The Basics of Sports Psychology
As a continuation to my previous Sports Science based articles, I wanted to put an article together to summarise the basics of sports psychology, giving an over view of the subject, an outline of its importance, and a little guidance on how you should incorporate Psychological Skills Training (PST) into your routine.
It doesn’t matter what sport or even instrument you play; psychology is a key element which coheres your performance to create the desired impact. The higher the level you reach, the more emphasis good psychology plays on performance, until you reach the level of ‘elite’ where simply being physically gifted is not enough.
Of course, if you’re at the elite level in your chosen area, you will most likely have the luxury of a psychologist (along with your masseur, physio, nutritionist, tactical coach, physical coach, shopping assistant and bath water temperature checker) which is great. But for the majority, a psychologist is an extravagance usually out of the question. Fortunately, like most things, you can practice psychology yourself because after all, no one knows your own mind better than you do; you just have to be honest!
Psychology is quite a broad church with many different theories and opinions, all of which can take a lifetime to learn and master. And because psychology is one of the least understood areas of research, there are rarely wrong answers, which makes understanding this strange but nevertheless vital subject quite a challenge.
There are many examples of situations you may find yourself in which could be improved through psychological intervention. Examples include:
- Bike racing – a time trial, where you push yourself to the limit. Everything hurts but somehow you need to push through that huge pain barrier blocking your way.
- Mountain climbing – ever been caught in a whiteout on your own on a snowy plateau? This isn’t fun, but you need to think clearly to make the correct choices in an otherwise dire situation.
- Public speaking – as you stand on stage, 200 people are all looking at you. Other than remembering your lines, you need the self belief to stand on that stage and captivate the audience.
- Tennis match – you’re about to play an unseeded player in the first round of a national tennis tournament. You need to manage your anxiety levels to maintain focus.
- The gym – outside it’s raining, there’s a hurricane and intense lightening. It’s your running day and this is now destined to be on the treadmill. How can you possibly do that hour run in doors?
Clearly there’s an immeasurable number of situations where psychological training would be a distinct advantage to performance, be that physical such as sports performance, more art based such as musical performance, or even career based such as the work presentation you need to deliver.
I’m sure everyone can either relate to one of the above, or at least can think of a situation where psychological weakness may let you down.
This is where PST (psychological skills training) comes in. PST is a collection of many techniques used to improve psychological strength. For this basic introduction, we’ll look with the most widely discussed facets, starting with everybody’s favorite:
- Arousal regulation (self awareness, anxiety reduction techniques, adversity coping and arousal inducing techniques).
- Imagery (where, what, when and why).
- Self confidence (expectations vs. performance, self-efficacy (believing in reaching goals/own ability) assessing self-confidence and building self confidence).
- Goal setting (effectiveness, principles, development, design, periodisation).
- Concentration (attentional focus, concentration vs. performance, types of attentional focus, self talk, attention skills and improving these skills).
I have my own personal way of looking at psychology for performance which is a common sense approach and is easily implemented.
Firstly, PST is a collection of psychological/coping strategies. The ‘skills training’ part of PST is an effort to encourage athletes and the like to practice the coping strategies, just as they would practice the physical aspects of their event. A coping strategy as simple as maintaining motivation after a loss, if practiced enough, becomes a skill which can be relied upon in competition.
We will use Arousal Regulation as the first example – this means that before any big event where there is pressure and stress, such as a big tennis match where all eyes are on you, you will be somewhere on the arousal scale. The scale starts at ‘laid back, uninterested’ and goes all the way through to panic which is associated with anger and violence. At the start of the competition, you are aiming to be right in the middle: confident and alert, but not irritable or extremely nervous. There will be nerves of course, but these have to be managed so that they do not interfere with what counts. For a tennis match, this would be your game plan. In an interview this could be your background research on the employing company. Nerves help keep you alert, however when they cause you to forget or deviate from the plan, coping strategies need to be put in place.
In the next article, I will give examples of coping strategies from a very specific scenario (bike racing), however for now, I will give a brief outline with general examples you can use and adapt for your next event.
Arousal regulation: this is all about maintaining composure. I use tennis as an example because you see a broad spectrum of emotions, from McEnroe smashing his racket, to Roger Federer regularly gracing around the court. There are always exceptions to the rules where someone excels with a ‘poor’ technique, and McEnroe is a great example, however there is always the question, would McEnroe have been any better had he had greater composure, or was his temper the thing that pushed him onward?
For the mere mortals, composure should be the aim. Adversity coping such as after losing a point/game/match/job prospect from a poor interview etc, is all about quickly learning from that loss with an analytical mind and without too much emotion, then bouncing back to the next challenge.
