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How to Implement Sports Psychology in Your Training Plans

BY Justin Ross

An increasing number of athletes and coaches are implementing mental skills in their training plans. Here are three key skills to include.

If you are an athlete, you are very likely working to improve in your sport. If you are a coach, you are very likely looking to find ways to help your athletes improve. For much of our training and coaching history, improvement has relied heavily on developing systems for making athletes fitter, faster, stronger and more resilient—usually by some form of growing aerobic and anaerobic capacity. There are nuances between ideas of HOW this adaptation occurs, but the goals have remained largely the same.

Right now, there’s a sea change happening with athletes from all ability levels across all disciplines: more people want to understand the role psychology plays in their performance. After all, the mind directs so much of our decision-making and connects meaning and purpose to specific goals. 

Sports psychology has traditionally been used to help athletes develop mental toughness in challenging environments, create mindfulness habits for focus and recovery, and establish a connection to values and specific goals. But there is so much more we can gain through psychological principles in better understanding our athletes. What drives them to perform? What happens mentally through the process of training? And importantly, what travels through their thoughts during complex or challenging moments in training and racing? This knowledge is invaluable, but very few coaches know how to measure mental fitness or implement mental skills into their training plans. I’m here to help change that.

The beginning of the season is a great time to begin developing sports psychology skills, as many athletes are entering the base-building phases of training. There are three relatively straightforward skills to address at this phase of training.

Successful Training Through Priming

Priming is the psychological notion of introducing a set of beliefs that will subsequently influence what’s to follow. In physical training, this happens by directing your thoughts to three essential components just before the workout you or your athlete are about to enter. First, WHAT the workout entails. Second, WHY that workout is essential in the grand scheme of the training plan. And third, HOW the athlete plans to show up emotionally and psychologically. 

Understanding the WHAT simply sets a reminder for the specifics of today’s set. This also helps the athlete be reminded when entering challenging sessions so that they can be appropriately prepared, both mentally and physically.

Connecting to WHY helps us keep our goals in mind and reinforces commitment to the larger plan that’s in place. This helps bolster a deeper connection to the underlying meaning and purpose of what goals are being pursued. The WHY also helps us better understand what we are ultimately searching for. Athletics, for so many, is a process that connects us to a deeper sense of self-discovery. Coaches are in a unique position to help understand and guide that journey.

Focusing on HOW we plan to engage in the work helps us address specific psychological skills. The HOW can change daily or weekly depending on the work but reminds us all that sports psychology skills need to be developed with intention and discipline. Choosing a HOW for each workout helps us specify the specific attitude, thinking patterns or emotional connections we’re working to adopt in our athletic lives. 

You can remind your athletes about these primers in each workout or make it a weekly practice. The important thing is that they’re regularly checking in on their motivations, feelings, and plan of action as they work towards their goals.

Pre-Workout Cognitive Appraisal

Have your athletes spend five to 10 minutes of each workout paying attention to their thoughts about what they are experiencing. This approach helps them better understand the relationship between their physical experiences and their mental narrative. What do they think they are capable (or incapable) of accomplishing? Learning how to address the stories we tell ourselves proactively is a critical skill for every athlete.

Again, you can implement this reminder as part of a daily workout or simply talk to your athlete about it. Explain why it’s an important skill and how they can use it to change the narrative when they have a challenging training session or race.

Practicing Mindfulness 

Starting a meditation platform has never been easier, and mindfulness has been shown to help athletes in several ways (improved pain tolerance and willingness, for example). Mindfulness also helps sharpen our ability to drive awareness into deep concentration, skills necessary for performing well in endurance sports.

Adding mindfulness to your athletes’ training plan strengthens that ability later in the season. Recommending five minutes per day, several days per week, is a great place to start. For more on mindfulness, you can check out the previous article on implementing this skill.

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About Justin Ross

Dr Justin Ross is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in human performance. He is an amateur recreational athlete who enjoys a variety of disciplines and distances, and is a 12-time marathoner (with 6 BQs), multi-time Ironman 70.3 competitor, and Leadville 100 MTB finisher. His professional career has spanned working with athletes ranging from the world-class in disciplines across all professional sports to amateurs working to optimize their performance in their own goal-related pursuits. Check out his first-of-its-kind performance psychology training plan on TrainingPeaks.

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