Mental Fitness: The Key to Reaching Your Athletic Goals and Supporting Overall Wellbeing

  • General

To become a competitive young athlete, it is vital that you are physically fit. Most young athletes become physically fit out of a love for the sport and may just aim to improve their techniques, skills or specific measures of physical fitness that are relevant for their sport.

Specific fitness measures vary from sport to sport, but they generally include measures of physical strength, oxygen capacity, heart rate and recovery, and flexibility. However, sports are a source of mental as well as physical stress for athletes.

However, regardless of how strong or flexible you may be, your mind is the one responsible for helping you feel motivated and driven, and for learning to listen to and respect your body’s needs and limits.

How can you support your mind to keep you going and reach your athletic goals? The answer is mental fitness.

In the realm of athletics, mental fitness refers to an athlete’s ability to optimally regulate thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in order to act purposefully and consistently to flourish in sport and their lives. It is important to note, however, that mental fitness is relevant for all people, not only for athletes. It can help individuals use their resources and skills to effectively adapt to changing situations, enabling them to thrive.

By improving mental fitness, athletes of all ages can maximize performance, engage more meaningfully in their training, and support overall mental wellbeing. Among many of the benefits of improved mental fitness for athletes is an ability to set realistic goals and take consistent actions to achieve those goals.

What are Some of the Attributes and Skills of a Mentally Fit Athlete?

Whether it be winning a competition or improving a specific skill, achieving goals is important for athletes. A lot of mental work goes into identifying, preparing for, and working toward goals.

Additionally, some of the mental work and psychological improvements are often much more beneficial to your long-term wellbeing than achieving the goal itself. For example, developing self-confidence will benefit you in your career, school, relationships, and overall self-image.

In fact, research shows that mental fitness correlates with physical fitness; in other words, people who are mentally fit are more likely to be more physically fit, demonstrating that a healthy brain is important for a healthy body.

What are some of the attributes and skills athletes can develop by improving their mental fitness?

  • High self-confidence
  • Commitment and ability to set goals
  • Composure, motivation, having perspective
  • Positive attitude and mindset
  • Mindfulness, focused on task
  • Emotional control
  • Ability to manage stress and anxiety
  • Control of activation and relaxation levels
  • Well-developed competitive plans
  • Ability to embrace and manage pressure
  • Adaptability and self-regulation
  • Passion and love for sport
  • Work-ethic
  • Responsibility
  • Ability to manage team environments and performance demands

Mental fitness can be integrated into athletic training from birth throughout the lifetime. The specific principles and pre-performance, performance, and post-performance activities vary by age and by competitive level, but the general principles remain the same.

The Two Underlying Principles of Mental Fitness

There are several approaches to developing mental fitness for different contexts. Gillian Butler developed a guide called “Manage You Mind” aimed to provide practical advice on improving mental fitness.

The two principles Butler proposes are:

  1. Valuing yourself as a whole, complex person. In this sense, mental fitness is not only about valuing yourself as an athlete, or having your self-worth be tied to your athletic achievements. Valuing yourself means that you respect your body, your mind, and accept that you will make mistakes and fail at times, and that these experiences are important for overall wellbeing. You know that your worth is not tied to your successes and failures on or off the court.
  2. Recognizing that you can change. Humans are constantly learning and developing throughout their lifetime. A mentally fit person is willing to reflect on mistakes and challenges as well as on successes with the goal of learning, improving and developing greater self-awareness.

The Seven Basic Skills of Mental Fitness

Mental fitness can be improved by working toward improving key personal skills. Ertheo, throughout its summer and year-long sports and fitness programs, has integrated these seven basic skills into the training philosophy.

  1. Learning how to relax: Sometimes the most important work is learning to take a break. Young athletes often have much greater demands on their time than non-athletes their age. However, that also means that they have much greater demands on their bodies and their minds. Rest and relaxation are essential for the mind and the body to rebuild itself, make new connections, and be ready to take on a new day and a new training.
  2. Managing yourself and your time: Understanding your physical, mental and time boundaries and respecting them. Learning to communicate your boundaries are a vital aspect of this skill.
  3. Facing the problem: Sometimes, it can feel easier to avoid the problem, whether it be within yourself or with someone else. Having the ability to identify the problem and developing a willingness to deal with it is the first step to solving your problems.
  4. Problem-Solving: Problem-solving skills are essential to mental fitness. Avoiding problems can have the potential to cause damage to yourself, your team, and to those you care about.
  5. Treating yourself right: You are a person worthy of self-respect and care. Learning about your needs and limits and respecting them will protect your mind and your body from damage.
  6. Keeping things in perspective: Learning to take a step back and take a fresh look at your experience and skills, as well as those around you, help to build greater awareness about the world around you and your place in it.
  7. Building self-confidence and self-esteem: This is easier said than done, but is often built up naturally when the previous skills are improved. Learning to respect yourself and honor yourself where you stand today helps to improve self-confidence both on and off the field.

The Four Steps of Developing Athletic Mental Fitness

The organization Canadian Sport for Life developed a useful resource for athletes of all ages, their parents, and their coaches to integrate components of mental fitness into their athletic activities, trainings, and competitions.

It takes the knowledge about mental fitness, which can be applied in any context, and applies it to the athletic process.

It describes the four general steps of the mental training process for athletes.

Step 1

Education: The coach and coaching support team provides foundational information regarding the principles of mental fitness and strategies for achieving them.

Step 2

Awareness: Athletes are encouraged to reflect on their performance and experiences on and off the playing field or court.

Step 3

Implementation: Athletes are encouraged to apply newly acquired knowledge and skills in conjunction with their increased self-awareness.

Step 4

Evaluation: Creating a safe space for athletes to evaluate their mental fitness capacities, as well as being comfortable with allowing others to observe and ask questions about their mental fitness. The information garnered will help to improve awareness and implementation during the next athletic opportunity.

Main Takeaways

Mental fitness is just as important as physical fitness when it comes to athletic achievement and overall wellbeing. Mental fitness can help to improve your self-confidence, your goal setting skills, your self-regulation, your sense of responsibility, and your work ethic, among multiple other elements.

Like physical fitness, mental fitness can be improved through parting from key principles and working on developing essential skills.

Improving your mental fitness will benefit your athletic composure and results as well as provide you with key life skills that will allow you to thrive throughout your lifetime. Ertheo’s summer sports camps and full year sports programs have mental fitness principles integrated into the training process to help athletes develop a greater sense of the potential for mental fitness to improve their wellbeing, and provide a space for them to apply newly acquired mental and physical fitness skills.