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    First Published on Running Rugby

    Sports psychology is now seen as a major tool and people are realising just how important the mental side can be for an individual in any sport.

    Athletes are constantly pushed to excel in their game – media and peer pressures are hugely increased with the competition of matches.

    Imagine an athlete who has control over his emotions, one who has been taught mental resilience techniques and skills - how much better would they perform?

    Sport is a stressful environment and every sports person will go through moments of adversity either within a game or a career. However, if they can be helped to see problems as challenges, it inspires them to perform to an optimum level for longer than athletes who haven't been trained in these techniques.

    There is an assumption that the best athletes are mentally strong and this is, in part, true. However, there are times in an individual’s career when their mental edge can be challenged.

    That could be through injury, poor form or even not knowing how to raise their game to a higher level. There are many situations and events that drain mental energy.

    One of the most important attributes to any athlete is their mental toughness and it is important to build on this strength. Profiling is used to show where the athlete is at that given moment and how mentally tough they actually are.

    It can show the athlete that they are stronger than they think or confirm areas they need to improve on. 

    Along with mental toughness, confidence is a major factor in athletes’ performance and if an athlete feels mentally tough, their confidence grows naturally.

    When confidence is at a low ebb, look how often they tend to concentrate on the negative aspects of their sport. If you find that it is often, it indicates that they are struggling with their self-esteem. This will always feed their lack of confidence. 

    To overcome this start looking at their positives and what they are good at. Which parts of their sport make them feel good and what do they thrive on?  Immediately they will have that ‘feel good factor’.

    List the positives down and read them on a regular basis. This is a constant reminder of their mental strength and confidence.

    Every time they think of a negative, sandwich it between two positives – they will start to understand and realise the more you hold on to the positives the more confident you will feel and the more you will believe in yourself and your abilities.

    Working on mental toughness should become a natural part of training for any professional athlete – if you want to play at your best, you need to work on all areas that will help you to improve and grow.

    It doesn’t matter if a player is working to keep at his highest level or coming back from injury, mental toughness is key to any athlete’s remit.

    An example of a rugby player coming back from injury can give an insight into the determination of the player concerned.

    The player was halfway through his season – playing a pivotal role in his team – during a challenge he dislocated his shoulder but tried to play on. Within  minutes he had broken his wrist in another challenge.

    This was a huge blow for both team and player as it was realised very quickly that he would be out for some time.

    Mental toughness was key to the player’s rehab – he was young and made it his mission to come back stronger both physically and mentally.

    Small goals were set on a regular basis, always achievable and never long term.

    Controlling the pain was key in the beginning – learning to work through good pain and stop when he pushed too far. Being determined is one thing but being realistic will gain results.

    Focusing on the positives each day and not allowing himself to be drawn back as the time started to drag – each day was planned and seen as one day closer to being back – never an opportunity to look back and always moving forward.

    This all seems very basic. At the time it was like moving mountains but once achieved it is a case of on to the next challenge.

    An athlete will be used to achieving on a regular basis and this needs to be retained. It not only makes it easier to slip back into competition but can also speed recovery due to the total focus on achieving full fitness.

    When making goals it is important to make them realistic and not to rush them, so confidence will grow as results start to materialise and the athlete will continue to challenge themselves on an individual basis in order to achieve the results with positive outcomes.

    It is always a good idea to change the working pattern, either weekly or daily (depending on the nature of the injury). With a long-term injury motivation can really slump as there is no end in sight, especially at the beginning of the treatment when the outcome might be unknown. It is good at this stage for an injured player to work with different people or even away from their normal environment to give them a different outlook, so they are not seeing the same faces day in day out.

    As the athlete recovers it is good for them to be around their team though and to actively be involved as much as is realistically possible. When injured you can feel very much on your own. Communication at this time is very important, keeping the individual informed of their progress and the team’s.

    The process did take some months but the player did what he set out to do. He came back stronger both physically and mentally and continues to play at a high level today.

    At Think Fitness we are looking for athletes who want to be the best they can be and then taking these athletes and helping them do exactly that.

    Athletes normally have one session per month when they are looking to improve their game and get that edge, or every third week during rehab.

    Jane Dodd is a founder member of the Think Fitness team, which helps sports professionals to fulfil their potential through performance management services.

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