MENTAL SKILLS TRAINING FOR DEVELOPING PSYCHOLOGICAL COMPETENCIES AND CHARACTERISTICS IN SWIMMERS
Serious professional swimming coaches do not like to be told that they need to do more work to be better coaches. Usually, their days are used fully to the point that assuming another task is likely to be logistically impossible. However, in the domain of mental skills training, a technology has been developed that requires much activity on behalf of swimmers, with relatively little extra activity for coaches. That has been made possible by the production of self-study and self-monitoring exercises designed to develop mental skills in athletes (Rushall, 1992b).
Given the contention that there is a need to attend to psychological and behavioral deficiencies in US national teams, mental skills training exercises are proposed as a viable procedure for implementing constructive programs.
The exercises in the mental skills training manual are meant to assist coaches to embark upon a training program with a minimum of inconvenience. They are constructed so that they can be used by coaches with little training in behavior modification. The exercises should allow coaches to determine goals for mental skills training, to implement programs by using appropriate exercises, and to evaluate the effectiveness of any devised program. That form of program conduct should relieve coaches of the burdens of having to become a sport psychology expert to be able to devise exercises, structure materials, and develop experiences to produce behavior changes.
The scope of the manual's exercises is not all encompassing. The exercises are not related to every problem that arises in a swimmer nor are they intended to develop every psychological characteristic important to sport. It will be some time before those desirable ends can be met by sport psychology. What is included are those exercises which have proven to be beneficial to athletes, have developed essential characteristics and behaviors in very successful performers, and, if developed in the neophyte athlete, will lead to an accelerated rate of performance improvement and an enhanced level of ultimate achievement.
The coach will have to determine the sphere of use that best suits his/her own purposes.
There are some erroneous assumptions about altering behaviors and developing mental skills in athletes that need to be dispelled.
Misconception 1. Producing psychological effects is quick and easy. There is a general perception among coaches that altering psychological factors is a relatively easy procedure. A single visit to a sport psychologist should correct all psychological deficiencies in an athlete; talking to a psychologist is all that is needed to "correct" attitudinal problems; "inspirational talks" are sufficient to alter a team's ability to win, are examples of common misconceptions of the involvement of psychology in sport.
If mental skills are to be produced, the effort and time allocations that are required should at least be equated to that required to alter physical skills. Repetitions of mental skill elements, progressions towards a final global skill, feedback and reinforcement, and knowledge of progress, are essential features of the process required to develop mental skills. An athlete must be prepared to apply his/her energies to all that is required to produce demonstrable changes in the psychological domain of sporting performance.
A process that is as demanding as that needed for physical skill development is required to produce improvements in an athlete's behaviors and mental skills.
Misconception 2. Knowing what to do is the secret for effective psychology. It is a common belief that if an athlete knows what he/she should be doing, then effective behavior changes will result. Sport psychologists are often asked to give talks on what to do, how to behave, and what is necessary for effective motivation. In that arena knowledge is presented to both athletes and coaches. However, knowledge or education alone is not a sufficient factor for producing behavior change. Unless that knowledge is practiced in simulated and real-life circumstances, coordinated with direction and the provision of feedback, and finally brought under the control of the targeted athlete him/herself, effective behavior development will not occur. Knowing what to do does not guarantee that behaviors will change or occur.
The mental skills training manual's exercises describe the procedural steps to achieve certain aims. Those steps must be completed to achieve an effective behavior alteration. One should not expect behavior and performance changes to occur if an athlete only "knows" what should be done.
Knowing what needs to be done is not sufficient for mental skill or behavior changes to occur. It is only when developmental practice procedures are followed that specific psychological changes can be effected.
Misconception 3. Mental skill development does not require the same amount of effort or time as do physical skill development and physiological conditioning. There is a common perception that psychological development programs should be brief and not time-consuming. The tendency of coaches to give off-handed lip-service to what athletes should be doing and thinking is evidence of this regard. The fact that when teams and athletes are not performing well, coaches turn to psychological reasons, such as "bad attitudes", "problem behaviors", and "lack of desire", indicates a lack of understanding of what is needed to develop or correct mental skills.
