One definition of sport psychology can be simply described as ‘just psychology applied to sports’ – it was my former professor who said it. He further went on to say that the theoretical principles of psychology form the scientific groundwork by which a sport Psychologist practices.
It’s important to note that a sports psychologist must be accredited or in training with a supervisor so that you know you are receiving the appropriate support and avoid having ultracrepidarians enter your workplace.
We shall take a whistle-stop tour and look at the aspects of sport that sport psychology can help with. One of the most common approaches to sport psychology is psychological skills training (PST) or otherwise known as mental skills training. This style of training looks to support the development of specific mental skills with an athlete by aiming to reduce the inconsistency of performance because of certain psychological aspects, such as anxiety.
Many interventions would consist of psychological skills such as goal setting, pre-performance routines, arousal and relaxation, concentration, positive self-talk and imagery. Many of these psychological skills have copious amounts of evidence-based practice which shows great strength to PST.
Moving away from psychological skills training, sport psychology offers support for coaches, parents, referees, physiotherapists and of course the players. We can explore the development of relationships, performing under pressure, how to rationalise with irrational beliefs, mental resilience training, the focus of attention, well-being support, leadership, team cohesion, mindset, mindfulness, coping skills, emotional control to name a few.
With all these areas that sport psychology consultants can support with, it is not surprising that businesses and other occupations that rely on performance are starting to employ sports psychologists. Elite-level athletes have reported that the contributing factors for success are to do with having the mental edge and there is a recognised link between business and sports in terms of psychology (Hallet & Hoffman, 2014).
If we look at the army for example, their job relies heavily on performing under pressure, team work, leadership, emotional control and more. It is widely known that the special forces have employed psychologists from different fields and I know from experience that they have had a massive influence with the valued soldiers and members of the army.
The army perform under life and death situations, and the wrong movement or decision could lead to death, so it is imperative that when under pressure, these such soldiers are able to keep calm and control their emotions to keep themselves and their unit safe.
But we do have to be extremely careful with this application of psychology and there are lots of parallels with sport, as a team and at an individual level, but it is not a sport. People in the military do share some characteristics with sports people and are of course humans after all, but they shouldn’t be characterised the same as sports people.
Lessons can be learned and can be transferable in these domains of performance but the psychological elements and needs within any performance domain needs to be comprehended as an independent domain in order to provide the best psychological support.
This does not mean that individuals who have an applied sport psychology background can’t be influential in the military, but by definition aren’t working as a sport psychologist, but are practitioners applying their psychological experience, knowledge and skills in improving performance within a different (military) population.
When talking about human safety, we can look at the role of a surgeon. Surgeons often operate for long hours and have to concentrate under immense pressure to be able to pull off such complex procedures. They would have to incorporate such techniques whether they are aware of it or not, to guide them with their operation. One example of this would be self-talk, either instructional to direct them to the appropriate movement or motivational self-talk to help them feel in control. You definitely wouldn’t want a surgeon to be talking to themselves negatively whilst they have a surgical knife in their hands.
If you say to yourself, ‘don’t overthink,’ ‘don’t mess up,’ ‘don’t fail’ or even ‘don’t think of a multi-coloured elephant,’ then the ironic effect increases as does the likelihood of doing it. The harder you try to suppress and not think of ‘it’ the more likely it is to come into your thoughts.
In terms of business, and looking specifically at performance and increasing profit (if you take such a capitalist style view with life), then having a performance psychologist in place would be very beneficial. If we look at one aspect out of the many, handling pressure as an example, it has been widely researched in the sport psychology literature that the more mentally resilient someone is, the more they can handle ‘pressure.’ Research also shows that mental resilience can be trained and isn’t a fixed trait.
One characteristic of a mentally resilient athlete is the ability to control the controllables and identify what is within their control and what is not so that they can exert as much energy into what they can control rather than what they can’t. They can accept that there are elements in their environment which they simply cannot influence. One sporting example of this could be a golfer not being able to control the conditions of the course, or their competitor’s scores, but what they can control is their mindset, swing, and feet positions which will positively influence their performance.
