Friday, September 22, 2017

Strengthening Your Mental Core

The word "core" in the physical fitness and conditioning world has become a buzzword.  Like the physical core, there is also a mental core related to mental conditioning. Physical core training is about increasing power, strength and stabilization.  So, is the training of your mental core.

Many fitness buffs often think only of sit-ups and crunches as the secret to strengthening the core. True fitness experts know that there is much more to the core than an impressive six-pack.  Similarly, many athletes and coaches think that the mental core is simply just about developing mental toughness (the equivalent of a mental core six-pack).  The mental core is much more than mental toughness.

The mental core creates a solid, fundamental, and broad base for your overall mental fitness and, thus, your subsequent ability to perform successfully.

So, what does constitute the mental core? Here are some of my thoughts.   
  • Internal Dialogue/Self-Talk -  simply put, these are the things you say to yourself about yourself, your opponent, your teammates, your coach, the fans.  It also includes what you say to your during practice, during your performance in games, during time-outs, after games. Often the things you say to yourself about yourself are harsh, toxic and distract you from your performance.  The real problem with our cognitive mindset is that that it is often stuck in evaluation activities when it should be focused on other tasks (such as gathering information, skill acquisition, rehearsal, and execution, for example).   Increasing your awareness of your internal dialogue/self-talk and its effect on your performance will have a great influence on your performance skills.  Additionally, it is important to realize that silencing your inner critic and internal "chatter" is more useful that simply changing your self-talk from negative to positive. 
  • Pre- and Post-Performance Recovery Skills -  here, emphasis is placed on the importance of developing a set of skills and activities that provide you with an opportunity to fully recover mentally from performances and competition that is as crucial as physical recovery.   Evidence is mounting that both mental and physical recovery skills (including sleep) are more important than we ever considered in the past.  
  • Resilience - this refers to your skill and ability to quickly and fully bounce back from setbacks, to deal with adversity, learn from mistakes and effectively put your mistakes behind you.  Only recently has resilience been seriously considered as a component of mental toughness.   Resilience includes carefully obtaining, valuing, and incorporating constructive feedback.   
  • Systems Thinking - in the case of your mental core, this refers to your awareness and understanding of the matrixed complexity, interrelatedness and connection of multiple factors involved in your performance. It also refers to the idea that in order to affect real behavioral change, a system that provides structure and consistency must be put into place.  Systems thinking in this context implies that mental conditioning and strengthening of your mental core requires you to become a student of mental conditioning, sports and performance psychology (as well as a student of your sport).  
  • Anxiety Management - refers to the idea that 1)  anxiety is a part of performance and competition; 2)  mental fitness includes the acknowledgment and management rather than the eradication of anxiety; 2) that excitement and anxiety can be two words for the same thing; and, 3)  the goal of mental conditioning can't and shouldn't be to eliminate anxiety.  
  • Emotional Intelligence - emotional intelligence (and related skills) is an important and necessary component of performance enhancement in players, coaches, and teammates. Emotional intelligence involves the understanding of the critical role that emotional information and social interactions play in performance and success. Evidence suggests that emotional intelligence is an important characteristic of effective leadership and team development as well as coaching effectiveness.
  • Confidence - this component of your mental core is one of the characteristics that has been long considered critical to success in any endeavor, including sports and the performing arts. In this model of the mental core, confidence is defined as a general sense that one's skills and abilities are capable of achieving one's desired outcomes.  Many people include this component in their idea of mental toughness.  Confidence is particularly dependent upon a health cognitive mindset.  
  • Preparation Skills - this factor suggests that 1)  success is related to one's understanding and awareness that personal growth occurs through the methodical process of continuous learning and development of skills, rather than inherent, genetically-informed and pre-ordained talent; and, 2) is highly influenced by your desire and willingness to consistently spend long-hours of monotonous, focused, disciplined, repetitive activity to improve and perfect your skills and abilities.  
  • Mindfulness - this important factor of the mental core refers to a broad set of skills that include mental imagery and visualization, relaxation and meditation skills, focusing and centering skills (that are useful in practice, preparation, performance, recovery and evaluation activities of athletes and coaches). Mindfulness approaches can be very helpful to post-performance recovery and injury recovery.  
Note that there has been increasing evidence that body language is important in performance.  Be aware of your body language; however, I have seen increasing evidence that body language is more of a indicator of the strength of your mental core than a factor or component of the mental core.  

Assess these core components of your mental core.  Start by identifying your mental core strengths and limitations in each of these areas.  Focus on and leverage your strengths while also learning more about how to shore up your limitations.  Learn to use these basic skills to build a foundation for mental core training.

Future blog posts will go into more detail about your mental core.  Please let me know if you have any comments or questions about your mental core below.

For more information about mental conditioning and your mental core, download my mobile app.
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Also,check out my sports and performance psychology book, Razor Thin:  The Difference Between Winning and Losing.  You can purchase it at

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