Mental skills in sport
In a sport such as sprinting sometimes it is easy to see what sets apart the best performers from the mediocre ones. They are bigger, faster, and stronger to the naked eye. However, just as in all athletics there is a large mental component to an athlete’s superiority. For example, motivation to train long and hard hours is a result of many decisions made through time. The ability to withstand grueling practices, perseverance, is also a mental trait. During a long competition, maintaining mental focus on the game is important for success. Even more specific things such as reflexes and the ability to tolerate high levels of carbon dioxide and lactic acid in the blood is a form of mental toughness.
Many of these traits are actually skills that can be trained in some form or another. The field of Sport Psychology is composed of athletes, researchers, and practitioners who develop techniques for preparing the mind for competition. Throughout the years a number of models have been developed to help people train mental skills; below is a simple model presented in Handbook of Sport Psychology (Vealey, 2007).
|Foundation Skills||Achievement Drive
|Performance Skills||Perceptual-Cognitive Skills
|Personal Development Skills||Identity Achievement
Coaches and athletes develop mental skills and practical training techniques without the use of a mental skills consultant. However, coordinating physical and mental training with a sport psychological consultant can lead to greater awareness and growth in these areas. Research has shown that almost all mental skills correlate to performance success in some way or another, but just as with physical skills athletes rely on their strong areas to compensate for their weak areas so strong mental skills across all domains is not necessary for world class success.
Consultants typically work on mental skills using several techniques that proven successful both in practice and research over the years. Standard tools include imagery, self-talk, relaxation, goal setting, biofeedback training, and performance profiling.
Transferring sport psychology to eSport
Many practicing sport psychologists also do consulting with companies that are eager to learn the ‘secrets’ to athletic success. Mental skills transfer well between discipline because humans use the mind to accomplish everything they do. Therefore learning to, for example, motivate myself better to practice my swimming technique, can benefit me equally if I can transfer that motivational ability to learning a new language or designing a sales plan. Likewise within the realm of traditional sport mental skills transfer between different games very well. Self-talk or imagery can be taught for use in karate or dance. In my opinion, however, mental traits function differently in different sports. In highly athletic sports such as sprinting or soccer the physical training aspect usually has a larger relation to success than mental training. In these sports mental training can be used by top competitors to gain that extra small edge that puts them on top. However, as sports get more complex and use smaller motor movements, the affect of mental training is amplified. For example, in formula one racing and shooting, an athletes mental training can have a more dramatic affect on their ability.
Computer gaming has the potential to show large impacts with mental training. For example, team games like League of Legends and Halo: Reach require the same type of team play and instant reaction to a strategic situation that is necessary in sports like basketball and hockey. A mental skills consultant would help train social cohesion, communication, and emotional control to help handle and improve the intense interaction that occurs during stressful competitions. Starcraft 2 is a game that requires intense concentration, mental focus, for anywhere from six minutes to an hour. Like traditional sports, mistakes and errors are punished heavily in eSport events, often costing points or matches. Errors in judgement that lead to errors cause players to self-doubt, raise their anxiety, and lower their confidence. A sport psychological consultant would use self-talk, imagery, and relaxation techniques developed for traditional sport to address the same issues.
The future of mental skills training in eSport
I firmly believe that sport psychological consulting will become a mainstay of competitive teams in eSport, possibly even more so than in traditional sport. In well established sports such as swimming and diving, often the coaches have dealt with similar mental issues as their athletes and are a valuable source of such knowledge for their trainees. Thus most athletes at the professional and olympic level are trained in various mental skills whether they know it or not. Many athletes also obtain mental skills trainers or coaches versed in a variety of techniques. In eSport, because of the newness of the field and the sports involved, many teams are self taught and have no coaching staff or retired players as mentors. Likewise the training regime for most games is quite simple since the system for success is well understood compared to the human body. Most games have intuitive skillets that can be easily practiced via repetition, but improving an inch on a high jump, for example, often requires advanced knowledge in kinesiology, biomechanics, psychology, and nutrition. Therefore I foresee that while most eSports teams will eventually have a demand for coaches, the skills those coaches teach will be more akin to the mental skills that sport psychology consultants also train. Many teams maybe opt to simply hire consultants to work with them on various mental skills while continuing to coach themselves on game mechanics.
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Vealey, R. S. (2007) Mental Skills Training in Sport. In Tenenbaum, G. & Eklund, R.C. (3rd Ed.), Handbook of Sport Psychology (pp. 207-309). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.