As a coach, my approach to mental training is very similar to physical periodization or phases, also known as tapering. This can get very complex, so I will break it down and keep it simple. For my sport, Taekwondo for instance, I like to break down these periods into four phases: general preparation, precompetitive, competitive, and active recovery. I’ll briefly break down what each phase is about before I dive into the mental preparation aspects.
Physical Preparation Phase 1: General Preparation
The first phase is called general preparation, which is anatomical adaptation. This is where I help athletes build strong basics and techniques, work on their general athletic abilities, endurance training, and flexibility. This training is often low in terms of intensity, but longer in duration (i.e. volume) than the practice sessions we would have closer to competition time.
Physical Preparation Phase 2: Precompetitive
The precompetitive phase is broken down into building one’s strength, developing tactics, as well as maintaining/developing techniques, speed, endurance, and flexibility. Here, practice sessions are medium in terms of intensity, and also medium in volume.
Physical Preparation Phase 3: Competitive
The competitive phase is usually 30 to 35 days before the big event. During these three to four weeks prior to the event, I like to slowly increase the intensity and degree of volume of training. This is when you start to really hone into your strengths. I don’t usually focus on any tactics or techniques that have not been fully developed by this time. I might come back to them in the next phase of training, if it is a major event. Here, we focus on our strengths. Training usually gets shorter in duration, but more intense throughout the three to four weeks leading to game day. The reason for this is because we do not want our bodies to be tired, and want to be in optimal condition for competing. I know, easier said than done, of course!
Physical Preparation Phase 4: Active Recovery
The active recovery phase occurs after competition. Here, training is very light. I often encourage athletes to play other sports, have some down-time, and let any injuries recover.
First and foremost, I recognize that every athlete is an uniquely different individual; therefore, my approach to coaching should also be tailored to them and their needs. For the most part, however, my coaching method in both physical and mental preparation follows similar patterns. I should point out that I would use the following mental preparation process with athletes who are older, typically in their teens.
Mental Preparation Phase 1: General Preparation
This usually occurs at the physical active recovery phase where athletes feel very relieved that the competition is finished. They are often feeling carefree from performance anxiety. I often review with my athletes their goals for the upcoming competitive season, go over the mistakes they have made during previous competitions, and how to fix them. I will ask them to reflect about themselves and how their lifestyle contributes to their results in the sport. I talk a lot about results during this phase – not that I am looking for just results, but I know it gives the athletes a little pressure during this “unwinding phase.” If there are small/mini competitions during this time period, I encourage them to compete and only have them work on the weaknesses that we compile together during our post-season review. I want them to do all the things they don’t usually have the confidence to do during bigger competitions. The result does not matter to me as a coach. All I want to see is that the athletes are getting past their fears and trying new things. As the saying goes, “a champion one day can look like a fool the next, but it’s on purpose.”
Here, I’m loading my athletes with all the hard stuff. I don’t give a lot of praise during this phase. I also don’t give them any negative feedback, as they know they are working on their weaknesses and building their character and mental strength.
Mental Preparation Phase 2: Precompetitive
Remember the medium intensity and medium volume I talked about in the precompetitive phase earlier? This phase is the same idea, but mentally speaking. I start to celebrate the athletes’ little victories and improvements here. The athletes also start to see improvements themselves: physically, tactically, and in their techniques. They start to become more confident. I still challenge them mentally in this phase by putting them with “better” partners and pushing them a little more on the field or in the gym. When they enter competitions in this phase, I don’t mind them fighting (e.g. Taekwondo sparring) in a little heavier division; if their opponent is much stronger or better, I will tell my athlete to focus on using their strengths. This is in contrast to the previous phase, where I would only recommend that they work on their weaknesses.
Mental Preparation Phase 3: Competitive
Here is where I actually let myself be myself as a coach. I’m actually a very happy, positive-thinking person. I will start to project my positivity onto my athletes. I really praise them on their improvements in this phase. I talk a lot about personal best, having fun, and enjoying the game. I very rarely bring up winning or losing here. The athletes usually already put that pressure onto themselves, so almost everything I do with them here is very light. I know they can handle heavy stuff, as we worked on all of that before, and they know it too.
During game day, I remind them of a few of my favourite sayings or I’ll repeat things to them that they like to hear. If they have a bad first round in a double elimination, for example, I totally shrug it off and tell them that that was just a warm-up. I know what they can do, and so do they. So, as you can see, I “load” my athletes mentally at the beginning of the competitive season, and “unload” them during the competitive phase. I have found this to work quite well, and the feedback I get from my athletes is often positive. To be honest, we have great results as a team even though that’s not the point. The point is to develop oneself, facing our fears, and becoming all that we can be while enjoying our sport, respecting ourselves and each other. The by-product just happens to be a lot of gold medals.