Mental Skills

Be a better youPhysical developmentSkill development


It’s often referred to as the ‘difference’ between good and great athletes.  How they prepare, manage pressure and cope with adversity.

It’s been said that practice is 90% physical and 10% mental, however when it comes to competition time and the pressure is on, the percentages switch! It’s 90% mental and 10% physical.

Gold quote

Your athletes have practiced; trained technically, tactically and physically.  They will know what to do and what they want to achieve but something gets in the ‘way’ of them being the best they can be.

Why is it that some athletes don’t perform their best when it matters most?  Why are they unable to perform consistently?  Some become frustrated, lose focus, and get angry, while others ‘choke’ under pressure.  Others don’t really turn up to practice but deliver in the ‘game’.

We often hear people talking about an athlete’s drive, focus, self-belief, resilience, how they coped with setbacks, that they have a winning attitude, love the big events, switch on, know how to manage their opponent, controlled the game and didn’t get phased.

It’s vital to remember that all the qualities and pillars that make up your sports ‘Model of Performance’ are interlinked and not independent.  Whether working hard in a physical conditioning session, focusing on developing a new skill and technique or implementing a new tactic and the decisions this requires they all require mental skills.  The ability to set goals, remain focused, make decisions, maintain your self-belief and confidence, control your emotions and read people under pressure consistently are essential to navigate the talent pathway and life.

Some coaches may think mental skills are something you either have or you don’t… you're either born ‘mentally tough’ or you’re not; but that’s not true!  Mental skills can be taught, the strategies can be learned, developed, practiced, improved and maximised just like any other skill.

They need to be developed through your long term planning, so that they are developed and tested before they are needed.  This webpage looks at the development of mental skills and how these can be applied in your coaching practice.  What can you add to your delivery or adapt to change the focus onto developing the mental skills for your athletes.  Coaching is noticing!

You will also find aspects of the ‘Environment’ and ‘Skill Development’ helpful in the design, development and doing of your plan. 


Motivational Climate is about creating an environment in which your athletes harbour positive mental attitudes that enhance their performance and motivation.

Check out useful resources on the 'Motivational Climate' page, including insight from renowned sports professor Dr Ken Hodge and the lessons he learnt through working with the Rugby World Cup winning All Blacks.  


Mental skills in cogs


We will introduce four key principles which provide an understanding and approach which will help you embed psychological and sociological development into your coaching practice and your athlete’s toolbox:

  1. GRIT






Angela Duckworth and colleagues introduced the concept of ‘Grit’ describing it as ‘the capacity to sustain long term effort and interest in projects’.  This is the ability of a performer to maintain their goals and achieve success through perseverance of hard work and effort; Grit is further characterised by sticking at the challenge/problem time and time again until it is achieved.

Talented performers are often defined as those that have emerged through adversity, ‘the rocky road’ demonstrating perseverance and passion to achieve their long term goals.  This road is often described as a journey of hardship and sacrifice; many researchers and coaches believe it is this and not their ability or ‘talent’ that enables them to achieve later on their pathway journey.   Duckworth developed a 12-Item scale which you may find useful when working with your performers.

The TED talk below from Angela Duckworth explains how she believes that Grit is the key to success.



Aligned to grit is resilience, often stated as a ‘dynamic process encompassing positive adaptation within the context of significant adversity’ (Luthar, Cicchetti, & Becker).
So what does that mean for a coach working in the field, court, on pool side and the gym?

Why do some athletes appear to have this by the ‘bucketful’ and others do not have much at all.  It is often stated that challenging experience helps athletes build and develop their resilience; that resilience becomes the secret weapon that a performer can pull from when needed to meet the challenge.

