|When a skater steps onto the ice he tests himself mentally as well as physically. Mental preparation can help him cope better with the act of performing and with the successes and failures that are an inevitable part of skating and may help modify behaviours and attitudes that could be contributing to setbacks.
Mental skills are not the same thing as personality. Personality includes many factors such as behaviour, environment, parenting, stimulation and attitude. Mental skills on the other hand are tools that can be acquired depending on the quality of the training, the depth of motivation and the extent to which the skater’s personality will allow him to learn. The ability to develop and access, at will, mental tools such as activation, goal setting, relaxation, visualization, focus (and refocus) and one’s Ideal Performance State (IPS) can significantly increase a skater’s chances of improving physical training and performance. Mental factors are important throughout a skater’s career but become increasingly important as he advances toward the High Performance phase. The more difficult the skills the less the degree of error that can be accomodated within the skill before the risk of failure becomes great. Impeccable timing and accuracy are necessary to execute these skills and do not allow for lapses in concentration or the tightening of mind and body that comes with frustration and anger. So a skater has to be able to tolerate training mentally as well as physically. As skaters approach the ceiling of what is physically possible it is often the strength of their mental skills that impacts their success the most.
Most skaters, both Competitive and STARSkate, who will eventually perform at a fairly high level (at least the Gold Test standard) begin their careers similarly- with a steep skill acquisition curve followed by plateaux around the learning of certain jumps, for example, the Axel and double Axel. Frustration in Free Skating learning often coincides with these predictable plateaux. During these times learning is not necessarily slowed- there is just so much more learning that needs to take place it takes longer. Pressure to sustain a uniform acquisition of skills is unrealistic and hinders progress if frustration and anger increase.
Mental training is a process that can help otherwise healthy skaters to cope with the inevitable ups and downs of Free Skating learning. Unfortunately the skaters who need help the most are often those whose problems lie outside of skating. Mental skills might help them cope to a certain extent but deep underlying psychological problems may be better served by a professional outside of sport.
Not all skaters need a sports psychologist. And even where one may be indicated not all parents can afford one, not all sport psychologists are good, and not all difficult skaters (and parents) believe that the skater’s attitude is a problem. By far the majority of mental skills training will be done by the coach whether she intends it or not! Some coaches address mental training directly but because they have limited access to the skater off-ice and need to spend on-ice time developing skating skill a coach’s null and hidden curricula, can become the primary curricula for teaching mental skills. A coach's behaviour and attitude towards training and competition influences the type and quality of mental skills a skater acquires. Coaches should strive to acquire and maintain good mental skills themselves so the example they set is the behaviour they wish to promote. Should they choose to actively teach mental skills they must be creative in finding ways to do so without losing ice and training time.
Certain aspects of a skater’s mental training progress are likely to improve without any formal instruction. General concentration usually improves with age without intervention as do certain aspects of goal setting. Other areas may require significant attention before physical progress can go forward. Competitive skaters are often the most volatile because of the depth of commitment and standard of skill required. These skaters, their families and coaches may all have raised expectations that are not always met. Since all skaters will at times be unable to perform as perfectly as desired the development of anger management skills becomes a prerequisite for them to be able to train properly physically. Time spent coping and managing anger, frustration and disappointment is time not spent training the physical skills necessary for success. Skaters who need a significant amount of attention and moulding in this area, in other words those who waste a lot of ice time throwing temper tantrums, are not likely to survive Competitive or STARSkating simply because they do not receive an adequate amount of quality training time no matter how many hours they spend on the ice.
Flawless physical and mental self-control is the essence of excellence in technique and artistry. The athlete must possess physical self-control to execute complex skills but also mental self-control to focus away from technique when necessary to make tactical decisions, show style and recover from errors. To reach this degree of mastery the skater must incorporate mental training into his daily practice. Like any skill self-control needs to be practiced and incorporated as part of the performance before it can be transferred effectively to the competitive setting.
Setting goals is not accurately predicting the future; it is a level of proficiency to which one aspires or a tactical directive to which one adheres. Setting appropriate long and short term goals can help skaters to maintain focus. Effective goals are realistic, worthwhile, timely, flexible enough to accommodate unexpected events and high enough to produce a heightened effort.
Goal setting is usually done by the coach and parent in the early years but ought to be done co-operatively with the skater as they mature. Effective goal setting relies on the honesty and objectivity of the participants.
A plastic imagination is useful in developing, improving and applying mental skills. Imagery can speed learning and enhance it by allowing for off-ice rehearsal of certain skills, bringing the mind quickly to a state of readiness and facilitating re-focussing. It can also help clarify body awareness, aid relaxation, present metaphoric corrections and bring creativity and fun to the experience.
We are always attending to something. Effective concentration is the ability to attend to relevant information at the appropriate time. It is a state of allowing the mind to be interested in and drawn to relevant information rather than forcing it to fix on a particular aspect. This distinction is of critical importance as new information comes in and focus needs to be redirected quickly.
Skaters may use key words and covert self-talk to help them maintain or recover focus either in practice or during their performance. Action words like push, breathe, smooth etc. are the most effective in affecting performance and should be incorporated or practiced as part of the programme.
This skill is less important in day to day training. Although the ability to relax is important when it is necessary to get a good night’s sleep or to recover from a stressful practice complete relaxation is rarely used in the free skating training or competitive setting. Skaters may at times become tense and frustrated but the antidote is not relaxation. Relaxation means allowing the mind to wander, attending to whatever information attracts it at that moment. This would not be an optimal state of mind in which to train or compete. What is usually meant by relaxation in the competitive or training setting is attention to relevant information.
Ideal Performance State
The Ideal Performance State is the frame of mind in which a skater is able to perform his best. "The white moment’, ‘riding the wave’, being ‘in the zone’ are all ways athletes have used to describe the experience of attaining one’s IPS. But the manner in which they get there may vary a great deal from skater to skater. Most skaters need to be more highly activated rather than relaxed. It is often the parents who need to relax most!
Many skaters have rituals they follow which help launch them into their IPS. For example, skaters might warm up in a certain order or follow a certain verbal or physical patter with their coach right before taking the ice for a performance. Ritual can be useful but superstition should be discouraged. Superstitious skaters believe something or someone outside of themselves such as a lucky charm causes them to perform their best. It is not useful for a skater to believe that his performance is in any way out of his control.
The more consistent a skater‘s skills are, the easier it will be for him to transfer them to the performance arena. Assuming he is properly prepared it will be mostly trial and error to find the routine that launches him into his IPS as quickly, efficiently and reliably as possible. Having a pre-competition plan makes it easier to follow this routine. These plans need to be developed, implemented and revised as often as necessary particularly if the identification and attainment of the IPS is difficult for the skater. This means skaters will need performance experience.
Simulations are one tool used to help increase the volume of performance experience and are valuable, however, nothing really creates the experience of a test or competition like the real thing. It is precisely the genuine pressure of a situation that is not truly present in simulations that makes peak performance under pressure so difficult to train.
In training and in competition, discipline, humour, self-respect, responsibility, independence, an unyielding positive attitude, a willingness to accept challenge and a commitment to the pursuit of excellence will form the cornerstones of the successful skater.