To implement an effective mental skills training program athletes have to perform even more sport-associated activities. Modern training programs have realized the necessity for holding physical skill development practices and conditioning sessions on separate occasions. That need is based on the premise that if the two are mixed, there will be detrimental effects of each on the other so that the gains from practice are reduced to a less than optimum level. The development of mental skills is a further requirement for the development of athletic excellence. The need for specific mental skills training programs exists. The resources that are required for psychological programs have to be shared equally with physical skill and conditioning programs.
One of the admirable features of mental skills training is that it does not always have to be conducted during scheduled training time. Much good work can be conducted in the form of away-from-training homework. That possibility leads to the beneficial use of previously unproductive time. The exercises in the manual require homework, particularly in early developmental steps. It is not acceptable for coaches to contend that mental skills training cannot be implemented because there is no time at scheduled practices.
As mental skills are developed there is often a need to practice them during training sessions while skill and conditioning activities are being executed. Since many coaches rarely direct the mental activities of athletes, requiring athletes to execute mental skills in appropriate situations at training will fill an existing void and will not impose an excessive demand on athletes.
A complicating feature of implementing a mental skills program is the need for programming adequate mental skill practice trials in concert with physical practices. Once the organization for that integration is designed and implemented it will no longer impose an "extra load" on the coach supervising the program.
Mental skill development programs require a similar amount of time allocation, effort expenditure, and practice in real-life situations as do the emphases of physical skill development and physiological conditioning.
Types of Mental Skills Exercises
Exercises are established as single units of focus in the manual. However, that does not mean every exercise can be performed singly to produce direct benefits for an athlete's behavior and performance. There are three categories of exercises.
1. Stand alone exercises. These are performed and result in direct behavior changes. For example, Exercise 3.5, Setting group training goals, is designed to produce specific behavior changes independent of any other exercise. If it is implemented correctly, a procedure for constructing training goals for a group of athletes will be established to become a standard part of practice preparations. This type of exercise can be recognized by the absence of a Requirements subheading following the Aim in the exercise description. It can be executed to produce a specific performance or mental skill effect.
2. Dependent exercises. These require other exercises to be completed in the sequence stipulated in the Requirements description before they can be undertaken. When planning to do these exercises the prerequisite exercises need to be included in the implementation schedule. An example of dependent exercises is the combination of the first three exercises in Section 6, Relaxation. They need to be completed in sequence to develop the skill of producing physical relaxation. Any subset of the three exercises may not be as effective as the total package. Exercise 2.1, Increasing the intensity of self-reinforcement, is a prerequisite for many exercises. The skill of self-reinforcement is an effective vehicle for supporting behavior changes and is included in exercises that rely heavily on explicit reinforcement.
3. Packaged exercises. There are groups of exercises that need to be completed in sequence to produce an effect. For example, all the exercises in Section 5, Performance enhancement imagery, need to be completed to produce the macro skill of performing imagery in a correct manner so that performance enhancement will be produced. Similarly, Section 9, Team-building, is a complete package.
There are also sections which are intended to serve as packages but can produce results when subgroups of exercises are completed. For example, Section 7, Pre-competition mental skills, describes a total package. However, if Exercise 7.4, Contest build-up routine, was completed alone, one might expect an athlete to initiate a competitive performance in an effective and desirable manner. On the other hand, a maximum enhancement effect will not occur unless the total package of exercises in Section 7 is completed.
Because of these three different types of exercise groups, the user needs to carefully read the section Introduction and each exercise to gain an appreciation of the overhead and demands required for effective implementation of any mental skills program.
Requirements of Athletes
The most important features that determine whether exercises can be used effectively reside in the athlete. This self-help approach relies heavily on the effects of self-reinforcement and public posting as significant consequences for controlling behavior. For those influential variables to be effective, certain characteristics must reside in the athlete. It is the responsibility of any user to ensure that these characteristics are displayed during exercise completion.
1. The athlete must want to do the exercise. When an individual approaches a task in a positive manner, a significant factor for potential success already exists. When an individual is hesitant to do an exercise, failure is likely. The psychological variable that describes the approach that one takes to completing self help exercises is called self-fulfilling prophecy. From the athlete's viewpoint, a decision has to be made that the completion of an exercise is important and that he/she will be self-motivated to achieve that end.
If an athlete wants to achieve a behavior or attitude change then a change will most likely occur. If an athlete does not want to achieve a behavior or attitude change then a change is unlikely to occur.
