The Nine Mental Skills of a Successful Athlete

During the past twenty-five years, I have had the privilege of working with hundreds of athletes from over thirty different sports, ranging from scholastic to collegiate, Olympic to professional. Many had already achieved success at the elite level, others were aspiring to greatness. Some would ultimately make it; others would not. What they all had in common was a strong drive and commitment to succeed. Most already had mastered many of the technical skills of their sport and were at the top of their game with respect to strength and conditioning. What they knew they needed was improvement in their mental skills. At the highest level of most sports there is an equality of many of the factors that constitute success. Those who achieve the highest levels have survived many sequential screenings that have filtered those less suited. So the elite athletes in most sports share a common physiology, most suited to their sport, as well as the best of equipment, coaching, strength, conditioning, and nutrition. What then remains to make the difference between success and failure on a given day is often their mental skills.

As with technical and strategic skills, mental skills must be cultivated over time through awareness, self-assessment, instruction when necessary, and deliberate practice. In fact, there is no short cut. Often athletes and coaches have a fairly good intuitive understanding of some of the mental skills, but their understanding is sometimes inaccurate and, more often, incomplete. Many mistake mental skills for “mental toughness” which implies the age-old, “no pain no gain”, “never quit” mentality or the simplistic admonition, “always be positive”. Although these may be part of the picture, they are only a small part and not are acquired through the simple inspirational slogans that often are inscribed on the walls of locker rooms.

Several years ago I decided to address the important questions of “What are the mental skills necessary for success in sports?” “How can I most effectively assess an athlete’s mental strengths and weaknesses?” After reflecting on my own sport psychology work, reviewing the work of colleagues, and lengthy discussions with others, the final product is a model or framework that I call the “Nine Mental Skills of Successful Athletes” (9MSSA). Although the model is my own way of integrating and summarizing mental skills, the content is not mine, nor unique, but I believe fairly summarizes the current state of the art/science of sport psychology performance enhancement. Since devising the model, I have presented it to my sport psychology colleagues at national and international conferences and have received positive feedback. Many of my colleagues, both in the U.S., and abroad, have adopted it, and have made it part of their own set of tools. In my own practice I have now used the model with several hundred clients who report that it is easy to understand and useful to them in assessing and improving their mental skills. Before looking at the particular mental skills of the successful athlete, let’s take a moment and consider the question of “What is a successful athlete?” In my own opinion, you don’t have to be a professional athlete or an Olympic champion to be a successful athlete. Nor do you have to have a room full of trophies, win a state championship, or make the front page of the sports section. Successful athletes that I’ve worked with include an eleven year-old figure skater who has not yet won a competition, a high school golfer with a zero handicap, a middle-aged runner whose goal is to complete her first marathon, a weight lifter who holds several world records, and an Olympic medalist.

What these athletes have in common is that their sport is important to them and they’re committed to being the best that they can be within the scope of their limitations – other life commitments, finances, time, and their natural ability. They set high, realistic goals for themselves and train and play hard. They are successful because they are pursuing their goals and enjoying their sport. Their sport participation enriches their lives and they believe that what they get back is worth what they put into their sport.

From my experience, I have come to believe that there are nine, specific mental skills (or more accurately “skill sets”) that contribute to success in sports. Let’s take a look at them.

A Brief List of the Nine Mental Skills

Successful Athletes:
1. Choose and maintain a positive attitude.
2. Maintain a high level of self-motivation.
3. Set high, realistic goals.
4. Deal effectively with people.
5. Use positive self-talk.
6. Use positive mental imagery.
7. Manage anxiety effectively.
8. Manage emotions effectively.
9. Maintain concentration.

Mental Skills Training
These nine mental skills are necessary for performing well in sport as well as in non-sport performance situations. At the Ohio Center for Sport Psychology:

* We believe that these skills have a large learned component and can be improved through instruction and practice.
* We begin our work with each individual by assessing his/her current proficiency in each of the skills.
* We develop a plan for teaching and enhancing the specific skills that need improvement for the individual.
* We periodically reassess the client’s proficiency in each of the skills in order to evaluate our progress.

The Performance Pyramid
Although each of the nine skills is important, its primary importance will occur during one of three phases: long-term development, immediate preparation for performance, and performance.

Level I – These mental skills constitute a broad base for attaining long-term goals, learning, and sustaining daily practice. They are needed on a day-by-day basis for long periods of time, often months and years.

Level II – These skills are used immediately before performance to prepare for performance. They may be used just before competition begins, or immediately before a specific performance action, such as a golf shot or free throw in basketball.

Level III – These skills are used during actual performance behavior.

The pyramid below represents the relationship of the nine skills to one another. Each of the higher levels incorporates and is based upon the skills of the preceding levels.

