Six inches between your ears


Mental training has become an important aspect of athletic preparation, although it is not always treated with the seriousness it deserves. Working on the mental aspect of a game can include visualization, breathing techniques, internal focusing, or even group bonding exercises, and if developed at the same time as physical skills, can provide athletes with a competitative edge.

John Phelan, a School of Business professor and mental skills coach for the NHL’s Florida Panthers, said it’s important to have a designated mental skills coach when working with teams.

“A coach may have expertise in their sport but they may not have expertise in sport psychology,” Phelan said. “But if the athlete gets it from a professional, they’re more likely to believe it.”

At Queen’s, only two varsity teams have a designated mental skills coach: women’s volleyball and figure skating. The other teams either miss out on the specialized mental component of play, or the coaches take on the responsibility themselves. Given its emphasis among coaches, it’s surprising that sports psychologists aren’t more widespread at the University.

The University should consider hiring designated professionals, trained specifically in university sport, in order to assist teams. Student athletes have many external pressures on them besides their sport, and mental training can improve balance and confidence in a distracting and high-pressure environment.

Naturally, positive self-talk and visualization don’t work for everyone. The ability to focus and perform under pressure cannot always be taught, but if methods are adapted for the individuals participating, the likelihood of success will be much greater.

A good coach should be able to motivate the team and solve most problems, but all teams should have access to a mental skills coach if they desire to use one.

Ideally, all teams would have someone in charge of mental skills, but due to funding constraints it likely isn’t feasible for all Queen’s teams to have their own mental skills coach or sport-specific psychologist on staff. The athletics department should consider hiring one or two trained professionals to provide mental skills training for all teams; or perhaps a sports councillor at Health, Councilling and Disability Services; or possibly organizing a training session for coaches on sports psychology.

Although different sports will require different mental preparation, reactions to the pressures of competition are universal. Within resources, it wouldn’t do any harm to have someone employed to help on call, if needed by a team. Mental toughness is an important aspect of sport, and shouldn’t be treated lightly.

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