In this short piece of writing, we will take a step back and focus on the role of the psychologist in sport, without however neglecting the subject of technology, which is very dear to us. “In sport, I would say there is nothing like training and preparation. You have to train your mind as much as your body,” said Venus Williams, one of the best American tennis players of all time. Based on Williams’ statement, sports psychology seeks to raise awareness of this in athletes, coaches, and clubs; the preparation of an athlete covers the technical part of the movements, the tactics of the game, the physical part, and the mental aspect. To be considered complete, an athlete must constantly train all four of these areas to achieve optimum performance levels. Today we hear more and more about mental training, but do we know how it came about and what it is? Let’s find out together.

Mental training stems from the need to manage and improve one’s performance through a set of techniques aimed at optimizing all those aspects that hinder the best sports performance: emotions, thoughts, state of tension associated with performance, and much more. The words Mental Training or Mental Coaching describe ‘the application of psychological techniques aimed at improving sporting performance within the framework of a structured program’ (Cei, 2015). Again, it can be defined as psychological training consisting of a set of techniques and strategies that aim to make the athlete acquire and enhance a corollary of mental and physical skills, which together with the usual training program, contribute to improving the quality of the user’s sports performance. The unique aspect of all this is that the mental training program becomes customized, individualized, and specific to the athlete. The different techniques used are selected according to the individual specificity of the sport, the objectives to be achieved, and the athlete’s personality profile. The mental training program considers the athlete in his or her entirety, operating on three levels (cognitive, emotional, and behavioral), allowing the athlete to become aware of his or her mental resources and learn how to use them. About this last aspect, the sports psychologist is a non-intrusive figure, with excellent listening and observation skills, aiming at the athlete’s self-awareness and autonomy. The first refers to the knowledge of how much one’s psychological processes influence performance in a positive or negative sense; this involves the use of all the senses, i.e. it is not enough to see ourselves perform an athletic gesture, but we must learn to smell the playing field, savor the taste of victory, feel the sensation of holding a racket and hear the particular noise caused by the impact of the ball on the racket. Autonomy refers to the acquisition by the athlete of tools and techniques with the possibility of using them alone when needed. In this case, therefore, the goal is for the person to master himself and the techniques learned, becoming autonomous and an expert in himself. The main techniques of mental training and the most well-known ones are goal setting, positive thinking, self-talk (or inner dialogue), imagery (or mental visualization), concentration and relaxation techniques, ideomotor training, and proprioception. It is important to know that each of these procedures has specific functions and can be used in synergy with each other to make the training more effective. The effectiveness of the mental training process depends not only on the professionalism and competence of the psychologist but also on the motivation of the athlete and variables that very often cannot be controlled. If we think, however, about the period we are living in today, full of restrictions, the question arises spontaneously: how is it possible to guarantee and maintain the effectiveness of these interventions even at a distance? This is where technology comes in. What these two fields of application have in common we have already discussed in previous articles, but I would like to focus on a specific aspect, which brings virtual reality even closer to sports psychology; between the 1980s and 1990s, a circuit of neurons was discovered, called ‘mirror neurons, which are activated in our brain when we act and also when we see others perform the same action. About the acquisition of new skills, several studies have shown that just as motor areas are activated when performing a movement, they are also activated when the subject observes the same movement being performed by others. What does this have to do with sport, you may ask? This discovery can provide very useful information for those involved in sport and aims to train motor skills: it allows us to improve the motor procedures underlying the gesture. The existence of a circuit of mirror neurons may suggest a type of mental training that takes its cue from neuroscience and that, by exploiting the functional characteristics of our motor system, can help us to improve and refine specific technical skills. These properties of the sensory-motor system are at the basis of visualization and imagination, activated by observation or by the mere thought of complex purposeful actions. We can summarise by saying that it is as if our brain does not distinguish a movement performed from an observed and/or imagined movement. This process is based on the fundamental concept of presence in virtual reality. The level of presence depends on the user’s degree of awareness of the media capabilities of the technological tool: the higher this awareness, the lower the sensation of presence experienced and vice versa (Lombard and Ditton, 1997). This leads to an intuition that does not go in the same direction as the experts of virtual environments, namely the idea that the more a remote location is similar to the real one, the greater the sense of presence will be. The latter can be more induced if importance is given to the ability to interact, rather than to graphics, in the design of a virtual environment. The concept of presence refers to three contexts: physical, social, and personal. One speaks of the presence of the subject (personal) in real or virtual space (physical) if he can put his intentions into action and recognize those of others (social). Concerning this last aspect, it has been found that mirror neurons are involved in the planning of actions and the understanding of actions performed by others. They are important because they allow an understanding of the other as yourself; an individual can understand the emotion of the other because he lives it, feels it, because the same areas are activated when I feel pain, or he can understand rationally. This brings us directly back to the concept of social presence, defined as “the sensation of being with other-selves within a virtual or real environment, the result of the ability to intuitively recognize the intentions of others in the environment” (Riva et al., 2003, 2008). This neuronal circuit closely links virtual reality and mental training, making it even more evident how fundamental one is to the other and vice versa. Today as we have already seen in the previous week’s article, many realities are developing and spreading that can integrate these two areas: from simulations of routes or different scenarios to individual or group training to strengthen specific mental and/or motor skills.

