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Mental Skills Training (MST): Mind & Body In Tune

Mental skills training (MST) aims to develop psychological skills that will help individuals achieve performance success and personal well-being. Its beginnings can be dated to the opening of the world’s first sport psychology laboratory in Berlin in 1920.

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Mental Skills Training (MST): Mind & Body In Tune

  1. 1. Mental Skills Training (MST): Mind & Body In Tune “‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.’ - Aristotle A paper by Dr. Fergal Bell.
  2. 2. Introduction Mental skills training (MST) aims to develop psychological skills that will help individuals achieve performance success and personal well-being. Its beginnings can be dated to the opening of the world’s first sport psychology laboratory in Berlin in 1920. By the 1930s MST was being used by the Chicago Cubs professional baseball team, who had hired sports psychologists to improve players’ automated motor skills, goal setting and confidence building. Today, MST professionals train athletes in an extensive range of sports including football, golf, athletics, basketball and baseball. Research suggests that mental skills training can improve performance in many areas including: motor skills, concentration, memory, motivation, stress management and decision making. High Level Performers: Brain Differences Claudio Del Percio of Sapienza University in Rome measured the brains waves of athletes (karate champions and fencers) and non-athletes in states of rest and performance and found that the athletes emitted much stronger alpha waves while at rest. This indicated that athletes were ready to quickly move from a restful to a performance state. While in action, the athletes’ brains were less active than those of non-athletes, suggesting that they required less brain activity to engage in motor tasks than non-athletes did. This also relates to brain efficiency, as discussed below. Athletes have also been found to have higher developed skills in areas not directly related to their sporting activities. In test conditions they have also been able to assess information faster and complete tasks better than non-athletes, while avoiding distractions, such as crossing busy streets. The brains of high-level players of non-physical games also appear to work differently from those of beginners and amateurs. In the paper ‘The Competitive Mind: Beginner to Expert’, researchers studied the brain activity of poker players, using electroencephalography (EEG) headsets, during different parts of a standard game of Texas Hold’em Poker (www.yourbrainonpoker.com). Researchers found that expert players tended to make decisions much more quickly and with far less mental effort than beginners or amateurs. In the later stages of games expert players also tended to be calmer and their decision making ability was far less affected by emotion. Expert players also showed greater self- control and patience when faced with losses than beginners or amateurs, allowing them to maintain focus and increase their chances of subsequently achieving successful outcomes. Enhancing Performance through Mental Skills Training According to Luke Behncke, of RMIT University in Melbourne, MST in sport largely evolved so that athletes could exert more control over their performance during different psychological states. He has categorised mental skills training as either cognitive or
  3. 3. somatic. Cognitive training relates to behaviour and techniques e.g. visualisation, visuo- motor behaviour rehearsal and cognitive-behaviour therapy. Somatic training incorporates biofeedback, meditation and progressive muscle relaxation. The two categories sometimes overlap and elements of both are often integrated into athletes’ training. ‘I never looked at the consequences of missing a big shot . . . when you think about the consequences you always think of a negative result.’ - Michael Jordan Cognitive training Schema Theory: (Schmidt, 1975, 1976) Essentially this is muscle memory, with an individual rehearsing a specific motor pattern over and over again, like practicing free kicks or golf swings, until the action becomes automatic without requiring significant brain input during performance. Set Hypothesis: (Nascon & Schmidt, 1971) This aims to create an environment that is mentally conducive immediately prior to the physical activity taking place e.g. pre-action routines involving posture, visualisation and other forms of rehearsal. Such techniques are particularly useful when there are long periods when the specific skill is not used, such as for penalty kickers or golfers. Rugby fans may remember the slow reverse walk that New