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Smoke and mirrors or wave of the future? Evaluating a mental skills training program for elite cross country skiers.

For several decades, sport psychology consultants have looked for ways to enhance athlete performance. The first major breakthrough in intervention effectiveness came when Martens' (1981) pioneered the mental skills concept. Twenty five years later, mental skills training (MST) has progressed steadily thanks to increased knowledge and enhanced implementation techniques and strategies, but consultants are still looking for new models to enhance mental training effectiveness. Holliday, Burton, Sun, Hammermeister, Naylor & Freigang (2008) suggest that the search for the "better mental training mousetrap" that will identify the next generation in intervention models is perhaps the most important challenge in applied sport psychology.

Researchers (Balague, 1999; Holliday et al., 2008) have argued that periodization of mental skills training may be the "better mousetrap" that provides a model for significantly enhancing intervention efficacy. The periodized MST (PMST) model is based on the principle of planned variation in training designed to systematically develop skills and enhance performance while addressing performance enhancement concerns including: athletes' program adherence, individualization, and the ability to handle competitive pressure. Thus, the purpose of this exploratory study was to examine the effectiveness of a comprehensive PMST program on the competitive cognitions of elite developmental cross country skiers.

Periodization of Mental Training

Periodization is a conceptual framework that first divides training into phases (i.e., preparatory, competition, peaking, and recovery) and then systematically varies the volume and intensity of that training in order to help athletes achieve optimal development and peak for key competitions (Bompa, 1999). Thus, the goals ofperiodization are to increase skill development, enhance overall performance, and peak physically and mentally for important competitions while decreasing the likelihood of burnout and staleness (Holliday et al., 2008).

Despite what seems to be considerable support for the use of MST programs (Meyers, Whelan & Murphy, 1996; Weinberg & Comar, 1994; Vealey, 1994), several factors reduce the strength and generalizability of intervention results. Sport psychologists and performance enhancement consultants have called for more controlled studies providing definitive results that identify clearly the directionality of treatment effects on performance (Weinberg & Williams, 2001). Additionally, they argue for (a) further evaluation of the effectiveness of MST programs on not only performance measures, but also on knowledge, acquisition and actual usage of mental strategies (Gould, Petlichkoff, Hodge & Simons, 1990); (b) examination of the efficacy of MST programs over extended time periods (Naylor, 2000); (c) more systematic methods of delivery, greater standardization of interventions, and more systematic intervention protocols (Gould, Murphy, Tammen & May, 1991; Vealey, 1994); and (d) the use of idiographic designs accounting for individual differences and situational factors that typically impact MST effectiveness (Balague, 1999; Bull, 1991; Vealey, 1994; Weinberg & Williams, 2006).

Periodization is aimed at reducing or eliminating many of these methodological concerns by providing a system of planned variation for key training variables throughout a season, thus preventing over-training and optimizing performance for select competitions (Wathan, 1994). Holliday and colleagues (2008) suggest that periodized approaches to physical training can also be applied to mental training, and they provide a systematic and structured method of program delivery that should facilitate long-term adherence, maximize athlete skill development throughout the training cycle, and promote peaking for selected competitions.

Implementation of PMST programs can be greatly enhanced by the development and use of mental training drill menus (MTDM) which provide a list of exercises that performers can use to develop mental training tools, skills, and plans during each phase of the training cycle. This menu approach allows consultants to systematically organize how mental skills are taught during different training phases while allowing freedom of choice to select exercises that address specific individual needs (see Holliday et al., 2008). Periodization of mental skills training, and the menu format for implementing it, are also easy for athletes to understand and utilize, thereby helping them to be more proactive with their mental skills training and ensure better long-term results. Overall, the model provides a structured format that can be utilized by sport psychology consultants to develop individualized programs within a standardized, conceptually-sound training framework.

Because a basic understanding of mental skill concepts is necessary before the drill menu can be effectively utilized, PMST programs include an initial needs assessment of athletes' strengths and weaknesses as well as an introductory period of mental skills education to account for differences in mental training experience or background. This needs assessment must include an evaluation of performers' current knowledge and their ability to apply mental training tools and skills (e.g., performance profiling), before a seasonal mental training plan can be developed for each athlete with an accompanying drill menu for each training cycle. Assessment is an important component in the development and refinement of any new intervention model, so the primary purpose of this study was to design, implement, and evaluate a periodized mental skills training program for elite cross-country skiers. A secondary study purpose was to assess the efficacy of utilizing a mental training drill menu to enhance PMST program effectiveness.



Participants in this study were six skiers who were members of the U.S. Cross Country Ski Team's National Development Group (NDG). The five female and one male skiers ranged in age from 17 to 23 years (M = 19.5 years), with all participants elite athletes with international racing experience. The U.S. Cross Country Ski Team (USCCST) is comprised of a National Team (i.e., the top 6 skiers in the U.S.) and the NDG (i.e., the next six under-23 skiers). The objective of the NDG is to help these developing athletes to refine their racing skills so they become National Team members. The periodized MST program fit well with development-level athletes because the emphasis of their training programs was on learning and refining the long-term skills necessary to become competitive international racers.

