Exercising mental skills in development and personal growth leads to optimized performance and should eventually result in mental skills working automatically. Learning about the mental skills that support performance and training them in conjunction with physical and tactical exercises help us understand ourselves and how we perform. These same mental skills also sharpen our performance across all domains (mental, tactical, technical, and physical). Just as we execute physical actions with less effort and focus over time, so too do we begin to utilize these mental skills with less effort and focus.
Alex Honnold, a free climber (someone who climbs rock walls without ropes) said that it is the months and hours of training that allow him to execute such phenomenal feats (Alone on the Wall, Honnold). Using imagery, technique, strategy, and physical fitness throughout his training and preparation, Mr. Honnold is capable of performing without having to actively engage these resources during execution (it is all passive — unless something unanticipated occurs during execution). It is the same when it comes to training our mental skills in preparation for performance. If we can integrate our mental skills (self-talk, focus/attention, intensity regulation, imagery, etc.) into our training and maximize our active use of them, they will become more passive during execution – they become automated skills.
You may already be familiar with watching film of your performance to analyze your movement patterns, strength, technique, strategy, and decision making. In a similar way, we can also look back and recall how we utilized mental skills during performance. Evaluating what you said to yourself at different moments of performance, how you visualized something occurring (perhaps your imagery training prepared you for the circumstances that occurred – even when unanticipated), and your ability to psych up or relax to meet the demands of the situation can inform you just how automated your mental skills have become.
An important note on this progression into automaticity: be sure that your active use of the mental skills continues until passive use results in the performance you desire. If I stop using the mental skills actively and they are not being executed passively, I am jeopardizing performance and not reaching my full potential. It is a delicate balance that can sometimes be best addressed with a sport psychologist.
Keep Practicing Mental Skills throughout training.
Analyze how your mental skills are being executed in performance (actively or passively). Work towards automating mental skills, but be sure you are not neglecting them.