“The Mind Muscle”: Understanding Mental Performance in Sports

Jan 12, 2024

In the dynamic world of athletics, reaching a level of peak performance goes well beyond the physical realm; it expands into the unseen, intricate workings of the mind - the ‘Mind Muscle’, as I call it. While the mind may not be a muscle in the literal sense, it operates much like one. Training and developing the mind not only strengthens its capabilities, improves its function, and amplifies its resilience like a muscle but it also enhances physical performance output. Amidst the confusion surrounding what mental performance is, the profound benefits often remain hidden and athletes may never discover their true potential. 

What is mental performance?

Mental performance is the art and science of developing and applying mental skills, attitudes, perspectives, strategies, and processes that lead to optimal or peak performance, well-being, and personal growth. Mental performance extends beyond mere results; it encompasses the experience one undergoes during the journey, to the outcome. In the context of sports, mental performance shapes the athletic experience, determining whether it unfolds with joy and fulfillment or is weighed down by the burden of pressure and stress.

Let me illustrate this with an example. Imagine two individuals visiting Disneyland, both with the same goal of riding all the rides in the park by the end of the day. Despite both achieving their common goal, their experiences can differ markedly. One may encounter significant suffering, grappling with pressure, stress, overwhelm, and anxiety, while the other revels in joy, happiness, satisfaction, and fulfillment in the process. In an alternate scenario, one person succumbs to the negative impact of pressure and stress and their performance suffers greatly, while the other finds inspiration in the challenge. In the world of mental performance in sports, our focus includes intentionally navigating our nervous system states to not only to optimize performance but also to foster a joyful experience, while ensuring the best possible outcomes.

Historical Perspective:

While mental performance coaching in sports traces its roots back to the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, its true breakthrough came in the vibrant decades of the 1960s and 70s. Yet, surprisingly, this momentum hasn't sustained itself into the present day. Currently, mental performance training lags behind, with only a fraction of athletes actively engaging in training and embracing its potential. In an unofficial survey conducted by Bay Laurel Athletics, examining a professional sports team of 90 players, only about 10 players or 10% take advantage of the mental performance staff provided by their team. This stark underutilization underscores the untapped potential within mental performance training, representing a golden opportunity for peak performance and a game-changer for curbing competition for the athletes who actually take advantage of it. 

The 80/20 Principle:

By applying the Pareto principle, mental performance takes the lead, influencing a whopping 80% of the equation, leaving physical performance to account for the remaining 20%. This ratio shows the transformative impact mental training can have on an athlete's overall performance. Yet, metal performance remains the most undertraining and underdeveloped skill in sports.

Real-world Impact:

The results speak for themselves. A Bay Laurel Athletics' athlete, a high school cross-country runner slashed an impressive 4 minutes from her 5k PR in just 4 weeks, while a gymnast improved her competition score from the low 30s to 37, well above her goal of 34 in 5 weeks and a middle school softball pitcher made a goal of becoming a bracket pitcher by next season and within 6 weeks during the same season she accomplished that feat. What do these athletes have in common? Participating in mental performance training, solely, without any additional physical conditioning or training, which highlights the tangible results that can be achieved. This success story is just one among many, sparking the question: What incredible possibilities await you as an athlete or your athlete as a parent?

What Mental Performance is NOT:

In dispelling misconceptions about mental performance coaching, it's crucial to clarify its distinct role to maximize the effectiveness. Mental performance coaching is NOT diagnosing or treating any medical problem or mental disorder; those roles are best left to physicians and therapists specializing in mental health support. While there may be a therapeutic aspect to mental performance coaching, it serves as just one avenue among many available for mental health support. However, the growing demand for mental health support makes some of these resources scarce, prompting many to take advantage of the resources available including sports mental performance coaching. Beyond diagnosing or treating mental disorders; coaching focuses on enhancing existing mental capabilities, adding to what you already have in your current mental toolkit, to improve performance and enrich the positive experience of the athletic journey. 

Common Pitfalls:

Motivation, visualization, and breathing techniques often take the spotlight in discussions about mental performance. While undeniably helpful, these techniques don’t fully represent the totality of what mental performance coaching offers and have pitfalls associated with them becoming a source of confusion and struggle for athletes if not applied with a deeper understanding. It's crucial to recognize that while these tools have their merits, they are mere band-aid solutions when not rooted in addressing the underlying root cause.

Understanding Mental Performance:

Mental performance is a thought-provoking creative process that inspires athletes to harness their physical and mental potential. It involves the construction of a solid foundation, skillfully navigating one's nervous system and cultivating resilience. The most beneficial element of mental performance training lies in the discovery of an athlete’s glass ceiling–a barrier that will always constrain potential. Every athlete has a unique glass ceiling and it's only upon its discovery that it can then be shattered, dismantling limitations and making available boundless possibilities. Once armed with the right tools, athletes gain access to peak performance both mentally and physically and can transform their entire sporting experience. 

Benefits of Mental Performance Coaching:

The truly transformative impact of mental performance coaching extends well beyond sports, weaving its influence into the many facets of athletes’ lives. This coaching not only influences character development, providing athletes with a moral compass, but also acts as a catalyst in disappearing suffering—vanishing stress, anxiety, and overwhelm. The ripple effect extends to foster a sense of accomplishment, fulfillment, and success. Athletes experience improved self-esteem, courage, confidence, clarity and resilience so they can navigate peak performance without falling short or giving up to the looming clouds of pressure. 

Athletes learn what it really means to “get your head in the game” and acquire laser focus, make decisions confidently and develop leadership skills both on the court and in their lives. Mental performance coaching time-collapses the maturity of our young athletes setting them up for success that carries them for a lifetime. The tangible evidence shows in the physical performance, showcased by the trophies on the shelves, celebrating not only the championships but also the countless small victories. Yet, the ultimate reward isn't just empowerment and success; it's the enduring joy, happiness, and a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction that accompany the entire journey that most athletes will never truly embrace.

In the pursuit of athletic excellence, mental performance emerges as a powerful catalyst. At Bay Laurel Athletics, we are dedicated that maximum potential is available for every athlete, ensuring their success and leading to fulfilling lives beyond the arena. Our vision is to make the journey a victory not just for the athlete but for the entire community of support, fostering a shared celebration of success. Together, we are committed to transform a pressure ridden athletic journey into a source of joy and accomplishment, creating a winning legacy for all involved.

For more information and to see what’s possible visit Bay Laurel Athletics' Mental Performance Coaching webpage. 

Written by:

Dr. Laurel Mines, PT, DPT, OCS

Physical Therapist and Sports Mental Performance Coach