It is important to note the elite level of this sample. Four of the six NDG skiers in this study later became members of the U.S. National Team. Three of these four have participated in two Olympic Games, with the other participating in a single Olympics. Currently, one of these athletes is ranked in the top-ten in the World in their specialty event while another is ranked in the top-five in the World. This group has also accounted for one World Cup victory (the first US World Cup win in 27 years) and numerous World Cup podium appearances.


The Cross Country Skiing Mental Assessment Questionnaire (CCSMAQ) was used to assess the impact of the PMST program on skiers' competitive cognitions and mental skill usage at four testing periods, including: pre-test/baseline and at the conclusion of the preparation, competitive and peaking phases. The questionnaire battery included three instruments, including the Test of Performance Strategies, the Trait Sport Confidence Inventory, and the Sport Anxiety Scale. A fourth questionnaire (i.e., the Post-Intervention Program Effectiveness Questionnaire (PIPEQ) was administered following the study to examine athletes' perceptions of PMST program effectiveness.

Test of Performance Strategies (TOPS)

Thomas, Murphy and Hardy (1999) developed the Test of Performance Strategies (TOPS) to measure mental training tools and skills utilized by athletes during practice and competition. TOPS is a 64-item self-report questionnaire comprised of 16 4-item subscales, including: eight competition (i.e., goal setting, self-talk, imagery, emotional control, automaticity, relaxation, positive thinking and activation) and eight practice subscales (i.e., goal setting, self-talk, imagery, emotional control, relaxation, automaticity, attention control and activation). Each of the practice and competition subscales is comprised of four items which are rated on a five point Likert scale from 1 (never) to 5 (always), indicating the frequency of mental strategy usage. Cronbach's alpha internal consistency reliabilities range from 0.66 to 0.81 for the 16 subscales (Thomas et al., 1999), and initial testing demonstrated that the TOPS is a valid instrument for assessing the frequency of mental strategy usage (Thomas et al., 1999). The automaticity subscales proved difficult for skiers to interpret, so they were omitted for this study.

Trait Sport Confidence Inventory (TSCI)

Vealey (1986, 1988) developed the 13-item Trait Sport Confidence Inventory (TSCI) to assess self-confidence in sport. Items such as "Compare your confidence in your ability to execute the skills necessary to be successful to the most confident athlete you know." are rated on a nine-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 9 (strongly agree), with higher scores indicating greater trait self-confidence levels. Psychometric testing (Vealey, 1986, 1988) revealed an alpha reliability coefficient of .93 and a test-retest reliability coefficient of .86. The TSCI has also demonstrated strong content, construct, discriminate and factorial validity (Vealey, 1986, 1988).

Sport Anxiety Scale (SAS)

Smith, Smoll and Schutz (1990) developed the 21-item Sport Anxiety Scale (SAS)to assess cognitive and somatic trait anxiety in sport. The SAS is comprised of 9-item somatic anxiety, 7-item cognitive worry, and 5-item concentration disruption subscales. Items are rated on a four-point Likert scale from 1 (not at all) to 4 (very much so), with higher scores indicating greater levels of trait anxiety. Psychometric testing has demonstrated acceptable levels of reliability for the somatic anxiety (alpha = .92), worry (alpha = .86), concentration disruption (alpha = .81), and total scores (alpha = .93) of the SAS (Smith et al., 1990). Preliminary factorial, convergent, and discriminate validity has also been promising (Smith et al., 1990).

Skiers' Post-Intervention Program Effectiveness Questionnaire (SPIPEQ)

The Skiers' Post-Intervention Program Effectiveness Questionnaire (SPIPEQ) is a 14-item inventory designed specifically for this study in order to provide a subjective post-intervention assessment of the effectiveness of the periodized MST program by the cross-country skiers and their coach. Topics assessed include the methods of delivery for the PMST program (e.g., initial education and design of the individual programs) and the effectiveness of each of the mental training tools and skills at benefiting training and performance. Participants responded to questions on topics such as the effectiveness of the weekly e-mail lessons or the usefulness of the "menu" approach on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (not effective) to 5 (effective).


The procedure of this study examining the effectiveness of a PMST intervention is presented in two sections. In the first section, the PMST program used in this study will be outlined, while Section 2 will highlight the procedures used to assess intervention effectiveness.

Periodized MST Program Design and Protocol

The intervention protocol for this study was designed to coincide with one year (i.e., one mesocycle) of the NDG's physical training. The year-long mesocycle was then divided into four microcycles, or training phases (i.e., preparatory, competitive, peaking, and recovery). For each phase, skiers' programs included specific variations in both physical and mental training volume (i.e., the quantity of training), and intensity (i.e., the quality of training). Due to athletes' training and competition schedules, most of the intervention was conducted long distance using weekly telephone and/or e-mail communication. Although the limited direct contact with the sport psychology consultant definitely weakened treatment impact, testing the PMST program under these less-than-ideal conditions with restricted in-person skier contact enhanced the significance and generalizability of results.

