Mental Strategies

Mental skills are an important element of an athletes training that enables them to perform up to their skill level. The mind and body work together. A player’s mental focus in practice and competition is not the sole determinant of success or failure but it greatly influences the outcome. Positive mental focus is a powerful tool within each player’s ability to learn and use constructively at any skill level.

The following are lists of mental characteristics that sport psychologists Orlick and Partington (1988) and Gould, Eklund, & Jackson, (1990) found in their research associated with both athletes’ best and worst performances.

As you read through the lists think back to a successful match, you recently played. What are some of the qualities you remember thinking and feeling? Also, take a moment to think back about your mental thoughts and focus during a frustrating or unsuccessful match.

Mental Qualities of Successful Athletes

___ Cope more easily with performance errors. (Ability to move on or let go of the last point before starting the next).

___ More skilled at controlling and refocusing anxious thoughts and feelings. (Ability to reframe situation to evoke thoughts of opportunity vs. fear of losing).

___ More positive self talk.

___ More frequent positive focus of attention in preparation for competition.

___ Belief in themselves. Thoughts about themselves and performance more likely to be positive.

___ Not afraid to fail, having the courage to “go for it” in challenging situations.

___ Daily goal setting.

___ Ability to keep thoughts focused on relevant athletic tasks.

___ Practice positive imagery.

___ Ability to cope effectively with distractions and unforeseen events.

Mental Qualities of Less Successful Athletes

___ Inability to refocus after becoming distracted.

___ Inability to concentrate.

___ Worried about losing.

___ Lack of regular preparation routines.

___ Irrelevant negative thinking.

___ Feelings of listlessness.

___ Preoccupation with self-doubt.

___ Concern about opponent, current standings or score. (Versus being aware of opponent, and score).

___ Feelings of under or over arousal.

Take a moment to think about your recent successful and unsuccessful matches. Return to the lists above and place a check mark next to the qualities that most reflect where your mental focus is while you perform. Mental skill techniques and the ability to use mental and emotional energy productively is for most athletes an acquired skill. The skills develop through knowledge, practice and as players engage in competition.

Realistically, players who participate in sport at the social/recreational level experience more diverse life demands pulling them in different directions during the week than a professional, Olympic or collegiate athlete. The later groups primarily enjoy the ability to focus narrowly on their athletic needs and goals. The challenge of the social/recreational athlete is to put aside other life demands while they practice and play.

The challenge for the social/recreational athlete also becomes how much time, energy, and commitment can be allotted to acquire new skills. One solution of managing time constraint is to review the checklist of less successful mental focus qualities. Pick just one that you feel would be valuable to change. Next return to the list of mental qualities of successful athletes and choose just one mental quality that you would like to focus on improving. In reviewing the list of successful qualities, it is important to acknowledge the things you already do well. Using these positive mental qualities is an essential part of your game!

Similar to adding a new technical and strategic skill, focus on one mental skill at a time. Focusing on just one mental strategy allows you the time and energy to actually change and improve. Prior to your next match or lesson review the aspects that you want to change and focus on what you will be doing, thinking and feeling differently in order to make these changes. Many athletes recognize the need for change but do not have the knowledge to do something different so in the next article I will present practical strategies for successful change.

Six Smart Tips to Develop Successful Mental Qualities for Athletic Success

  • 1. Recall a recent successful or unsuccessful athletic event you recently played.
  • 2. Review the list of successful and unsuccessful mental qualities for athletic success.
  • 3. Check off the mental qualities that most commonly reflect your mental focus when you practice/compete.
  • 4. Pick one quality from the unsuccessful list you feel would be valuable to change.
  • 5. Pick one quality from the successful list that you feel would be valuable to enhance.
  • 6. Prior to your next practice or match review the mental qualities that you want to bring to your performance. Remain aware of what you need to think and feel differently in order to create these changes.


Gould, D., Eklund, R.C., & Jackson, S.A. (1990). An in-depth examination of mental factors and preparation techniques associated with 1988 U.S. Olympic team wrestling excellence. Unpublished final project report to USA wrestling.

Orlick,T. & Partington, J. (1988). Mental links to excellence. The Sport Psychologist, 2, 105-130.