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.
Mental Skills Training (MST): Mind & Body In Tune
“‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.’
A paper by Dr. Fergal Bell.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.’
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Lobmeyer, D. L., & Wasserman, E. A. (1986). Preliminaries to free throw shooting:
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