Preparatory phase (July to November). Because the NDG's training and competitive schedule took them all over the Nordic world, in-person contact with the team was possible only four times throughout the season to coincide closely with each training phase transition. Thus, the consultant traveled to four scheduled training camps or competitions to consult with skiers and collect data. The PMST intervention was introduced at a team training camp during the preparatory phase, where the primary investigator made initial contact, established working relationships with each athlete, conducted base-line testing, and distributed mental skill education materials.

Mental skills education. The first eight weeks of the intervention (i.e., the first half of the preparatory phase) involved a systematic mental skills education program. Because the skiers had varied experience and background with MST programs, the initial Education Phase was designed to establish a consistent base of knowledge about sport psychology concepts needed to implement individual PMST programs. The education program consisted of weekly lessons in which each of the mental tools/skills (i.e., goal setting, imagery, self-talk, energy management, concentration, confidence, motivation, and mental preparation) was introduced via group e-mail lessons consisting of printable handouts of basic definitions and reference material supporting the connection between the topic and enhanced performance. Workbook assignments from the USOC Mental Skills Training Manual (McCann, Peterson, Haberl & Baumann, 1999) supplemented these lessons. Weekly assignment discussions were held between the primary investigator and each athlete to assess athlete comprehension of the material and facilitate understanding of how to use the mental training tools and skills to enhance athlete development and performance.

Mental skill training programs. At the end of the 8-week Education Phase and for the rest of the training year, athletes began their individual PMST programs designed around the "mental training drill menu." The periodized drill menu allowed athletes to pick and choose different activities from within a list of mental training tools and skills appropriate for each phase that were individualized to address skiers' needs as determined by the baseline testing and Education Phase progress. The volume and intensity of mental training was varied across each training phase to allow skiers to systematically develop mental training tools and skills throughout the entire season. Additionally, each athlete's PMST program was revised or refined by the consultant at the beginning of each of the four training phases to maximize treatment effectiveness.

Throughout each phase of the PMST program, e-mail and phone calls were used as the primary medium for monitoring adherence, teaching new skills, initiating follow-up discussion, and fine-tuning the program. Weekly phone communications also allowed the consultant to give instructions about the mental training drills assigned for the following week, evaluate drills completed during the previous week, and make modifications to the program depending on recent events. This format was designed to promote personal commitment and athlete accountability while allowing the researcher to closely monitor athlete progress and PMST adherence.

At the conclusion of the Education Phase, which made up the first 8 weeks of the preparatory phase, athletes' first individualized PMST program calendars were developed. Similar to physical training, PMST programs during the preparatory phase incorporated a high volume and low intensity training protocol. Training during this phase focused on learning and developing mental training tools and skills, remediating deficiencies, establishing goals, and utilizing motivation and coping techniques to aid skiers in getting through long tedious physical practices.

Competition phase (November to January). The first competition in West Yellowstone signaled the transition to the competitive phase. Revised PMST programs were developed for each athlete based upon preparatory phase results, and the new drill menus were designed to meet athletes' needs during the heavy portion of their competition schedule. During this phase, physical and mental training variables emphasized moderate volume, moderate intensity, and periodic recovery. The mental training drill menu focused less on general education and more on specific competition preparation skills such as energy management, concentration, and self confidence. Each athlete's personalized PMST program emphasized a constellation of different skills that targeted specific individual needs. Weekly telephone communication with individual skiers focused on systematic discussion of daily exercises so the researcher could regularly address personal needs and monitor adherence and skill development. At the end of the competition phase, a third week of face-to-face consultation and assessment took place during the U.S. National Championships in January where individual progress was evaluated and skills refined moving into the peaking phase.

Peaking phase (February to March). After U.S. Nationals, the team began its championship circuit in Europe, which included the Junior, Under-23, and World Championships. Again, individualized PMST programs were refined during this phase based on recent assessment data and a new MTDM was designed for the peaking phase. In this phase, training variables emphasized low volume and high intensity. Mental skills focused primarily on handling major event pressure, anxiety reduction strategies, mental plans usage, coping and refocusing. Communication during this phase had to be carried out primarily through e-mail while the team traveled throughout Europe. While communication was less consistent and less structured, program adherence and effectiveness were still monitored and feedback provided to athletes as needed. A final consultation and assessment was conducted at the end of March upon the team's return from Europe at its last competition of the season. This assessment evaluated individual progress across the season and provided feedback about program success throughout the peaking phase.

Recovery phase (April and May). An individualized PMST program was developed for each athlete during the recovery phase that focused on low volume, low intensity, and high rest for both physical and mental training. Mental drills focused on relaxation, goal evaluation, retrospection, general coping and refocusing for the upcoming season, and communication was reduced.

Assessment of Periodized MST Program Effectiveness

The intervention included a standardized testing protocol in which the pre-test assessment battery (i.e., TOPS, TSCI & SAS) was used to establish baseline levels on key psychological variables, and subsequent assessment at the end of each phase evaluated program effectiveness and individual athlete progress. Trait rather than state measures were used to examine PMST effectiveness for several reasons. First, because the consultant did not regularly travel with the team, testing using state measures at each competition was logistically impractical. Second, the overall length of the intervention and each testing phase made it feasible to see changes using trait measures. The principle researcher traveled to training camps or competition sites in order to administer all psychometric questionnaires in person, with the first follow-up testing taking place at a team training camp upon completion of the preparatory phase, the second follow-up occurring at the U.S. Nationals in Rumford, Maine, at the conclusion of the competition phase, and the final follow-up was held at the last competition of the season upon completion of the peaking phase.

