The Development of Mental Training and Excellence

By Richard D. Gordin, Utah State University

Professor Lars-Eric Unestahl, President of Scandinavian International University in Orebro, Sweden, founded the International Society of Mental Training and Excellence in Malaysia in 1989. This society was formed immediately after the meeting of the International Society of Sport Psychology (ISSP) met in Singapore during the same month.

This new society was formed to bring together a group of scientists and practitioners to present the latest evidenced based research and applied treatments based upon work in real world settings. Many societies around the world made transitions from purely research based presentations to more applied sessions. For instance, the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology (AAASP) had been formed only three years earlier in Jekyll Island, Georgia in response to a similar call for applied demonstrations to be shared by colleagues during conferences so that learning could be applied to everyday work with athletes and coaches. AAASP (now called the Association for Applied Sport Psychology) (AASP) has become the largest applied sport psychology professional organization in the world. This organization meets every year and has over 1000 members from many countries.

The International Society of Mental Training and Excellence met for the first time in Orebro, Sweden in 1991 hosted by President Lars-Eric Unestahl. Further meetings occurred in Ottawa (1995) hosted by Professor Terry Orlick, Salt Lake City (1999) hosted by Professor Keith Henschen, and in St. Petersburg, Russia (2003) hosted by Professor Pavel Bundzen. The Society has now expanded its emphases to other areas: developmental hypnosis, developmental coaching and fast method changes such as EMDR, NLP, and TFT etc. The next conference was held in Beijing in 2008 in conjunction with the Olympic games and most recently in Pristina, Kosovo in August 2011. The next Congress will take place in Chandigarh, India at Panjab University hosted by Professor Jitendra Mohan in late October 2015.

The philosophy of this organization is based upon principles of mental training developed by Unestahl.

Some of the following principles are indicative of this philosophy:

  • Principles behind the way the ideal state of peak performance and wellbeing can be created and identified, developed and controlled
  • Mental abilities can be regarded and treated the same way as physical abilities and can be trained like physical skills
  • Mental training is founded on personal growth and not upon comparison to others
  • The best solutions for any problem are already within the athlete or person
  • The mental trainer has the task to stimulate the solution-focused processes
  • Life is a “do yourself project, where no one can change anyone else
  • Life long development is based upon daily learning in work and home
  • Alternative states of consciousness facilitate the learning of new ways of looking at life

The congress now emphasizes applications in the following areas; sport, performing arts, school and education, work and business, and health and relations. My work with athletes has extended for the past 33 years and has included work with Olympic athletes and professional athletes. I adopted Unestahl’s Mental Training in 1978 when we met in Salt Lake City. At the time, I was involved with our USA Artistic Gymnastics team in preparation for the Olympic games. I really appreciated the concepts that he advocated and the appropriateness of turning the work over to the athletes and coaches. With my guidance and help, utilized in concert with their physical training regimens the athletes learned to use this skill. The basic mental training has further developed over the years and recently has been translated into English. I have recoded many of these programs over the years for Lars-Eric in his studio at the Scandinavian International University (SIU) and I presently sit on the scientific board of his university.

The training can be completed in about four to six months of daily practice. The training begins with basic mental training for the first six weeks followed by self-image training, goal-image training, mental skills training, attitude training and finally emotional training. Over these 135 days the athlete becomes efficient in each area in a systematic way and can then be able to call up these changes with triggers. Also accompanying this training he developed a seven-week strategy for change exercise practice that compliments the mental training. Each day an assignment is completed with a training log. For instance, the first exercises help the athlete to adopt the developmental model rather than the clinical model as a life model. Practicing ways to alter self-talk and dialog training are essential for maximum performance. Also available from Unestahl is the CHANGE model. This model has also helped me work with athletes and coaches in a more efficient way, as they are traveling all over the world in competitive environments.

The CHANGE model developed by Unestahl consists of the following methods that are consistent with his philosophy:

  • Coaching (Alternative method of change)
  • Hypnosis (Alternative state of consciousness)
  • Acceptance and Commitment Training (Alternative model of change)
  • NLP (Strategies for change)
  • Generative Images and Cognitive Training (Contents of change)
  • Emotional Training (Contents of change)

The concepts that apply to this CHANGE model developed by Unestahl include the following: from therapy to training, from advice to coaching, from answers to questions, from the past to the future, from problems to solutions, from intellectual goals to goal-programming and from planning to a programmed process flow.

In my thirty plus years in applied sport psychology I have had the opportunity to travel the world to learn and share with my colleagues. I recently spent six months in Poland with two of the best in the field: Jan Blecharz and Marek Graczyk. I spent time with each exploring similarities and differences in my approach to mental training and the Polish model. I was a consultant to the Polish Olympic Committee and was a visiting professor at Jagiellonian University in Krakow and also at the Academy of Physical Education and Sport in Gdansk. I was fortunate to spend valuable time observing the preparation of the Polish Olympic team for London 2012. My colleagues utilized biofeedback as a primary preparation method to train the autonomic nervous system for extreme stress producing situations,

Other methods utilized were: Brain gym, cognitive behavioral therapy, as well as autogenic training and “the Swedish model” or Integrated Mental Training (IMT). The advantage the Polish teams have is the elaborate system of Olympic Training centers around Poland and the monthly meeting of around 40 applied sport psychologists that takes place in Warsaw. The whole system of preparation for London 2012 falls under the auspices of a European Union grant call SIOKO. It is a well-developed service delivery program directed by Dr. Graczyk. Professor Blecharz is a very well known sport psychologist as he has cooperated with Adam Malysz, a four time silver medalist in ski jumping and a national hero in Poland. I am fortunate to have had such experiences and dedicated professional colleagues with whom to cooperate and continue developing our careers together.

In summary, those of us in the field of mental training as it pertains to sport, are in a continuing quest to provide the best services to athletes and coaches around the world. I feel fortunate to be a part of this great and exciting pursuit.