“Sink or Swim” is a Bad Idea For Developing Mental Performance

Would we ever think it makes sense to teach a young child to swim by literally throwing them into the deep end of a pool and see if they learn? True enough, a small percentage would probably figure it out. However, the vast majority would drown. Harsh visual I know. More so, even for the few that do make it to the side without drowning, it doesn’t mean that they would have learned the solid fundamentals of the swim stroke, but instead simply how to survive. Seems like a pretty dangerous and ineffective way of finding and developing solid swimmers.

Unfortunately, too often I see coaches, teams, parents, etc using the “sink or swim” method for the mental part of competing. What I observe are adults that just WANT their athlete to simply HAVE mental strength. We are just going to throw them into competition and see what happens – either they’ll have it or they won’t. If they do – great, but if they don’t I guess we’ll just have to leave them behind.

As with every aspect of performance there are attributes that each individual has a natural predisposition for. Some athletes are more balanced, coordinated, faster, stronger, have better vision, cardio-vascular strength, etc. than others. However, we would always continue to work on those strengths, and also, maybe more importantly, find the weakness areas and develop those as well. Sometimes our weaknesses, if properly trained, can become our strengths.

The “sink or swim” technique for developing mental strength seems an odd approach considering that we train every fundamental detail of the physical skills of our sports. We also repeatedly go over the tactical aspects of performance – positioning, timing, when to move, where to move, style that we play, etc. There isn’t an aspect of either these performance phases that we don’t work on day in and day out within the training/coaching of our athletes.

However, this isn’t to say that coaches and parents have bad intentions when it comes to valuing these mental skills. Typically there are two major reasons for this lack of attention to building mental performance fundamentals. First, a lack of true training in the psychology of performance. Most coaches aren’t trained psychologist, nor do they have to be in order to do their part of the job successfully. Second, they have such limited time with their athletes. There are so many things that need to be practiced and attended to each day that it doesn’t leave much time for the coach to work individually with each athlete on the mental aspect.

However, I do think that performance psychology is misunderstood. We often are doing the “shotgun approach” to mental performance. Throw in this book or that book, this quote or that quote, this story or that story, and we hope by using this big blanket of different ideas something sticks and works for them. The idea seems to be that there really aren’t solid fundamental skills, but rather “tricks” that may hit home, so we’ll throw everything out there and hope that something works. Additionally, these quotes don’t create an athlete that can apply the skill the quote promotes. Quotes provide a concept, but practice, feedback, repetition, more feedback, and more practice creates the ability to apply the skills during the most important moments of competing.

The truth is that there are most definitely solid mental fundamentals that are research and science based that we can use consistently to make sure that our athletes are processing the stress and pressures of their sport in a healthy, repeatable, and applicable way that will certainly help to maximize successful performance.

What if we used those research and science based mental game fundamentals ourselves as coaches, discussed them everyday with our athletes, and allowed our athletes to practice them, make mistakes, receive corrections, and continue to practice them towards mastery just like all other aspects of their training? My experience is that this consistency creates a defined improvement in the psychological aspects of high-performance.

At WellPerformance we train individuals and teams in these fundamentals everyday, and solid improvement is what most typically follows. To the point, does it make more sense to train these skills, or simply see if they can “sink or swim”?



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