Data Analysis

Athletes incorporate mental skills into their performance routines for various reasons and in different ways, prompting this study to utilize a single-subject, non-experimental, case-study design. This type of analysis provides a greater understanding of program effectiveness and athlete progress and offers a sound method for empirical investigation when programs demonstrate a high degree of individualization across athletes. Although idiographic methods limit generalization compared to nomothetic methods, this type of design has been advocated for applied sport psychology research because of the nature and individualization of program design (Hrycaiko & Martin, 1996).

The effectiveness of the PMST intervention was analyzed using standardized qualitative case-study methods that evaluate graphic representations of responses to key dependent variables. Results are presented in time series graphs indicating baseline and three follow-up scores. Consistent with recommendations by Martin and Pear (2007), visual inspection of the data was used to determine program effectiveness including: (a) the number of non-overlapping data points between pretest and posttest scores, where fewer overlaps suggest stronger treatment effects, (b) the distance between pre- and post-test lines as an indicator of the size of the intervention effect, with greater distance suggesting a larger effect, and (c) the number of times the effect was replicated across individual subjects indicating a generalizable pattern of treatment effects (p. 308).

However, like many consultation situations, particularly those involving elite athletes, once coaches became convinced of the value of the PMST program, they wanted the intervention to be implemented immediately with all NDG skiers. Thus, several design considerations (i.e., establishing a stable baseline, staggering treatment introduction and retention testing) that researchers had hoped to implement to enhance confidence in treatment effectiveness for this multiple baseline design were vetoed by the coaching staff.


Results testing this PMST program will be presented in two parts. In the first section, a case study will assess intervention impact on the mental training tools/skills and competitive cognitions of a female cross-country skier who demonstrated high "buy-in" to the intervention. Next, Section 2 will summarize group findings for all six skiers (i.e., see Table 1 for a summary of individual data).

Case Study Results: Mary

Mary was a 17-year-old skier who was the newest NDG member. Coming out of a high school club skiing program, this was Mary's first year practicing at a consistently high level. She was highly motivated and excited about her position on the team but had much to learn about adapting to the increased training volume and the lifestyle of an elite ski-racer.

Baseline Testing

Pre-test scores on the TOPS indicated Mary didn't utilize mental skills during practice. On both TOPS-P and TOPS-C, her weakest areas were emotional control, relaxation, and positive thinking. Mary's SAS scores reflected elevated cognitive anxiety that could perhaps be explained by her short tenure on the team and the expectations placed on her in this highly competitive environment. Mary's TSCI score also showed that she needed to work on her self-confidence.

Like all six skiers, Mary's focus during the educational phase was on developing a fundamental understanding of mental training concepts. In addition, Mary concentrated on developing relaxation skills, controlling anxiety and other negative emotions in stressful competitive situations and using refocus plans for when things went poorly, with each skill designed to help combat her tendency to get discouraged when encountering adversity in practice or competitive settings. During the educational phase, Mary was enthusiastic about mental training in order to develop any mental training tools and skills that could ultimately benefit her performance. Feedback indicated that she both understood and enjoyed the educational material and put more time into the process than any other athlete on the team.

Preparatory phase. Based on her pre-test scores and progress during the education phase, Mary's PMST program was designed to target her individual strengths and weaknesses. Mary's program included general mental skills education and activities/drills designed to meet her preparatory phase training needs. Additionally, Mary's program incorporated more relaxation exercises, positive self-talk drills, and activities designed to reduce self-induced pressure to place high in races. She also became more focused on personal process and performance goals (i.e., technique focus and effort instead of outcome goals). Mary was responsive to her program and provided consistent positive feedback about the quality of the PMST program.

Mary's scores at the end of the first phase indicated positive improvement on almost every variable (Figure 1). Moreover, her greatest gains were made in the areas where she waskest (i.e., emotion control and relaxation), demonstrating that she was gaining the skills necessary to successfully adapt to her more intense training environment. Her enthusiasm for this part of the project was reflected in her scores. As expected during this noncompetitive phase, Mary's TOPS-practice scores improved much more than did her competition scores.


Competition phase. During the competition phase, Mary's PMST program continued to focus on development of positive self-talk and relaxation skills. Her confidence level also improved greatly when she began the competitive phase with extensive success. Telephone and e-mail contacts were productive and positive, and Mary asked relevant questions to make sure she understood the material and became knowledgeable about each of the mental skills. Adherence checks revealed she was diligent in her practice and routinely followed the PMST program on a daily basis. Mary had a successful ski season and went into the final competition of the competitive phase with a great deal of confidence and high expectations. The second data collection took place after Mary's first race of that final competition, a race in which she placed lower than expected. Interestingly, the only score that may have reflected this perceived "bad" performance was her confidence score (see Figure 1), whereas almost all of her remaining scores were maintained or increased from the first data collection.

