One of the most under-discussed areas of sports training today happens to also be one of the most important for the success of some of the world’s most elite athletes, and that’s the prominence of mental performance coaches or sports psychologists. IMG Academy is at the forefront of this mental performance movement
Dr. Taryn Morgan is the vice president of athletic and personal development at IMG Academy. She started her career there as a mental coach and has consulted with numerous junior, collegiate, professional, and Olympic athletes, and teams.
Not only is she one of the best in her field, Morgan was an elite athlete herself, excelling in both tennis and volleyball at Stetson University. In tennis she finished with an 84-9 record in tennis with only one of those victories coming while not being at the No. 1 position, and sits in the school’s Hall of Fame. While the overall landscape of sports might have changed, Morgan knows all about competition and pressure to perform at a high level and part of her responsibilities now is assuring that the 1,600 student-athletes at IMG—and even the pros that come through—have all the tools to be successful from a physical and mental standpoint.
The More You Train Your Mind, The Better
With any of the academy students, the team at IMG has the time needed to be able to help their athletes perform at peak levels. But there are times when they might have camps or former athletes who will stop by for a week or two. Morgan says there is no magic wand approach, but the basics remain the same.
“We might talk confidence or focus,” she says. “If it’s more one one-on-one in one session, you can get a decent amount done because you can ask them what they are struggling with, and you can usually be solution-focused. You can give them a specific focus to work on. Whether it’s breathing, routine, or self-talk—I can pick one that might fit them.”
One of the ways that IMG is providing access for people who can’t get into the academy is through IMG Academy+. From mental performance or even nutrition, the high-performance coaching that was once only available on their campus is now available to anyone in the world.
Being Self Aware
Throughout the course of any game, there are moments that can either spike an athlete’s emotions or bring them down. Each athlete performs better at different emotional levels and figuring out the optimal zone to achieve consistently high or consistent performance is one area of focus at IMG.
“The best athletes tend to be the most aware,” Morgan says. “Self-awareness is a key, and then they know what to use when they need it and what works best for them.”
A mental performance coach’s goal is to help an athlete develop and retain the skills and tools to help them reach their preferred zone and when to use them. Morgan used an example of a 1-10 scale with the high point being Ray Lewis and the low side being Roger Federer. If an athlete performs better on the high side, it’s about finding ways to get them to that zone either before the game with some music or finding some way during a game to get there. It’s a similar approach in reverse but there might be a breathing routine, some self-talking or visualization strategy to help calm the athlete.
Being Self Aware
All the mental skills that are learned become tools for when an athlete needs it. It’s that preparation that leads to confidence and a confident athlete is a good one. It’s no secret that today’s athletes are under a different level of pressure than in year’s past. One bad weekend or tournament might impact a ranking. You might end up on the wrong end of a viral highlight and even the parental pressure seems to be higher.
“If you’re not resilient as a kid or you can’t handle pressure, then it’s going to be much harder,” Morgan says. “Having those resources on a proactive basis is really why we do what we do.”
When IMG developed their new mental performance assessment, they focused on five factors: confidence, focus, resilience, handling pressure, and coachability. After the assessment, the athletes can be trained specifically on their needs.
In each sport, there’s a multitude of things going through an athlete’s mind. It could be doubt, stressing over a responsibility on the field, worrying about aggravating an injury. If the thinking becomes too negative, that can spiral and lead to disaster. Morgan says controlling your thinking by the language you’re using with yourself can go a long way in execution.
“We always said simple, positive and focused,” she says. “If you can do those three things with your thinking, you’re going to be good. With the kids and our programming, you’re trying to set a foundation. Starting with coachability, how well do they listen, learn and are they open-minded to coaching? Confidence and focus are also two big ones.
IMG also makes their mental performance coaches at practices and games to do live coaching and help integrate some of the exercises and tools in real time. “It’s simplifying what are you telling yourself, what are you focusing on and really just trying to give them those practical things to focus on,” Morgan says. “So whether it’s their routine before a free throw, keeping that consistent, or how do they recover when they miss a shot, or how do they use a timeout to get settled back in or get refocused?“
You Don’t Have To Be Sick To Get Better
Trevor Moawad is well known for being the mental coach to Russell Wilson and has also worked with NCAA Football programs and coaches. He is also a mentor of Morgan’s and one of his sayings is “You don’t have to be sick to get better.”
Even with the progress that has been made with athletes feeling more comfortable to discuss their mental health, there are still stigmas surrounding the use of mental coaches and sports psychologists. There is a difference between the clinical and performance aspects. While one can definitely impact the other, they are different.
“A lot of times people will think you only do it when you have a problem, or they see it like it’s a really bad thing to work on your mental training,” Morgan says. “When you get to the highest levels, it’s kind of that separating factor. There are a lot of good athletes out there. So, if you are training your mind like you train your body, you’re just helping yourself get better overall.”