What Happens in a Mental Coaching Session?

When I first began teaching my undergraduate course titled "Sport Psychology" it was rare to have even one student in the class admit to having had worked with a mental skills coach.  I am pleased to report that after 10 years of teaching the course at 5 different Canadian institutions that now approximately 30% of my students have come in contact with a mental skills coach at some point in their athletic career.  I consider this statistic promising, but I am still mindful that approximately 60% of my students have absolutely no idea what happens in a mental skills coaching session. Why would anyone want to hire a mental skills coach or even want to BE a mental skills coach if he or she did not know what goes on during a typical mental skills session?

My colleague Kimberley Amirault wrote on her webpage that "Unlocking human potential is both an art and a science."  I believe this wholeheartedly.  Each mental skills coaching session is a combination of science AND art.

Mental skills coaching can occur one-on-one or in a group.  Either way, a good mental skills coach will integrate scientific principles of performance psychology and interpersonal relationships with the art of making the science RELEVANT for the individual or group.  I can share with you, what I typically do in a one-on-one coaching session.

On the SCIENCE side, I follow the USOC (Thomas, 1990) model of mental skills training (see below).


In the hour that I meet with a client (face-to-face or via skype/internet communication medium) I spend some time developing our relationship (phase 1). I also and understanding my client's level of understanding about their sport and how performance excellence is expressed in their sport (phase 2).  Then we talk about the issue(s) or why he or she has hired me.  I use different scientific questionnaires and interview methods to best understand my client's mental strengths and limitations (phase 3). Sometimes, the session occurs during training and I gather information from my observation and comments that others (like the coach) make to me.  At the conclusion of assessment, the client and I agree on a 'plan of action'.  That is, what is he or she prepared to do to improve his or her mental approach towards his or her performance (phase 4).  At this point, we begin training the mental skill or mental tool that will best help bring about the result talked about in phase 4.  We practice the mental skill in the session (phase 5) and then talk about how the client can implement the skill on a regular basis in his or her performance (phase 6).  We talk about potential problems or hurdles to accomplishing this.  We talk about potential solutions to the problems.  We may even role-play or simulate these situations to practice applying the mental skill/tool  in difficult situations.  Then we save assessment of the session for a followup period.

That is the science side of things.  But this type of work is limited without the ART or making the mental skill coaching RELEVANT or Personally Meaningful for the client.  Each client is unique and the application of mental skills training is also unique across clients.

When it comes the ART of mental skill coaching, my style is to "let my client drive the bus".  I make recommendations to the client for mental skill growth (based on my scientific and professional practice knowledge) but I let the client dictate the methods we use and the timing of how we go about making that change.  It is really important that the client understand what mental skill changes are desired, how that can occur, and their readiness to make those changes. At the end of the day, I can't make my client do anything that he or she doesn't want to do.  As the cliche is stated "if it is to be, it is up to me".  The client does the work and it is my job to help the client in doing that work.  Thus, the ART of mental skill coaching session is in the rapport and trust that is developed between myself and the client.

Bottom Line Message: There is a science to understanding the power of the mind for performance excellence.  During a mental skills coaching session, the client should learn mental skills or mental tools that are used to unlock that potential.  However, each coaching session is a 'work of art' that is unique to the client (whether that is an individual or a group). The mental skills coach seeks to help her client through the development of personal relationships that function to enable the client to change and grow with their assistance.