“I always stress condition with my basketball players. I don’t mean physical condition only. You cannot attain and maintain physical condition unless you are morally and mentally conditioned.”
—John Wooden, legendary college basketball coach

It’s been awhile since the 2010 Winter Olympic Games and they were simply amazing to watch, weren’t they? I had so much awe and respect for these elite athletes as I watched them sled, ski, jump and skate, with speed, precision and grace.

It’s not just the Olympics; I have this same feeling when I see an amazing catch in football, or a precise move in dancing, or even an “invisible” technique in the martial art of Bujinkan.

In observing these elite-level athletes, their physical and technical prowess is glaringly evident, and their endurance and technical precision is obvious to anyone who watches their performances.

Knowing the physical and technical strengths of elite-level athletes can be an asset to any developing athletes who are working to enhance their skills. But you already know this, don’t you?

This is part of what you do on a consistent basis—you identify the physical and technical skills you need to develop in order to improve your performance, then you address them in your daily training.

Less obvious, however, are the mental strength skills and characteristics that play a role in the performance of elite-level athletes. When watching these athletes, we can’t see what’s going on in their heads—their thoughts, focus, confidence, anxiety, attitude and self-talk. We can see physical and technical characteristics, but we can’t see “what makes them tick.”

Because of this, there is a tendency to only equate performance to observable skills and disregard the other aspects that also impact performance—things like mental strength skills.

If we can’t observe these mental strength skills, how do we know they impact performance? One way is to listen to their interviews after a competition or match. If you listen very carefully, you’ll hear key words that give away their “hidden secret.”

In addition, over the years, there has been much research that has looked at whether there are psychological characteristics that are correlated with successful athletic performance. From this research, we have a better understanding of the psychological skills and characteristics that seem to relate to successful performance.

Note that it is not suggested that having these characteristics cause the ensuing performance, but rather they seem to be linked to the ensuing performance. Regardless, having an awareness of the skills that relate to enhanced performance can be an asset to you as you strive to enhance your own athletic performance. Without further ado, let us take a look at these mental characteristics related to successful athletic performance, as summarized by Krane and Williams (1):

  • High self-confidence
  • Arousal management
  • Feeling “in control”
  • Total concentration
  • Focus on the task at hand
  • Productive perfectionism
  • Positive attitude and thoughts about performance
  • Strong determination and commitment
  • Detailed planning for competition that includes setting goals, imagery and practicing coping skills

Read slowly and repeatedly through the list. Which characteristics describe you? Which characteristics should you work to develop and/or improve? Make use of this research and hone your mental as well as your physical skills.

I’d suggest making an assessment out of these skills and rate yourself from 1 – 11 (11 being the highest/best). Word of warning from experience…the people that rate themselves at the top (11) in any one aspect usually indicates an unrealistic view of themselves.

Think about it, if you ranked yourself 11 on any of these traits, where else can you go with it? Nowhere... You’re saying you’re at the top and there’s nothing more to develop in that area. Come on man... are you serious?

Everybody has room to improve!

So, take a close look at the traits and rate yourself, or better yet, have a teammate or coach rate you (this takes mental strength for sure!) and compare where you think you are and where others perceive you to be.

What ever the lowest score is, work on that. 

If you need some assistance in the assessment or developing of any of the above-mentioned mental strength aspects, please let me know.

1. Krane V., and Williams J. Psychological characteristics of peak performance. J. Williams (Ed.), Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance (pp. 169 – 188),New York, NY: McGraw Hill. 2010.