How do we, as coaches, go beyond to foster and develop this within our coaching and environment?  The Special Forces have a simple mantra; ‘quit tomorrow’.  They believe that it is about being in the moment, get through this and if you still want to quit, that’s fine but do it tomorrow.  How often do we feel differently when we are not caught up in the emotion of the moment?  Many athletes credit their success to a family member or individual who meant a great deal to them and they did it for them.  This is ‘why’ they and ‘how’ they coped and came through the difficult times to achieve.

There are four key tenants in the maintenance and development of resilience; Confidence, Purposefulness, Adaptability and social support.  How can we develop these within our coaching practice?

Confidence is developed through self-esteem, self-belief and success.  How we communicate to our athletes, celebrate and recognise success are important as well as the value we place on improvement rather than winning.  Challenging our athletes so that they feel stretched is important to develop and ensure they progress but don’t forget that achieving and feeling good about yourself is all linked to your confidence.

Purposefulness.  Having a strong sense of purpose helps develop resilience; understanding my role and stage of development as well as where I am within the talent pathway all help an athlete to gain a sense of purpose.  This can be as simple as agreeing their code of conduct or behaviours, creating a clear expectation for players or even writing a job description.  Been explicit during transition periods also allows athletes to know where they stand and helps them to see their next steps and direction during challenging times.

Adaptability; Darwin said ‘it’s not the strongest of the species but the most adaptable that survive’.  Creating an adaptable and challenging environment readies individuals for change.  If they see this as ‘normal’ and expected they will cope when things become a challenge.  Mix up your sessions, change the rules, and alter your session structure.  Encourage players to think differently, find their own solutions to problems and make change and being adaptable an everyday occurrence in your training environment.

Finally, Social Support.  Never under estimate the importance social support in developing an individual’s resilience.  Knowing that they have your support and those of their support team around them is crucial.  Make sure they know you value them as athletes and individuals.  Spend time promoting this with the athlete’s.

Within our coaching practice and talent pathway; there are a number of ways we can assist the athletes to develop resilience in themselves.  This can be as basic as not making them too comfortable in the physical environment, expecting and encouraging them to take responsibility for their own organisation and planning; the development of ‘speed bumps’ into your coaching practice.  Encouraging them to ‘dig in’, have another go, don’t provide them with a solution and encourage them to work it out for themselves.  These are experiences and activities which challenge individuals, groups and teams; by taking some ‘speed’ off the athlete when they think they are ‘travelling’ well.

This could be as simple as entering an athlete into a more challenging competition (such as playing up an age group or different level), where they are less familiar with the atmosphere and probable outcome.  It may include creating uncomfortable sessions such as speaking publically, more physically demanding training sessions, performing under fatigue or challenging the athlete in one of the performance pillars (lifestyle, mental, physical tactical and technical).  Through a holistic approach the coach is creating a supportive and challenging environment that enables the athletes to gain experience, work through challenges, find solutions which all help them to develop resilience and grit.  Knowing you have faced these challenges before createa a confidence in your competence, that you have the experience to work through the challenge, which in turn enables the athletes to achieve.  This achievement develops further competence, which again develops their confidence.  As coaches, we need to consider how we develop these skills and attributes with our athletes within our coaching practice.  The mantra of ‘Planned approach not lucky collision’ is very true in the development of resilience and grit; creating the opportunities in which our athletes can develop them.



It’s all in your mind! Carol Dweck, Stanford University, California, USA developed the term ‘Growth Mindset’ after researching into the areas of motivation and development.  Dweck suggests that a Growth Mindset evolves from an attitude to hard work, learning, training and doggedness compared to a Fixed Mindset that is more fragile as the individual believes that success comes from innate ability and focus on rewards of immediate success.

The two mindsets can have a significant impact on a person’s life, no more so than their approach and attitude to sport.

First attempt in learning

Growth mindset athletes see failure as feedback, it hurts and is not pleasant but they recognise that it is all part of their journey to be the best they can be.  Athletes with a fixed mindset avoid opportunities where they may fail, often training and competing ‘within themselves’ for a fear of being seen as a failure or ‘not good’.  They seek out opportunities to look good and avoid anything in which they may fail or not achieve highly; for those with a Fixed Mindset it is all about appearing smart, achieving with no effort and looking good.

