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:
E-mails were sent to 295 specific individuals or athletic associations requesting participation in the survey. Responses were received from all provinces/territories and 92% of the sports involved in the Canada Games. More than 150 people responded to the request. Ultimately, 112 individuals completed the questionnaire which resulted in a return rate of 38%.
As far as survey return-rates go, this is regarded as a very good response. Given the survey's proximity to summer competitions and the Summer Games themselves, I believe the return rate reflects both the interest and importance that is attached to the mental side of sports in Canada.
The survey questionnaire consisted of four items related to training in a core set of mental skills and in coping strategies for dealing with common\ occurrences in sports.
The first two sought to determine when developing athletes are trained in the skills and strategies. Question #1 inquired about the number of years athletes spend in a sport before they are first introduced and, #2 asked at what competitive level formal training (clinics, workshops) occurs.
Questions #3 and #4 sought an indication of the extent to which training is available by inquiring about the number of formal training programs related to the skills and strategies that were held for athletes and coaches within the last four years.
The questionnaire also contained a Comments Section that provided the key informants with an opportunity to make open-ended comments. Almost half of the respondents took advantage of this which again is a reflection of interest in the area.
The key informants' responses shown here in relation to the core set of mental skills reflect an emphasis on early training. Many of their athletes are trained within the first three years of involvement in their sport and most of the others, within six years.
The N/A category on the right side of the graph shows the proportion of key informants indicating that the skills are not addressed. Aside from arousal management, this amounted to about three percent.
It is generally acknowledged that it takes 8-12 years of training for athletes to reach the elite levels of competition. When viewed from this perspective, about 90% of the key informants reported that their athletes would be trained in three of the four skills within nine years. The proportion that are trained increases to 95% within twelve years.
- As with training in the mental skills, again we see an emphasis on introducing the coping strategies early in the developing athletes' careers.
How athletes respond to failure and pressure situations is important and goes a long way toward determining whether or not they'll be successful. The early emphasis that's given to dealing with these situations by the majority of athletic associations, should serve their athletes well.
In this instance, the focus was on the competitive level at which mental skills training occurs. The key informants' responses show the majority of their athletes receiving formal training at the club/competitive level or when they compete at the provincial or territorial level.
Very little formal training was reported as occurring at the recreational/house league level. And consistent with what was noted earlier, a small proportion of the respondents indicated that the skills are not addressed particularly arousal management.
The Canada Games offers developing athletes the opportunity to compete at the national level. According to 90-95% of the key informants, their athletes will have received formal training in three of the four mental skills before reaching this level. When competing at the national level is taken into consideration, between 95 - 99% reported that goal setting, concentration and imagery will have been formally addressed. In contrast, only about three quarters of the informants indicated that their athletes will have been formally trained in arousal management.
Again, the key informants' response pattern is similar to that found in relation to the mental skills. Formal training in strategies that help athletes deal with some of the common occurrences in sports takes place primarily at the club/competitive level or, when their athletes are competing at the provincial/territorial level.
Competing in the Canada Games is for some athletes, particularly those competing at this level for the first time, a pressure situation. According to 91% of the survey respondents, their athletes will have received formal training in dealing with pressure before reaching this level. When competing nationally is considered, the proportion increases to 96%.
The key informants were asked for the number of formal training sessions in the form of clinics or workshops that their association provided or initiated for athletes and coaches during the past four years.
This graph shows the extent to which mental skills training was available to their athletes during this period.
With the exception of training in arousal management, about 80% of the respondents indicated that formal training in the skills was available to their athletes at least once over the past four years. Indeed, slightly less than a third, reported four training sessions being held.
Here we see an indication of the extent to which formal training sessions were held for athletes in relation to strategies for dealing with the common situations that occur in sports.
In this instance, fewer training sessions were held than was the case with mental skills. Nevertheless, close to two-thirds to three-quarters of the respondents indicated at least one or more formal training sessions were provided for their athletes to learn to deal effectively with these situations.
The use of formal training sessions is but one way of teaching athletes mental skills and strategies. Several of the respondents commented, for example, that many coaches within their sport prefer to integrate mental training into their athletes' regular training sessions. Clearly, when this practice is taken into consideration, there is much more training being done with their developing athletes than is suggested by these survey findings.
This graph summarizes the formal training opportunities that were available to coaches in each of the mental skills over the past four years.
Except for arousal management, about 70% of the key informants reported one or more formal training sessions during this period. It might also be noted that again with the exception of arousal management, approximately the same number of sessions were held for each skill suggesting that they' re regarded as being of equal importance.
The responses shown here in relation to training opportunities for coaches in the coping strategies reflect the general pattern that was seen in relation to the mental skills.
In this instance, however, fewer training sessions were held. While 70% of the respondents reported at least one training session in the mental skills over the past four years, less than two-thirds reported one or more sessions related to the coping strategies during the same period.
The focus of the last two graphs has been on the extent to which coaches have had the opportunity to be involved in specific training programs that were provided or initiated by their provincial associations. Comments from some of the respondents indicated that mental skills and strategies are often dealt with in the context of other topics. Others noted that they are sometimes addressed by their national organizations. As was the case with athletes, there is likely more training going on with their coaches than is suggested by the survey findings.
Some General Comparisons
At the end of the questionnaire, respondents were asked to indicate their sport by choosing from a list in a drop-down menu. This enabled the exploration of possible training differences between different groups.
Early vs Later Specialization
The proportion of responses to the different items from key informants associated with early specialization sports such as diving, figure skating, gymnastics and swimming were compared to those from sports where specialization occurs later, eg., athletics, rowing and combative, racquet and team sports. The comparisons revealed clear differences with those in the early specialization sports providing: training in mental skills and strategies earlier in the careers of their athletes and, more formal training opportunities for their athletes and coaches.
Training in mental skills and strategies was also seen to occur primarily at the club/competitive level for the early specialization sports and at the provincial level for those specializing later.
Individual vs Team Sports
Similar comparisons were done with respect to individual and team sports . However, only responses from key informants in the later specialization sports were used, ie., those in the individual early specialization sports like gymnastics, swimming, etc., were excluded.
In this case, differences were not as clear cut. The one clear difference that was observed revealed that athletic associations involving individual sports provided more training in mental skills and strategies earlier in the careers of their athletes than those involved in team sports. Indeed, for some associations dealing with team sports, formal training in each of the mental skills and learning strategies for dealing with failure and pressure, is not provided until they’re athletes are competing at the national level.