Last night on my flight home from Calgary, I was asked a great question by the couple I was seated next to. "Do you think that a GOOD mental skills coach needs to have been an elite athlete"? I assumed by GOOD they meant EFFECTIVE, and that by ELITE ATHLETE they meant OLYMPIAN or an INTERNATIONAL competitor. My response to their question was "No. But if you are working with an athlete, coach, or parents/family of an athlete than you certainly need to be intimately knowledgeable about [the athlete's] sport. You need to be able to speak the client's language and understand their sport culture. I don't think that you need to be an Olympian in that sport to be effective, but you really need to 'get-it'."
The research would also support this perspective. Mental skills coaching is less about delivering a standard psychological skills training program, and is more about providing general psychological support. The most effective mental skills consultant is someone who is sensitive to a client's range of performance needs (technical, tactical, physiological, and psychology) (Morris & Thomas, 2010).
Because an effective mental skills coach is someone who is sensitive or knowledgeable about a performer's needs, the TRAINING of a mental skills coach is important. Training comes in two forms: (1) Practical or Lived Experience knowledge, and (2) Sport and Psychological Science knowledge. One can not argue that it is likely that an Olympian has both forms of knowledge. BUT, does an Olympian have both forms of knowledge as it relates to YOU? I would argue, perhaps not. Most of us are not Olympians (very few of these individuals actually exist - that is why it is an amazing accomplishment).
BOTTOM LINE: You should be aware of the formal (psychological and sport science knowledge) and informal training (practical real world performance knowledge) that a potential mental training coach has received. In North America, two registries exist for mental skills coaches who have received the formal and informal training necessary to be effective - see Canadian Mental Training Registry and AASP Certification Registry.