Mental Performance in Sport
Updated: Mar 31, 2021
As a therapist who is passionate about how our cognitions control our behaviours, I am drawn to the world of mental performance. Specifically, the mental fortitude that we develop in order to execute tasks and reach our potential. These abilities are put to the test in everyday roles as a parent, employee, athlete, friend, or partner. Although mental performance is not only effective in sport, most of the research and the practical use of skills has been used with athletes and teams.
I recently came across Julia Allain, a Mental Performance Coach based out of Connecticut. Julia works with a wide range of athletes and teams and has honed in on exactly what skills are effective when working on mental performance. As a former NCAA Division 1 soccer player, Julia has direct experience betting on herself in high pressure situations. Julia completed her BA in Psychology from Providence College and went on to pursue a M.A in Sports Psychology from McGill University in Montreal.
Growing up in an athletic family with a father who also coached, Julia has been around sport and competition for a very long time. I got a chance to virtually connect with Julia and hear more about her work.
What about mental performance initially sparked your interest?
"I was really fortunate to grow up in an environment that helped cultivate those passions. I was the athlete but I also got to see the challenges and triumphs of a coach at the highest levels of the game. All those experiences gave me a really unique perspective and an appreciation for the intangible aspects of performance. My dad was always reading books about coaching, psychology, and performance, and I always reflect back on our conversations as the most valuable education I have ever received. Both my parents put a lot of miles on their cars driving to and from practices, games, and tournaments; because of that, we spent a lot of quality time together with not much else to do but talk. Those conversations were ultimately the spark that ignited this whole journey."
What type of work do you do today with your athletes?
Julia’s work varies depending on whether she is working with one-on-one with an athlete or with an entire team. Her approach is different every time and for good reason. “One of the most valuable lessons I have learned from my parents, coaches I have studied, and mentors I have had is that you can’t try to be anyone else. I can’t coach like my dad because it wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t feel genuine - which is true for anyone in any field. I tell my athletes all the time: a certain routine or mental trick that works for one person isn’t necessarily going to work as well for them.”
Although the work is continually shifting and evolving with each athlete or team, Julia focuses most often on building self-awareness first. Allowing her clients to be more aware of their bodies and minds, both in and out of competition.
“Noticing where and when we are challenged, noticing the thoughts that are involved, and trying to uncover why those moments test us the most. Some of the most common areas of concern that my work is focused on is confidence building, overcoming mistakes or fear of failure, performance anxiety, and emotional management. Regardless of the topic, I typically start with self awareness."
How are mindfulness and cognitive reframing used in mental performance work?
"Both mindfulness and cognitive reframing are huge when it comes to mental performance. I can’t stress this enough. So many athletes when they are performing take themselves out of the performance by mentally not being present. They may be thinking about the mistake they made 30 seconds ago or worried about the final results in the middle of the game. Mindfulness is all about being present in the moment. The here and now. Any time your mind isn’t in the present, your reaction time will be slower and your decision making may not be as accurate, each of which have drastic implications for in-game execution. Mere seconds and even milliseconds can make all the different in sports. You want every advantage you can get and being present is crucial.
In my opinion there is too much emphasis on fostering “positive” emotions and eliminating “negative” emotions in athletes. Instead, if we can be mindful and accept those emotions but not let them misguide us, we will be much more effective. That is where the cognitive reframing comes into play. If we can identify how we feel and understand why we feel that way, we can reframe our response to be more productive."
In your opinion, what are the three most important factors to being mentally prepared for performance or working towards a high level of performance?
"This is a hard one. I think for me, the top three would be: self awareness, commitment, and acceptance.
Knowing yourself and being aware of where you are and how you are feeling will enable you to more effectively prepare yourself and manage new situations. Commitment is crucial because this work takes a lot of time and practice. You don’t go to the gym once and expect your muscles to suddenly grow, your mind requires the same amount of respect. Finally, acceptance is critical because if you can accept that you will make mistakes and you will face challenges, you will be more capable of overcoming them. I think the biggest mistake that people make when it comes to mindset and mental skills is that they think being mentally tough means not feeling nervous or facing challenges. You still deal with all those things, you just have more ability to manage it effectively and stay focused and on task."
How does mental performance impact outcome?