A technique for this is using positive self talk (thinking). This is a key strategy, and you already almost certainly use self talk, but perhaps more negatively than you should. For an injured athlete, self talk usually starts at “this is career ending/I’m not going to improve/get to the level I aspired to. Instead, the simple solution is to use positive self talk “I’m feeling down today, but I’m still on track with rehab, I need to be patient and I will make it back”.
“Winners see what they want to happen, losers see what they fear”
Imagery: this is my favorite aspect of PST. It is the one where you can truly see the power of the mind and the distinction between the psychological and physical aspects of performance, specifically pain. Pain is a perception which can be turned on and off at will. Hypnotherapists demonstrate this well, however more typically we’ve all been in the situation where you burn or cut yourself accidentally, but only feel the pain once you see the injury. This is one facet of imagery, and I will use a personal example of indoor training to help give an insight to how the pros use it to enhance performance. Imagery is a skill which takes a while to master, and where the final aim is to have one or more ‘scenarios’ you can use during a tough training session or competition. Whilst on the stationary bike trainer (think treadmill but for cycling – an equally unappealing prospect), I have a particular race which I run through mentally. The aim is to have the scenario playing in your mind like a projector playing a film. The more you allow yourself to become immersed in the imagery, the more powerful it becomes. Eventually, you will be able to use more senses than just sight alone. You will start to hear what the crowd are shouting, and the instructions you are receiving on race radio, maybe even the smell of the air. Essentially, to quote Eminem, you loose yourself in the moment.
Physiologically, this is a powerful tool and during sessions where I have used mental imagery, I have always sustained a greater power output than when simply gritting the teeth and hoping to get through the session.
Self confidence: how you see yourself as an athlete, performer or candidate is very important. All the best elite athletes have endless self confidence and self efficacy (belief in reaching goals and belief in your own ability). Projecting a confident persona is critical in close quarter situations ranging from boxing right through to a sales meeting. Some people have limitless confidence which leads to the attitude of “winning was the only option; how could I possibly lose?”, whereas others may display a more realistic confidence. A lightweight boxer is always going to be confident in their ability, but put them against a heavyweight champion, and you would (hope to) see a more realistic attitude that the outcome may not be favorable. The key here is matching expectations to performance, and using slightly elevated expectations to raise performance.
One PST strategy for self confidence is the easiest and least used tool to access. Simply, sit on a chair in a quite room, straighten your back, and broaden your shoulders. This is commonly known as a ‘power pose’, and is debated to evoke physiological responses such as a release of testosterone. The hypothesis is that low confidence, nervous people make themselves as small and unnoticeable as possible, whilst confident people consciously or subconsciously want to take up as much space as possible and let everyone know they are present.
Goal setting: everybody needs and uses goals in some form or other. Hopefully everybody has also heard of Smart or Smarter goals (specific, measurable, agreed, realistic, timed, ethical & recorded). There isn’t too much to add here, except for this should be the first PST you get right, or at least practice. Once you have your goals, you can then work on your confidence, imagery and coping strategies to meet those targets. The rules here are also quite slack, especially considering ‘realistic goals’. What is realistic to me may not be realistic to you, so let yourself make the final decision about what you deem to be realistic. Sure, listen to people along the way, but personal goals are your own, so make sure you and you alone make the all important call. Lionel Messi’s doctors probably wouldn’t have thought top flight football was a realistic goal when he was 13 and suffering from a mild form of dwarfism due to a growth hormone deficiency, for example.
Concentration: finally we come to concentration which is hopefully not too ironic given that we’re now nearly 1800 words down. Concentration ties in with arousal, and the two almost go hand in hand. If you are overly nervous or uninterested, then concentrating on anything which demands attention will be difficult. There are many skills for developing attentional focus such as self talk which we have previously mentioned. The key to concentration is understanding when concentration is most often lost. Usually, it is at the point of tiredness, when the level of physical exertion allows for a depleted mental capacity. This is perhaps the major culprit, however others include momentum shifts in the game, bad decisions affecting your focus, and unexpected obstacles, such as facing an opponent who turns out to be a lot better than their ranking suggests, thus drawing your thoughts away from your game plan and towards their flashy technique. I will use a technique from squash to demonstrate, however this could easily be applied to any racket sport, or any sport in general with some subtle alteration.
In squash, the referee has the power to decide who wins the point. In some cases, you may not agree, and at crucial times in a match, this is sure to knock your concentration if the call goes against you. The simple refocusing skill is to put in a long rally immediately after a bad decision. The aim is to expend a little energy in order to forget what has just happened, and start to concentrate back on your game plan. As anyone who has played squash will no doubt attest to, you will be far too tired after a 50 shot rally to even remember what the score is, let alone what happened in the last point.
Hopefully this has given a introductory insight into psychology for the benefit of performance. In my next article, I will give very specific examples of the above for a high performance athlete, but in the meantime, see how many strategies you can implement in order to knock a second off that pb, or simply finish the dreaded morning run with a smile on your face.