2. Each exercise must be completed fully. Effects from exercises will only be achieved if each exercise is completed fully. Partial completions may produce only some transitory results.
Athletes are commonly observed to become enthusiastic about the content of the exercises. That is not surprising since they are sport specific and embrace factors which have obvious face validity for the user. In that significant realization is the temptation to decide that knowing what has to be done is sufficient to produce a lasting behavior change. Nothing could be further from the truth. A user has to perform each exercise to its completion so that its effects are permanently established. The repetitions at the end of each exercise are very important for habituating the user to the procedures and developed effects. That is the principal reason for adopting the behavior modification model for changing athlete behaviors. One has to ask, what is the point of performing exercises if they only have fleeting and partial benefits?
The demand for exercise completion is reasonable. Mental skills have to be trained in much the same manner as do physical skills and physiological adaptations. They require time, effort, repetition, and progress feedback.
Each mental skills exercise must be completed fully. Little can be gained from completing only part of the exercise steps.
3. The user must be concerned with perfection when completing an exercise. Each exercise is structured deliberately, contains essential ingredients, does not include unnecessary activities, and requires self-recording and self-evaluation activities. When an exercise is performed, nothing should be omitted. There are no short cuts to exercise completion. The repetitions and recording procedures that are used are intended to practice elements so that they become skilled habits. No user should look for an opportunity to do less than that which is specifically required.
To meet this need, an athlete must be somewhat of a perfectionist who attends to details. When an exercise is initiated it should be the intent of the user to totally and perfectly execute each step. Materials that are developed should be filed in a personal folder so that they can be referred to at a later date particularly when revisions, booster sessions, or other exercise prerequisites are performed.
Each exercise must be performed according to its detailed steps. Benefits will be diminished when an athlete disregards any item or exercise requirement.
An athlete is helped if there is outside assistance that supports attempts to complete exercises and produce mental skill changes. Usually, the coach and/or family will provide such support. The mere action of explaining to someone what is being attempted usually has reinforcing value. It serves as a public justification for the action, a form of public commitment which is associated with better exercise compliance.
When attempting a mental skills development program it is best to have someone who supports the effort and takes an interest in what is being attempted.
A coach can conduct a mental skills training program. Athletes can improve their mental skills capacities and solve psychological problems through coach-initiated programs.
The Coach's Role
The coach's role in mental skills programs is mainly one of supervision. The direction, support, and monitoring of exercise compliance are central to successful implementation. To perform any exercises it is necessary for each athlete to have a copy of the materials to be used. For extensive programs that means each athlete should have a copy of the manual. For each exercise, the coach usually has to distribute copies of required concept development and recording sheets.
When attempting to alter mental skills the major responsibilities of the coach are as follows:
As exercises are attempted, the coach usually has to perform a number of functions.
The use of the manual in this role makes the coach's job reasonably manageable.
Mental Skills Developmental Programs
Table 1 lists a suggested mental skills development program. The content should be selected and then incorporated into a training plan. Mental skills need to be "coached" with similar intensity and emphasis on importance as are other factors in the training program. Only concerted attention to the elements of any devised program will produce desirable outcomes.
Coaches can implement mental skills development programs by setting exercises as part of the program. The main coaching responsibility is one of monitoring athletes' progress and providing training and competitive opportunities to practice newly acquired skills.
One of the most common concerns of a coach is the provision of individual services for the correction of problems. The mental skills training manual is particularly useful in that role.
When the nature of a problem has been determined, the appropriate exercises to produce incompatible behaviors should be selected (Table 2 suggests suitable alternatives for various problems). From then on, it is a matter of having the athlete complete the exercises and perform the "new" behaviors during training and competitions. The manual does the teaching while the coach monitors and encourages improvements.
Some coaches may be dubious about the effectiveness of such an approach. The materials have been tested successfully with intelligent serious athletes who have been monitored either by a concerned coach or sport psychologist. The coach is not relieved of the monitoring role or the need to show interest in the athletes' activities, but the drudgery of instituting repetitive activities of instruction and practice has been removed.