One of Mary's most interesting results was her lower practice and competitive goal-setting scores. Mary mentioned that she was struggling with effective goal-setting, commenting that she was still trying to differentiate between her own performance goals and those goals she set because of her coach's expectations. This dilemma is common to many athletes and is a possible limitation in this and most intervention studies. Additionally, baseline measurements taken before any form of mental skill education was conducted may be misleading because athletes' subjective evaluation of their ability in a particular area is limited by their current understanding of the topic. For example, Mary felt she was an effective goal-setter at the beginning of the intervention and rated herself with the maximum score. However, as Mary learned additional goal-setting techniques throughout the educational phase of PMST, she realized she was not as effective at setting goals as she originally thought. While developing her goal-setting skills throughout the program and making normal improvement in her ability to set effective goals, Mary rated herself lower on goal-setting because of the realization that she had much more to learn. Measurement of mental skills concepts is often limited by the athletes' current knowledge of the skill which can skew results because rating scale assessments often "slide" as athletes increase their knowledge and/or skill.

Peaking phase. During the peaking phase, Mary's program emphasized mental preparation, anxiety reduction techniques, and confidence building exercises. These skills were highlighted because the team was competing almost exclusively against the top junior athletes in the world. Mary struggled extensively in some of her performances during the peaking phase, both due to self-induced pressure as well as perceived pressure from coaches that greatly affected her mental state and ultimately hurt her performance. Because Mary was a young athlete that was new to this level of competitive pressure, her program was modified extensively to address these immediate competitive needs. The menu format provided an easy framework for the consultant to substitute phase-specific drills that would better address Mary's immediate needs. Mary easily adapted to these program changes because she was familiar with the menu format, demonstrating the ease with which PMST programs can be adapted to meet athletes' needs during a time of crisis.

Because the team was competing in Europe and was not as accessible to phone consultation, the Peaking Phase intervention was delivered within the already-developed format that had worked successfully for Mary, rather than having to make significant changes in PMST delivery strategies. The changes in Mary's program included more advanced exercises drawn from the Peaking Menu to address dealing with pressure and anxiety. Because Mary had fallen back into her previous pattern of setting goals based on the expectations of others rather than establishing her own realistic performance standards, she also reemphasized the basics of goal-setting which she had neglected. A new goal-setting plan was developed, accompanied by numerous relaxation and positive self-talk drills. Mary's motto during this phase became "recovery, experience and learning." She also worked on reframing her self-talk in order to view her races as learning opportunities rather than failures. By the end of the peaking phase, she had mentally recovered and was able to evaluate her year more positively. Her scores on the last assessment taken at the end of the peaking phase reflected large gains on TOPS-P scores, stable values for TOPS-C, and generally positive changes in trait anxiety. Most importantly, Mary recorded her highest trait confidence score at the end of this peaking phase (see Figure 1).

Summary. Mary's results demonstrated excellent progress in the frequency of usage of mental strategies during practice, as reflected by improved scores for every mental training tool/skill throughout her PMST program. Most importantly, her pre-test scores had indicated relative weaknesses in relaxation and emotion control, and these mental skills showed the greatest improvement over the course of the intervention. In competitive settings, Mary showed improvement on every mental training tool/skill. In fact, her scores were near the maximum on the TOPS-C, and she demonstrated the greatest overall improvement on all TOPS-C subscales (i.e., differences between pre- and post-tests) of any of the athletes involved in this intervention. Trait anxiety also decreased for all three SAS subscales. Mary made exceptional progress in reducing her cognitive anxiety, a targeted skill for her because she reported high worry at baseline testing. Finally, trait self-confidence values showed positive improvement, especially during the peaking phase of her program.

Overall, Mary made important gains in mental skill knowledge and usage in both practice and competition, decreased trait anxiety levels, and increased trait self-confidence, despite a performance decrement during the peaking phase. Her PMST program was effective in helping her develop mental skills throughout the season, so she could better deal with performance problems. Mary's case serves as an example of how a menu-driven PMST program can readily deal with problems as they arise during practice and competition.

Team Results

A summary of pre-posttest changes made by all skiers for each variable is presented in Table 1. On the TOPS-P measure, all six athletes improved in goal-setting by an average of 48%; five improved in self-talk, relaxation, imagery and activation, with average improvement scores ranging from 21-129%; four improved in emotional control (i.e., 25% average gain); and three skiers enhanced attentional control (i.e., 17% average gain). On the TOPS-C, 5 of 6 skiers improved on self-talk, emotional control, relaxation, activation, imagery and positive thinking, with average improvement scores, ranging from 14-30%, while only two skiers demonstrated significant gains on goal-setting (i.e., 11% average gain). On the SAS, five athletes lowered their worry and somatic anxiety (i.e., 17% and 18% average gains respectively), and four reduced their concentration disruption scores (i.e., 23% average gain). Finally, four of the six athletes increased their trait self-confidence (i.e., 9% average gain). Overall, the group results demonstrated some degree of improvement by every athlete on nearly all variables. Consistent with model predictions, the PMST program helped the athletes develop and utilize mental skills necessary to optimally develop as cross-country skiers.

