Special feature: The value of a mental coach

During a break of the Dota 2 Asia Championships 2018, one of the last eSports events, the players were able ask for the help of their mental coach. What is a mental coach? Specialist texts say they are consultants who use a psycho-educational models to develop the mental and psychological aspects of performance achievement.

On the basketball pitch, around an F1 circuit, on stage, in the classroom, and even in eSports arenas. Because achieving peak performance is complex when you’re expressing yourself with movement, but just try to imagine what it might be like when you can’t move; when you’re just controlling a pad.

Marcel Lutz in the Mercedes-Benz JuniorCup eSports Lounge Marcel Lutz in the Mercedes-Benz JuniorCup eSports Lounge

Coaches and athletes used to develop mental skills and practical training techniques without the use of a mental skills consultant. However, coordinating physical and mental training with a mental coach can lead to greater awareness and growth. Research has shown that almost all mental skills correlate with performance success in some way. That’s why in about the last 10 years sportsmen and clubs have asked psychological consultants to help their athletes.

They typically work on mental skills using several techniques, including imagery, self-talk, relaxation, goal setting, biofeedback training and performance profiling. Sometimes they work just with a group or an individual athlete, sometimes during the session there are also coaches and trainers involved.

Among the famous athletes who spoke about their work with a mental coach are Tom Brady, Kobe Bryant, Nick Faldo, Federica Pellegrini, Karl Anthony Towns, Lindsay Vonn, even Michael Jordan met a ‘Mindfulness Meditation Coach’ throughout his career.

Tom Brady sits dejectedly on the turf at U.S. Bank Stadium Tom Brady sits dejectedly on the turf at U.S. Bank Stadium

One of the most important names in this field is George Mumford. He has an amazing recovery story himself, since he suffered from addiction and negative self-talk issues in his early-life, before he found mindfulness and meditation. Now he writes books, he is a speaker during events, and of course, he coaches.

Another guru is Alex Guerrero, who actually works with Tom Brady. The New England Patriots quarterback has a personal daily diet and fitness training on an anti-gravity treadmill - yes, you read that correctly. Brady is a huge believer in the mental aspects of football: “To me, football is so much about mental toughness,” he said in an interview. With five Super Bowl wins, four Super Bowl MVPs, and two League MVPs, it’s really hard to argue with him on this point.

Sport psychologists can also teach athletes strategies for evaluating progress, readjusting a plan when necessary and accomplishing your goals, like after an injury or a stop. They first analyse the routine of a sportsman in order to fix and eventually change some aspects, and let the athlete perform at key moments during a game. It also helps with the pressures of competition, practicing with a specific focus, managing distractions, managing emotions, dealing with anxiety, bad days, forgetting mistakes and getting into the optimal mental zone to compete at their very best.

Successful examples of working with a mental coach were also seen during the last Olympic Games, with Michael Phelps, who was coming back from retirement, or Jessica Ennis-Hill, who was coming back after a pregnancy. Then there’s simply the cases of an athlete returning to sport, such as in the case of gymnast Gabby Douglas.

Jessica Ennis-Hill Jessica Ennis-Hill

All of them returned in their best shape by the way, with the support of their mental coach for sure. “For any psychologist, it’s about building a relationship with the athlete, “Matthew Cunliffe, mental coach, explains in an interview, “If the athlete likes me and gets on with me, they will be more likely to open up to me. This can take time. It won’t happen in one or two hours.”

But what if they don’t achieve that success they worked for? “It’s a really tough time for athletes. They often go through a period where they are questioning themselves, their work, and their skills,” says Italian Milan centre-back Leonardo Bonucci, who left Juventus this summer at the beginning of a season that suffered from bad performances. His fans both old and new made fun of him and after some time he spoke out: “My head was busy with so many thoughts and my physical level was not optimal. So, the two things put together led me to put in performances that weren’t as good as those of the past.” Thanks to the work of his personal mental coach, he said now he is playing as he did in the past and he broadly thanks his ‘helper’ for listening to him during that time.

That’s something Matthew Cunliffe also says about his ‘patients’, “If they are in trouble they can come to me and reflect on what’s happened. I’d like to be a mirror that they can talk and open up to. To be a sounding board for the athlete, and to start rebuilding if they are ready to do so. Most of the time these athletes are resilient. They know that things won’t always go their way.”

Words: Cecilia Mussi

Imgaes: PA

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