The Importance of the Mental Side of Sports and How to Strengthen it
By Melissa Wickes
February 8, 2023
When you think about some of the greatest athletes of all time, you probably think about their physical fitness, strength, agility, speed, and other physical qualities. But why are we not talking about the importance of the mental side of sports? What about mental fitness?
Think about Michael Jordan’s flu game, for example. Sure, he’s the Greatest of All Time (which apparently is a hotly debated topic, who knew?)—but he scored 38 points in 44 minutes, including a tie-breaking 3-pointer with 25 seconds left, all with a 103-degree fever and other symptoms. Jordan was dehydrated, out of breath, and low energy, and still managed to score above his average per game and lead the Chicago Bulls to an important victory over the Utah Jazz. If he wasn’t at his peak physical state, how did he perform so well?
You have to assume a lot of it had to do with his mental fitness and resilience. Which begs the question, how much of success in sports is mental? It’s a subjective question at its core, but the overwhelming majority of sports psychologists and coaches would answer that it’s somewhere between 60-90% mental. (Some even argue that it’s 100% mental).
You can train your players to jump higher or run faster. You can make your players shoot 100 PKs in a day to almost guarantee they’ll never miss one in a game. Training someone to be mentally tough is not necessarily as easy and doesn’t usually come as naturally—especially today—yet just as important.
Soccer Resilience is an organization that provides players, coaches, parents, and referees with specialized mental fitness support to improve their resilience and in turn, their game. We spoke with Wells Thompson, Founder and CEO of Soccer Resilience and former Major League Soccer player, to discuss the importance of the mental side of sports and break down the key ways youth sports leaders can help strengthen the mental fitness of their players and prepare them to succeed on and off the field (and for their version of a flu game).
If stakeholders (players, coaches, refs, etc.) don’t actually believe that strengthening their mind will help improve their performance, they won’t commit to any of the exercises or tools you try to teach them. Ask your team, how much do you think your brain affects how you act everyday? Similarly, how much do you think it affects how you play? You might be surprised to hear them answer in high percentages.
Return to Rationality
When you get worked up about a ref’s call, a play not going your way, or the actions of another player, it’s easy to react in an extremely negative way and let it psych you out for the rest of the game. Teach your players how to return to a state where they can act rationally, because when we get hijacked by our emotions, we’re not able to do that. The best way to do this is through breathing deeply and slowly through your nose and out through your mouth. Wells likes to tell his kids, “smell the brownies and blow out the candles” to help them calm down.
Rewire Your Brain
As humans, we have a tendency to see things more negatively and remember them that way—it’s called the negativity bias. We react more strongly to negative events than positive, think about them more frequently, and recall insults better than praise. Once you are able to acknowledge this “disadvantage,” you can implement various practices to rewire your brain to think more positively—like practicing gratitude, meditation, witness consciousness, challenging negative interpretations, and gathering evidence that supports positive beliefs.
You’re going to go where you focus. If you choose to focus on positive results in sports, you are more likely to yield them.
Becoming aware of what things mentally hold you back on the field—like competitiveness, frustration, or lack of confidence—can allow you to learn how to control them.
Soccer Resilience—which is led by a World Cup Champion, an MLS Cup Champion, a former NCAA DI Head Coach, and a Clinical Psychologist—partners with soccer organizations to help their teams invest more in mental training.
To stay in the know on all hot topics related to your sport—like mental fitness, technology, growth, and more—subscribe to the LeagueApps Youth Sports Highlight Reel.