What is Sports Psychology?
Sports psychology is a field of study focused on how mental and emotional functions and behaviors can influence athletic performance. Other aspects of sports psychology focus on the link between exercise and lower stress in non-athletes.
For our purposes, we want to focus on the athletic performance links. There are many findings from sports psychology research that can be beneficial for athletes.
Developing the Right Mindset
Athletes spend a lot of time training. They work out in the gym. They run drills on the field. They know the ins and outs of their playbook and their coaches’ strategy. But there’s more to a successful athlete than physical endurance and rote memorization.
What happens when a well-trained athlete experiences anxiety at a critical moment? What if he or she is absorbed by negative, angry or distracting thoughts? What if his or her motivation dissipates toward the end of a losing game or a tough season? These mental blocks can be the difference between winning and losing, but all the weight-lifting in the world won’t make the blocks go away.
Sports psychology can help where nothing else will.
How Can Sports Psychology Help Me?
There are 4 essential mental qualities that help ensure athletic success. We call these the 4 C’s. Concentration, confidence, control, and commitment.
Without these 4 mental qualities in peak condition, mental and emotional blocks can interfere with performance. Once you know that the 4 C’s are essential, how do you work on them? Luckily, sports psychologists have performed hundreds of studies over the past 30 years to pinpoint the most beneficial strategies to help athletes with concentration, confidence, control and commitment.
Let’s review the 4 C’s as well as some general ways sports psychology approaches can help build the skills needed for success in these areas.
What exactly is concentration? The dictionary definition is simply “the ability to give your attention or thought to a single object or activity.” However, athletes need to be able to change the source and scope of their concentration at any time. The conditions and environment are constantly changing, requiring shifts in what we call selective attention.
Sports psychology recognizes two directions or points of concentration (internal and external) and two scopes (broad and narrow). Thus, there are four general modes of selective attention. Most athletes will find themselves shifting between all 4 modes within a single game or match.
The focus of your concentration in this mode is your own mind. The scope is broad, meaning you are focusing on the entire game plan. For instance, a baseball player might be thinking about how many strikes his team has and how many innings are left when determining how his game plan might need to be adjusted.
Here again the focus of concentration involves your thoughts. This time, though, the scope is on a narrowly focused idea like a specific movement you are planning to make. The same baseball player might be thinking about how exactly to steal second base.
Now your focus is on something around you. You may be watching a particular opponent to judge what he will do next. You might also have all of your focus on the ball. Whatever it is, your attention is directed to something specific in the environment around you.
A well-practiced broad external focus is one of the most useful modes of selective attention in almost every sport. It is the broad, external focus that allows you to take in all of the relevant information around you in order to immediately decide what you need to do.
When you have trouble finding the correct concentration mode during a game, your performance can suffer. This can happen due to fear of failure, fear of judgment, a mind focused on the wrong things at the wrong time, etc. Sports psychology helps discover the tools and techniques, like relaxation, mental imagery and centering, which can help improve concentration and focus.
A player who doesn’t have confidence will never reach maximum potential.
Why? Quite simply, it is the athlete who believes in himself who is willing to push the boundaries, even if it means risking failure. A confident player is not fazed by failure, so he is better able to try new ways of doing things, increase his goal setting, recover from setbacks, and maintain motivation.
An unconfident player may fear his skills aren’t up to par, which may keep him from attempting anything at all. Even at a critical moment in the game, he may not believe he can pull off a play or a move, so he will miss opportunities for growth and success.
The worst part about a lack of confidence is that it begins the downward spiral of a self-fulfilling prophecy. When an athlete feels unsure of herself, she may think negative thoughts about her abilities. From there, she’ll get anxious. Her anxiety will cause her to lose focus and negatively affect her performance. She concludes, “I was right! I’m no good at this!” In fact, she very well had the ability to perform the physical maneuvers, but her mind threw her off her game. She became her own worst enemy.
Similarly, confidence can be too high. An athlete who thinks he is so good that he doesn’t need to train will end up with softened skills. He may skip practice, avoid the gym, and walk into a game feeling he’s already won. With his mind not in the game, he may not perform to the best of his ability. Furthermore, an athlete with too much confidence may put too much emphasis on winning. When that happens, any loss becomes an almost insurmountable, frustrating experience that destroys motivation and instills an unhealthy fear of failure.
For this reason, a healthy sense of confidence is a maker or breaker of success. That is why many sports psychologists feel confidence is the most important of the 4 C’s. The happy middle road of self-confidence is calledprime confidence. Sports psychologists have developed strategies for practicing the skill of confidence to ensure a positive, motivated, healthy and successful attitude in athletes.
Control in the world of sports psychology refers to the control of your inner world and how it reflects in your outer world. That is to say, you must learn to control your thoughts and emotions in order to control your reactions and behaviors. When a player lacks control, it will be noticeable to everyone around him, and it can severely affect not only his own performance but the team dynamic.
For instance, imagine a player who cannot control his thoughts and actions related to mistakes. This can include his own mistakes, his teammates’ mistakes, and even a referee’s mistakes. This frustration may leak into his performance and attitude toward those around him. Now the entire team is at risk of being in a negative mental state. The whole team is brought down.