Employees in such an organisation cannot control the actions of their business competitors, or the conditions of whatever market they are in and therefore should stress about them. What they should focus on, however, are the possible actions they have in that situation and making good decisions.
A lot more can be said about how sport psychology can have a positive impact on the performance in business and if you are interested in knowing more then please get in contact with us today. But I’ll digress. We are going to move on to another occupation that can be positively impacted upon by sport psychology.
This occupation is to do with the aviation industry or the Space industry and to do with the pilots and other technicians who deal with the safety aspects of flights/expeditions and have other people’s lives in their hands. Yet another field that has to deal with aspects of pressure. One psychological skill that could be used here is imagery. A sport psychology consultant can help these individuals train in greater depth by guiding them through the process of mental rehearsal.
The individual athletes/pilots can employ this technique in different ways depending on their preferences, ability to form the images and controllability, their ability to make visual representations and kinaesthetic feelings, and their capability to use their emotional experiences.
This technique can improve the athlete’s performance by directly developing their skills and strategies or by improving their motivation, arousal regulation, or levels of self-confidence. Athletes know they can improve in so many ways and being able to see and feel themselves perform hundreds of times without actually playing in their sport is one way, simply just by replicating how they would like to compete from their mind’s eye.
Just like a pilot needs to practice the steps for taking off and landing, and doing certain manoeuvres in times of turbulence, by mentally rehearsing these steps it will embed this more prominently in the times of these pilots and when times of pressure comes around, they will be more efficient and calm with their responses.
Actors and actresses perform in front of many people in the crowd, critics, and other performers and prior to this performance they may feel nervous and have to cope with stage fright. If you happen to perform in a relaxed environment during rehearsal you may find that you underperform and when it is show time, many performers struggle when it’s go time.
They can experience stage fright, anxiety and in turn choke and face embarrassment. One way to deal with this is to practice in a pressurised environment so that you become more accustomed to dealing with this pressure. During this customisation, there needs to be some support to help them through this pressure so they can build their coping strategies to help them perform at their optimum level and deal with performance anxiety.
Esports is a big business and it is developing at a gargantuan rate. It is an online competition where players compete as individuals or as part of a multiplayer game. Some popular games are Fortnite, Call of Duty, Rocket League and Fifa where there is the possibility of earning big bucks.
Many challenges faced by these players are extremely similar to those that other sporting athletes face, with a real desire in Esports teams to support the growth and development of their players.
From experience, the fundamental psychological challenges that these players face include concentration, emotional control, and sustaining confidence. If you look at where some players get their confidence from, they get lots of data and statistics from their games which can make them reliant on this one source of information. Perhaps in a couple of games, something happens and it is out of their control (sticky buttons / poor Wi-Fi connection) then this will affect their stats and ultimately could affect their confidence levels. Perhaps these players could learn to reflect on other sources of information to help with their levels of confidence rather than solely looking at the statistics.
Other challenges they could need support with could include how to cope with online abuse which has been in the news a lot recently, poor sleep habits, lack of regular exercise which we know has detrimental effects on health, failure to function as a team, and poor leadership. All of these challenges could be supported with the help of a sport psychology consultant.
Now, we shall take look at the exercise side of life and what a sport and exercise psychologist can do to help. An exercise psychologist can apply psychological principles to support individuals in adopting and maintaining physical activity. Much exercise-related work uses the same approaches as sport psychology to the individuals taking part in physical activity e.g. goal-setting, motivation, mindfulness, among others. While helping individuals perform better, reach their sporting goals, and maintain consistency in their performance is tremendously rewarding, helping an individual improve their health by being more active is also gratifying and is why many people a drawn to the exercise psychology profession.
In terms of sport psychology in businesses, FocusPerform works with companies in the South of England and Wales. We help businesses strive for a world where all staff members thrive under pressure, learn the skills to bounce back from setbacks, and are happy and passionate about their work life.
Our partner company Arcope, covers the North of England and Wales.
An earlier version of this article was published on Focus Perform.
George Mitchell is a sport scientist. You can connect with him on Twitter @GeorgeMBases.