Nadia Portelli is a senior lecturer at the University of Malta Junior College reading for a PhD in Sports and Exercise Sciences and specialising in the psychological aspects of endurance sport. She has been practicing running for the last thirty years. She is also an extreme ultra trail runner and has participated in some of the most iconic and prestigious mountain ultra-trail races around Europe, including the World Summit of Ultra trail running in Chamonix. Here, Ms Portelli talks about the importance of self-confidence, resilience and mental toughness in a young athlete’s life on and off the pitch.
As important as physical and technical training are to an athlete’s performance, the mental aspect of sport can sometimes be overlooked. But according to Ms Portelli, developing psychological skills and coping strategies not only helps to improve achievements and results on the field, but also builds holistic characteristics that can help the athletes in their daily life.
“If young athletes are nurtured from an early age in the mindset of sports, it is not only their psychological characteristics that improve, but also their cognitions and attitudes to life, as they also learn fair play, equity, inclusion and tolerance,” Portelli says.
One of the key traits of successful athletes is mental toughness, the ability to cope with adversity and challenging situations through determination, focus and control. “Mental toughness has a very important role in the athlete’s performance, goal attainment and overcoming obstacles encountered in the sports activity,” Portelli says. “There’s no magic formula to develop it: it’s a process which takes time and grows with training.”
This training might involve facing failure and coming to terms with it, or training under pressure or anxiety, all under the guidance of coaches and all with the goal of helping young athletes develop coping skills which are effective and efficient in competition.
Developing the resilience to bounce back and continue training after facing challenges is vital for young athletes. According to Portelli, studies show that such resilience might be dependent on specific psychological characteristics such as self-control, cognitive maturity, emotional strength and the ability to face one’s fears.
“These characteristics allow athletes to face challenges positively and constructively,” she says. “Athletes will always encounter set-backs, so resilience is crucial to helping them fulfil their potential.”
These traits all help to improve an athlete’s self-confidence, which Portelli describes as a crucial requisite for high-level performance. “Self-confidence that doesn’t waver in the face of adversity can be described as overcoming one’s own self-doubts and maintaining focus relentlessly,” she says. “The role of the coach during training seems to be highly important in nurturing self-confidence beliefs in young athletes.”
While coaches support athlete’s self-confidence through carefully set experiences in training, parents too have an important role to play. This can be done by offering practical help when needed, Portelli says, but mostly by showing support for their child’s commitment and effort, while still being able to critically discuss any problems that develop.
Athletes can also help themselves psychologically through techniques such as self-talk, a coping strategy used to manage stressful situations during training and, even more importantly, competition. Positive self-talk like ‘Go on’ or ‘You can do this’ can improve performance, while instructional self-talk like, ‘maintain this pace’, can be used during phases where the athlete feels depleted.
“Self-talk is an internal dialogue where the athlete interprets perceptions or feelings and gives encouragement or instructions to themselves,” Portelli says. “It is a highly important skill for a competitive young athlete to master, helping them to enhance performance by increasing motivation or coping with difficult circumstances.”
Crucially for young athletes dealing with stressful pressures not only in their sport but in their school and social lives, the psychological skills developed on the field can also help outside it. The levels of self-confidence, resilience, mental toughness and self-control athletes develop, Portelli says, cannot be easily achieved without the experiences and training offered by a sport setting.
“Developing these traits will not eliminate stress, but it will give students the ability to cope with it. They will learn how to achieve academic excellence while competing at high-level games, or how to cope with conflict while maintaining self-control. Ultimately, it’s a win-win situation, as the skills learnt during training and competition can be used to manage the stress young adults encounter in everyday life.”
The Mediterranean College of Sport is set to be one of the most pioneering educational and sporting facilities in the Maltese islands, aiming to develop future athletes of international calibre. The co-educational college is set to open its doors to students in September 2024 and will be housed adjacent to St Aloysius College in Birkirkara. For further information please send an email to email@example.com