Competition General Sports Psychology

Mental training and sports


Author: Dr. med. Günther Effinger, Facharzt FMH für orthopädische Chirurgie und Traumatologie, Int. Sportmedizin FMH, Osteologe DVO, Sonographie (SGUM), Manuelle Medizin (SAMM), Schmerztherapie (SSIPM), Leiter Medbase Basel Heuwaage


Mental training helps to consciously use thoughts and feelings to achieve a state of optimal performance. It should be just as much a part of training as physical training.

In professional sport, the mental coach has a well-established place alongside the coach and the nutritionist. In amateur sport, on the other hand, mental training – if at all – has so far only taken place selectively. And usually only when problems arise. This leaves a great deal of potential unexploited.

After all, every training session and every competition is influenced by thoughts and feelings. However, this often happens unconsciously – and this can reduce performance. Mental training helps to achieve and maintain a state of ideal performance.

The “Deming” or “Sports mental training cycle” developed at the Heidelberg Institute for Mental Training comprises four phases:

The first phase is about defining your own values and setting goals: What do I stand for? What is important to me? What do I want to achieve: have fun, find inner peace, receive recognition, find a sponsor who supports me …?
If several goals are important, it means defining a “value hierarchy”, because to want to achieve everything at once is utopian. The goal should be formulated positively and as concretely as possible, for example: “I want to have improved my best time at the end of the race”.

What are the outstanding characteristics of every athlete? In the second phase, when analyzing one’s own strengths, it’s all about finding the answer. Which characteristic is the strongest? Which is number two, three, four, …?
Mental training should strengthen the strengths. This includes both mentally going through and improving movement sequences and learning not to be distracted. Because only those who can concentrate fully on the current situation will be able to fully exploit their strengths.
Training mindfulness can help to stay mentally in the “here and now”. Thoughts that wander into the past or into the future, such as “I should have made more speed in the beginning” or “I won’t catch up anymore” are obstructive.

With the help of self-motivation strategies, one’s own strengths can be used at the right moment. What awakens the feelings and ideas that are needed in the respective situation in order to achieve the maximum possible? Which own rituals, inner images or experiences inspire and strengthen? For example, let your experiences pass in review: In which situations have you been particularly successful? What was the perfect situation when running in which everything was right? Which gesture or music, which object or smell is connected with this memory? This could be a key for mental training.
A sprinter who has to run away explosively at the start could, for example, motivate himself with the help of Hard Rock. Or you can tell yourself internally: “I can do it” and imagine the clenched fist. Such a gesture, self-hypnosis, relaxation exercises … there are hundreds of possibilities.
At first these processes “only” take place mentally. But the full potential can only be exploited if one “feels” them emotionally and physically.

The third phase of mental training serves to overcome and prevent inner blockades. Suppose a tennis player on rank 70 on the world’s best list makes it to the final of Wimbledon. He now thinks: “I can only lose against this famous top player. The eyes of the whole sports world are on me. Don’t miss the ball!” – then the game is already decided. He will lose.
Because the human brain doesn’t distinguish between ideas that shouldn’t happen and those that are longed for. This is like NOT thinking of a blue elephant. It is quite difficult not to imagine an elephant.
Athletes who want to do it especially well often get into the “overmotivation zone” – they hit balls, become unfocused, waste their energy.
However, the ideal performance condition is achieved when an athlete feels neither pressure nor stress or – on the other hand – boredom and too much relaxation (undermotivation zone). In mental training, effective countermeasures are developed against both.
For example, the tennis player might think: “I’ll show them”. He has built up a healthy self-confidence and mental strength, plays his best techniques meticulously in his mind and visualizes with all details the course of a game in which he plays his strengths to the full and wins.

Finally, the fourth phase is the success control: What was successful? Where else is there a problem? Can mental training be sustained in this way?


  • Mental training needs practice. Just like endurance, strength and flexibility training, it should be integrated into every training cycle.
  • It is best to start with a mental trainer.
  • Rituals or inner pictures should fit the person and the desired goal.
  • Do not think in terms of problems, but focus on the solution.


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