Detailed Descriptions of the Nine Mental Skills
1. Attitude
Successful athletes:
* Realize that attitude is a choice.
* Choose an attitude that is predominately positive.
* View their sport as an opportunity to compete against themselves and learn from their successes and failures.
* Pursue excellence, not perfection, and realize that they, as well as their coaches, teammates, officials, and others are not perfect.
* Maintain balance and perspective between their sport and the rest of their lives.
* Respect their sport, other participants, coaches, officials, and themselves.

2. Motivation
Successful athletes:
* Are aware of the rewards and benefits that they expect to experience through their sports participation.
* Are able to persist through difficult tasks and difficult times, even when these rewards and benefits are not immediately forthcoming.
* Realize that many of the benefits come from their participation, not the outcome.

3. Goals and Commitment
Successful athletes:
* Set long-term and short-term goals that are realistic, measurable, and time-oriented.
* Are aware of their current performance levels and are able to develop specific, detailed plans for attaining their goals.
* Are highly committed to their goals and to carrying out the daily demands of their training programs.

4. People Skills
Successful athletes:
* Realize that they are part of a larger system that includes their families, friends, teammates, coaches, and others.
* When appropriate, communicate their thoughts, feelings, and needs to these people and listen to them as well.
* Have learned effective skills for dealing with conflict, difficult opponents, and other people when they are negative or oppositional.

5. Self-Talk
Successful athletes:
* Maintain their self-confidence during difficult times with realistic, positive self-talk.
* Talk to themselves the way they would talk to their own best friend.
* Use self-talk to regulate thoughts, feelings and behaviors during competition.

6. Mental Imagery
Successful athletes:
* Prepare themselves for competition by imagining themselves performing well in competition.
* Create and use mental images that are detailed, specific, and realistic.
* Use imagery during competition to prepare for action and recover from errors and poor performances.

7. Dealing Effectively with Anxiety
Successful athletes:
* Accept anxiety as part of sport.
* Realize that some degree of anxiety can help them perform well.
* Know how to reduce anxiety when it becomes too strong, without losing their intensity.

8. Dealing Effectively with Emotions
Successful athletes:
* Accept strong emotions such as excitement, anger, and disappointment as part of the sport experience.
* Are able to use these emotions to improve, rather than interfere with high level performance.

9. Concentration
Successful athletes:
* Know what they must pay attention to during each game or sport situation.
* Have learned how to maintain focus and resist distractions, whether they come from the environment or from within themselves.
* Are able to regain their focus when concentration is lost during competition.
* Have learned how to play in the “here-and-now”, without regard to either past or anticipated future events.

Self- Assessment of Nine Mental Skills of the Successful Athlete

In order to assess an athlete’s mental strengths and weaknesses using the 9MSSA framework, I authored a thirty-item, self-administered, self-scored questionnaire. The questionnaire can be completed and scored by most people in less than fifteen minutes and the results are easily graphed on a form provided.

If you would like a copy of the questionnaire and scoring instructions, please send me an email requesting it ( jjlesyk (at) SportPsych.org This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it ) and I will send the information back to you as an attached Word file.

Once you have a good understanding of your own mental strengths and weaknesses, you can begin to work on improving your mental game.

About the author:

Jack J. Lesyk, the director of the Ohio Center for Sport Psychology, is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Psychology at Cleveland State University. As a clinical and sport psychologist, he completed his undergraduate work at Penn State and his graduate work at Case Western Reserve University and has been in full-time private practice for almost twenty years. Since 1981, he has worked intensively with athletes from over twenty-five different sports, at competitive levels ranging from scholastic to world-class, Olympic, and professional.

Dr. Lesyk is a clinical advisor to the American Running Association and is on the editorial board of the American Journal of Medicine and Sports. He has been quoted in a wide variety of publications including: the Los Angeles Times, Atlanta Constitution, Seattle Times, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Powerlifting USA, Sports Illustrated for Women, Fit, Shape, and Runners World. He has presented his work on radio and television.

Since the publication of his book, Developing Sport Psychology Within Your
Clinical Practice: A Practical Guide for Mental Health Professions
, Dr. Lesyk has spent an increasing amount of his professional time conducting intensive training workshops for mental health professionals who are developing their skills and credentials in sport psychology. He also provides mentoring and consulting services in person as well as by phone and on the Internet.

In 1983 Dr. Lesyk attended the first U.S. Olympic Committee’s Conference on
Sport Psychology in Long Beach, Calif. and is currently listed in the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Sport Psychology Registry. He is a Certified Consultant, and member of the Executive Board of the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology. He is a charter member of Div. 47 (Sport & Exercise Psychology) of the American Psychological Association and has served on its Executive Committee.

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