When coaches realize that psychological capacities are problematical in athletes but do not know what to do, a feeling of inadequacy often results. However, now that assistance materials are available, coaches should feel confident enough to require exercise completions and demonstrations of newly developed mental skills. It often will be noted that recognizing a problem and proceeding to do something about it promotes rapid mental skill development and quick exercise completion. It is recommended that if an athlete does not change as a result of completing an exercise and being provided with opportunities to practice it under coach supervision, then the problem should be interpreted as being serious enough to require specialized help from a sport psychologist or consultant.
Coaches can now implement informed programs for psychological problem solution by selecting appropriate exercises to produce desirable mental skills in athletes.
TABLE 1. SUGGESTED ORDER OF MENTAL SKILL EXERCISES FOR A TOTAL MENTAL SKILLS PROGRAM. ========================================================================= A. ESTABLISHING ATTITUDINAL AND MOTIVATIONAL BEHAVIORS Purpose: to increase the intrinsic positive value of the sporting experience. 2.1 Increasing the intensity of self-reinforcement 2.2 Positive interactions with others [if appropriate: 2.3 Stopping negative thinking] 2.4 Positive imagery Purpose: to establish a goal-oriented focus for sporting activity elements. 3.6 Setting and evaluating personal activity goals [if appropriate: 3.5 Setting group training goals] Purpose: to establish a constant orientation to the importance of sport participation. 4.1 Establishment of a daily positive focus 4.2 Daily positive recall 4.3 Periodic self-commitment ------------------------------------ B. IMPORTANT SKILLS Purpose: to learn imagery that will enhance performance. 5.1 Learning imagery control and vividness 5.2 Sensory recall training 5.3 Movement imagery training 5.4 Learning to relax: final stage [if needed: 6.4 Relaxation and positive imagery for self-concept 6.5 Relaxation and positive imagery of an activity 6.6 Localized relaxation 6.7 Sleep, rest, and relaxation] ------------------------------------ C. COMPETITION PSYCHOLOGY Purpose: to develop a basic competition strategy. 8.1 Segmenting a performance 8.2 Task-relevant thought content 8.3 Mood words content 8.4 Positive self-talk 8.5 Special considerations 8.6 Integrating a basic strategy 8.10 Competition goal-setting Purpose: to develop competition preparation skills to facilitate the use of competition strategies. 7.1 Waking with a positive attitude 7.2 Trouble free planning 7.3 Establishing contest site mind-sets 7.4 Contest build-up routine 7.5 Learning and using pre-competition strategies Purpose: to refine and embellish competition strategies. 8.6 Coping behaviors for competitions 8.7 Intensification skill 8.8 Start segment 8.9 Debriefing a performance ------------------------------------ D. LONG-TERM ORIENTATION Purpose: to establish a goal structure that will orient performance and participation for a long time. 3.1 Setting sporting career goals 3.2 Setting relatively long-term goals 3.3 Setting performance goals 3.4 Setting performance progress goals ------------------------------------ E. GROUP ORIENTATION (If needed) Purpose: to establish a team-spirit atmosphere in the environment. 9.1 Structuring a leadership group 9.2 Implementing a decision-making procedure 9.3 Determining rules, punishments, and procedures 9.4 Determining activities and actions ========================================================================= TABLE 2. PSYCHOLOGICAL PROBLEM AREAS AND EXERCISES THAT COULD ALLEVIATE THEIR OCCURRENCE ========================================================================= Problem/Difficulty Suggested Sections and Exercises ------------------------------------------------------------------------- Negative thinking/ 2.3 Stopping negative thinking depression 2.1 Increasing the intensity of self- reinforcement 3.6 Setting and evaluating personal activity goals 4.2 Daily positive recall Lack of motivation 2.1 Increasing the intensity of self- reinforcement 3.6 Setting and evaluating personal activity goals 4.1 The establishment of a daily positive focus 4.2 Daily positive recall Lack of commitment/ 4.3 Periodic self-reinforcement reduced application 3.1 Setting sporting career goals 3.2 Setting relatively long-term goals 3.3 Setting performance goals 3.4 Setting performance progress goals 3.6 Setting and evaluating personal activity goals Dissatisfaction with Section 7, Pre-competition mental skills competing Section 8, Competition mental skills Competition anxiety/ Section 8, Competition mental skills uncertainty Section 7, Pre-competition mental skills Poor team cohesion/ 2.2 Positive interactions with other lack of cooperation athletes 3.5 Setting group training goals Section 9, Team-building Lack of positiveness Section 2, Increasing the positive aspects of a sporting experience Section 4, The development of commitment Ineffective imagery Section 5, Performance enhancement imagery General anxiety Section 6, Relaxation Section 2, Increasing the positive aspects of a sporting experience Section 4, The development of commitment Reduced productivity/ 2.1 Increasing the intensity of self- passivity reinforcement 2.2 Positive interactions with other athletes (if a appropriate) 3.5 Setting group training goals (if appropriate) 3.6 Setting and evaluating personal activity goals 4.1 The establishment of a daily positive focus Poor decision making/ 2.2 Positive interactions with other poor self-control athletes (if appropriate) 3.5 Setting group training goals (if appropriate) 3.6 Setting and evaluating personal activity goals Section 7, Pre-competition mental skills Section 8, Competition mental skills =========================================================================
