Creating a Mental Training Plan for your Athletes

Dave Kearney
7 min readAug 31, 2021


Let me start with something absurd.

Imagine an athletic trainer who believes that it’s ok for an athlete to hit the gym once or twice a year. Imagine if he had completed all the research and earned all the qualifications. Then, even after all that, he still believed that bench pressing once a year is enough to keep all his athletes fit and ready to reach their full potential.

Now imagine a coach who thinks that drawing a play on a whiteboard is all that it ever takes to execute flawlessly on the ice, pitch or track. A few words, a few squiggles with a wipe-off marker and hey presto, the team is fully prepared to deliver in the heat of competition. The only meaningful discussion would be about whether it was the coach or the players who were dropping the ball more often.

These examples are deliberately ridiculous — but that’s how sport psychology is still practiced by a great many teams today. A sport psychologist is invited for a once a year talk — either before the season starts, or when the team is already in a hole and needs to stop digging. It’s a case of way too little and way too early or late.

Does it have to be this way?

Most self-aware coaches will hold up their hand and recognise that sport psychology training isn’t something that they have the expertise to deliver. These coaches recognise the benefits that sport psychology can provide in terms of athlete mental health and sport specific performance gains. They would love to add such expertise to their coaching team. But bringing in a qualified mindset coach is often a step too far for already constrained budgets. The end result is either a once a season visit from a sport psychologist (level 2) or providing support for athletes only after they have been identified as struggling with their performance mindset or mental health (level 3).

To solve this problem, one of two things needs to happen. There needs to be a way to deliver a mental training program without the expense of a full time sport psychologist, or access to sport psychology expertise needs to become far, far cheaper. Both are achievable. Let’s see how they might work.

Making a mental training plan

Let’s start with delivering sport psychology expertise without having access to an embedded sport psychologist. A pre-planned mental training curriculum has the advantage of putting the team in control of their mental preparations. It allows the core components of mental performance to be prepared in advance rather being reactionary or delivered in often painful hindsight. The plan should include:

  • The specific areas of mental performance you want to address (see our list below).
  • The dates and times you plan to cover each topic.
  • The mental training exercises you will use to help your athletes develop.

Approaching mental training this way will ensure that your athletes view their mindset as a weapon and not a weakness. It will provide the competitive edge that any team or athlete looking to achieve their full potential demands.

Delivering a self-administered mental training program

Delivering a self-administered mental training program is the necessary option for most amateur or age grade teams who want to make mental skills training part of the development curriculum but can’t afford to have a sport psychologist work with all their athletes.

  • It should be structured and based on sport psychology best practice.
  • It needs to be implementable by the coaching team.
  • It requires dedicated training time to be set aside, just like any other component of an athlete’s workload.
  • It should be planned in advance and not undertaken as a reaction to poor results or other events.
  • It should form a core part of the day to day narrative of all the coaches and athletes within the team.

If a coach is bought into this philosophy, then mental training tools like Champion’s Mind (the equivalent of a mental training trip to the gym) can be used to ensure the quality of training even where the coach lacks a specific accreditation in the area of sport psychology.

What topics are covered by a mental training plan?

Topics included in a mental training plan often include many of the following:

Individual Skills

  • Goal Setting
  • Mental Toughness
  • Self-Confidence
  • Handling Pressure
  • Grit & Determination
  • Body Language
  • Thinking Errors
  • Finding/Playing the Zone
  • Stigma & Mental Health

Team and Social Skills

  • Team Purpose
  • Leadership & Teamwork
  • Building Trust
  • Competition Mindset

All of the above and many more are covered in the Champion’s Mind app and the 37 page mental training guide (both are free to download).

Working with a Sport Psychologist

The first thing any credible sport psychologist will say is that there is no one size fits all approach to sport psychology. Each athlete is unique. The right mental training plan is unique to them too. Being able to work directly with each individual will give the best possible results.

When we approach it this way however, we once again run into the problem of scale and cost. Even within top professional or college teams, sport psychologists are quickly overwhelmed with the amount of work needed to improve performance. There are typically 50 to 100 athletes relying on the services of a single sport psychologist — even more if the team has development teams, youth teams etc. There‘s simply not enough time to develop a relationship with an athlete, let alone time to create a mental performance training package uniquely tailored to them. Only the lucky few athletes (or their parents) will end up paying for dedicated 1:1 training and getting all the benefits that entails. Thankfully apps like Mindset Pro are now starting to help coaches and sport psychologists better handle working with athletes at this level of scale more effectively.

So just like an athletic trainer, the sport psychologist needs to be able to take an off the shelf training plan, alter it where needed and make it accessible to each athlete. They can then focus on monitoring progress, triaging more serious mental health concerns and working on group based performance exercises to stay present and relevant with their athletes.

The individual training program itself needs to cover all of the exercises that an athlete needs to boost their mental performance (visualization, breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness etc) and deliver all the benefits of effective mental skills training (confidence, concentration, composure etc…see the list above). Hopefully it shouldn’t be a surprise by now that this is what we are working to build with the Champion’s Mind app and coaching tools.

By working this way, any team that wants to implement a mental performance development program can do so. The owner can be either a coach or a sport psychologist if the team has one. By outsourcing many of the common exercises to an app, athletes can work on their mental training plan in their own time. This is exactly how athletic trainers already deliver their programs. It’s the sport psychology equivalent of providing an expert plan without needing to watch every single rep to ensure form is maintained.

The athlete’s take

It would be unfair to talk about mental training plans without incorporating the athlete’s take on sport psychology. Athletes are predominantly in favour of working on their mental game, but most want the performance benefits without the technical jargon. That means exercises to complete and a process they can trust, not theories of personality or detailed explanations about how neurons fire. They just want a plan that helps them to focus on getting better at their sport in a way that they can see the results and feel like they are moving forward.

One last point: make it daily

Authors like Dr Bob Rotella and Dr Jim Afremow have become superstars in the sport psychology world by making the tools and techniques previously only available to top professional athletes more accessible with their books. And while these writings are excellent for learning, they don’t meet an athlete’s need to train mindset skills like visualization and mindfulness multiple times each week. Just like practicing on the ice, track or field and working out in the weights room, each athlete needs to dedicate a small portion of every day to working on their mental game. For that, there needs to be a deliberate and informed approach to making mindset training a core part of each athlete’s development.

If you’d like to learn more, please consider one of the following:

Background to this article

My goal is to make mental skills training based on sport psychology best practice available to all athletes everywhere.

There are over 2 billion athletes in the world (IOC number) and only a tiny fraction of them have access to the sport psychology coaching they need to achieve their full potential in sport and in life. I frequently wonder how many potential superstars are slipping through the cracks because they never learned that skills like confidence, leadership and composure under pressure are learned and can be developed?



Dave Kearney

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