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Mental mentoring: the new arena for elite sports

It’s been said that the business world is generally in a follower mode compared to the world of elite sports. At least if we take into account the traditional results orientation, awareness, and other elements that are also important in business. It is also true that if a strategy, methodology, or approach works in sports, it will certainly work well in business, because sports are a cruel world, where results are black and white. Well, at least in most cases, they are. Yet there is one area where the decision-makers in elite sports are lagging behind the business world: the adoption of strategies, concepts, and systems, and the appreciation of their value. The biggest change in this area has been in the area of mental preparation, which is surprising given that it is now well known that at least 50% of the success of elite athletes depends on their mental state. Yet it is very difficult to turn our backs on the past in terms of what achieving perfect mental fitness was worth in monetary terms.

Traditional fees

Where are the days when you specifically mentioned if a coach used a psychologist or mental health professional? It was not so long ago that sport psychology really took off; although it has been used by some professionals for a long time, but it became an expected module in sports about two or three decades ago. Then sport psychology ran its own “life curve” and had its upward trajectory where everyone was frothing at the mouth; then, many expected more, were disappointed, and about 8-10 years ago, its application settled into a normal mode. At the same time, it is precisely disappointment in sports psychology – or rather sports psychologists – that has given rise to new professions dedicated to providing mental support to athletes. Mental coaches, life coaches, whatever they call themselves, have flooded the market. What is interesting, however, is that traditional psychological tests and systems have failed to make lasting inroads into this field. So mental health professionals and psychologists were left to their own devices, to their traditional studies and their own experience. They landed as independent fighters with a team or elite athlete, and if the athlete they coached achieved success, they made their fortune. This situation is also mostly due to the pricing of mental background in most sports, as in this respect the clients obviously started from existing, already known costs. In most cases, the financial framework for mental preparation was, therefore, well within the salary of a mental health professional, and all the players were happy with that.

The Elite

It was in this situation that more and more people, especially in sports that could generate significant revenues, realised that it could be done more professionally. So they started to support their teams not with one but with several specialists from different disciplines, and built up mental teams. Today, there are sports clubs with up to 100 people working on the mental work of the teams belonging to the club, generating huge costs for their budgets. However, it seems worthwhile to maintain them, because at least half of the results depend on this support. The problem with such internal teams is that sooner or later, they start to justify their own work, build processes on it, and because it is their speciality, they can easily make outsiders, the sports leaders and athletes themselves, believe that everything is fine. I had the opportunity to talk to the head of a mental team – a fashionable position called Head of Performance – who proudly explained that in recent years they had developed their own tests, are working in more and more dimensions, and are writing serious studies. Then, when asked why it is that a significant number of the clubs they represent have been performing well below expectations for years, we were given a naturally evasive answer. The annual salary for the better sports psychologists in the US is in the region of 150,000 – 200,000 USD, but there are some professionals who earn above that. And if we are talking about mental teams, this amount has to be multiplied by the number of people, so even a small team of, say, ten people can cost around USD 1,500,000. It is true that even this amount is negligible compared to the wages of a star player, so it is still a fair comparison.

System-based development

But the latest trend is clearly somewhere between these two paths. Complex mental coaching can now be provided “off-site”, at least by companies – only two or three in the US and one in Europe – that are building the professional team needed to provide full mental support. They are developing their own psychological systems and assessment tests, which are now specifically focused on sports and are intended to define the mind and personality of elite athletes. On the basis of this information, a complex service of mentoring is provided to prepare the teams. The cost of building up a professional background is very high, but because they make good use of their knowledge and the capacity of their specialists – they work on several developments in parallel, so that there are no gaps of several months for specialist staff – the client side benefits from the cost-effectiveness of this. Club development programmes, in this case, start at around USD 40 000, and the most expensive programme does not exceed USD 300 000, but in this case, we are talking about mentoring several teams in parallel at the club. Mentoring also includes the mental development of the team, mentoring of the head coach, profiling of the opponents, and elements of mental combat for the athletes, so there are no other mental costs associated with such a partnership. The biggest advantage of this is that while the experience of a professional stuck at a club is limited to that club and environment, a mentoring company can have 15-20 development projects in the same time frame – and from all over the world – so that after a few years they are unbeatable in terms of concrete experience of elite sport. With this solution, even sports that are not exactly “overpaid” can now have access to serious mental coaching at the highest level. Of course, they need to grow up in their thinking, so that they do not have to calculate the income of a sports psychologist, usually part-time, which they are used to. A significant proportion of sports managers are very much behind in this respect. Paying USD 100,000 for another training camp is natural, but paying for the mental work that affects the results of 10 training camps over a whole year, they still do not reach deeper into the coffers of the club or even the national team. This, of course, creates a new and interesting competitive environment in which teams and elite athletes represented by modern-minded sports leaders who are capable of change can gain a serious mental advantage in competitions. Moreover, these priorities are highly visible, and it now takes a very seriously closed mind not to notice this in a sports-loving person.