Since national team staffs usually inherit swimmers in a late stage of training, it is very important that each athlete's taper and approach to competitions be handled accurately. There are two self-report tools that are useful for that purpose. They have been scientifically developed and have been shown to be better predictors of athlete reactions and states than any physiological variables. Their use is quite simple and explained in materials that accompany each tools' documentation. Each is designed to produce daily assessments of the status of athletes as serious competitions approach and/or are encountered.
The Sport Pressure Checklist (SPC)
The SPC measures four scales, positive, negative, internal, and external pressure (Rushall & Sherman, 1987). Those scales are generated by responses given to 16 possible sources of internal and external pressure. The daily responses to each pressure source also yield valuable information that tells the coach how an athlete appraises those sources. When between-day scores decrease, either for sources or scales, a problem is indicated and warrants an immediate coaching intervention to recover the previous better perception of the pressure item.
Coaches are able to monitor the types of things that cause a reaction in a swimmer. The magnitude and form of reaction is also revealed. This means that at important races, coaches can monitor on a daily basis, how an athlete is appraising factors that could affect an upcoming event. Such knowledge is important for it can be used to adjust preparations on an individual basis and to prevent difficult problems arising.
The Daily Analyses of Life Demands for Athletes (DALDA)
Rushall (1981, 1990) published this tool as a means of measuring the reactions to and sources of stress in an athlete's life. The original validity and reliability assessments for this checklist were conducted on swimmers (Rushall, 1975). The analysis measures the existence or non-existence of 25 symptoms and nine sources of stress. Changes in, and the existence of, stress symptoms can be used to measure the following:
The logging of periodic responses to the stress analysis tool allows a coach to make adjustments to psychological, travel, and training stresses for individual athletes. Information is also provided that gives the coach an insight into the response of an athlete to environments outside of swimming. Thus, the coach derives a better understanding of a swimmer as he/she participates in a program. Of particular importance to national team coaches is the ability to monitor a swimmer's state during tapering/peaking.
Psychological test results from the 1993 World Short Course Championships and National A Teams indicated that: (a) females had fewer established desirable behaviors than the men; (b) there were sufficient differences between the men's and women's teams to warrant their separate coaching and handling; and (c) that neither team exhibited a substantial majority of the characteristics which separate world champions and record-holders from lesser performers. [These results were published in American Swimming, February-march, 1995.]
Based on the results of the psychological testing, it was proposed that mental skills programs could be implemented to advance the quality of mental control and psychological skills of those national team members. A brief description of how that could be done was discussed.
Since national team coaches usually are associated only with selected swimmers through the critical stage of tapering and competitions, two useful tools were briefly described. The Daily Analyses of Life Demands for Athletes (Rushall, 1990, 1992a) was proposed as the assessment procedure for monitoring day-to-day progress in tapering. The Sport Pressure Checklist, (Rushall & Sherman, 1987, 1992a) provides the opportunity for a coaching staff to monitor the daily reactions of athletes to the pressures of impending serious competitions. Its results allow coaches to make daily adjustments to coaching strategies and athlete experiences so that a competitive performance will be approached with a desirable perception of preparation, self-efficacy, and beneficial pressure.
The central theme of this presentation was that these three considerations are important for national team coaching and are likely to enhance the quality of coaching decisions which, in turn, should affect the quality of swimmers' performances at serious competitions.
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