By Chris Beardsley
Chris Beardsley graduated from Durham University with a Masters Degree in 2001. He since contributed to the fields of sports science and sports medicine by working alongside researchers from Team GB boxing, the School of Sport and Recreation at Auckland University of Technology, the Faculty of Sport at the University of Ljubljana, the Department of Sport at Staffordshire University, and the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University. He is also a Director at Strength and Conditioning Research Limited
Only a small amount of research has assessed how deliberate changes in psychological factors through “mental training” programs can affect force production, and thereby help prepare athletes for sport.
Mental training programs can involve either the development of valuable psychological skills, such as controlling self-talk, or the immediate application of simple methods, such as mental imagery and/or modelling.
Mental imagery is often (but not always) done by simply visualising performing an exercise in-between sets of normal strength training with the same exercise. In such training programs, adding mental imagery training on top of normal strength training produces superior results.
Recently, new research found that it was possible to produce strength gains in a multi-joint lower body exercise in a group of subjects who already had experience in performing that exercise, by using mental imagery training.
What is more, these strength gains occurred in just 3 days, in which the subjects did no strength training at all.
Interestingly, in many studies investigating mental imagery (like this one), the changes in strength seem to occur alongside increases in self-efficacy.
Self-efficacy is a key psychological quality that determines how confident an individual is at succeeding at a task or exercise. Mental imagery (visualization) training seems to be effective at improving self-efficacy, thereby changing the way in which athletes approach a task.
Mental toughness has also been identified as a key quality that determines strength, athletic performance, and even predicts success in the sport itself, among high-level athletes.
Although mental toughness is anecdotally believed to be either innate, or developed by gruelling workouts, the evidence suggests that even a very low volume of psychological skills training (including self-talk) can improve measures of mental toughness in high-level athletes.
This suggests that mental toughness is also trainable with the right approach, and does not require strength coaches to use otherwise unhelpful physical training methods in an attempt to encourage that psychological trait.
Overall, there seem to be very close relationships between key psychological qualities like self-efficacy and mental toughness, and athletic performance.
Given the evidence suggesting that these qualities can be enhanced by mental training, strength coaches will likely benefit from devoting time to understanding these methods and liaising with sports psychologists, so that they can be implemented with their athletes.