Zealand fly-half Grant Fox used to undertake when playing, or the Jonny Wilkinson hand clasp with England. Lobmeyer and Wasserman (1986) found that using a pre-throw routine helped basketball players improve accuracy by 7 per cent. Cohn et al. (1990) demonstrated that such cognitive training helped golfers improve concentration, reduce tension, play more freely and make quicker decisions in terms of club selection and the type of shot to hit. This type of training is sometimes described as getting ‘in the zone’. "Concentration is a fine antidote to anxiety.” - Jack Nicklaus Somatic training Biofeedback: Relates to adjusting movement based on data gathered while exercising. This is used by some athletes, particularly those involved in running, where changes are made while training on treadmills or with other equipment, such as mobile devices. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR): A technique that involves focusing on relaxing specific muscles in a set order, and which aren’t needed for the activity, in order to reduce anxiety. Weightlifters and archers typically use this type of mental skills training, since they rely predominantly on specific muscle groups and may not need others such as facial muscles. Meditation: Similar to PMR, meditation seeks to develop an awareness in the person of their body and how psychological states can find expression in physical movements. One example of unwanted muscle action is the ‘yips’, an involuntary muscle spasm, which has
  4. 4. affected professional sports people like golfers Padraig Harrington and Bernhard Langer and darts player, Eric Bristow. Meditation may be used by athletes to identify when muscles in their body are obstructing their ability to perform motor tasks and then intervene beforehand, thus ensuring a smooth physical flow. Flow Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi developed the theory of flow, which has been utilised by high performers in many fields, including sports. This is when we are so absorbed in an activity that we become ‘in the moment,’ losing track of time and not consciously thinking about our actions. Being in a state of flow can lead to higher levels of performance for professionals and non-professionals alike. Brain efficiency This concerns the ability of physical performers, such as athletes, to fine-tune their decision making capability in the way that high-level sport demands. It concerns cognitive functions as well as muscle effort, posture and all of the other physical elements that go into performance. Brain efficiency in action can be seen when a running quarter-back makes a perfect play to team mates who are running in multiple directions at the same time as opponents are charging towards him. ‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.’ - Aristotle
  5. 5. References: Bakker, Frank C., Boschker Marc S.J. & Chung, Tjuling. (1996) Changes in Muscular Activity While Imagining Weight Lifting Using Stimulus or Response Propositions. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology. Issue 18, 313-324. Batista, Ed. To Stay Focused, Manage Your Emotions (2015). www.hbr.org. https://hbr.org/2015/02/to-stay-focused-manage-your-emotions Behncke, Luke (2004). Mental Skills Training For Sports: A Brief Review. Athletic Insight The Online Journal of Sports Psychology, Volume 6 Issue 1 Cohn, P. J., Rotella, R. J., & Lloyd, J. W. (1990). Effects of a cognitive-behavioral intervention on the preshot routine and performance in golf. The Sport Psychologist, 4, 33-47. de Freitas, Simao Pedro Fernandes (2013). Psychological Skills Training in Portugues Professional Soccer: Reality or Utopia? The Views of Elite Soccer Coaches and Players. Universidade do Porto. Gucciardi, D.F., Gordon, S., & Dimmock, J.A. (2008).Towards an understanding of mental toughness in Australian football. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 20, 261–281. LeVan, A.J. (2009). Seeing Is Believing: The Power of Visualization. Psychology Today. December 03. Lewis, Tanya (2013). Athletes' Minds Excel at Motion Tracking. January 31, 2013. http://www.livescience.com/26742-athlete-mental-skills.html Lobmeyer, D. L., & Wasserman, E. A. (1986). Preliminaries to free throw shooting: superstitious behaviour? Journal of Sport and Behavior, 9, 70-78. Nascon, J., & Schmidt, R. A. (1971). The activity-set hypothesis for warm-up decrement. Journal of Motor Behaviour, 3, 1-15. Schmidt, R. A. (1975). A schema theory of discrete motor skill learning. Psychological Reviews, 82, 225-260. Schmidt, R. A. (1976). Control processes in motor skills. Exercise and Sport Science Reviews, 4, 229-261. Zimmer, Carl (2010). The Brain: Why Athletes Are Geniuses, April 16, 2010.

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