Mind Management: The Importance of Mental Training in Sports

Rohit Ghosh@RohitGhoshContributor IIIJanuary 29, 2013

If there’s one thing this year’s Australian Open taught us, it’s that mental strength and toughness are the cornerstones of any athlete’s journey to success. Okay, so it also taught us that Novak Djokovic is a beast on the tennis court, but most of us already knew that. 

Djokovic not only looks better at the final stages of matches compared to his opponents, but also compared to himself at the beginning of the match. After losing the first set of the finals to Andy Murray, Djokovic had the uncanny ability to push that moment of failure out of memory and focus on the next task at hand. He came from behind to defeat Murray 6-7, 7-6, 6-3, 6-2 and win his third straight Australian Open title. It’s not how you start something, it’s how you end it. 

"You have to travel and play so many matches on different surfaces, different continents, different countries. It really is a mental game. You try to have the emotional stability every day, because tennis has the longest season in all sports." - Novak Djokovic

You’ll hear terms like mental strength and mental fortitude thrown around quite often, but what it really comes down to is something known as mind management. Athletes, at least the successful ones, are trained and prepped for years before we see the seemingly ‘perfect’ product in action. 

Whereas physical improvements are fairly easy to quantify and track, less obvious are the mental strides one takes, or rather, one does not take. That’s where a coach like Wendy Cohn enters the picture, to first assess both mental strengths and weaknesses of the athlete, and subsequently equip the athlete with the tools to improve said weakness. 

With the majority of coaches focusing on physical development, Cohn’s approach is a refreshing change of pace. Her coaching style stems from decades of experience playing a variety of sports (Tennis, Equestrian, Skiing for ex.). Best of all, Cohn, herself, is proof that her methods work. In 2005, as a member of the Danish National Shooting Team, she won first place in the Danish Championship of Compak Sporting. Driving from Denmark to Sweden every day for practice was by no means an easy commute, but proving her perseverance to herself was more important than anything else. The point is this: Cohn is not only a successful athlete, but also spent years studying the psychology of sports. She knows what it takes to be successful at both the amateur and professional level. 

Working now with athletes of all sports around the world, Cohn has begun to fine tune her style to make her coaching even more efficient. I got a chance to chat with her about her approach and what she hopes to accomplish with it.

Me: What is your background? Specifically, what led you to dedicateyour time to coaching young athletes?

Wendy Cohn: I can attribute many things to what led me to this point. First, when I was a child, my mother was very interested Eastern Religious philosophies and practices. Every week she had a hatha yoga teacher come to our home and teach Ushatha yoga and meditation. Second, when I moved to Denmark, as young adult, I worked for an  Englishman whose Yoga school, was called The center for Relaxation and Meditation, this is where I was certified as a yoga teacher. We had many students who had problems and were seeking help from us, but as I was very young, I felt that I was not qualified to help these people.Since I had studied psychology in the US, before moving to Denmark, I felt that the experiences as a yoga teacher convinced me that I needed to go back to school.The techniques I learned through Hatha yoga- meditation and relaxation are fundamental elements in mental training. Unfortunately, my studies led me into a more academic path, and I was only able to integrate eastern methods which I practiced in my professional career until I became interested in sports psychologically. I felt that I had come full circle, and that the things I had done and learned in my life and my profession came together.

Me: Unlike most other coaches, why do you focus more on the mental training?

Wendy Cohn: Most sports coaches traditionally have focused on training their athletes’ skill sets. They have practices and drills, talk about motivation and concentration, but it just is not enough to tell an athlete to concentrate or feel motivated. It is essential to find out why an athlete cannot perform. If they are not doing well, and really want to, you need to find out the reasons behind the poor performances. You need to find the mental strength and weaknesses, and help the athlete to become mentally stronger. Today many coaches know this, but they just do not have the time it takes to train or the knowledge to train their athletes. 

On the topic of what she concentrates on ... 

Wendy Cohn: I never concentrate on the opponent. I concentrate on helping my athletes become mentally strong. However with that said,  Of course, I can often  see the stress, loss of It is very obvious on the tennis courts when the opponents not concentrating and just not playing to the ability that you know that individual is capable of. focus, inability to manage emotions, etc in the opponents.

A coach like Cohn makes it easier for an athlete to see how far they’ve evolved mentally. Mental coaching is not a substitute for practice or any other type of coaching, it’s a supplement. Good coaches put players in a position to succeed over and over again. 
Whether it’s obvious to them or not, the best coaches are very good psychologists as well.