The Art of Mental Toughness


Coach James Galanis shares his views on why great players train their minds as well as their bodies

As a two-time FIFA Player of the Year, Carli Lloyd has credited her personal coach, James Galanis, with helping her reach her potential as the best player in the world. Coach Galanis shares his views on why great players train their minds as well as their bodies.

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How would you define mental toughness for an athlete?
Being able to elevate your game under pressure and remaining coachable, disciplined and respectful through adversity.

How often in your judgment do elite athletes neglect mental training?
It’s the most important part of any athlete but yet the most neglected. A big percentage of the coaches and players work on their skills and physical strength but forget or don’t even consider training the most powerful tool they have—their mind.  

Are there ways as a coach that you can create tangible markers of an athlete’s mental toughness or is it more of an intuitive feel that comes through your observation?
Mental toughness comes with self-evaluation. Just as we evaluate our on-the- field physical performance and make adjustments, the same needs to be done with the mental part of the game. You need to self-evaluate your mental state throughout a game or training and make changes to assure you are staying focused and performing through the challenges you are facing at the time.

Is it difficult for an athlete to gauge how mentally tough they actually are? Does it require an impartial outside observer to help them gauge what their level of mental toughness truly is?
It comes back to self-evaluation. As the athlete, you know best what your mental state is like during competition and when you are away from the field. Being in tune with how your mind is operating and reacting to scenarios and making changes is the best way to build mental toughness. It helps having a coach that can help you dissect your mental toughness and make improvements.

When you are working with an athlete, are there some basic techniques that you use to help an athlete train his/her mind?
The study of key words that build mental toughness. Words like sacrifice, preparation, effort, resiliency, courage are just some words that can be studied and have an impact on an athlete’s mind.  

What parts of this type of training are imperative for an athlete to convert into everyday habit?
Just like anything else, if you consistently do something it eventually becomes a habit. It’s the same with mental toughness. If you’re consistently working on building your mental tools they become and instinctual part of who you are as an athlete.

What are the most common pitfalls an athlete faces when it comes to mental training?
Lacking the discipline to carry through with making changes to their mental state when on the field and off the field. The hardest thing is being able to stay consistent for a long enough period of time until your mindset has changed permanently.  

Is mental training something that can be done in a group setting, or is it by definition a more individual pursuit. In other words, can teammates help drive each other to greater mental toughness or is that not feasible?
If you are into learning about the mind, you can learn from other people’s mental strength. You can also become mentally stronger from teammates encouraging you to push harder or from teammates testing you by trying to get under your skin or pushing to take your position. Being able to overcome the obstacles in a team setting and learning from the mindset of your teammates helps make you mentally stronger.

In Carli Lloyd’s autobiography, When Nobody Was Watching, a phrase that comes up often in her conversations with you is “emptying the tank.” Are there ways that mental training can ensure that an athlete empties the tank on the field?
The first step to “emptying the tank” comes from being able to do it at training. Once you can empty the tank on a daily basis at training, it automatically happens in a game. As someone that has played and coached the game, I know there is no better feeling after a game or training then walking off the field knowing you did everything you could, thus knowing you emptied the tank. 

Photo by Catherine Ivill, FIFA.

How does an athlete’s level of fitness factor into their mental training?
If you are not physically fit, your mind is the first thing to suffer. The communication from your mind to your body slows down and so does your decision making. In reverse, if you are not mentally fit, you will never push yourself hard enough to become physically fit.

What role does visualization play in mental training?
Visualization is key to performing. I urge my students to spend time each day visualizing their next competition. This helps the mind prepare for the upcoming battle and help the mind work off instincts. Failure to visualize before a game or training will cause the athlete to react instead of anticipate. 

How much does the setting of an athlete’s training play a role in mental training?
If you’re not focused at training, you most likely will not be focused for the game. When in training, you need to force your mind to emulate game conditions. If you are taking plays off at training and your mind is zoning in and out, most likely it will happen in the game.

Every athlete encounters injuries. What role do they play in an athlete’s mental training?
I have found that injuries impact an athlete’s mind in various ways. If the injury is severe and the road back is long, the mental toughness skills needed to be patient with the slow recovery have to be exceptionally high. In other cases, injuries help players by pulling them away from the field and making them appreciate and miss the game. Thus, they come back hungrier and with a new appreciation for their body and their sport.

Are you able to observe great athletes and emulate how they have developed mental toughness, or is it more of an individual journey?
The base of mental toughness comes from being a fierce competitor, having the ability to make sacrifices, being respectful, disciplined and coachable. Many players pick up these traits through their journey and others need to be taught it. Each player is different and their journey dictates if they have picked up these mental skills.

Does mental training change with age? In other words, do you have to train your mind differently as your physical skills decline as an athlete?
Every stage in an athlete’s life is different. When you’re a youth player you have to deal with trying to get to an elite level to kick-start your career. With this comes challenges of being disciplined enough to work on your craft and learn the game. Once established in your sport as an adult, you need to be able to handle the day-to-day grind of competing for your spot, staying disciplined and making sacrifices that help you perform every single day. When you reach the veteran stage of your career, it becomes about accepting that your body isn’t young anymore and relying more on your mental experience rather than you’re your physical strength.

Conversely, how young can an athlete start training their mind to be mentally tougher?
You can teach young players to be competitive, disciplined and coachable from as early as nine years old.

If there is one thing that you feel is a universal law when it comes to mental training, what would it be?
The talent you build through hard work and dedication gets you to the door of greatness. Mental toughness and character gets you through the door of greatness. 

Coach James Galanis is the president of Universal Soccer Academy.


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