Although this study included no measure of the impact of this PMST program on actual performance, the researchers designed the Post-Intervention Program Effectiveness Questionnaire (PIPEQ) to measure skiers' subjective evaluation of this new delivery model and its impact on enhancing training and performance. The PIPEQ also addresses limitations due to "sliding scales" (i.e., meaning of anchor terms change over time) which limit the accuracy of assessment of mental skill knowledge and usage in intervention studies. Overall PIPEQ program evaluation ratings (i.e., based on a five-point scale) were consistently high, suggesting that skiers felt their PMST program was effective at enhancing training and performance. Skiers mean rating for the item "the effectiveness of the individually developed periodized program to enhance training and performance" was 4.8, "the usefulness of the "menu" to enhance training and performance" was a 4.7, and "the usefulness of each of the specific mental skills to enhance training and performance" was 5.0 for energy management/relaxation, 4.7 for self-talk, 4.5 for imagery, 4.3 for self-confidence, 4.2 for goal-setting and concentration, and 3.8 for motivation. The skiers' consistent positive ratings of PMST and the MTDM provide at least preliminary support for the effectiveness of this type of intervention model.

Answers to the question that asked skiers to quantify the amount of improvement or decrement in their performance as a result of participation in the PMST program yielded scores that ranged from 8%-110% better, with a mean of 58% better. These responses indicate varying degrees of improvement based on skiers' commitment to the program, particularly its ability to help them reach their full athletic potential. However, for elite athletes at the top of their sport, even "8% better" is a substantial amount of improvement.

Additional questions found that skiers and their coach believed that e-mail and telephone communications were moderately effective in enhancing mental skills compared to group sessions (M skiers = 3.9, M coach = 3.0) and individual one-on-one sessions (M skiers = 3.3, M coach = 4.0). These responses suggested that more personal contact between athletes and consultants may be desirable, but this long-distance format can achieve positive results. The coach also indicated that he liked the design of the PMST program much better than other MST programs he had been involved with, both in terms of overall effectiveness and utilization by athletes. He rated the personalized PMST program a 5.0 and the use of the "menu" format also a 5.0.


Results from this periodized MST intervention study supported its effectiveness on several levels, including: (a) as a mental skills intervention for enhancing the competitive cognitions and performance of elite cross-country skiers, (b) as an initial test of a periodized approach to mental skills training, and (c) as the first major test of the mental training drill menu. This PMST program design increased utilization of valuable mental skills during both practice and competition for almost every athlete in virtually every skill area. As a group, NDG skiers made positive changes in mental skill knowledge and tool/skill usage that ranged from 11-129% average improvement, along with conceptually desirable changes in trait anxiety (i.e., 17-23%) and trait sport confidence (i.e., 9%). Individually, each athlete also made their greatest gains in specific targeted areas representing individual weaknesses.

Overall, the PMST program seemed to be an effective delivery model based on both objective and subjective results. Each skier demonstrated positive changes in individually identified competitive cognitions throughout the intervention, and skiers' and their coach's subjective evaluations of program format and design were also highly positive. The skiers enjoyed not only the structure of daily mental training drills, but also the flexibility the program provided in developing specific skills most relevant to their own needs. Skiers reported also enjoying the variety of drills designed for each training phase, prompting motivation, self-confidence, anxiety and emotional control issues to be dealt with at the appropriate time during the season. A common theme for skiers' evaluation of daily activities in the PMST program focused on being able to "really tell a difference at practice" or recognize "that really helped me today."

The coach also preferred this delivery format because it kept skiers aware and conscious of the mental aspects of performance each day, not just when a consultant visited the team or when the skills were needed during competition. This PMST program put program control into athletes' hands, gave them the responsibility to practice mental training tools/skills, and provided them with the flexibility and self-direction to tailor it to best meet their needs. Adaptability was another advantage of the program. The program provided a reference for both skiers and coaches because it offered a menu of accessible answers to daily issues as well as immediate strategies to use in an emergency, even if the consultant was not readily available. Throughout the intervention, the consultant was also able to modify the program at any time to adjust to situational demands.

Advantages of Periodized MST Programs

Several advantages were evident with this PMST program. First, it provided accountability. Many MST interventions provide little follow-up due to lack of time or inability to institute a systematic design. This PMST program provided a structured and systematic daily mental practice routine that was simple and easy to follow with weekly check-ins by the consultant. Furthermore, the periodized design of the intervention provided the necessary short-term goals essential for keeping the participants motivated and accountable.

This PMST program was also designed to be implemented individually, allowing skiers to pick and choose from not only a specific set of skills best utilized during a specific phase of training, but also to select from lists of skills designed to increase performers' competence in areas of weakness. For each skier, the personalized PMST program allowed for individual differences in experience and ability levels, thus tailoring the intervention to meet both the needs of the team and the specific needs of each skier. The positive support and involvement of the coach was also a key to program success. Within a PMST framework, coaches hold central importance because they oversee athletes' learning of skills and also provide the structure for performers to implement these skills in practice and competition. The coach's active involvement helped promote adherence and unify physical and mental training. Simply cueing skiers to apply their assigned daily skill at practice helped to facilitate integrated skill development, and this PMST program was designed to emphasize coach participation, learning, and involvement. Interestingly, many of the skills taught in this intervention helped enhance mental toughness for both coaches and skiers.

