Sports Psychology – What is it?
Sports psychology focuses on an area in an athlete’s development that is
often overlooked. The mental aspect of the individual, sport or team and how they can be developed to help the
person achieve the ultimate sports performance. The difference between winning and losing in sports is often
attributable to the mental development of the athlete and the ongoing practice of strategies on a daily basis.
In fact science proves that hard work on your mind and your technical skills will develop a much more talented
sporting figure than thinking that you are born to win. Below are the 12 core areas that a sports
psychologist will focus upon to improve the sport performance of that individual. Psychology of
sport uses scientific evidence to implement performance enhancing strategies for the person.
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A sport psychologist will distinguish between the different types of goals. Optimal
sports performance will need to access all types of goals.
Outcome Goals refer to a desired outcome from a competition. An example
would be to win a gold medal at the 2012 London games. However, to achieve this goal is also dependent on other
uncontrollable variables such as the day of the competition, weather or the abilities of the other athletes.
Performance Goals compare an athlete’s actual performance in relation to
their own high standard of excellence. They are controllable by the athlete and would include an example such as
to increase successful first serve percentage from 55% to 65%.
Process Goals focus upon the skill, ability and technique performance of
the sporting person. Typically they are the goals used in practice or training. An example would be the
perfection of the golf drive including the follow through.
Although the outcome goal is very important as we consider it to be the destination, it is the
process and performance goals that are within the control of the athlete and the coach and if perfected,
improved and achieved will often lead to the success of the outcome goal. Focusing upon the process allows you
to stay in the moment and to be aware and to enjoy. Problems with focusing on outcomes is that they are not
always in your control and it heaps unnecessary pressure upon you. New forms of brain imaging techniques
highlight that this approach can change your brain structures for the better leading to better performance
Sport psychology will ascertain the motivation levels of the individual and to
understand the motivation type that is specific to the athlete. A sports psychologist will try to understand if
that style is beneficial both to the athlete and to their success.
A motivational style that is totally focused upon the external rewards that come to the athlete
by their involvement and success in the sport. An example would be the large pay packets received by premier
league footballers. There are many that play in teams that will never achieve any success, but the financial
rewards are immense.
The athlete performs the skill and engages in sport for the pure fun and pleasure of it and if
successful the extrinsic rewards will come as a natural by product of the process. They are not burdened with
the anxiety of the fear of failure.
Identified as the need to be in relationship with others; to experience competence and to
function with autonomy. A motivational climate can be created which allows the athlete to participate without
coercion, an atmosphere where skill mastery and learning are the norm and an atmosphere of satisfaction in the
engagement of the sport.
Engagement levels are crucial to understand what is driving you and towards what purpose. Often
the performer will be waiting for something to increase their motivation levels whereas we will show you what
you need to do first. This is why goal setting links closely with motivation trying to understand the levels of
direction and effort levels.
Psychology in sport will take the subject of intensity very seriously. Intensity is the balance
and relationship between arousal and anxiety levels. In modern day speak this refers really to stress levels and
whether yours is at a good or bad level. A constant state of anxiety will leave your body continually tense
leading to injury, poor coordination of fine technical skills and bad health. The ability to control your mind
and emotions whilst under pressure is crucial for exceptional results. So many performers are affected by the
debilitating effects of pressure and yet with the correct tools and strategies in your toolbox it is something
that can be improved or overcome completely.
The physiological reactions (adrenaline, breathing, heart rate) that sport people experience before,
during and after a match and whether they perceive those feelings to be a help or a hindrance.
Psychology of sport understands the need for clear focus at critical moments. Concentration
levels can wane if the athlete is tired, injured, distracted or just over confident. Below are some areas that a
sports psychologist will investigate. Mastery of concentration levels can help the athlete achieve an ideal
state known as the 'flow' and can avoid the need to distract oneself both of an internal and external
Sports psychology consultants will have differing approaches to their work and athletes. One of
the sports performance improvement techniques is the ability to learn and practice mental imagery for enhanced
sports performance. Mental imagery or visualisation has been found to be beneficial in physical,
psychological skill enhancement and perceptual areas prior to, during and after competition. Individual imagery
scripts can be produced that take into account the uniqueness of the athlete and the particular nuances of that
sport. The brain cannot understand the difference between what was once real or was imagined so we tap into this
to develop brain structures and to change past events or future imagined ones. These newly stored images can be
powerful in enhancing your performance during periods of downtime, injury or breaks in the match.
6. Team Cohesion & Group
Our Sport psychologist consultants are aware that mental skills training of the individual has
to be in congruence with the needs of the team that they are a part of. The challenge here is to understand that
you have your own requirements as to your mental state but then you have to fit into a team of other individuals
who all have their own requirements. Compound this with the needs of a manager, coach and backroom staff and you
will start to understand the possible conflicts within a team.
Each individual team member has to be clear as to what their role is in the team and the roles
of their team members. Problems in this area will create conflict and lack of confidence.
This area highlights how satisfied players are with the role that they have been given. They may
demonstrate a clear understanding of the role but not happy with the choice. A lack of role acceptance can have
serious effects on team spirit and the ultimate success of that team. One thinks of the squad rotation in
This can be a huge blow to the athlete’s confidence leading to poor motivation and attitude
problems. The emotions from this decision have to be considered and dealt with professionally and swiftly both
for the individual’s benefit and the benefit of the team.