According to Sports Psychology Today, there are 5 main ways in which athletes tend to lack control
- Need for Social Approval
- Irrational Beliefs
- Fear of Failure
- Dwelling on Errors
The best way to combat these control issues is with honest reflection and stern self-correction. These techniques can include talking to yourself to combat the negative thoughts that pop up.
One mistake a lot of teams make is neglecting the psychological aspect of this behavior. If an athlete argues with the referee, the coach may chastise this singular action. However, coaches often forget to tend to the emotional state that led to the action. Thus, the real problem is never addressed at its source.
This is why sports psychology has become recognized as one of the best tools to improve athletic performance: it diagnoses the root of problems found in mental and emotional blocks and provides options for solutions.
In sports, we hear a lot of talk about goal-setting. We want athletes to set personal and team goals to keep them focused and motivated. But setting a goal isn’t enough. Even developing a detailed plan to achieve the goal isn’t enough. This is where commitment comes in.
Commitment is sometimes equated with mental momentum.
Imagine you are a track and field runner. Your goal is the finish line. Your plan is to pace yourself until the final 2 laps and finish with a sprint. But momentum is what actually gets you from the starting line to the finish line. Once you start, your body’s physical momentum helps maintain your pace, but without the mental momentum, you would quit as soon as the going got tough.
So how does an athlete foster commitment? One simply way, according to sports psychologist Jeffrey Hodges, is effective decision making.
You decide to set a goal. You decide on your plan to achieve it. But again, it doesn’t stop there. You must decide each morning to follow through with action in order to find success. The power of a single decision should never be forgotten, because each decision results in an action that brings you one step closer to (or one step further away from) your goal.
There are, of course, other ways to boost commitment. One area of sports psychology study has been focused on the “Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment” or MAC approach. With this technique, an athlete learns to be aware of his or her present moment, accept the feelings and conditions associated with it, and commit to the decisions that can improve the situation.
How to Start Implementing Sports Psychology
Outside of the 4 C’s, sports psychology also helps with coping skills, communication skills, team-building, goal-setting, motivation, patience and “finding the zone.” We also can’t overlook the life skills imparted through sports psychology techniques. These skills are useful for any challenge in everyday life. With many athletes and coaches seeing the potential, sports psychology has become a booming field.
In some cases, a coach may hire a sports psychologist for a short- or long-term engagement. During this time, the psychologist can develop specific plans for the team, work with individual athletes, help the coaches develop and employ their own psychological tools, etc. However, this can be a costly investment for some financially-strapped teams.
There are plenty of books on the market with tips and suggestions, and studies are accessible through academic library subscriptions, but the most popular option is internet research.
However you approach it, there are three main phases of successfully employing well-researched psychological strategies to improve athletic performance.
Sports Psychology Skills Training
The implementation of sports psychology techniques is best done at both the individual and team level. One player who successfully harnesses his or her psychological state is a tremendous asset to the team, but the proverbial saying that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link is true.
The following 3 phases are outlined by performance coach Brian Mac to give you an idea of how to get started on this invaluable team-wide undertaking.
Phase 1: Education
When you’re looking to bring awareness of the importance of psychology for team performance, it helps to have everyone on the team and staff educated on the basics, like the 4 C’s. From there, you can research and select (or develop your own) exercises and educational content.
Begin by giving a brief overview of why this new training is important. It might help to phrase things in the negative. We all know that we should ideally be positive, motivated athletes, but what happens when this doesn’t occur? How exactly does it affect performance negatively, and how does it affect the whole team? With this understanding, the team will be more receptive to the next two phases.
Phase 2: Acquisition
After everyone understands the importance of psychological training, you’ll want to pinpoint both team and individual areas of concern. If the entire team struggles with accepting mistakes, then have all of the players use specially designed mental exercises to work on acceptance, positive thinking and refocus.
On the other hand, if you have an individual player who is returning from an injury, the coach will want to give special attention to their psychological needs. They may hold back in fear of aggravating their healed injury. They may remember the moment at which the injury occurred, which can trigger a mild form of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) that prevents them from pushing through any similar situation. An injured player may need to work on confidence-building and the elimination of fearful thoughts.
Phase 3: Practice
Psychological training is not all that different from physical training. Practice makes perfect. Knowing the strategies is one thing, but using them consistently is another.
Practice can be acquired through simulation exercises, in which coaches ask the players to respond to a hypothetical scenario. But the best practice will come in real moments during training and competition. Coaches should make sure to recognize and praise athletes for demonstrating use of their newly learned techniques.
By employing the tried and true techniques to monitor and control mental and emotional states, sports psychology can be a make-it-or-break-it tool. Without it, the team can be anxious, ungrounded, unfocused, unmotivated, and underperforming. With it, athletes can self-monitor, improve their attitudes toward mistakes and failures, bounce back from losses, self-motivate, and so much more. There’s really no better way to give athletes the tools they need for success on and off the field than through employing comprehensive sports psychology techniques.
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