The summer is over, the championships and international cups have begun, and the national teams are preparing for various competitions. Even before the Tokyo Olympics, mental preparation experts were already discussing how the pandemic would change the mental conditioning of athletes, the competition itself and, indeed, mental preparation. Although we are no longer talking about a pandemic, but also about generational changes and a shift in societal thinking, the point remains the same: for athletes, maximising their mental performance and maintaining the right level of mental fitness has become a priority. Moreover, the expectations in this respect have long since gone beyond traditional solutions, as the focus is increasingly on the fact that athletes are human beings, and that they not only want to win competitions, but also want to live a happy life. This demand is clearly and fundamentally changing the rules and systems of mental training and is bringing complexity more and more into the picture.
Human or inhuman
I can still remember personally witnessing a head coach of an elite club shouting in a ‘non-human voice’ at one of his key players and humiliating him in front of a sports hall full of fans, family and friends. The most disheartening thing was not the fact that this could happen on a sports field, but that no one really reacted. The player kept his head down in acknowledgement, and the people around the coach took it so for granted that there was no reaction. Today, after the successful mental coaching of dozens of national teams, club teams and individual athletes, the story is even more shocking when I think back on it, but the sad thing is that it was not an isolated incident, but a very common one. And the explanation was clear: they paid the player, who was obliged to compensate with a perfect game, and in that match somehow failed to do so, so it was within his right as the ’employer’s representative’, i.e., the coach, to react in that way. This train of thought then leads to the biggest challenge in elite sports today. The image of elite athletes as being different from other mortals is that they perform perfectly in all circumstances, most of the time – rain, shine, wind, high stakes, just a normal training session. He is reliable, but he can also surprise, he is humble, but of course, he is forceful and decisive, he works in a system when he has to, but of course, he is creative, and I could list the expectations that are expected, but unfortunately, simply psychologically, mentally, unattainable in one person at a time. But a professional athlete is Superman, which means he must have all the superpowers. Perhaps that is what coaches used to think, who behaved in a similar way with their athletes, as in the case I have just mentioned, that the athlete is not human and must only bring his superpowers to life. Then, if a coach even got a confirmation, even once in results, there was no stopping him from going downhill. Whether it was uphill or downhill is a question for the athlete. But it’s worth thinking about how many former great athletes have had their lives derailed by the end of their sporting careers!
New expectations, new generations
It is clear that the latest generation of elite athletes no longer tolerates this type of treatment. Many formerly successful coaches don’t really know what to do with this. It also seems that the question of “what will my career in sport be like” has come to the fore for athletes. It is, therefore, not surprising that during their time as an athlete, they expect a mental background and support that does not focus only on a very short period of their life, but makes them a really healthy person mentally. As a basic rule, every person can live the happiest version of their life if they can be themselves in every situation, and that is accepted. Success in sports will also be spectacular and lasting if the athlete does not have to play a role to be validated. This, in turn, poses a very complex mental challenge for professionals, as no science addresses this problem at such a complex level. It could be argued that one science is certainly no longer sufficient. Not surprisingly, athletes are increasingly working with so-called “mentors”. And they expect the mentor to teach them how to become successful by themselves, from themselves, and how to achieve maximum performance, a near-perfect mental state that they can then transfer to their personal lives after their careers. That is why mentoring brings together the disciplines needed for “maximum performance and happiness”, and even if it may sound idealistic in some cases, it has worked for years.
In Tokyo, and since then, I have seen very real successes and individual maxima achieved by elite athletes. Although I must disappoint everyone: they are not Superman or Wonder Woman! They are flesh-and-blood, even sentient human beings who put in a lot of hard work to achieve excellence. It’s a great feeling to be a mentor and to experience these successes, and to know that all this is happening while everyone has been treated as a human being and has managed to stay human!