If I had a pound for every email enquiry asking me, “how do I improve my mental state?”, I could retire to somewhere warm right now. It would be easy for me to act like many coaches and psychologists and approach mental toughness as a distinct and separate part of performance to technique. This however, wouldn’t work, doesn’t work, cant work, and is the problem faced by every practicing sports psychologist.
When I say it can’t work, of course there are large amounts of research and techniques available for people to increase their mental toughness but it is of very little use without some form of specific application to the sport that they are taking part in. It is not just a personal application, or a sports specific application, but sadly it requires the individual to take on board some often unpalatable yet simple truths. The guys that win world championships and perform solidly throughout the season don’t do so through some natural ability or psychological mindset. In many cases they choose not to concentrate on mental toughness, or it never occurs to them to be anything but confident in what they do. However, at some point in their career this faith will be shaken, and they will be forced to look at how they approach the mental aspects of their sport.
So am I saying that there is no hope to increase your mental strength?
Of course not, but it is based on an understanding of exactly what you are trying to do when in competition and the processes involved in the actions which you are trying to perform. There are actions that are highly analytical and of a technical nature and there are actions which involve pure trust. Those struggling, or the naive, believe that they can control everything within their performance and those who have never struggled just let it happen. Neither of these approaches will stand the test of time or be truly solid in the face of great stress.
So, how do you increase your mental toughness?
This is where old wives tales and common sense come in. The ability to perform under great stress comes from practice, and experience, and one can go out and get this experience and never build upon it or store it away in the right area to be drawn on when needed. Practice must mirror competition when an athlete gets to a level where they start to worry about mental toughness and mental toughness can only really be approached or worked upon when the technique is good enough.
So, practice must have an aspect of scoring, of simulation of pressure, in order to see the weaknesses that will be involved, crucially, to see them in a safe setting. Then the weaknesses must be assessed. It is possible in some cases that the technique is not good enough, and if the actual technique is not good enough then this is where the mental toughness will appear to be not strong. For example the athlete knows that their abilities are not good enough for the task involved. It may be shooting the 30metre, 40cm face, on a steep incline on a field course or shooting three arrows to see out a head to head match, where the doubts come in. The doubts come in due to an honest, internal appraisal of how good the technique is.
Now am I saying that if you practice until you bleed you will become a great competitor? No.
Once the technique is of a level where you are not, “writing cheques with your expectation that your talent cannot cash” then you can start to trust the technique, and once you trust the technique the ability to shoot those pressure arrows will occur on its own.
We now need to look at the actual aspects of the shot and what level of control the archer has over them. Everything up until full draw, and by full draw I mean that point at which the recurve archer has the sight in the middle and the arrow under the clicker waiting for it to go off, and the compound archer has their thumb on the trigger, sight in the middle, and is ready for it go off are highly cognitive processes. They can be controlled by the archer, and should be controlled in such a way that they can understand when they have achieved the right position. Once that full draw position is achieved it becomes a matter of trust and reducing the cognitive aspect of the control to nearly zero, That can only be achieved if the archer is truly comfortable with their technical set up, and that is the job of a coach and the archer themselves to practice in a structured manner.
So, a quick example, everybody can shoot blank bale really well with good execution, and I’ve often talked about aiming not getting in the way of execution; I have said that you put a target in front of some archers and their ability to execute goes totally out of the window. In that situation the archer has not understood what the full draw position is and often races through this position of full draw: the recurve archer who never settles into full draw, and is more interested in how they are going to make it go click, the compound shooter who is more interested in whether the dot is in the middle than if they have set the shot up right. So it is that mental toughness wil come from that serenity of being in the place that they want to be, i.e full draw with a total understanding that this position is solid believable/repeatable and that they can go forwards form this position with good execution. That is all that mental toughness is- the ability to shake off the doubts and fears that they may well have and allow the fantasticaly complex part of the shot, which is execution, to occur.
I make no apologies for calling it fantastically complicated, because it is. To execute a shot cleanly while aiming at a target requires the archer to have set everything up in the way they want to and then just trust and allow their body to shoot the shot for them. It is that mix of technical skill and trust that mental toughness comes from. We have all seen archers stuck at full draw, unable to execute, that horrible lack of execution where we start to see their longrods moving, their bodies shaking, and it is like a road crash. Some of us have been in that situation before and start to take that “fear of failure” into every shot not allowing our technique to prevail. So mental toughness how do we develop and nurture it? It comes from trust, thousands of hours of practice, and it comes from the serene belief that what you have done, the platform you have set up is adequate to the task you are attempting.