Mental Training Myths: Sport is 90% Mental

The first thing that most people tell me when I say that I am a professional mental performance trainer is: "that's really great, everyone knows that sport is 90% mental". I've been asked a question about this during several meetings with proposed clients, at conferences and even while being a guest on podcasts. A quick google search delivers several different quotes all saying the same thing (see some examples below) even relating to different sports. However, I believe that this is one of the biggest myths about mental training. That might seem weird coming from someone who makes their money providing mental training, wouldn't I want sport to be 90% mental? That would make my profession a lot more viable and profitable. The thing is though that mental training is not more or less important than any other training, and that fact makes it that it feels like sport is 90% mental. To understand that, we need to have a look at what makes up an athletic performance and how the most common training approaches force such a large emphasis on the mental side of sports.

Every sporting performance, no matter the sport or level, consists of four different aspects: Physical, Technical, Tactical and Mental. Simply put, each of these four aspects determine 25% of the overall performance, nothing more, nothing less. However, based on an athlete's strengths and weaknesses, it might feel that certain aspects are more important than others. For example, if you are a track and field athlete who performed at the full 25% capacity on technical, tactical and mental aspects, but only performed at 10% on the physical aspect, it will feel like you lost a race completely based on your physical shortcomings. In some ways, you would even say that this athlete would be right to feel that way. The reason that the mental aspect feels like such a big influence on performance for many athletes and coaches is that, for many athletes and coaches, it is the least developed aspect of their performance. Not because they are 'mentally weak' but simply because it is by far the aspect of performance that they spent the least amount of time training.

Most high-performance athletes have a training schedule that includes three of the four aspects of performance. They will do on court/pitch/floor training several times a week for multiple hours in which they work on technical and tactical aspects of their game. In almost all cases, they have a specialized coach to help them with this technical and tactical development. On top of that, athletes do things such as video analysis or classroom sessions to further increase their technical and tactical understanding of their own or their opponents' game. In total, it is not at all weird if an elite level athlete spends ten or more hours on their technical and tactical development each week. Besides that training, most if not all high level athletes have a strength and conditioning program, often designed and supervised by a dedicated S&C coach to take care of the physical aspect of their performance. Again, it is not strange if an athlete spends ten or more hours every week on this part as well. Overall, high level athletes often spend more than 20 hours every week on these three aspects of their performance, with many athletes even doing a lot more.

That leaves the mental aspect. How much time does a high level athlete spend taking care of the mental side of their game, practicing their mental skills or improving their mindset? And how many hours are spend in a program designed and delivered by a dedicated coach? From my experience, with the elite level athletes that I work with, it is never more than a single 1-hour session every week plus some homework assignments. For athletes that take mental training seriously, it might come down to a total of two to four hours every week. However, for athletes that don't have a dedicated coach, the mental training might only be a few seminars on mindset by their coach at the beginning of the season. When you look at performance this way, is it really a surprise that we end up with athletes who feel like their sport is 90% mental?

Think of your performance as a racing car with four wheels. You check and maintain three of those wheels multiple times a week, improve how well they are working and make sure that nothing, not even the smallest thing, is wrong with them. Except for one wheel. This fourth wheel, you just leave it, never really pay attention to it and simply hope that it will work as well as the other ones. When things go right, you are happy but when things go wrong, you just say: my fourth wheel didn't work, let's hope it will work better next time. On top of that, you say: sport is 90% determined by how well my fourth wheel works. That fourth wheel is the mental aspect of performance for a lot of athletes.

I don't think that sport is 90% mental, but you can make it that important by not training it as much as the other parts of your performance. If you want to truly be on top of your mental game, you need to invest just as much time and effort into the mental aspect of performance as you do into the other three aspects. On top of that, just like the other aspects, the training needs to be designed and delivered by a specialized and qualified coach. Therefore, for everyone who no longer wants the mental part to be 90% of their sport, contact me or a different professional mental performance consultant and start taking your mental training as seriously as you take the rest of your training.

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