Head In The Game: 3 Ways Sports Psychology Helps Athletes Hit Peak Performance
We often see in films and television a stereotype of athletes as bumbling, hulking idiots, too unintelligent to do anything other than lift weights, drink protein shakes, and play sports.
But the reality is that for most athletes, and especially top-performing athletes, this stereotype couldn’t be further from the truth. Whether they are playing team sports like football or basketball or individual events like weightlifting or tennis, athletes at all levels have to use the full range of cognitive abilities and mental strength to succeed.
And as with anything that requires us to use our brains, the mental fitness of an athlete is just as important as their physical fitness.
What is Sports Psychology?
Sports Psychology is a discipline within psychology that focuses on using our understanding of the human psyche to help athletes reach peak performance and to maintain an overall higher well-being on and off the field.
Through the use of motivational techniques, mental training and conditioning, and traditional therapy, Sports Psychology aims to give athletes a way to prepare themselves for game day as well as to recover more quickly afterward.
The History of Sports Psychology
Today, many professional and amateur teams and athletes rely on the help of Sports Psychology professionals to help them increase mental toughness and boost performance. Still, it hasn’t always been that way.
What can be considered as the first Sports Psychology institution was started only a century ago in 1920 in Berlin, Germany, by Carl Diem for the Deutsche Sporthochschule. However, there was little progress in the field for nearly four decades until Ferruccio Antonelli established the International Society of Sports Psychology (ISSP) in 1965.
By 1970, the first academic journal had been established, and shortly after that, universities throughout North America had begun introducing Sports Psychology into their course offerings.
The interest in Sports Psychology continued to increase throughout the decade. By the 1980s, the discipline was becoming more mainstream as researchers began applying even more rigorous scientific focus on how psychology could be used to increase athletic performance and boost the mental well-being of athletes.
How Does Psychology Affect an Athlete’s Performance?
According to Sports Psychologist Canice Kennedy, as we move up the ladder from youth sports to elite, pro-level competition, psychology becomes increasingly important to the success of athletes and teams.
As she explains, success in sport relies on four central pillars: technical, tactical, physical, and mental.
For athletes just starting out in youth sports, success often is based on how well they understand the basics of the sport in question. Can they follow the rules, can they perform the required movements adequately? Teams and individuals who have a greater understanding of the technical aspects of the sport are likely to be more successful than those who do not.
As we move beyond the basics required for youth sports, the tactical elements of the game become much more important. Can the players work together as a team? Do they understand the flow of the game and how to react based on the context of the moment?
When we reach the mid-level athletes who have mastered the technical and tactical aspects of their game, the physical fitness of the athletes becomes one of the key factors that sets a good athlete from a great one.
Upon reaching the highest level of sport and athletic competition, the mental fitness of the athlete becomes a critical component of what separates the sporting legends from the rest. Every athlete in the top tier of their sport is going to have a complete understanding of the technical and tactical aspects of the game, so there isn’t much room for improvement. Every athlete will be in top physical shape. At this level, physical fitness has already begun to provide quickly diminishing returns.
But, an athlete who has the mental strength to push through diversity, to overcome a tough loss and get back to training, or to inspire their teammates to try just a little bit harder will be much more likely to succeed at this highest level.
What Does a Sports Psychologist Do?
Sport Psychology, just like any form of mental-health-related discipline, is complex and often misunderstood. While many might initially think that a Sports Psychologist merely sits around yelling inspirational one-liners like “’atta boy!” and “keep yer head in the game!,” the activities and procedures utilized by these well-trained, dedicated professionals go far beyond this.
Cognitive & Behavioral Training
The most apparent activity that many Sports Psychologists perform involves working with athletes to improve performance and athletic output. Through cognitive and behavioral therapies, Sports Psychologists help athletes build mental toughness, set and work towards goals, develop self-confidence, manage emotions, and much more.
These performance-enhancing therapies can be divided into two separate but related areas: those related to on-field performance and those related to activities outside of official competition.
On-field activities may focus on helping the athlete stay focused under pressure, push through challenging physical situations, or maintain self-confidence when things are going poorly during a game.
On the other hand, activities focused on how the athlete performs during training and practice may involve setting and achieving training goals or building leadership skills, for example.
Counseling & Clinical Interventions
But even the most elite athletes are still human like the rest of us and can be affected by mental health issues. Sports Psychologists might work with athletes who are struggling with mental health issues related to their sport, such as burnout, eating disorders, over-training, or the mental aspects of recovering and rehabilitation after an injury. They may also work with athletes to manage more personal, non-sports-related mental health issues that are affecting their athletic performance, such as depression, anxiety, or substance abuse.
Consultations & Education
While many Sports Psychologists work with athletes on an individual basis, they often also work with athletic organizations, coaches and managers, parents, or other groups to consult and educate these groups.
For athletic organizations and coaches, Sports Psychologists may help create systems that promote robust mental health among the athletes, reduce the likelihood of burnout, or help motivate teams to train harder and perform at their peak.
They may also work with parents, coaches, and schools, for instance, to educate them on mental-health-related issues affecting younger athletes.
Sports Psychology is a fascinating area of psychology that takes everything we know about the human psyche and applies it to the real-world situation in ways that are much different than our conventional idea of patients sitting on a couch and a therapist asking questions and quietly jotting down notes in their notebook.
It just goes to show that our psychology and cognitive state have effects far beyond how we feel, but also affect how we perform.
After receiving his undergraduate degree in psychology, Scott went on to work as a teacher and educational counselor while working towards his master’s degree. He has spent several years working with children and adults and has personal experience with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, Dyslexia, and Depression.