What is your first reaction when you hear the words sport psychology? Problems? Weak? Incapable? Even in our post-postmodern enlightened age of 2015, there still tends to be a strong negative stigma associated with the word psychology. Many people still believe that if you go to see a professional with any link to psychology, there must be something wrong with you—that you are somehow broken.
This is a stigma that my colleagues and I battle every day, as the field of applied sport psychology begins to gain momentum and notoriety in sports and other industries. Sure, athletes and performers in many arenas visit professionals like me when they are experiencing a slump or other difficulties—but that does not mean they have a problem, or are broken. Perhaps psychology is viewed this way because our human nature tends to focus more attention on the negative. Let me do a quick reframe for you: what if the athlete or performer is not trying to fix something, but simply wanting to improve? Same scenario, but a different perspective. That is how applied sport psychology can work.
For those of you unaware of applied sport psychology, and even for those of you who are aware, I want to first define what applied sport psychology is: concern “with the psychological factors that influence participation and performance in sport and exercise, the psychological effects derived from participation, and theories and interventions that can be used to enhance performance, participation, and personal growth” (Williams, 2010, p. 1). Basically, using the psychological factors, or mental skills, and helping the athletes and performers become more competent in their sport, and also in their lives. The mental skills that are learned and practiced are not only for use in sport, but can translate into everyday life and a more healthy way of being.
Even with a little more understanding of what applied sport psychology is, the never-ending question of why still persists. Let’s use an example of the importance of mental skills: imagine yourself moving, perhaps taking a walk through your neighborhood. Your body is comfortable, your movements are fluid, your arms are swaying back and forth with every step and you have no concerns or worries. Suddenly, your head gets cut off (our example gets a bit graphic!)—what happens now? Your body collapses to the ground and there is no more walking. This example is significant because it shows how every movement of the body first takes place in the mind. The body does not move first and then tell the mind. Without a head, without a brain, there is no moving—there is no performing
In his book The Rise of Superman, Steve Kotler mentions how the brain is 2% of our body weight, yet consumes 20% of our total energy. Therefore, it seems that if there were a way to help conserve some of that energy, that would be extremely beneficial. Wonder if there is anything out there to help aid you in conserving some of that mental energy? Are there ways to keep your mind calm and relaxed? You bet there is.
For the sake of making my point clear, let’s do an exercise. Grab a writing utensil and something to write on (or type on). List 8-10 intangible qualities that you believe make up a great athlete or performer in your arena. If you play soccer, what intangibles do great soccer players have? If you play softball, what do the best softball players have that make them the best. Go ahead and put a little thought into this.
I am willing to bet many of you will list some physical qualities such as strength, speed, power, finesse, quickness, and etc. I am also willing to bet many of you listed some psychological and mental qualities like focus, determination, motivation, confidence, and etc. Now, next to each quality you listed, estimate about how much of your time each week is spent working on developing each of these qualities. It does not need to be exact—try putting it in terms of percentages. Maybe you spend 25% of your time working on strength, 15% on power, 10% on speed, and so on. Just put some approximate numbers down.
What do you notice? My guess is most of you spend a majority (if not all) of your time working on the physical qualities. And why would you not? They are important! But take a look at the mental qualities you listed—this is an entire facet of becoming a successful athlete or performer that you are abandoning entirely. For example, if you listed 10 total intangibles, and 3 of those are mental, that is 30% of your game—30% of your potential, completely untapped.
So I ask you: why are you limiting yourself and your potential?
When you find yourself in a pinnacle moment of a game—bottom of the ninth with bases loaded, or at the free throw line with 20 seconds and no timeouts left—are you going to trust yourself and feel confident in your ability to perform? The top athletes do. And it starts with having the best mindset: a strong and confident one. But a strong and confident mind does not appear out of nowhere—it is built. It is constructed. It is practiced. Much like your physical training, your mental training takes the same (if not more) commitment. There will inevitably be times when you fail, but will you be able to overcome adversity? How? Sport psychology and the practicing of mental skills can help you answer that question.
Through maintaining your motivation, setting specific goals, utilizing positive thinking strategies, controlling your emotions and energy, staying focused on the present, envisioning yourself succeeding, becoming a better communicator and teammate, all while building an unshakeable confidence—that’s how you develop the skills necessary to overcome failures. You have the ability to achieve what you envision. Using mental skills developed through sport psychology training can help you create the strong and confident mind you need to believe in yourself. You can choose whether to let a negative stigma dictate how you train for your game—and you can choose to invest the time in developing your mental skills, like you do your physical skills. A strong and confident mind is the ultimate homefield advantage: one that you can carry with you wherever you go.
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Kotler, S. (2014). The rise of superman: Decoding the science of ultimate human performance. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
Williams, J.M. (2010). Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.