Finally, the design of this periodized MST program successfully addressed many of the concerns about intervention research, including: standardizing intervention procedures, using idiographic methodology, and providing objective evaluation of PMST program effectiveness. Moreover, a common limitation of most MST programs is lack of adherence. This program provided daily reminders about mental training practice, and skiers generally adhered to the program because it was made a part of their daily practice routine. Most skiers even combined the PMST program calendar with their physical training log. Because this was a season-long program, it was also recognized as a long-term part of their training rather than a "quick fix" cure.

Study Limitations

Throughout the intervention, several study limitations were apparent. First, limited personal contact was a major study limitation, and logistical travel challenges occasionally posed problems when attempting to connect with the team via phone and email. Both the coach and skiers indicated a desire for more personal contact and felt greater contact would have helped intervention effectiveness. However, elite skiing competition and training schedules, along with multiple training sites, create logistical challenges that do make this type of long distance intervention necessary.

Although the PMST program format offered limited direct program supervision, the researchers felt that it did provide an opportunity for the participants to take more personal responsibility for their own mental development. Skiers were forced to develop a sense of ownership for their learning process, adding to the individualization of the intervention. For performers that were responsible enough to systematically follow their personalized PMST protocol, the long distance component promoted independence and responsibility, but for those athletes that had difficulty with adherence, daily contact would have been beneficial. Thus, this extreme intervention protocol provided one of the most difficult tests of PMST program effectiveness, and interventions conducted under more ideal conditions should demonstrate even more powerful results. In fact, despite the limited consultant contact, the highly consistent results were a strength of this investigation. If PMST works under this format, it should thrive under more traditional consulting conditions.

Second, due to the non-experimental nature of the study, external validity was maximized at the expense of precision of measurement. Although non-experimental designs have definite limitations, the opportunity to work with an elite athlete sample in an ecologically-valid setting provided a great initial assessment of the effectiveness of this type of PMST delivery system and its potential to enhance sport psychology intervention research. The longer consultants are able to work with athletes and the more systematic and comprehensive the intervention, the more powerful its impact should be. Over the course of several seasons, PMST programs should become much more individualized and tailored to address the specific underlying needs of each athlete. Certainly, fine-tuning athletes' physical and technical training can take years to perfect, and mental training requires a similar long-term perspective.

Third, the single baseline assessment was also a limitation of this study. Multiple baseline assessments and the staggering of the intervention procedure would have provided for more internal validity. However, the staggering of the intervention treatment with this small elite sample was simply not possible. While the internal validity would have been enhanced with a staggered multiple baseline design, it would have been at the expense of treatment impact and external validity. Finally, performance could not be used as a dependent measure in this study. Although cross-country ski races are conducted on courses of standardized distances, the nature of the course (e.g., topography, altitude, and snow conditions) and variability in quality of competition make it impossible to reliably compare performance or outcomes across races. Consequently, future research needs to address the impact of the PMST program on athletes' performance more directly.

Summary and Future Directions

The periodized model of MST program delivery appears promising for elite athletes involved in a coactive sport. However, the model needs to be tested in team sport settings and with non-elite performers. Additionally, this study did not directly assess performance, and future research needs to assess the model's effectiveness at improving athletes' race performance. Finally, the consultant in this study conducted much of the supervision of this intervention program long distance via e-mail and phone calls. The role of an on-site consultant who could have more direct contact with study participants also needs to be explored.

This PMST program was designed to not only benefit the NDG skiers through a skills-based educational approach, but it also utilized a periodized format designed to maximize skiers' and coaches' mental training, promote adherence, and standardize methods of program delivery based on athletes' individual needs. Overall, this initial test of the periodized MST model would have to be considered successful. All skiers made significant improvements on key mental tools/skills necessary for elite ski performance. The periodized delivery model appears to be promising strategy for developing and utilizing key mental training tools and skills. Moreover, the coach was also an enthusiastic supporter of periodization and the mental training drill menu. Finally, responses from coaches, staff, and athletes within the cross-country division were so positive that it prompted the U.S. Ski Team to adopt this type of delivery system for several other developmental teams.


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Shannon van Guenthner and Jan Hammermeister

Eastern Washington University

Damon Burton

University of Idaho

Lester Keller

United States Ski and Snowboard Association

Address correspondence to: Jon Hammermeister, PEHR Department, Eastern Washington University, Cheney, WA 99004. Email:
Table 1. Pre to Post-Season Scores and Percentage Change for
Mental Training Tools and Skills and Competitive Cognitions
for PMST Skiers.

