makers take three important steps. First, they have a frank and open discussion of the findings and their implications. Secondly, they seek to determine to what extent the findings are valid and apply within their own jurisdiction. If itís determined that they do indeed apply, then leadership takes the third step --- it takes action where action is deemed necessary.
In this instance, the focus of attention is on the development of mental skills in our developing athletes. As mentioned at the onset, elite athletes attest to their importance and the general consensus is that those who are most likely to medal at the highest levels of competition are those who are best able to handle the pressure of competing at high levels. Accordingly, the mental side of sports is important and highly relevant and these findings warrant the attention of our leaders and decision makers in all sports and at all levels.
The findings of this study suggest that at the very least, about a third of the athletic associations in Canada provide mental skills training to their developing athletes. While this is most encouraging, several issues remain to be addressed: whatís the situation with respect to the associations that didnít participate in the study; to what extent are the training opportunities that are available, accessible and acceptable to both athleteís and coaches; and then finally, to what extent does each learn, integrate and apply the information/skills thatís presented. These are subjects of further research but are also issues that leaders and decision makers will want to address when discussing the focus and findings of this study within their own jurisdictions.
Many of the key informants stressed the importance of mental skills in their comments and expressed the desire to see them introduced earlier in the development of athletes and coaches alike. The overall findings of the study suggest that their importance is recognized within many athletic associations and they are indeed addressed early in the careers of their athletes. Clearly, organizations can do more, particularly those involved with team sports.
Doing more, however, is not without its challenges. Many informants commented on the lack of qualified resources; a need for relevant and up to date training materials was identified as was the funding issue; some felt that the entry level courses of the National Coaching Certification Program where most coaches learn about mental skills are not specific enough; and the need for more attention and support for mental skills training by provincial associations was noted. And yes, mental skills training appears to continue to be a Ďhard sellí in some instances because of the existence of a culture that still dismisses their value.
The core set of mental skills and strategies addressed in this study aid performance. It is also beneficial to introduce them early in the careers of our developing athletes. Mental skills like systematic goal setting, concentration and imagery facilitate learning of technical skills and the development of conditioning skills. Learning to respond to failure and dealing effectively with injuries goes along way toward maintaining self- confidence, remaining optimistic and sustaining interest in oneís sport. And finally, arousal management and the ability to handle pressure are central to competing successfully especially at high competitive levels such as the Canada Games.
Another important reason for seeking to impart these skills early is because they are like technical skills in the sense that they are learned slowly. In pressure situations, new learning is lost. Hence, itís necessary for athletes to over- learn the skills so that they become fully integrated into their response repertoire and can be used when needed. Generally, this takes about two and a half years so itís important that the skills be introduced well in advance of athletes participating in high level competitions.
It was previously noted that success at the highest level of competitions such as the Olympics, is more often than not a question of which athletes are best able to handle the pressure thatís experienced when competing at this level. Arousal management is a specialized skill that is extremely useful for athletes to be able to draw upon when experiencing this kind of intense pressure. Yet, more than a quarter of the athletic associations in this study reported that their athletes are not trained in this skill. This finding suggests that this is one area that should be pursued more vigorously if we truly want to give our athletes the resources that they need to compete successfully at the highest level in sports.
Finally, the key informants in this study reported that little if any mental skills training was being done at the recreational/house league level. While activity at this level is more often the responsibility of community recreation programs and the local school system, the finding is consistent with what is typically observed in these venues and thatís unfortunate. The application of the mental skills and strategies addressed in this study lead to enhanced self-confidence and more enjoyment and satisfaction out of oneís sport. Introducing them at this level may go a long way toward lowering the drop-out rate from organized sports by 13 and 14 year olds. Moreover, because theyíre basically life skills ó it would truly help to make the sports metaphor a reality.