What is a Mental Skills Coach Anyways?

TAGS: Tarra Farnham, mental health awareness, Mental Skills Coach

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Performance Coach, Performance Enhancement Coach, Sports Psychologist, Sports Counselor, Mental Performance Coach.

I'm sure there are many more names for what it is I do.  Heck, I haven't found one that provides the most accurate description and also makes sense to everyone around me.

I used to call myself a Performance Coach because I wanted to help athletes perform better by helping them with mental training.  Well, that confused a lot of people, so I went back to the drawing board.  Performance Enhancement Coach sounded too much like I was peddling performance-enhancing drugs (ahem, roids man). I'm not a Sports Psychologist because I don't have a Doctorate degree (though I'm working on it now!) so that one was out.  I am a Licensed Professional Counselor with experience working with athletes, so I'm like a Sports Counselor, but the majority of my work with athletes isn't counseling or therapy.  Lastly, I can't be a Mental Performance Coach because that's a particular certification I'm working on but haven't completed yet.


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Leading me to…Mental Skills Coach.

Now for a real-life definition: I want to make athletes better by getting them out of their heads. I want them to be able to focus, relax as needed, push through mental boundaries, deal with pain, learn self-control, and I'm sure there's more that I can't think of right now.

In short, I want to bring in that last puzzle piece to make the physical training on point. I teach athletes mental skills to give them an edge forward.

How can a Mental Skills Coach help me?

By now, I hope I was able to provide you with a written definition of what I do.  I know it's still clear as mud, so let's put it another way.

Imagine these different scenarios:

A strongman is coming back from a significant shoulder injury from the Viking Press and is competing for the first time with this event.  This athlete was very worried about re-injury and under-trained the event.  At the competition, the athlete becomes re-injured because she didn't train up to the heavier weights.

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A powerlifter competing for the first time at Nationals after only ever competing in small-town meets starts getting bad, distracting butterflies thinking about how many people will be there. The day of the meet arrives, and the athlete is so overwhelmed by the number of people that he forgets to warm up properly, leading him to miss his squat opener.

A football player was continuously feeling on edge because of a missed catch three weeks ago.  He starts skipping practices because he believes he's just going to let his team down.

A gymnast who got injured during a backflip now avoids doing any type of backward motion.  She is on the verge of being kicked off the competition team.

An Olympic lifter gets over-hyped up each meet, which makes him lose balance during the clean and snatch, and he misses the lift.

Get the picture? I'm sure we've all had similar experiences as athletes, which is normal.   A lot of times, we can work through it on our own.  Other times, these experiences stick with us, and we catch ourselves doing one or more of the following:

  • Avoiding doing the experience, but still staying in the sport (Viking Press, backward flips, large meets)
  • Over-analyzing it with negative talk ("I'm going to get re-injured," "All those people looking at me! What if I fail?")
  • Comparing yourself to others ("Everyone around me uses pre-workout and fast-paced music to get amped up, so I have to as well")
  • Making excuses ("It's not my fault, the judges obviously don't know how to call depth")
  • Stopping the sport entirely

There are other ways we react to negative experiences, but these are the most common.  A lot of times we don't even realize we're doing them.

My job is to bring our attention to the athlete's reactions and come up with a way to move past them.  Simple, right?  Sometimes, but usually, there is a mix of things there that need to be untangled.

What does a session look like?

I think this is the part where people get confused.  Are we going to hang out on a couch, on the field, maybe in the gym?  The honest answer is a little bit of all of these.  We may take the first day and get to know each other in the office as the athlete brings me up to speed on the problem as they see it.  We generally meet for about 45 minutes to an hour a week unless we decide otherwise (like on competition day, if you want me to support you there).  Some people want to work with me twice a week or twice a month. It's pretty flexible based on your needs.

If possible, I'll go to wherever the problem takes place to observe it on my own.  For instance, at the gym for powerlifters or the football field for football players.  We may shift back and forth.  Sometimes we may walk and talk as we get down to the nitty-gritty.

We may move around to get the best idea of what's happening.  Then, a lot of times we'll do on-the-spot training.

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Great, what does that mean? That means if you're having trouble with a specific movement or time, I'll watch you perform it and ask you questions.  Based on your answer, I might have you switch your focus to something else, use a different cue word, or do a relaxation exercise, among many other options.

Am I being psychoanalyzed?

Ha, no, at least not in the "lay on the couch and tell me all your darkest thoughts" way.  While I am a Mental Health Counselor in my other day job, most athletes don't come to me with a mental health disorder.  Therapy is different from coaching in that we may skim the surface on negative self-talk, but we aren't going to dive into the deep roots of it.  We are going to find the apparent cause and provide a tool to move past it.  If that doesn't work, then we may decide together to engage in counseling.

How do you work with my Strength Coach?

Oh, this is one of my favorite parts! Consider this scenario:

A powerlifter has been having problems with getting past 135 pounds on her bench press. She's very frustrated because she and her strength coach have been working together for a while, and all her other lifts are stronger.  She reaches out to me and says she's been struggling with consistency in bench press training for the past month.  She gets butterflies in her stomach every time she goes to bench press, but she's not sure why.  I talk to her strength coach who tells me she injured her shoulder during the bench press at her last competition, but has fully rehabilitated from it.  The strength coach says since that competition, she has stopped completing all of her programmed bench press exercises, which frustrates him because her strength has stalled.


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Lots of moving parts, right? Being able to talk to your strength coach gives me another viewpoint into something the athlete may not fully understand or may even be ignoring (because they don't think it's essential). Also, let's not forget your strength coach can be an excellent resource for reminding you of new mental techniques.

Take cue words, for instance. Let's imagine we worked on a different cue word to use during the clean and snatch.  If your Strength Coach didn't know the new cue and yelled out the old one, that could be confusing!  On the flip side, your strength coach could yell out the new cue word, which further reinforces it in your brain.

Now, I don't talk to anyone without your consent, so if you're not okay with that, I understand, and we can still work together.  However, I do believe merging the two types of training brings about the best results.  You always want to keep your strength coach in the loop.

Alright, alright, I get it.

I hope this provided you with a more in-depth look at what a Mental Skills Coach can do to help you be a better athlete.

OH!  WAIT!

Help you be a better athlete AND student AND worker AND training partner AND…well; you get the point.  These skills translate throughout the different roles in an athlete's life.  Think of it as an investment into making you a more efficient and tough person in general.  I promise it's worth it.

Header image credit:  melitas © 123rf.com


Tarra Farnham, MA, Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC) is a Mental Skills Coach and Mental Health Counselor. She and her husband own Rhino’s Gym and are the founders of Team Chubby Unicorns, which is a strength team in Fayetteville, NC. She is a competitive powerlifter and dabbles in strongman. Her primary goal is to help athletes put the final piece together in their athletic performance by dialing in their mental skills. She is currently working on her Doctorate Degree in Sports and Performance Psychology at Ashford University where she is researching how strength training can reduce PTSD symptoms. Both Tarra and her husband are Veterans of the military and work with the military population regularly at Fort Bragg.

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