The Vrainers team is also working on this front, integrating virtual reality and mental training; on the one hand, the technicians are committed to creating virtual environments as close to reality as possible with a high degree of interactivity, while on the other hand, thanks to the support of the psychologist, they are working on the specific contents of these reconstructions and the mental training programs that can be created in parallel with the virtual experience. In this way, the athlete will be immersed in an avant-garde project capable of integrating tradition and innovation, to optimize the performance and well-being of the person. The team intends to create environments and training programs that are so compelling, fun, transparent, and easy to engage with those athletes of all levels will use them to improve their mental capacity, their participation in sport, their performance, and their level of well-being. Unfortunately, nowadays mental training is still underestimated and neglected. There are many prejudices that sports psychology still faces today: training mental abilities are not necessary, sport psychology is used to help problematic athletes. Similarly, the approach towards technology is still not the best, due to the lack of knowledge about these tools and thoughts about the confidence in these innovative means. As we have seen, in recent years something is moving in Italy, although in my opinion, it is still very limited what is being done. It is good to remember that an athlete can be defined as complete, he must constantly train technical, tactical, physical, and also mental aspects. Including mental preparation in the training program is the only way to achieve optimal performance levels.

In this regard, I would like to conclude by pointing out that problems of this kind have existed since ancient times, as Seneca says: “I think to myself how many men exercise their bodies and how few exercise their minds; how many people flock to an insubstantial and vain pastime, and what a desert around the sciences; what a weak soul those athletes whose muscles and shoulders we admire to have.” Vrainers would like to contribute to limiting the fears of this great philosopher, aiming to make sportsmen and women aware of the need to look at their preparation from a 360° angle, integrating body and mind, thanks to the construction of individualized cognitive enhancement programs supported by technology.

Bibliography and Sitography

Nicolas Robin, Laurent Dominique, Lucette Toussaint, Yannick Blandin, Aymeric Guillot, et al.. Effects of

motor imagery training on service return accuracy in tennis: The role of imagery ability. International Journal

of Sport and Exercise Psychology, Taylor Francis (Routledge), 2007, 5 (2), pp.175-186.

Hanin, Yuri L. (1997). Emotions and athletic performance: Individual zones of optimal functioning model. European Yearbook of Sport Psychology, 1, 29-72.

Cei, A. (1987), Mental training, Edizioni Luigi Pozzi, Roma.

Gaggioli A., Morganti L., Mondoni M., Antonietti A., Benefits of Combined Mental and Physical Training in Learning a Complex Motor Skill in Basketball Psychology 2013. Vol.4, No.9A2, 1-6.

Cei, A. (1998), Psicologia dello sport, il Mulino, Bologna.

Rizzolatti, G., & Craighero, L. (2004). The Mirror-neuron system. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 27, 169-192.

Craig, C. (2013). Understanding perception and action in sport: how can virtual reality.

Riva, G., Waterworth, J.A. and Waterworth, E.L. (2004b). The Layers of Presence: A bio-cultural approach to understanding presence in natural and mediated environments, CyberPsychology & Behavior 7 (4): 402– 416.


Francesco Palazzo

Degree in psychological sciences and techniques from the University of L’Aquila. Master’s degree in Psychology of Well-being: empowerment, rehabilitation, and positive technologies, at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan. Master’s degree in Sport Psychology. Specialized in the use of Positive Technologies applied to different psychological fields, conducting an experimental study on cognitive enhancement and technical-motor gestures on young competitive tennis players through an integrated training of mental training and virtual reality.



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