Starting Mental Skills Training With Your Team

Dave Kearney
5 min readSep 5, 2022


In this article, I want to dive deeper into providing mental skills training to an entire sports team with a focus on performance, and not just using sport psychology as a way to provide help for already distressed athletes.

Setting up a mental skills training program

Most athletes (75–80%) understand that mindset is an important factor in performance, though most won’t have much experience working with a sport psychologist or doing mental training. About half will typically be open to mental skills training (depending on sport, age and gender). You may also wish to start by identifying the current mental training maturity of your team.

Expect that certain barriers will need to be broken down to successfully bring a performance focused mental skills program to the team, but that there will be early adopters who will buy into the process too.

1. Feed the hungry

As mental skills training is relatively new, some athletes and coaches will immediately be on board, others will sit on the fence, and others may not choose to participate at all. Not having complete buy-in from everyone in the organisation is to be expected. The way to win over the people who are not yet sure about it is to lead by example and prove how effective it is with the more committed parts of the team first.

Thankfully, it is often your top performers that reach out first. It’s not really that surprising given they are the ones that are typically most interested in engaging with new ideas and new ways of thinking to help them improve their game.

2. Focus on the things you can change

Many coaches have long since settled on their coaching style through years of experience. The addition of sport psychology to the team has the potential to unsettle long held views about how to help athletes with their mental game. They may see sport psychology as a threat or an unnecessary addition, and in return, you may well notice that some coaching beliefs aren’t consistent with recent sport psychology thinking.

Be cautious when choosing which battles to fight.

The job of mental skills training is not to try to fix every problem in an organisation. The ability to influence the progress of a team is directly proportionate to the trust that has been built up with the athletes and coaching staff, and these people won’t trust you if you undermine the beliefs of successful, experienced coaches. In other words, look to focus on small, important steps with an outsized impact.

3. Create trust

Over the course of a long season, a mental skills coach needs to be able to pull from a toolbox of team and individual mental training exercises to help your athletes. The right exercise will depend on stage of the seasons, experience of the players, recent results and from input from the athletes themselves.

They’ll also gain a lot of trust if the mental skills coach is simply present and available for the athletes. Some mental skills coaches are happy to go out on the pitch to improve their visibility with the athletes — it’s a great way to send a message that they are invested in all aspects of their success and dispel the traditional image of the “shrink with a couch” that many still have.

4. Provide space

You’ll know quite quickly if an organisation is really ready adopt sport psychology as a performance tool or whether it is doing so to tick a box due to the current publicity surrounding athlete mental health.

If the organisation is serious about using psychology for performance enhancement, the mental skills coach must have access to all the athletes on a regular basis. If you don’t have this, you need to check with the coaching team and make it clear that without the ability to connect with the athletes, their ability to be effective is severely crippled. Time spent with athletes is the currency for making improvements, and if the coaching team don’t see fit to allocate regular time, it becomes far harder to build connections and make a positive difference.

5. Know where mental coaches sit

Different organisations will have different ideas about where sport psychology sits and what decision making responsibility the role should have.

Some teams look to treat a mental skills coach as a member of the coaching team with responsibility for on field performance. These coaches are often involved in team selection. But while it might initially feel good to have an input from each athlete’s mental state feed into selection decisions, there are good reasons to avoid that structure.

To be effective at getting athletes to open up about their mindset, you need to build a relationship with them that isn’t based on weekly selection. Consider pushing more for a treatment more similar to where the Physio, Nutritionist, S&C coach would normally sit.

6. Work from a toolbox

Sport psychology work breaks down into two core areas: group work and individual work. Most of the time will be spent working with individual athletes, but getting regular group time with athletes and generally being visible to athletes in a less structured manner is also important. For this reason, some embedded mental skills coaches even look to share regular content with athletes where they live online — on Instagram, Facebook or other social media services as a way to keep the mental component of sport in mind.

A mental skills coach should be able to engage a team and work with them through a series of short, fun, interactive team based exercises that can be used to help educate your athletes on key mental skills training topics. They can also work with smaller groups, such as new players, the leadership group and/or the injured players group to deliver exercises that are appropriate to that group.

7. Consider optional group sessions

A sport psychologist might also consider running team mindfulness or imagery sessions. Running a 10–15 minute mindfulness session at the start of the day for all athletes who are interested in attending can be an invaluable way to boost energy and establish mental training concepts in the organisation in a relaxing and positive way. In a recent sport psychology meta analysis, the impact of mindfulness rated highly when compared with many other forms of mental training:

Impact of different interventions and emotional states on sport performance

8. Manage expectations

Sport Psychology is not a “magic wand” — there are many situations where the help that a sport psychologist can provide is limited. For example, if team morale is below where it could be, bringing in a sport psychologist before a big game wont magically change your team’s underlying performance issues. Mental skills training is like all other forms of training —the benefits accrue over time.

9. Evaluate scale, cost and impact

Budgets are always tight and most teams don’t have the luxury of a full time sport psychologist they can call on. Apps like Mindset or Champion’s Mind (or see my longer list here) can help manage sport psychology training or make it more scalable for larger number of athletes.

Got any more suggestions? Let me know in the comments!



Dave Kearney

Making mental skills training based on sport psychology best practice a normal thing for all athletes