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The Nine Mental Skills of Successful Athletes

“Excellence is not an act but a habit.” -Aristotle

The Nine Mental Skills of Successful Athletes

(Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 1998 Ohio Center for Sport Psychology)

These nine mental skills are necessary for performing well in sport as well as in non-sport performance situations.

Successful Athletes:

  • Choose and maintain a positive attitude.
  • Maintain a high level of self- motivation.
  • Set high, realistic goals.
  • Deal effectively with people.
  • Use positive self-talk.
  • Use positive mental imagery.
  • Manage anxiety effectively.
  • Manage emotions effectively.
  • Maintain concentration.

Detailed Descriptions of the Nine Mental Skills

1. Attitude

Successful athletes:

  • Realize that attitude is a choice.
  • Choose an attitude that is predominately positive.
  • View their sport as an opportunity to compete against themselves and learn from their success and failures.
  • Pursue excellence, not perfection, and realize that they, as well as their coaches, teammates, officials and others are not perfect.
  • Maintain balance and perspective between their sport and the rest of their lives.
  • Respect their sport, other participants, coaches, officials and themselves.

2. Motivation

Successful athletes:

  • Are aware of the rewards and benefits that they expect to experience through their sports participation.
  • Are able to persist through difficult tasks and times, even when these rewards and benefits are not immediately forthcoming.
  • Realize that many of the benefits come from their participation, not the outcome.

3. Goals and Commitment

Successful athletes:

  • Set long-term and short-term goals that are realistic, measurable and time-oriented.
  • Are aware of their current performance levels and are able to develop specific, detailed plans for attaining their goals.
  • Are highly committed to their goals and to carrying out the daily demands of their training programs.

4. People Skills

Successful athletes:

  • Realize that they are part of a larger system that includes their families, friends, teammates, coaches and others.
  • When appropriate, communicate with their thoughts, feelings and needs to these people and listen to them as well.
  • Have learned effective skills for dealing with conflict, difficult opponents and other people when they are negative or oppositional.

5. Self-Talk

Successful athletes:

  • Maintain their self-confidence during difficult times with realistic, positive self-talk.
  • Talk to themselves the way they would talk to their own best friend.
  • Use self-talk to regulate thoughts, feelings and behavior during competition.

6. Mental Imagery

Successful athletes:

  • Prepare themselves for competition by imagining themselves performing well in competition.
  • Create and use mental images that are detailed, specific and realistic.
  • Use imagery during competition to prepare for action and recover from errors and poor performance.

7. Dealing Effectively with Anxiety

Successful athletes:

  • Accept anxiety as part of sport.
  • Realize that some degree of anxiety can help them perform well.
  • Know how to reduce anxiety when it becomes too strong, without losing their intensity.

8. Dealing Effectively with Emotions

Successful athletes:

  • Accept strong emotions such as excitement, anger and disappointment as part of the sport experience.
  • Are able to use these emotions to improve, rather than interfere with high level performance.

9. Concentration

Successful athletes:

  • Know what they must pay attention to during each game or sport situation.
  • Have learned how to maintain focus and resist distractions, whether they come from the environment or from within themselves.
  • Are able to regain their focus when concentration is lost during competition.
  • Have learned how to play in the “here-and-now,” without regard to either past or anticipated events.

To learn more, visit the Association for Applied Sport Psychology.

The Performance Pyramid

Although each of the nine skills is important, its primary importance will become clear during one of three phases: long-term development, immediate preparation for performance and during performance itself.

Level I – These mental skills constitute a broad base for attaining long-term goals, learning and sustaining daily practice. They are needed on a day-by-day basis for long periods of time, often months and years.

Level II – These skills are used immediately before performance to prepare for performance. They may be used just before competition begins, or immediately before a specific performance action, such as golf or a free throw in basketball.

Level III – These skills are used during actual performance behavior. The pyramid below represents the relationship of the nine skills to one another. Each of the higher levels incorporates and is based upon the skills of the preceding levels.

  • Level III
    • Performance Skills
    • Concentration (9)
    • Managing Emotions (8)
    • Managing Anxiety (7)
  • Level II
    • Preparatory Skills
    • Mental Imagery (6)
    • Self-Talk (5)
  • Level I
    • Basic Skills
    • People Skills (4)
    • Goals and Commitment (3)
    • Motivation (2)
    • Attitude (1)


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