Human Performance, Performance | May 21, 2020
In the final instalment of this series, Aaron Walsh, the Mental Skills Coach at Chiefs Rugby, explains how best to position the mental skills coach within your team for maximum impact.

In the final part of this series, I want to guide the leaders in how they might best utilise the mental skills resource they have on their team.

By Aaron Walsh

As a general principle, we know that is ultimately the leaders who have the most significant influence in any environment. In elite sports, this is often the head coach. Typically, whatever they believe is critical for their team to perform well is adopted and becomes the focus for everyone involved.

As alluded to in my previous articles, the mental side of performance is still a bit mysterious and, in some case, viewed with a bit of scepticism. This makes it even more vital that our leaders are the loudest supporters and advocates of any initiatives that seek to improve the ability of our teams to perform well under pressure.

If we want our minds to be an asset rather than a liability in the biggest moments, then time must be dedicated to training this aspect of performance. It is typically the head coach that sets the weekly schedule and therefore decides by the allocation of that time what the rest of the team sees as necessary.

For mental skills to be a genuine part of the performance, the leaders need to know how best to position the mental skills coach within the team for maximum impact to occur. I want to provide four fundamental principles that will help this happen. After all, it would be a shame to find someone, employ them and not provide the right framework for them to do quality work.

1. Find the right person

Finding the right person may seem an obvious beginning point but let me expand upon this. In my experience, it is better to have no one than the wrong person in place. It is possible to more damage than good by bringing someone in who does not know how to function within a high performance setting. They may be qualified on paper but having experience is critical. They need to be able to build trust with athletes that can be resistant at times to opening up. They need to understand the unique pressure associated with being in the public eye and having your performance critiqued every week. They need to understand that under-performing for the athletes they are guiding can result in deselection, loss of contract and an inability to generate income. They need to be able to separate the person and performer and put away the ‘inner fan’ to be able to speak honesty when it is required. If the mental skills provider struggles to do this, the players won’t see value in their presence in the environment, then the narrative around mental skills being unnecessary is accentuated.

With the mental side of performance growing more and more, it may be tempting to get someone in to do the job. There may be demand from players to have access to someone who has the appropriate skillset. I would highly recommend that head coaches and performance directors to hold off until they find the right person. It might take a bit of time, but it will be worth it to have someone who can move the performance dial in the right direction by providing the proper support, information and tools.

2. Don’t make them a silo

The second principle relates to how they are perceived in the environment. They must be integrated rather than siloed if you want them to be successful. The moment players conclude that the mental skills coach is not a critical part of the support staff than the silo effect will occur. The best thing a head coach can do is form a good relationship with them, invite them into meetings, and ask them to share their perspective. Treat them like you treat any of your other coaches. This sends a message to the other staff and to the playing group that they are an essential part of the team, that their presence is needed and what they have to offer is vital. The additional benefit is that this validation calms the insecurities that come with a unique role, makes them feel like they belong and if this occurs, you are likely to have someone who is relaxed, confident in their role and feels empowered by the support provided. There is no value in keeping them on the outside, be intentional; you should set the role up for success and be the biggest supporter and loudest cheerleader of what they are bringing to the programme. Practically have them come to management meetings, ask them to have input, promote the essential nature and importance of their work. Normalise their presence, their work and their value, and you will get the best out of them.

3. Be clear about what you want from them

The third principle I want to look at is around the clarity of the mental skills role. I think the most critical question that needs to be answered is “What does success look like?”. Without a clear picture of what you see them there to deliver then it will be tough to see their value. As mentioned above, if the role is ambiguous to you, then it will be to them.

I would add at this point that you may have to co-create this definition of success if you don’t quite know exactly what you are wanting. One of the signs of an experienced operator will be their ability to help craft the programme with you. After all, they are the ones that have the expertise, but it is also vital that they hear from you what you are looking to occur by having them in your midst. The role has quite a broad scope so that this detail will be needed.

For example, you may have brought them in to work exclusively with the leadership team around how they are working together. This needs to be understood by everyone, so they don’t end up drifting out of their lane. Alternatively, you might want their work to be a much wider scope of activity. Working with players around performance, providing feedback to coaches and help shape the culture of the team. Regardless of what that looks like it is essential you are on the same page and that it is communicated with clarity.

4. Trust them with the team

The final principle may be the most important one in ensuring our teams utilise the expertise of a mental skills coach. The nature of working with people’s challenges and fears related to performance can make this quite a vulnerable space. For some athletes, it may be the first time they pull back the curtain and let someone see what has been residing within. As this occurs, some of the issues that arise will be deeply personal and require the assurance of confidentiality for full transparency to occur. This means that the mental skills provider will be entrusted with this information and not be at liberty to communicate in detail to the head coach what is affecting a particular player or staff. As a head coach, this can be quite unnerving. You can feel like you are being pushed out a specific part of an athlete’s life; this is hard as a coach as you are heavily invested in building quality relationships with your players.

To observe one of your key performers facing a challenge without your direct guidance can create a sense of suspicion and potential instability. If you have done the relational work with the mental skills coach and have alignment and clarity around their role, then you have to be able to let go and trust the expertise they possess. You can’t micromanage their activity and approach. If you do this then they will instinctively feel that lack of confidence and will draw back from operating in the assurance, they need to be at their best. If you want them to the job you brought them in to do, then you have to let them do it. If after some time, you don’t think they are capable and the feedback you are getting confirms that then another conversation needs to occur.

However, you can’t allow you own need to control everything in the environment prevent someone from bringing to the table the unique set of skills they possess.

To conclude this series and to bring together the thoughts from the other articles, we need to be strategic and inclusive for the mental side of performance to have a real effect on our teams. Set up the right structure, build the right relationships, build a good program and get the right person you can trust.  If you can do this, you will see both the performance and the wellbeing of your teams increase and the gap between what they are capable and what they deliver become smaller and smaller.

Could you and your team be making better use of your performance metrics?

If so, then the latest Leaders Performance Institute Special Report, Analyse This: Managing Your Metrics, will be right up your street. It features a variety of sports organisations, from the San Antonio Spurs and England Netball, to the Wests Tigers and Tennis Australia, via British Skeleton. Download it now.

Sign up to our newsletters

To ensure you’re keeping up to date with the latest intelligence, sign up (for free) to receive newsletters. Get exclusive insight from top organisations worldwide on leadership & culture, human performance, coaching & development and data & innovation.


Become a member

Join our exclusive community of 600 leading global performance organisations to target all aspects of high performance and challenge thinking with access to premium events, unlimited thought-leading content & networking opportunities. 

Become a member