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Mental Skills Training: Toughness and Mindfulness

11/08/2017, 11:30am CST
By Sam Callan, USA Fencing Senior Manager of Coaching Education

In a sport where the mental game is as prominent as the physical athleticism, mental skills are an important part of a fencer’s success, regardless of the level. Some fencers seem to be more adept at overcoming a deficit on the scoreboard and thrive under pressure while others seem to crumble when they are down a few points. We often talk of fencers who are mentally “tough,” but what is toughness and what, if anything, can be done to improve toughness?

As with any skill, becoming good at mental skills requires deliberate practice (more on this topic on the podcast with Anders Ericsson). The great news is that mental skills training can begin at a young age as long as the task is developmentally appropriate. Usually we look at maintaining focus, regulating arousal, enhancing confidence and maintaining motivation. Simply telling an athlete to focus or to get fired up (or calmed down) is not sufficient. If the athlete knew how to do either of those things in that moment, the athlete would likely be doing them!

Two areas that mental skills training can address are mental toughness and mindfulness. Mental toughness can be seen as an interaction between the athlete and the environment. Two athletes can perceive the same competition very differently. A championship bout could strike fear in one fencer while another fencer will see it as a great opportunity. It is also conceivable that a fencer can be mentally tough in one situation and less so in another.

Psychology Today defines mindfulness as “a state of active, open attention on the present. When you're mindful, you carefully observe your thoughts and feelings without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to your current experience, rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating the future.”

How is mental toughness developed? Sport psychologists Robert Weinberg and Dan Gould note that some researchers and athletes see mental toughness as something that is “caught” rather than “taught.” “Catching” mental toughness comes from activities that are not necessarily designed to teach toughness. For instance, sibling rivalry, coach expectations, and coping with losses are some of the ways mental toughness develops.

Another school of thought is that the coach can design situations to increase mental toughness, creating positive practice and intense competitive and practice situations or building confidence through rigorous physical preparation and conditioning. We probably all at least know of coaches who would run extremely grueling practices to “toughen up” the kids.

Practice situations can be designed to challenge both toughness and mindfulness. In practice, you can have two fencers take part in a simulated five-touch bout with Fencer A up 1-0, or 3-0, or 4-2 over Fencer B. The beauty of such a simulation is that both fencers can develop important mental skills.

Fencer A can be developing mindfulness. When a fencer is ahead, the fencer can start to think past the next point and perhaps onto winning that bout. That fencer runs the risk of losing attention to the present moment and allowing the other fencer to mount a comeback. Therefore, have Fencer A work on being in the moment and not thinking ahead to winning the bout, who the next opponent is or how good it will feel to win.

Fencer B, who is down, can develop toughness from being in that situation.  Fencer B can concentrate on staying calm and focusing on the next point. A suggestion here is to get the fencer to stop thinking about the scoreboard and remain optimistic (“Never Give Up!”) Fencer B should not be looking ahead and thinking about what happens if he/she loses the bout. Focusing on the next point is an aspect of mindfulness.

While the two fencers are in opposite situations, instructions to each athlete can be similar: think about the next point, not what comes after that.

Just as you would set aside time to practice footwork and blade work, working in mental skills training reminders during lessons requires some planning. Some mental skills training can be done during down time such as commuting (not if you are driving though!), waiting in line or waiting for an appointment. For instance, when you find yourself standing in line at the coffee shop, take a minute to do a progressive relaxation exercise. Contract your calf muscles, hold the contraction and then relax the muscles. Notice how different the muscles feel. Continue that with other muscle groups.

No one expects you, as a coach or athlete, to be an expert in this area, so working with a sport psychology consultant can be helpful. One option is to find a local university with a sport psychology academic program. Another option to find a consultant is through the Association of Applied Sport Psychology, but you can also use resource material such as Weinberg and Gould’s textbook Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology (Human Kinetics).

If you have not listened to the first two USA Fencing Coaching Education podcasts with Sebastien Dos Santos and Karen Cogan, PhD, I recommend them as Karen and Sebastien spent a great deal of time talking about the importance of mental skills training. Karen also presented on mental skills at the 2017 October NAC and the recordings of the seminars are available here on the USA Fencing website.

Tag(s): Blog