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Strength & Conditioning: An Opportunity for Physical and Mental Strength

By Katarina Miller - August 7, 2018

One of my favorite aspects of performance psychology is its relevance to almost everything we do in our lives. And because of this relevance, there are boundless opportunities to practice our mental skills for our benefit both inside and outside of sport. When I work with athletes, one of the greatest opportunities to facilitate the growth of mental skills is when coaches and trainers actively participate in reinforcing the work I’ve already done with their athletes. One of the ways I’ve commonly found this done successfully is in the integration of mental skills training with strength-and-conditioning (S&C). There are two overarching benefits of explicitly utilizing S&C as an extension of mental skills training:
  1. S&C provides an opportunity to practice transferring mental-skills to life outside of direct sport performance
  2. S&C provides an opportunity to reinforce and strengthen previously learned mental skills
            For the purpose of this article, I will clarify that I am using the term strength-and-conditioning somewhat loosely; I am referring to any cross-training that an athlete may do to supplement the sport-specific skills they practice.
Life Skills Transfer
            One of the greatest benefits of the work I do is that it provides individuals with the mindset necessary to succeed in their performance platform, but also in life beyond. That being said, research has shown that the transfer is not necessarily immediate; coaches and trainers of all kinds need to provide opportunities for practice in order for this to happen successfully. S&C can be a great place for coaches to practice this life-skill transfer with their athletes because it is still an environment that is under their control. As opposed to encouraging your athletes to simply find ways at home to practice their mental skills, this is a chance to actively participate in the development of life-skills transfer. Furthermore, having the ability to be flexible in mental skills training and utilize mental skills in different contexts demonstrates a deeper understanding of said skill; this can allow the athlete to ultimately be able to more efficiently and effectively use those skills in competition when it matters the most.
Reinforcing Mental Skills   
            S&C can be a great place to reinforce the mental skills your athlete is learning because the activity is not dissimilar to the activity of practicing the skills specific to their sport. For example, the challenges of running for the duration of a soccer game are similar to the challenges of running sprint drills. And the challenges of tackling an opponent to the ground in a football game has similarities to the challenges of heavy resistance-training. If I ask an athlete to practice their focus skills during practice, I’d bet there’s something similar they’re doing in the weight-room that would provide an equally effective opportunity for practice. The whole idea is that just as S&C supplements the physical skills needed on the playing field, mental skills practiced in the weight-room can supplement the mental skills needed in competition.
            So, let’s get a little more practical and specific; what are some of the mental skills that transfer easily to S&C? I first and foremost suggest consulting with your athletes’ mental skills coach to capitalize the most on integrating your training, but here is some food-for-thought on how you might be able to achieve this.
  • Goal-setting: the same principles that your athletes can use to set appropriate goals for their athletic performance can also be used to set goals in S&C. Goals that are specific, measurable, track-able, etc. are valuable for both contexts.
  • Focus: one challenge I see often in athletes is keeping their minds focused in the right place. With all of the responsibilities we hold in our lives, it’s easy for our minds to be pre-occupied with something other than the task at hand. I often teach mindfulness, the practice of training your mind to be focused on the present-moment, to athletes to combat this challenge. S&C is also an environment that requires present-moment focus, not only for effective training but also for safety. Placing your focus on muscle contractions, on your form, on your breathing, etc. are all ways to reinforce a mindful-focus.
  • Arousal regulation: Add some intentional breathing practice to your S&C programming; not only for the physical benefits of bringing oxygen to your muscles efficiently, but also for the mental benefit of gaining some control over your body’s physiological responses. This doesn’t have to take time away from their physical training, simple cues and reminders in-between sets or drills to use breathing as a mechanism to maintain energy and control can be powerful.
  • Self-talk: we talk to ourselves, one way or another, almost constantly. Because of this, self-talk can be practiced in virtually any environment. Fatigue and self-doubt are great examples of stressors that may prompt negative self-talk in both competition and the training environment; when you notice your athletes getting particularly tired this is a good chance to remind them to check the way their talking to themselves.
            As a closing note, I will acknowledge that the primary purpose of S&C is not necessarily to build mental skills. Strength-and-conditioning coaches and those in similar roles serve a particular purpose to their athletes, and I will not try to take away from that to achieve my agenda. However, building effective and flexible mental skills that benefit performance are most quickly built when the entire system surrounding an athlete looks for ways to support said skills. Having all hands-on-deck can create the fastest route to developing valuable mental skills and including strength-and-conditioning coaches will only capitalize on that effect.