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Emotional Training

Lance Smith explains why every training session should have two defined objectives - a physiological reason for the session and a value of learning objective.

After all, training is preparation for competition and competition requires using the brain, so it makes sense to have athletes learning to think as they train. The physical objective is the fitness/strength/speed requirement and this usually determines the structure and content of the session. The value objective is a skill or psychological factor you want to be learned or practiced. Defining both objectives when planning a cycle or session helps you achieve a balance and progression in training.

According to the model by Tudor Bompa and Gregory Haff, training follows a pyramid with the factors all dependent on each other, and each is developed in a specific manner.  The key is the more developed a lower section the higher the development potential of the sections above (Bompa/Haff, Periodization Theory and Methodology: Human Kinetics).

Bompa and Haff point out that if physical training is not adequate the athlete will not be able to develop the other factors. If a runner is not fit enough to compete, all the skill and tactical appreciation in the world is of little use. If a jumper has not fully developed the technical aspects of the event, highly honed motivational or mental skills will be of little value.

Coaches often overlook the connection between physical and psychological training. And the area overlooked most of all is that at the very top of the pyramid.

On the track, examples of value objectives can include pace judgement, learning to kick hard at the end of a race, building confidence, running technique (sprint drills), learning to change pace, practising relaxed running, hurdling for steeplechase or cross-country, maintaining running form when tired and getting used to running in a crowd (as in a cross-country start or massed start 1500m). One of more of these can be included in a training session. In technical events, the learning objective can define the session where technical skill is practiced, but in all instances, learning a skill also requires physical effort, and this too needs to have an objective.

However, there is more – emotional training. This is the most overlooked of all and is the tip of the psychological sector in the pyramid. This is where you add other objectives to the session that are not related to skill or tactical development but are certainly psychological - I call this emotional training.

Here are some examples of emotional training that can be incorporated into a session:

Developing a feedback habit

The coach staying silent and the athlete was forced to make the first comment.


The athlete mentally rehearsing a skill before executing it or visualising the action after doing it, which should be the situation in the competition anyway. If visualisation is part of an athlete's routine it should be part of an athlete's training. It can also vary within a session, e.g. a long jumper asked to visualise the flight in one jump and visualise board accuracy in the next.

Peer analysis

Having training partners observing an action and giving feedback to the athlete. There will be times when the coach is not at a competition and athletes need to learn how to help their training mates. It also encourages learning.

Coping with changed circumstances

Something that can be incorporated in training, such as a long jumper practising runway skills asked to sprint 120m halfway through the jumps session, reflecting the oft-encountered demands of coping with a track and field event scheduled for the same time.

Or perhaps warming up then having athletes wait 20 or 30 mins before starting the session, reflecting the occasional demands of a coping with a race being delayed - how do they cope, how do they keep warm, how much activity is needed, what is their mindset when forced into waiting? Interrupted warm-up – as is likely when an athlete has to wait in the call room. Call a halt halfway through the warm-up and have the athletes sit and do nothing (but appropriately warmly dressed of course).

Separate pairs

Most squads have two or more athletes who are each other's support and social system, and when of equal ability push each other to improved performances at training. This is a great strength of a squad – BUT – how will an athlete react when the support system is taken away?

Try a session with such pairs or groups training away from each other, on different parts of the track.


A noted sprints coach would have anyone who broke during starting practice sit out the rest of the session, as would happen in a race. Or have jumpers or throwers sit out the session should they foul twice in a row, or even foul twice during a runway or throwing skills session.

Such a scenario creates a competition-like pressure, as no athlete relishes sitting watching others. A habit of fouling or breaking is a weakness and will require attention sometime later.

Thinking – decision making

Tell an athlete (or athletes) to write down in priority order 6 appropriate training sessions for your next training day and the coach does likewise. Interesting to see how much commonality there is – the first session common to both lists is what is done. Helps coach and athlete focus on perceived weaknesses (the highest priority needs the most work.)


Inform one of the squad he/she is taking the session or activity – coach defines the objectives and training, the athlete conducts it. Another way to encourage thinking and originality from athletes.

The scope for emotional training is limited only by the number of possible unforeseen, unplanned surprises coach and athlete are likely to meet. However, it should be included in your periodisation planning – some of the suggestions above may not be appropriate at various times of the macrocycle.

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • SMITH, L. (2019) Emotional Training [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Lance Smith is a practising coach with Athletics Southland in New Zealand with coaching qualifications in sprints, track endurance, road and cross country, steeplechase, and high jump and has coached athletes to national championship medals in all the above events. He is also an active "master" athlete and takes part in track events and jumps.