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What are mental skills?

Psychological skills training (PST) is defined as the deliberate and persistent practice of mental skills for the purpose of enhancing performance, increasing enjoyment, or achieving greater satisfaction [1]. Just as athletes need to train physically, they need to be prepared mentally. Using PST athletes can work on skills such as confidence, commitment, focus, and motivation [1]. Psychological skills training, in addition to their physical and sport training, helps athletes to develop the competitive edge over their opponents. Psychological skills can be taught and implemented using the weight room as the main focus, but an integral part of PST is to help bridge the gap between uses. A goal of any performance coach, mental or physical, should be to teach the skills and provide tools that can be applied to any part of the performer’s life.

Why Being a Strength & Conditioning Coach Helps

Strength and conditioning specialized staff have become a standard for any organization that is looking to improve their competitive performance. The benefits of strength and conditioning are known; increased muscle strength, power, endurance, and hypertrophy. Research shows that these enhancements have the ability to improve athletes’ speed, agility, power, balance, coordination, and aid in injury prevention [2]. Resistance training has shown to increase self-efficacy and confidence in athletes. As the field of strength and conditioning grows in breadth and depth with new insights and technology [3], the importance of strength and conditioning coaches rises alongside. The role of the strength and conditioning coach has adapted rapidly; the strength and conditioning coach went from only talking weights to being someone an athlete can confide in and go to when in need. To address these interdisciplinary needs, strength and conditioning professionals often supplement their bachelor’s degree with a minor on a specific topic or continue their education with a master’s or another bachelor’s in one of the different interdisciplinary fields; however, these programs heavily lack requirements of sport psychology and leave coaches with a knowledge gap.

Although there are few formal requirements of strength and conditioning coaches having some background in sport psychology, 61% of respondents in one study reported that their position as a strength and conditioning coach required the addition of psychology-oriented responsibilities [4]. These responsibilities are referred to as “softer skills” [5], skills that are easily implemented without a formal educational background on the topic. The development of softer skills, interpersonal skills, arose from strength and conditioning coaches meeting athletes’ need of a mentor during a difficult time. When the softer skills are delivered by a non-sport psychology-titled professional, such as the strength and conditioning coach, there is increased receptivity to psychological interventions and thus increases the potential for administering the interventions [4]. This rapport, increased receptivity, and awareness also allows for coaches to make referrals to certified mental performance consultants (CMPC's) and/or psychologists, whichever will best serve the athlete.

When working together a helping relationship is formed between the coach and athlete. Together they work to solve athlete problems by activating assets, developing skills, and utilizing environmental resources to decrease athlete problems and increase the probability of successful performances [6]. The helping relationship focuses more on the interpersonal skills the coach possesses, not just the physiological knowledge [4]. These interpersonal skills are what are referred to as soft skills. These skills involve providing social and emotional support [4], not just the expected physical support. Important interpersonal skills for a coach in this helping role are, but not limited to, emotional intelligence, attending behavior, successful communication, empathy, and leadership. Analysis suggests that the quality of the coach-athlete relationship is associated with better cognitive performance in and out of athletic performances [7]. This helping relationship is fostered through the coach working in an environment that is removed from the immediate team setting and the stressors that go along with it. It is here that the setting is governed by social dynamics and performance related incentives [5].

Athletes have developed a relationship with strength and conditioning coaches that allows the coach to help bridge the gap between athletes and other support and coaching staff members. This unique coach-athlete relationship is supported by the rapport built by the coach and the positive perceptions the athlete has of strength and conditioning training.

Click the button for an article about coaching psychology and emotional intelligence on AASP.

Interpersonal Skills

Soft Skills

Interpersonal skills can be defined as the productive behavior of an individual while interacting with others [10]. This behavior includes, but is not limited to, emotional intelligence, attending behavior, successful communication, empathy, and leadership. As a strength and conditioning professional, a simple way of thinking about teaching this new skill set is to help yourself before you help others. There are a number of ways to go about learning how you interact daily using interpersonal skills and how to build upon your strengths. Below are some books and resources to learn more and reflect upon your coaching/teaching style. I have highlighted my favorite books.


  • Strengths Finder 2.0 - Tom Rath (2007)​

  • Discover Your True North - Bill George (2016)

  • The Four Agreements - Don Miguel Ruiz (1997)

  • Conscious Coaching - Brett Bartholomew (2017)

  • The Mindful Athlete - George Mumford (2016)

  • The Champion's Mind - Jim Afermow (2013)

  • The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck - Mark Manson (2016)

  • The Brain That Changes Itself - Norman Doidge (2007)

In addition to these resources, check out research and presentations by Dr. Brian Gearity (University of Denver) and Dr. Adam Feit (Springfield College).

Click below for an article to learn more about developing your interpersonal skills.

Weight Room Use

During weight training sessions, there can be quite a bit of down time. It is during this time that an athlete-coach relationship is built and strengthened, but also is where PST could be incorporated to benefit the athlete and help them get more out of their time. There are two main areas of down time in the weight room, pre-lift mingling/huddle and rest times. From the moment when athletes first enter the weight room, the strength and conditioning coach is assessing their moods and readiness for the day. Coaches can use this time and knowledge to address any injury or accommodation needs before the lift even begins. Before the lift, there is almost always a pre-lift huddle. During this huddle, the coach will go through the day’s lift and have a short conversation about any important topics. This time could also be utilized to implement micro-sessions on a mental skill that will assist the athletes in and out of the weight room.