So why do we want our talented athletes to have a Growth Mindset?

The talent pathway is often termed a ‘rocky road’ and is certainly not a linear progression route.  The environment is complex, messy, dynamic and hardwork; the athletes need to be able to cope with setbacks, ‘rocks’ in their way and as some research suggests; ‘Talent Needs Trauma’.  An athlete with a growth approach is more likely to continue to keep working despite setbacks, dust themselves down and keep working hard in the belief that they can improve, achieve and get better.

The implications for coaches include the environment we create when coaching, the language we use and the aspects of development that we reinforce as important.  It’s often what we don’t say, not what we do say.  Think of a young athlete, if all the feedback they receive is; ‘you’re a natural’, ‘your good at this and find it easy’ and ‘you’re a very clever player’ they begin to associate their success as natural and want to maintain this view.  They stop working hard, don’t put themselves into situations where they can fail and are more likely to quit if it gets too difficult.

Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets

Athletes with a growth mindset are more likely to be engaged and take an active role in their development.  As a coach we can praise their achievements, but this must not be without attached value, the important aspect is so be clear on why you are praising them.  This reinforces the messages of hard work, sticking at the task and perseverance.  For example when a coach says, ‘well done, great shot’ they can add ‘I can tell you have been working hard on your striking’ or ‘your effort in training is really paying off’.  When they are struggling (and growing as a result of struggling) reinforce the effort and highlight aspects they have progressed on.  As a coach we need to focus on the process rather than the performance or outcome, that way the athletes can see incremental steps to improve and understand that the progression is often more important than the outcome.

Dweck talks about the ‘Power of Yet’!  When a performer tells you; ‘I can’t do that’ or ‘I am not good at this’; simply finish their sentence with ‘yet’.  Reaffirming the mindset of hardwork, constant learning and striving to get better.

The power of yet

One of the most important aspects of managing your mindest is simply being aware of your current mindset (as your mindset can change, even be different in different environments such as work, sport, family life).  You may find the ‘Developing A Growth Mindset Questionnaire For Coaches’ useful as the first stage in identifying yours.


Mental Toughness

Mental toughness reflects a constellation of positive psychological variables.

Control - The ability to handle lots of things at once and remain influential rather than controlled.
Coaching example… Training in the presence of distractions.

Challenge - Being able to perceive potential threats as opportunities for personal growth and thriving in constantly changing environments.
Coaching example… Increase familiarity with change (new challenges in training).

Commitment - Being deeply involved with pursuing goals and striving to achieve them despite difficulties.
Coaching example… Goal-setting and goal-achievement.

Confidence - The ability to maintain self-belief in spite of setbacks, and not to be intimidated by opponents.
Coaching example… Imagine facing and coming through difficult situations.
Clough, Earle, & Sewell, 2002.

Talking Talent: Developing Mental Toughness

In June 2016, a number of leading mental toughness researchers and practitioners were invited to a conference at the Belfry, to share their thoughts, experience and practice. Taken from a talk given by Dr Lee Crust, a sport psychologist from the University of Lincoln, this Talking Talent provides an overview to the topic of mental toughness.

Developing Mental Toughness in Practice

Taken from a mental toughness conference in June 2016, in this Talking Talent, Dr James Bell, national lead psychologist with the Rugby Football Union (RFU) shares his insight and experience of taking theory to practice through his work with international cricket and rugby union. 



Goal setting

In this Talent in five Paul Connolly introduces the principles of goal setting when working with talented athletes.  Paul highlights the importance of establishing clear goals and takes you through a process to ensure that your athletes are developing, progressing and achieving.  Paul highlights how your athlete’s motivations may influence the goals they set and offers suggestions on how to support them think differently.

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