Explaining the Mental Coaching Revolution
Writer / Dave Schroerlucke
In case you haven’t noticed, having a mental coach is very much en vogue.
Open acknowledgement of the instrumental role of mental coaches is rapidly becoming the norm amongst world-class athletes, performers and business executives. Today you would be hard-pressed to find a professional or collegiate sports team that does not have a sport psychologist or mental performance consultant on staff.
This article chronicles the popularization of applied sport and performance psychology in the United States, highlighting some of the critical contributions and turning points that have resulted in the proliferation of mental training programs and professionals.
Although the field of sport psychology typically traces its origins all the way back to the 1930s with Coleman Griffith’s research laboratory at the University of Illinois, the modern application of psychology to sport and performance really did not begin until the 1960s and 1970s, with the Olympic Games as the breeding ground and the Cold War as the socio-historical backdrop.
Like many scientific advances of this time period, greater interest and investment in developing practices that could improve the performance of Olympic athletes was motivated by the militaristic competition of the Cold War era. Spurred by disappointing Olympic performances relative to the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries, the United States began to emulate their eastern counterparts by creating mental training programs for Olympic athletes, in which sports psychologists played a prominent role.
In addition to providing the impetus for application of psychology to sport, the Olympic games also provided a fertile testing ground for some of the claims of the fledgling field of sport psychology. At the 1984 Olympic games, Terry Orlick and John Partington conducted a study of 235 Canadian athletes to explore the relative impact of mental, physical and technical preparation. Their research article, which concluded that only mental preparation showed any statistically significant correlation with final Olympic standing, was instrumental in putting applied sport psychology on the map.
The next two decades witnessed a proliferation of university departments, research laboratories, graduate programs, and peer-reviewed journals devoted specifically to the study of sport psychology, in an attempt to expand the field’s theoretical and applied knowledge base. My own dissertation research, for example, was a comprehensive review of three decades of research literature related to performance under pressure. It is difficult to argue with the evidence, as they say, and the evidence has overwhelmingly demonstrated the benefits of mental training for performance.
The Cool Kids
Despite its growing scientific foundation, the sport psychology movement was slow to infiltrate the world of professional and collegiate sports, largely due to the collective distrust of “head shrinks” and bias toward seeing psychology as something reserved for the mentally disturbed. In the 1990s, the credibility of sport psychology received a huge boost from several high-profile coaches including Phil Jackson and Pete Carroll, and athletes like Michael Jordan and Greg Maddux, who were outspoken about the role of sport psychology in their own successes.
The impact of testimony from successful coaches and athletes in reducing the stigma of working with a psychologist cannot be overestimated. As a young Atlanta Braves fan in the early ‘90s, I distinctly remember pitcher Greg Maddux talking openly about his work with a psychologist to overcome his inability to move on from mistakes and bad calls. By learning to focus solely on making one pitch at a time, Maddux transformed himself from an average pitcher to a four-time Cy Young Award winner, first-ballot Hall of Famer, and one of the greatest pitchers of all time. Maddux’s testimony was all I needed to hear to cement in my own mind the intimate relationship between psychology and performance.
Getting Down to Business
The next phase in the mental training revolution involved the growing recognition that one need not be an elite athlete to benefit from the principles of sport psychology, which was rebranded as sport and performance psychology. Mental training quickly made its way into other performance domains such as academics and the performing arts, as astute coaches and trainers began connecting the proverbial dots. Business leaders, too, started to take notice of the potential applicability of sport psychology to the corporate world.
Like sports, business is highly competitive and results-driven, and corporation leaders are generally keen on exploring anything that might offer a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Throughout the last decade, the appreciation of the strong link between sports and business has gathered momentum, and organizational consultants are increasingly using principles of sport psychology to help business leaders prioritize effectively, motivate and empower others, and make influential decisions under multiple and often conflicting pressures. Because high-ranking executives often have both the drive and financial resources to employ a personal coach, executive coaching has become one of the most popular and lucrative domains of mental performance consulting.
The meteoric rise of applied sport and performance psychology is the result of a confluence of factors including competitive spirit, scientific inquiry and vicarious learning. Despite being met initially with intense skepticism, the field has overcome enormous odds to reach its current state of flourishing – but the revolution is far from over. Questions still remain regarding the standardization of training and credentialing in this burgeoning field.
However, suffice it to say that, at this point, the secret is out. Mental preparation is an indispensable part of a modern, comprehensive approach to enhancing performance. We have reached the point where mental training can no longer be considered supplemental or optional. Coaches and business leaders who ignore this aspect of training do so at the risk of putting their teams and organizations at a real disadvantage when going up against more mentally prepared competitors.
It is also becoming increasingly clear that mental training is not only for those who are mentally broken, but rather for anyone who stands to benefit from cultivating mental habits, attitudes and skills that enhance one’s ability to regulate their attention and emotions – namely, everyone. Mental training is not only an essential component of elite performance training alongside the physical and technical aspects, but simply part of a well-balanced approach to health and wellness for all of us.
With you in the pursuit,