One study suggests using mental imagery as a tool to improve motivation and self-confidence in regard to performances in and out of the weight room [8]. They suggest that the techniques could ideally be performed during the rest periods of the training session to complement training without risk of overtraining. The use of mental imagery during rest times also proves to be a beneficial tool in injury rehabilitation where one may have a greater amount of time between exercises. One study on injured athletes showed greater strength, less reinjury anxiety, and decreased pain after mental imagery was incorporated into the traditional rehabilitation program [9].

How to Teach the Skills

When beginning to teach the skills, it can be difficult to know where to start. The goal here is to provide some guidance on when to teach the skills, what order, and where to incorporate them into training. Imagine mental skills and psychological skills training like lifts and strength and conditioning; it is not best to introduce brand new information (or movements) to athletes when in-season and with high stressors. As the strength and conditioning coach, you should slowly implement skills and tools during off- or pre-season. During these specific points in the year athletes are most receptive to trying and mastering new skills. The mental skills that athletes will use during competition will look much different than the skills first used when learning them, they won't come natural, they will be clunky, and they will take extra focus and time. For these reasons, it is important to help athletes continue to work on the skills and modify them to best fit their needs and personalities. 

Not only is the time of year important, the placement within training sessions is crucial to the athletes understanding. When determining when to introduce the new skill, consider when athletes are most receptive to the information. Typically, the pre-lift huddle is a good time to introduce or build upon a topic. These conversations will be brief, as the pre-lift huddle is, but this provides the space for the strength and conditioning coach to explain the skill and for athletes to ask questions. These brief discussions and directions on how to incorporate the new skill, is what will foster adherence and lead to future discussions. Post-lift, during cool down, or breakdown before the team leaves is a good place to circle back to the skill talked about pre-lift. Bringing it up again and asking athletes what they noticed during the lift is the perfect way to show that they may have been using the skills without knowing it or that there is a place in their training and performance for the new skill and tool. 

When including worksheets or activities into a training session, make sure to pick the right session. It would be better picking a recovery, self-paced, or "slower" session rather than a tempo, conditioning, or circuit session. Also consider how much the athlete will have to carry around the room with them. If possible, write the prompts on a white board and have the athletes respond on the back of their sheet or in the margins. This still may be difficult to implement in a weight room, so have a back up plan if it doesn't work, don't just scrap the lesson as it may cause some confusion to the athletes. Wrap up the lift a little early and go through the worksheet all together while stretching or cooling down. In this setting, athletes may be more inclined to have a full discussion about the topic and learn more about each other and themselves. 

Click 'Annual Plan' below for a psychological skills training annual plan to help guide team implementation. Click 'Infographic' below for guidance in choosing which order to teach skills to athletes and teams. 

The Skills in Action

It is like training to an elite level physically while dining out on fast food and soda; at some point, all the training doesn’t help if you’re sabotaging yourself elsewhere.

"When you focus on your past, that’s your ego. When you focus on your future, that’s your pride. When you focus on the present, that’s humility."

Giannis Antetokounmpo, 2x MVP, NBA DPOY, Finals MVP, NBA Champion

“At the end of the day I just straight up couldn’t handle the pressure. Had an emotional breakdown the night before finals and my mental health and clarity just hasn’t been on par."

Jamie Anderson, 3x Olympian & Medalist, Snowboard 

The Skills
The Skills_Goal Setting

Goal Setting

The Skills: Resources

[1] Weinberg, R. S., & Gould, D. (1999). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology. Human Kinetics. 
[2] Zatsiorsky, V. M., Kraemer, W. J., & Fry, A. C. (2006). Science and practice of strength training (2nd ed.). Human Kinetics.
[3] Springham, M., Walker, G., Strudwick, T., & Turner, A. (2018). Developing strength and conditioning coaches for professional football. Coaching for Professional Football, (50), 9–16. 
[4] Radcliffe, J. N., Comfort, P., & Fawcett, T. (2018). The perceived psychological responsibilities of a strength and conditioning coach. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 32(10), 2853–2862.
[5] Tod, D. A., Bond, K. A., & Lavallee, D. (2012). Professional development themes in strength and conditioning coaches. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(3), 851–860. 
[6] Wallace, S. A., & Lewis, M. D. (1998). Becoming a professional counselor: preparing for certification and comprehensive exams. Sage.
[7] Davis, L., Appleby, R., Davis, P., Wetherell, M., & Gustafsson, H. (2018). The role of coach-athlete relationship quality in team sport athletes’ psychophysiological exhaustion: implications for physical and cognitive performance. Journal of Sports Sciences, 36(17), 1985–1992. 
[8] Lebon, F., Collet, C., & Guillot, A. (2010). Benefits of motor imagery training on muscle strength. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(6), 1680–1687. 
[9] Cupal, D. D., & Brewer, B. W. (2001). Effects of relaxation and guided imagery on knee strength, reinjury anxiety, and pain following anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction. Rehabilitation Psychology, 46(1), 28–43.
[10] Weinberg, R. S., & Gould, D. (2014). Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology (6th ed.). Human Kinetics Publishers. 

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