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Let’s go to Paris in a Porsche – Complex mental mentoring in sport

The mental state of athletes, primarily its stimulation and development, has long been the subject of specialists. The attitude of athletes and sports experts to the subject is quite mixed. It is well known that mental preparation can determine up to 50% of final results, but the preparation process itself is still not widely believed in. Or worse, they have lost confidence in the ready-made solutions. Perhaps this is the reason why a new complex solution is being used by more and more individual athletes, club teams and national teams to give them a significant advantage in competitions. This is complex mental mentoring, which is currently available on a very limited scale in the international sporting world. However, where it is used, it is proving very successful.

Traditional routes

The advent of sports psychology has changed the way athletes used to think about sport. Everyone was aware that mental state had a direct influence on results and performance, but the main belief was that what distinguished a real winner from a loser was the ability to manage one’s own mental state. Successful coaches were also known for their intuitive ability to provide their athletes with strong support, with some science behind them. This solution worked until there were serious counter-solutions on the scene, and indeed, the athletes and their teams that could motivate themselves best won the competitions. Let’s not forget the fact that for a very long time, physical development was enough to make someone triumph in world competitions, or even their genetic make-up helped them to become the best in the world. At the individual level, this was more obvious, but at the team level, physical fitness was not nearly enough. It is no coincidence that it was in team sports that the need for sports psychology first began to be most widely addressed. Then came the era when everyone was jumping into the new discipline, and specialised sports psychologists came to the fore. Properly organised, they had a major impact on the sporting world, and there was a period in sport when most people thought that without this branch of psychology, there was no point in competing. In hindsight, it was too “fatally polished”, as they say. I mean, the promise and the real value were very different. Today, it is pointless to argue that if sports psychologists, in general, were more careful and did not push their own science so hard, there would be far fewer disappointed people, and far more people would trust this otherwise important scientific background. It is just that their beautiful theories have not really worked in practice. A lot of methodologies looked good in textbooks, but even the best teaching materials were based on, at most, one expert’s account – and in these, cases, these were experts who were the most capable of wielding such tools – these research findings were exceedingly difficult to replicate, let alone scale. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, because that is the science of psychology; it builds theories and proves them. The only problem with psychology is that it is highly subjective, it is very difficult to find objective points of measurement, and so belief and communication and their persuasive power override common sense. Just think of an absolutely positive situation when a team prepares with a real professional. The team members take part in a series of talks and sessions, based on the foundations of sports psychology, which are mostly individualised. How can you know for sure that what the coaching specialist said really worked? Moreover, even in the most renowned university courses, the drastically overwhelming majority of sports psychology studies are based on limited sample sizes from non-representative (irrelevant) populations.

Documenting real knowledge

If you think about it, it is also particularly difficult to get hold of real learning material. That would mean documenting a concrete development project, such as the concrete mental preparation of a team that has become world champions. This raises serious questions, and not only because of the GDPR and ethics requirements, which often makes our lives more difficult. You can’t just release information; you simply can’t report on conversations about one’s deepest secrets. Then there is the business mindset. The best mental health professionals obviously make their living from their profession. If they come up with a solution or a process that really works, they won’t shout about it from the rooftops, because it’s their knowledge that will be paid for at various levels. So, it is clear that novice apprentices will not have access to the real data and solutions, i.e., everyone will develop their own partnerships and solutions based on a general basis, which is not too difficult to learn from books. In other words, we can say that the level of mental preparation in sport is exactly the same as the relevant experience of the professional who prepares it, and has little to do with where and what kind of diploma or certification they have obtained. And for anyone to have real experience in mental preparation in sport, several criteria need to be met simultaneously. And this is where the average sports psychologist completely fails. And this is where true, unique practitioners can come out ahead.

Real experience requires insight into the entire mental preparation process. And to do this, in modern sport, at least three areas need to be seen, known, archived, and analysed. The first area, which is the one that sports psychology is most fundamentally concerned with, is the self-awareness and mental development of the athlete. This is usually the easiest area to archive, because if the athlete has a certain amount of confidence, information can be extracted from them, and because they want to win, they take the first step towards psychology in order to do so. Within a team, it is more difficult, as different team members have different individual interests. Another area is the sports support staff, coaches, assistant coaches, and staff members who are in direct contact with the athlete during preparation and competition. Here, the situation of the mental health professional is more difficult, as the most challenging coaches do not give their trust easily. For them, it is important to have a clear certainty of results, and they want to see analyses and systems, not the subjective opinion of a single “expert”, even if it is based on a multitude of degrees and mountains of studies. They are more goal-oriented and concrete. This is the first point where we can distinguish a good mental health professional from an inadequate one. And in this selection, psychologists are now being weeded out. Here, psychology alone is no longer sufficient. And the third point is the evaluation and analysis of the opponents, and from this, the preparation of a mental strategy of attack and defence. This means nothing less than assessing the opponents from a psychological, generational, and social point of view, profiling them and then using these facts to transform them into information that the coach can understand and implement in his own match strategy. A specialist in this field can only be truly knowledgeable if they present in all three areas, as only then can they see the full spectrum of mental preparation required.

