Psychology is an overarching area which consists of multitude of branches that focus on different aspects of human behaviour and cognitive processes. One of the branches is Sports Psychology that I have been invested in, both personally and professionaly. Experience as a semi-professional basketball player and a sports enthusiast allows me to intuitively know what do sports practitioners experience while competing or training. On top of that having studied Bachelor in Psychology and Masters in Sports Psychology gives me specific tools and theoretical knowledge about the topic.
“Sport psychology is a proficiency that uses psychological knowledge and skills to address optimal performance and well-being of athletes, developmental and social aspects of sports participation, and systemic issues associated with sports settings and organizations”, a definition by American Psychological Association (APA).
First mentions of the topic date in 1898 when an American psychologist Norman Triplett conducted what is today known as a first sports psychology study with bicyclists. First such undertaking in Europe happened in 1920s when Dr. Carl Diem opened a sports psychology lab in Berlin. What followed was lots of experiments done by Soviets, emergence of labs in the US (Griffith) and since there there has been a steady increase in scientific research about sports psychology.
Topics that sports psychologists deal with are: concentration, motivation, anxiety, group cohesion, relaxation, teamwork, stress, mental imagery, emotions, level of activation, …
Take a look at this video where NBA superstars discuss mental power.
Seems important, right? So why is the role of sports psychologist still missing in many sports clubs? Let’s take a step back to find out.
To begin with, one must know that every sports performance consists of four pillars: physical, tactical, technical and psychological. Former three have been marked as important since forever and latter, psychological part started gaining importance in the last century.
The field is quite young and there is much work ahead of professionals to establish psychological aspect of athletic performance to be on a par with technical, physical and tactical parts.
Myself, having been a semi-professional basketball player for the most of my life, I’ve personally gone through the teachings of each factor. Although, funny enough, one aspect was lacking *direct education* throughout my growth as an athlete. And what do I mean by direct education… I had amazing physical conditioning coaches, great head and assistant coaches which showed me fundamentals and tricks of the game I love. While I was playing and training I learned about discipline, commitment, motivation, concentration, team work, but… It was not enough. Support system for my mental game was lacking. Many times I ended up in black holes of performance, I suffered injuries, gone through a lot of stress caused by pressure because ‘the coordinator of national team will be watching, you have to show yourself!’. So young me, what did I do? When one thinks of the results, and only results, the performance is lost out of focus so you are more likely to make mistakes. Who told me this? No one. I felt it on my skin. I experienced it when it was too late to correct the behaviour and reach the level I desired.
(Disclaimer: This is not a sad story! Just a learning experience. 😉 )
For all these reasons, now I am here to make a difference for athletes to come, and those who are still practicing their sport and recognize themselves in my words, and any topics that sports psychology is teaching.
There are general and specific objectives of sports psychology.
- Identify which psychological abilities need to be worked on
- Improve: sports performance, well-being, staff performance
- Help in athlete’s personal development
- Teach psychological techniques that can be applied in trainings and competitions
- Improve communication
- Reduce anxiety and stress
- Control level of activation
- Increase self-confidence
- … etc
Sports psychologist work
- Education; giving workshops, teaching classes
- Basic mental training; using psychological techniques such as control of level of activation, visualization, thought stopping
- High performance mental training; reaching for maximal mental control of an athlete through perfection of existing abilities and development of novel ones
- Solving the problems; anxiety before competitions, oscillations in performance
There are different formats of mental training that each sports psychologist designs, but more or less they have the following structure:
- Evaluation; observation and information collection
- Planification; developing the structure of psychological work during a season, predicting possible problems to know how to intervene properly
- Psychological preparation of trainings: assessment and psychological intervention to improve performance and well-being in trainings
- Psychological preparation of competitions: optimization of performance in competition
For a fruitful work with a psychologist, a person needs to WANT to work on themselves. This is a pre-requisite number 1. A talented young football player who is forced to talk to a psychologist is not likely to fully benefit from it. For a need to exist, one needs to understand what is it all about and recognize the utility of sports psychology teachings himself/herself.
Henceforth, first step for raising awereness of importance of sports psychology is to educate by the means of providing workshops, giving informational presentations and talking about it.
To be able to better adapt the programs to individual our group needs, a psychologist needs to collect information from various sources:
- Athlete itself
- Coaches and other implicated people; family members, referees
- Sports modality; having knowledge about the sports discipline itself
Who does a sports psychologist work with?
- Any staff member: physiotherapists, doctors, nutritionists, etc.
Have a look at the following video where tennis superstars talk about mental strength. In minute 2:22 you can hear a mention of a sports psychologist, briefly but at least it’s getting out there. Small steps!
For the Spanish speaking population, check out this link where Ruth Beitia, an Olympic gold medal winner introduces us to her sports psychologist.
Another short video about performance psychology that might be of interest:
There is a common misconception that sports psychology is only for treating athletes with mental disorders or dealing with slumps in performance. In reality, there is no need for a problem to exist if one wants to work with a sports psychologist. An athlete simply needs to have a wish to improve in any aspect with relevance.
I want to share with you a very positive experience I recently had with one athlete. It happened in a training camp with athletes of his age when this 17-year-old young promise won a hard competition where the coaches were measuring resistance. He proved to be the best by far in this test, leaving his competition far behind. First thing he did was to congratulate the crowd who was cheering for him, next he acknowledged great work of his competition and after taking some time to recover and reflect on his success he went looking for me. He approached asking for a consultation of a psychologist in front of his friends, coaches, and other athletes. We had a mini session on the topic he raised and he thanked me for my assistance and went about his day. This is an example of a very mature top athlete who despite being on the top still recognizes he has room for improvement. An athlete who is hungry for more success, better results and greater overall performance. And after all, a person who will grow no matter what, just because he has a burning desire to do so and wants to go harder, better, faster, stronger.
You are not weak if you want to work with a sports psychologist. The fact that you reach out just shows your disposition for improvement.
Referring back to the pillars of sports performance, the key for reaching optimal performance is simple. Training hours should be organized so that each aspect (physical, tactical, technical and psychological) receives necessary attention. Final goal is to establish balance in the workload and develop abilities in each aspect that will consequently make you excell in performance.
‘Train hard to reach your goals’ is a legitimate advice that brings fruit, but I would rather say ‘Train smart with a goal on your mind’.
It’s all in your head as Wawrinka suggests 😉