If the team is not motivated along with the individuals then sports performance will suffer.
Sport psychology will assess team goal setting, team profiling, open channels of communication, understand the
differences of each individual and make a commitment to positive thinking.
Also known in the literature as cohesion. We as sports psychologists look at areas of social
cohesion (the extent to which players get on with each other on a social basis). High levels are experienced by
teams which spend time together off of the field and engage in non sporting activities. We also consider task
cohesion which refers to the extent that all team members agree on the goals and strategies of the team.
Psychology of sport considers 9 areas that an athlete can enhance to have a fully professional
attitude towards their sport. These attitudes enhance performance in the individual or their role within a team.
All our work embraces the need for total dedication and focus along with a balance in the lifestyle that
refreshes the mind, body and emotional system and helps recovery of joints, energy and desire.
Sports performance can be affected both positively and negatively by emotions. However, emotions
affect individuals differently like our discussion on intensity. Some emotions hinder performance and some
assist. We help you understand how the limbic system responsible for your emotions tie into your thoughts,
actions and behaviours and what can be worked upon to assist your performance. Emotions and emotional work is
not an area that should be overlooked as they can be responsible for meltdown, choking, psychological
shakes, unhappiness and poor feelings throughout your mind and body.
Psychology in sport introduces and implements routines into the athlete’s mental preparation.
These routines help the athlete avoid distractions, problems at the venue and leave a clear performance focus
for success. The routines help centre the athlete and avoid the debilitating effects of too much thinking
leading to breakdown of technique.
Training regimes ensure athletes are optimally prepared for practice by ensuring physical warm up,
instilling motivation, building confidence, achieve correct level of intensity and allow effective
Any sports psychologist will tell you that in sport, confidence is everything. The best
technique and fitness will stand for nothing if confidence levels are low or are falling. We may not appreciate
that there are many strategies and techniques for enhancing and re-installing confidence levels. The issue with
confidence is that it affects performance directly head-on by not having the belief to perform and also
indirectly by affecting anxiety levels, emotions and concentration.
Sport psychology can assist you to build or rebuild confidence levels by including proper
preparation techniques, positive strength recognition, having confidence role models, developing social support,
using self talk and positive imagery, learning to respond to adversity and focusing on successful
The athlete’s attributions can also affect their confidence levels. We talk about attributions
in this context as to how the sports person will attribute their successes and failures and on what factors they
attribute them. Taking responsibility allows the athlete to understand what needs to change and what needs to be
improved and awareness is powerful in starting this positive action.
Sports performance confidence can be assisted by developing an optimistic mind set and attitude.
We can show you how to achieve this.
11. Positive Thought
A cognitive behavioural approach to positive psychology in sport. In this school of thought we
believe that our thoughts trigger our emotions which in turn stimulate our actions or behaviour. This then leads
us to think that realistically one of our best strategies is to change the way that we think which will then
produce positive emotions and behaviours (performance). Our approach will focus on three areas of thought
control. It is also known that strong emotions can also trigger our thoughts so ignore these at your peril.
Techniques used include mindfulness training that focuses upon the present moment leaving the mind clear to
ignore the past or future.
Be aware of your inner voice
Accept that the way we are programmed means that we are continually having thoughts good and
bad. Would it not be successful to remove bad thoughts and turn them into good and positive ones?
Use your critic productively
Our mind is there to protect us. We should not dismiss what is going through it as we may need
to be aware of an impending problem, solution or action needed. We focus on listening what is in the thoughts
and deciding the correct action or changes needed to remove them.
Replace negativity with productivity
Once we have identified what is going on and what needs to be done then we implement thought
control interventions. These will include turning negatives into positives, replacing damaging thoughts with
enhancing ones, parking untimely thoughts for later and developing a set of personal affirmations.
Sports psychology identifies the existence of mental toughness and mental skills training but
has found it very difficult to define. Many sport psychologists believe that the 11 core areas above when
working efficiently will develop mental toughness as a by product. Others believe that performers are born with
it and it is their make up and past history that will define their mental toughness. We believe along with a
growing school of thought that all the above are correct but with 4 extra areas that need to be specifically
worked on. True mental toughness is the ability for you to control your mental processes and skills as opposed
to letting your mental processes control you.
The ability to turn around a situation when it is all going wrong and meltdown is approaching.
This type of mental strength can save the day against all the odds.
Pressure Point Toughness
The critical moment and taking the right decision at the right time. In any game there is that
one moment that could define the whole outcome of the match. Mentally tough individuals will be able to identify
it and take action as and when it comes around.
Staying power toughness
Mental toughness in individuals will show itself when the pressure is on and things are not
always going to plan. The stress will be on the individual constantly and that performer will be able to endure
the pressure without crumbling.
In any victory v failure scenario there will come a time when a risk has to be taken. It could
be on match point, last minute of the game etc. The mentally tough individual will weigh up all the costs and
benefits of each scenario and decide when the time is right to take that risk for victory as opposed to the
trying not to lose scenario.
I hope this has given you an insight into how sport psychology for sports performance and a
sports psychologist can assist the athlete in developing their mental skills and mental
toughness for optimal sports performance. Stage 1 is to become aware, stage 2 is to practice them, stage 3 is to
get help with specific interventions and stage 4 is to take forward forever in your life. Sports psychology can
make the difference between winning and losing. Visit our video based elearning
system or sign up for our online coaching program below.