Complex mentoring

It is quite clear from the above that modern mental coaching is no longer a “one-man show”. In this genre, a new generation of modern-minded athletes and sports professionals have completely lost confidence. Mental mentoring has become a complex genre, just like other areas of athlete preparation. It is not the work of a single profession, let alone a single professional, but a combination of several experts with different and specialised professional skills, working together and coordinating their activities. There are already examples of this in business, where for more than ten years, it has been the same approach that has brought the most successful companies to the top. It is a team effort, but to build trust, you need a face, a person. This is the most difficult part of mentoring. After all, the mentor must represent the entire work of a team, often tens or even hundreds of people. He or she must understand the sub-processes, but also remain sufficiently removed from the depth of any one area. What they must understand is how to translate all that scientific information into language that the athlete and their team can understand. Then how to incorporate this into the preparation and match strategy. It is often said by mentors that good mental preparation in sport focuses on 4-5 mental “clicks” that need to be built into the mind of the athlete, the team, so that in a crisis, the brain can employ them. Yes, but to define, transmit, and integrate these 4-5 “clicks” often requires 50-60 pages of knowledge, research, analysis, and evaluation. This is precisely the beauty and the difficulty of mentoring. It gives the mentor the opportunity to develop the right rapport with the team members, to gain their acceptance, so the team believes in the background knowledge and what the expert is saying. However, the most important element of coaching is still the establishment of a relationship of trust with the main decision-maker, i.e., the individual mentoring of the coach. This genre is practised by very few people in the world today, because a successful head coach is a very strong character and will only accept another very strong character, who must also be a very serious professional, because in this way they respect each other’s territory. This, by the way, is critical, so that the mental specialist does not want to be seen as an expert in the sport, and the head coach accepts that there are depths of mental coaching that he or she does not need to be aware of. Complex mental mentoring thus embraces the performance of the whole athlete or team. It delivers everything an individual needs to contribute to the outcome of a competition. What’s more, the mentor does all this in the background, avoiding publicity while the athletes, team, and coach take the credit for the results.

Placing mentoring on the map of sport

As it is a new genre, the biggest challenge for mentoring is not to get potential partners to accept its necessity, but to find its place. It is not an easy task, as sports organisations that employ a sports psychologist or mental health professional are used to the cost of one person, and a mentoring programme is in a completely different category. It is true that in many cases, 50-60-100 professionals deliver their knowledge to the partner, but it is still difficult to fit it into the cost envelope. Those who cannot or will not make this leap are increasingly falling behind the world’s elite in all sports. The other challenge is when that sporting organisation – usually typical of more elite clubs – already has a serious, established organisation of up to dozens of professionals. And compared to that level of cost, mentoring obviously often seems ridiculously cheap. It is also dangerous for the people working inside, because while they see one team, their development, and scientific data collection is limited to that one team or athlete, mentoring companies make dozens of improvements a year, which means that the amount of concrete experience and therefore the level of knowledge is incomparable. But how does one digest the fact that anyone can provide a much more professional solution for a much lower cost? No matter how results-oriented a club or national team may be, for the people working there, it all means a good job, a good salary, which they don’t really want to lose. It’s a general human thing; let’s not think it’s different in sport.

However, the most modern organisational structures, sports clubs, and national teams are beginning to make room for complex mental mentoring in a professional way. Aware that this is a new technology, they are looking at the process in a completely different way. In fact, they are approaching it as an external support unit from which they can get all the knowledge and solutions related to mental preparation. Of course, it is very important to build the right relationship of trust, the basic element of which is that if a team or athlete works with a mentoring company, that company cannot work with an opposing team or athlete, as the basic element of a complex mental solution is to prepare from the opponents, to build a mental attack and defence strategy. Thus, a mentoring company that is good at something will carve this rule into its business policy. However, mentoring will be available to world sport in very finite quantities in the coming years. It is no coincidence that the smarter and more progressive sports organisations are booking this opportunity for themselves, because it will give them a market and a continuous, complex advantage for their own athletes and teams. In the Tokyo Olympics, complex mental mentoring has already played its part in achieving 4 gold medals, 2 silver medals and 4 bronze medals. In addition, they are credited with 11 historical successes, which means that a country’s athletes obtained the best-ever results for that country in the summer of 2021. Based on current information, more than 100 individual athletes and more than 20 national teams have already started their preparations for Paris with complex mental mentoring. It’s like putting a Porsche Panamera in a race where Toyota Camrys are competing against each other; the Porsche driver has an unfair advantage. Those who use mental mentoring often report similar experiences. However, in our case, the Porsche is going to be racing; no one can keep it from the track. So, if we want to stand a chance, we have to exchange our Camrys.