David da Silva has served as the Mental Skills Coordinator for the Chicago Cubs since 2018. Prior to that, he was a Mental Conditioning Consultant at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. da Silva holds a Certified Mental Performance Consultant certificate and a Master of Science in Movement Science with a Specialization in Sport and Exercise Psychology from Barry University.
Inside Pitch: Let’s start with the basics. Why are mental skills so vital to success in sports?
David da Silva: Every decision in sports starts with the cognitive ability of processing visual information, making a set of specific decisions and then committing to an action or physical response. This process requires a high level of experience, attention and repetition for the action or response to be executed successfully. All of this is not possible without a focused, emotionally stable and committed mental state.
Mental training allows this process to match the demands at a particular moment, whether it be in baseball or any sport. We are trying to better understand the mind, and equip it so we can improve our ability to respond optimally. Competition will always challenge us to adapt and respond in ways that are unpredictable. On the other hand, there are many factors that interfere and influence the outcome, which implies that no matter how much you may practice and train, you can never ultimately control 100% of the outcome. Mental training is a journey of experiences and practices, exposure to failures, successes, adversities, and challenges, and ultimately a great way to learn about oneself, how to make choices, and respond.
IP: There will be no shortage of parents and coaches who are reading this interview who are starting to grasp the importance of mental skills training, but have no idea where to begin. Where would you tell them to start?
DS: Firstly, mental training starts by appreciating that the mind can be your greatest strength, your biggest weakness, or your most significant and difficult enemy. I don’t believe anyone in the history of humankind can truly be successful at anything if there is not an appreciation of choosing appropriate mental responses to the demands of their profession. To start, mental training can require a reflective practice of appreciating, acknowledging, and understanding just how mental choices influence behaviors, responses, and performance. This can be done a variety of ways—completing a self-report assessment, talking to a professional who can determine cognitive habits and patterns, reviewing performance with coaches or by writing down self-observations.
IP: For youth and college coaches who want to implement mental skills training into their teams daily and/or weekly routine, how would you guide them? If these coaches do not have a background in mental skills training, what would you tell them?
DS: Simply sharing experiences and reflecting on what choices are being made in practice and competition can create the awareness of how the mind works. Once there is awareness, the education can follow and that may require a skillset of learning about certain mental tools and skills and how to apply them effectively, whether it be during practice or away from the sporting environment. I would also recommend coaches be open to sharing their personal experiences in their own sporting or personal lives, since experience is a great teacher. When young athletes can hear a different perspective about their experiences and struggles, it can go a long way in helping reinforce appropriate responses. I would recommend for any coach to educate themselves on certain mental skills that can be creatively and fluidly utilized in various situations to help athletes organically use them on a consistent basis. Imagery, otherwise known as visualization, is a good example of a mental skill that can be applied in many creative ways.
IP: Please share a few strategies that a player can go out and implement today that you believe will help their overall performance.
DS: I would encourage the players to learn how to be present and remain present in a challenging situation. Most mental challenges, adversities and stresses affect our ability to be in the here and now, to be where our feet are. When bad things happen in sport, we either spend time thinking ahead to what is needed to be done or what may happen, or we may recall past experiences or situations that may be similar to a challenge we may experience at a certain moment. The brain very easily does this, and it is important to do so, but at the right time. When an athlete competes and responds successfully, there is very little thinking and all their training has helped them to respond in the present moment without forcing it, and being present, focused and accepting of the here and now is, I believe, one of the most crucial factors in being successful.
Strategies to remain present may include a particular kind of breathwork (depending on the physical activity, it can be a consistent tempo and rhythm of breaths for example), a routine (a set of thoughts, feelings and habits consistently repeated) and grounding techniques (such as focusing on a visual cue or other sensory stimuli to connect you to a more balanced mental and physical state).
IP: Being in your position, you are able to witness varying skill levels throughout the minor and major leagues. However, when players reach the majors, they are generally fairly evenly matched in terms of physical ability. How are certain players able to elevate their game to a greater degree than their counterparts?
DS: Regardless of the level or experience, I believe the challenge is the same for any athlete. We believe, and how we have conceptualized it with the Chicago Cubs, is that a successful, mentally tough, and resilient performer is able to pay attention and do the right thing at the right time, regardless of the situation. The best are able to do this very consistently and effectively through years of training and experience, with discipline and a good dose of adjustments and lessons learned from failure, hardship and adversity.
IP: I presume over your career there have been a handful of players who do not buy in when it comes to mental skills training. How have you handled these athletes?
DS: It’s just like anything in life, not everyone will appreciate the importance of something unless they find meaning. And for me to help athletes find meaning is by reflecting on their past experiences, good or bad, and connecting those experiences with what mental training can offer, and how it is related. At its most basic and primitive level, I like to share the importance of choices, that everyone on this planet has the ability to choose their thinking, reactions, habits and responses to all that we experience…and as an athlete, they have the ability to choose helpful responses by understanding the mind and what choices they have to effectively get the best value from their experiences.
IP: What is your response to “I can do it in practice, but I can’t do it in the game”?
DS: In my experience, the biggest difference in practice and competition is that it is mostly about consequences and expectations—you are either winning or losing, the ball is either out or in, you are either succeeding or failing. These constant consequences, or rather the focus on these consequences, prevent athletes from appropriately focusing on the task at hand, on the mental and physical demands. But I will say the intention of practice is to repeat movements and strategies often enough to where they can be performed at a proficient level, and it is the same with mental skills.
It can’t be expected that mental skills work all the time or even the first few times you implement them. They must become a habitual process of development so wherever they can be applied effectively whenever there is competition and consequences.
This interview was conducted by Barrett Snyder, who holds an M.S. in Sports Management and an MBA from Drexel University. He is a J.D. and PhD candidate and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist preparing to enter the field of athletic performance.