                              Mary                   Ann

                       Pre    Post     %      Pre    Post     %
Variables              Test   Test   Change   Test   Test   Change

Age (years)                    18                     17

TOPS Practice

Goal Setting           2.5    4.5     80%     3.8    5.0     32%
Self Talk              3.5    5.0     -33%    4.3    5.0     16%
Emotional Control      1.3    3.8     111%    4.3    4.5      5%
Relaxation             1.5    4.8     220%    1.5    4.8     220%
Activation             2.3    4.3     54%     2.5    4.5     80%
Imagery                3.3    5.0     52%     3.0    4.3     43%
Attentional Control    2.5    4.0     60%     3.0    4.0     33%

TOPS Competition

Goal Setting           5.0    5.0      0%     3.6    5.0     39%
Self Talk              4.3    5.0     16%     4.3    5.0     16%
Emotional Control      2.8    3.8     36%     3.8    4.0      5%
Relaxation             2.8    3.5     25%     4.0    3.8     -51%
Activation             4.0    4.0      0%     2.5    4.8     92%
Imagery                4.0    4.8     20%     4.5    5.0     111%
Positive Thinking      3.5    4.3     23%     4.0    4.3      3%

Sport Anxiety, Scale

Somatic Anxiety        1.9    1.3     -32%    2.1    2.6     24%
Worry                  3.0    2.4     -20%    2.4    1.9     -21%
Disruption             2.2    1.2     46%     2.0    1.6     -20%
Trait Self
Confidence             6.6    7.7     17%     7.2    6.7     -7%

                              Tom                    Jane

                       Pre    Post     %      Pre    Post     %
Variables              Test   Test   Change   Test   Test   Change

Age (years)                     18                    23

TOPS Practice

Goal Setting           4.0    4.5     13%     2.5    4.5     80%
Self Talk              3.5    4.5     29%     3.3    5.0     52%
Emotional Control      4.0    2.3     -33%    3.5    4.3     23%
Relaxation             2.0    3.8     90%     1.3    4.5     246%
Activation             3.3    3.0     -9%     2.5    4.3     72%
Imagery                4.5    5.0     11%     4.5    5.0     11%
Attentional Control    3.8    3.0     -21%    3.0    4.5     50%

TOPS Competition

Goal Setting           4.5    4.8      7%     4.8    4.8      0%
Self Talk              3.8    4.8     26%     3.8    5.0     32%
Emotional Control      3.5    4.5     29%     3.8    5.0     32%
Relaxation             3.3    4.3     30%     4.3    4.8     12%
Activation             3.8    5.0     32%     4.0    5.0     25%
Imagery                4.5    5.0     11%     4.3    5.0     16%
Positive Thinking      3.8    3.8      0%     3.5    4.3     23%

Sport Anxiety, Scale

Somatic Anxiety        2.3    1.7     -26%    2.0    1.6     -20%
Worry                  2.4    1.9     -21%    3.7    2.3     -38%
Disruption             2.0    1.0     -50%    2.0    1.4     -30%
Trait Self
Confidence             7.1    8.4     13%     7.2    7.7      7%

                              Sue                    Kate

                       Pre    Post     %      Pre    Post     %
Variables              Test   Test   Change   Test   Test   Change

Age (years)                    22                     19

TOPS Practice

Goal Setting           2.0    3.3     65%     4.3    5.0     16%
Self Talk              3.3    3.0     -9%     4.0    5.0     25%
Emotional Control      3.3    3.0     -9%     2.8    4.5     61%
Relaxation             3.3    3.0     -9%     3.8    4.0      5%
Activation             2.5    2.8     12%     3.8    4.0      5%
Imagery                3.3    3.0     -9%     4.3    5.0     16%
Attentional Control    3.3    2.8     -15%    4.0    3.8     -5%

TOPS Competition

Goal Setting           4.0    3.3     -18%    5.0    5.0      0%
Self Talk              3.8    3.3     -13%    4.8    5.0      4%
Emotional Control      3.4    3.3     -3%     4.0    4.3      8%
Relaxation             2.0    3.8     90%     3.8    4.8     26%
Activation             3.3    3.5      6%     4.5    5.0     11%
Imagery                3.8    3.3     -13%    4.3    5.0     16%
Positive Thinking      2.6    3.0     15%     3.3    3.8     15%

Sport Anxiety, Scale

Somatic Anxiety        2.4    1.5     -38%    2.0    1.7     -15%
Worry                  2.1    1.9     -10%    1.8    1.9      6%
Disruption             2.4    2.6      8%     1.8    1.8      0%
Trait Self
Confidence             6.6    6.6      0%     7.8    8.3      6%

Variables              Change

Age (years)

TOPS Practice

Goal Setting            48%
Self Talk               26%
Emotional Control       25%
Relaxation              129%
Activation              36%
Imagery                 21%
Attentional Control     17%

TOPS Competition

Goal Setting            11%
Self Talk               14%
Emotional Control       18%
Relaxation              30%
Activation               28
Imagery                 15%
Positive Thinking       14%

Sport Anxiety, Scale

Somatic Anxiety         -18%
Worry                   -17%
Disruption              -23%
Trait Self
Confidence               9%

Note: Percent change scores were calculated by subtracting pre-test
scores from post-test scores laid dividing that value by the
pre-test more.
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Author:van Guenthner, Shannon; Hammermeister, Jon; Burton, Damon; Keller, Lester
Publication:Journal of Sport Behavior
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2010
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