By Phillip Bazzini, Certified Trainer

Athletes inevitably will encounter distractions during competition. It may be intimidation from the opposing team (“No batter”), crowd noise (“Hey batter, you stink”), or harmful self-directed performance anxiety (“Please don’t hit it to me”). Athletes must be able to maintain mental focus whether the task is rehabilitation from a serious injury or hitting the cutoff man with an accurate throw during a crucial game. In the cerebral sport of cricket which draws some similar comparison to baseball both in skill and mental focus, “Robust psychological attributes coupled with effective use of cognitive skills and strategies are critical for success” states Weissensteiner, Abernethy, Farrow & Gross, (2012).

The term mental toughness was popularized by the sport psychologist James Loehr and used to describe the ability to consistently maintain an ideal performance state during the heat of competition, the ability to rebound from failures, and a psychological edge. Although opinions differ, there may be some agreement that mental toughness is displayed by an athlete’s willingness to cope with competitive situations and could include a driven desire to quickly return to play after an injury (Mack & Ragan, 2008).

Mental imagery is a popular well-established cognitive strategy used to improve performance. An athlete’s ability to vividly create mental images of technical proficiency has been shown to increase accuracy in the tennis serve compared to athlete’s who self-report a poor ability to use mental imagery (Williams & Cumming, 2011). When working with athletes before a major competition, I have encouraged them to picture themselves winning, making the shot, or flawlessly executing the game plan. Anecdotal feedback has been positive with this strategy. However, it should be added that experience has taught me that mental imagery is not for every athlete. For some athletes, a different mental preparation strategy should be considered. For these athletes, I would suggest establishing a consistent warm-up routine that may have a calming effect and possibly reduce pre-competition anxiety. As a coach, I would surmise that the key is to best understand each athlete’s individual nuances and be able to offer the best advice that may lead to the optimal performance state of mind. “Understanding the athlete’s cognitive style becomes extremely relevant since it could enable some prediction of their behavior in future competitive situations” (de Melo & Giavoni, 2010).

For the sports performance coach, it may be of some value to attempt to measure the psychological characteristics consistent with successful performers and assist those athletes who may struggle with mental focus during competition or training, provided that a reliable psychological assessment exists.

Mack & Ragan developed a 43-question assessment entitled Mental, Emotional, and Bodily Toughness Inventory (MeB-Tough) that attempted to measure mental toughness. Participants were asked to rate their own toughness on a scale of 1 to 20. Questions included, “I sometimes allow my negative emotions and feelings to lead me into negative thinking, I can bounce back quickly,” and “I love the heat of battle” (Mack & Ragan, 2008). The researchers concluded that the results of the study provided support for their questionnaire. “The moderate positive correlation between the mental toughness estimate and the participant’s overall rating of his or her perceived mental toughness provided additional evidence of validity” (Mack & Ragan, 2008).

After pursuing the literature on psychological testing in sport, it appears that there is lack of conclusive evidence in favor of its use for predicting performance. The popular Wonderlic test used at the NFL’s Combine may have shown validity in more traditional work settings, but in an occupation where muscular strength, power, and agility are vital for success, existing research on the Wonderlic has failed to prove relevance and predictability for future success in the NFL (Lyons, Hoffman, & Michel, 2009). The use of the Wonderlic in pro football “possessed a near-zero relationship with performance across positions and had an occasional significant negative relationship with performance by position, (b) did not differently predict performance by race, and (c) was unrelated to selection in the NFL Draft or the number of games started during an NFL season. Therefore, its use in the NFL Combine is, at best, questionable in nature” (Lyons, Hoffman, & Michel, 2009).

In conclusion, presently I see psychological testing as just another tool to help get better insight into an athlete’s makeup, drawing a slight comparison to physical testing. However, the results cannot be taken too seriously.

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Phillip BazziniAbout Author:
Phillip Bazzini is a ACSM- Certified Exercise Physiologist who has the educational preparation to coach clients and athletes to the highest levels of fitness performance. Aside from coaching clients, Phillip is a proud father to three young children and the owner of a gym. “Everyday I am motivated and passionate about bringing energy and cutting edge training methodology to our membership”. To learn more about Philip, visit his website at http://bazziniconditioning.com.

Experience: ACSM-Certified Exercise Physiologist, NSCA-Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, NASM-Certified Performance Enhancement Specialist, Precision Nutrition Certified Level 1 Nutrition Coach, ACE-Certified Health Coach.

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