"For some athletes, the desired outcome may simply be finding greater enjoyment, satisfaction, or confidence. These are not the tangible results people typically expect on the scoreboard. Those to me are sometimes the more “successful” outcomes. So much of my work is focused on shifting our attention away from that scoreboard.
There is one story about tangible results that I would like to share. Last year, I worked with a high school hockey team. We met every week and navigated numerous ups and downs throughout the season. They ended up winning their championship and beat a team in the final game that beat them 6-1 only two months earlier. The most valuable lesson for the girls throughout the season was that it wasn’t a perfect year. However, that didn't mean they couldn't achieve their goals. Oftentimes, athletes chase perfection to the point that if things aren’t going well, they think there is no point in continuing. It is a “all or nothing” mindset, black and white analysis. It is either good or bad. In reality, it is neither. It just is. They learned they could still work through those things and get to where they wanted to be, but only if they didn’t give up on themselves and each other. They faced many challenges individually and as a team, but going through that journey made them more resilient for that final game. They won the final, 2-1."
What are some things that you require from your athletes in order to see improvements in their mental performance?
"Commitment and patience. I may meet with an athlete once a week for an hour but the real difference is made in the 6 days between our sessions. Are they implementing things we discussed? Are they reflecting on their experiences and making adjustments? A lot of the impact that you have on someone is out of your hands as a coach or even a teacher, even when you try to make it as easy, accessible, and almost as obvious as possible. This is why I believe so many coaches credit their players when they have success. A lot of the responsibility and ownership is on the athletes and what they do with what they are given. And like most things of value, it takes time. You won’t see results after a day or two. Having the patience to stick with it is often what separates high achievers from the rest."
Tricks of the Trade
What is a tool or trick that you share with athletes that can be applied to anyone's life?
"Laughter. It is the greatest thing we can do for ourselves, both physically and mentally. Working with athletes, we are talking about a game that they chose to play for fun. Regardless of where that game has taken them, it started out as a way to have fun. When you are laughing and having fun, you are physically loose. You allow your body to execute motor tasks with fluidity and precision. When you make a mistake, what typically happens? If you can’t shake it off, your next attempt will most likely be stiff. Have you ever tried shooting a basket, kicking a ball, or swinging a bat while tensing your body? I don’t recommend it.
Performance aside, laughter has so many psychological benefits, but most importantly, laughter allows you to be in the moment and see the best parts of that moment. It overpowers any negative thoughts and floods your brain with good. I have set goals for athletes centred around how many times they laugh at practice. We all should laugh every day, multiple times a day."
For the love of It
What do you love most about working with athletes?
"I have always loved sports and competition. I love the camaraderie that comes with it. I love the feeling as you progress towards a goal and achieve something that you have dedicated so much time to. What has surprised me about working with athletes is how much excitement and joy I still get from all of those things even from such a different role. I never imagined that I would be more excited for someone else scoring a goal or winning a game than myself, but I truly have experienced the same level, if not more, pride and happiness watching others achieve their goals than I did for myself.
But if I had to choose what I love the most, I think it would be the fact that athletes are extremely passionate and motivated. The best ones want to learn, improve, and be coached. Working with people that are so naturally driven makes me more driven and constantly pushes me to get better at my job."
What are some misconceptions arounds athletes and their mental health?
"I think a lot of great work has been done in the past few years to raise awareness and eliminate the stigma associated with mental health. However, a lot of people still see athletes, especially at the highest level, as superhuman. Highlight reels don’t show us the hundreds of times they missed that shot or the hours of practice they spent falling down trying to land that jump.
Separate from performance, we also don’t see the tough days or the bad thoughts. We don’t see the sacrifices that go into their success, such as traveling and missing family and loved ones. Even on a team, it can be very lonely and isolating sometimes. Especially this past year, the bubble environments that many professional athletes entered ostracized them from the world and created a whole new level of sacrifice and commitment. They also introduced new mental, physical, and emotional challenges.
Overall, realizing that they need to prioritize their mental health and recovery as much as they prioritize their physical health is super important. One of the greatest misconceptions may simply be taking the phrase “they are a professional” as meaning they can handle anything. Someone “handling” something like a pro, sometimes might mean they are handling a lot more behind closed doors than you realize.