For athletes, the work is endless. Constantly striving for their next goal and always in the pursuit of excellence, athletes persistently push their bodies and utilize any and all avenues for possible success. From strength training, technical skills and tactical strategies, these elements are crucial to success, but another essential element that continues to be overlooked is the power that sport psychology holds in unlocking athletes’ fullest potential.
Sport psychology is the study of how different psychological factors impact sports performance. This emerging avenue is a game-changer in optimizing athletes’ performance and achieving athletic goals. By having a thorough understanding of sports psychology, whether you’re the athlete performing or the coach motivating your team, you’ll be able to unlock your athletic full potential.
In this blog post, we will be diving into the fascinating realm of sports psychology and explore how to employ those techniques in your journey. This guide will provide valuable insights and practical tools to take your game to the next level.
A great resource for understanding the basics of sports psychology is the book titled Developing Mental Training by psychologist Peter Clough. In his book, he discusses four crucial traits of mental toughness which he coined the four C’s: Confidence, Challenge, Control and Commitment.
Having confidence means believing in yourself, which is crucial in achieving success at any level, especially within sports. Being confident means having strong social skills, being able to speak in public and knowing how to communicate with others.
Having challenges in your life encourages you to grow and develop your skills. When you are mentally tough, you welcome challenges and thrive off of them.
Mentally tough people believe that they have the control over their life necessary to succeed. They also believe they have control over their attitude and their life’s outcomes.
Commitment, also known as ‘stickability’, means setting up specific goals and committing to taking the necessary steps to achieve that goal.
Now, we will be going over a few techniques based in sports psychology that are proven to help maximize performance.
Reflecting on past performance is a crucial step to reaching peak performance and increasing your success. When reflecting, it is important to ensure that you are placing even focus on both your strengths and your weaknesses, highlighting both what went wrong and what went right.
There are many ways that you can implement reflecting into your sports performance, but a successful technique for reflecting is creating a list and scoring out of 10 how the athlete is currently performing in that sector and then noting their goal for performance.
For an athlete, being nervous shouldn’t be considered a negative. Nervousness shows that a competition/event matters. With that being said, there is a point where nerves take over and end up damaging performance. At that point, being nervous does become a problem.
The challenge when discussing nerves is understanding how to maintain composure and stay calm and relaxed.
Something important to understand is there are two distinct approaches to coping. First, there is problem focused coping. Problem focused approaches are used when preparing to face pressure that is within an athlete's control (a match, race, competition, etc). Second, there is emotion focused coping. Emotion focused coping approaches are used to help how the athlete interprets or reacts to a high-pressure situation.
Having a pre-performance routine is an extremely effective problem-focused strategy that can promote a calm state is ideal for competing. It can also help reduce performance stress, ultimately helping improve results.
The athlete should have a routine of actions they feel comfortable performing prior to an event and while preparing for the event. “Routines are valuable because they take you from thinking about doing something to doing it” (Kremer et al., 2019).
Meditation and Mindfulness
Using meditation and mindfulness can be highly effective strategies for emotion focused coping techniques. These techniques will help an athlete restructure and reframe pressure and nerves within their mind. Using methods such as the body scan meditation (lie back with your arms extended and arms at your side. Focus your attention slowly and deliberately on every part of your body moving from your toes to your head. When doing this be aware of any sensations, thoughts or emotions that come up) or simply entering a mindful state can be invaluable as a form of autonomous relaxation that you can blend into your training.
Hearing that you need to focus is pretty standard when you’re completing any large or daunting task. The issue isn’t knowing that you need to focus, but more so knowing how to focus and what to focus on.
Focusing needs to be specific to what you are doing and where you are; it majorly involves ignoring distractions. When trying to focus, having a clear goal that you are able to break down into small actionable steps is extremely beneficial.
There are a few types of focus:
Narrow (focusing on one aspect of gameplay) versus broad (entire game)
Internal (attending to your performance) versus external (considering the environment)
Since the human capacity for focusing is limited, humans are always in one of the following types of focuses at any given time and each focus serves a different purpose:
Narrow/Internal Narrow/External Broad/Internal Broad/External
To utilize focus in your game, consider the sport that you are participating in. What focus best applies to the situation and when?
Most athletes and coaches alike know that motivation plays a huge role in achieving athletic success. Motivation isn’t always easy to come by and it is rarely easy to maintain. There have been many studies completed regarding motivation, what it is and how to maintain it. Many of these studies have done research into intrinsic motivation (completing a task for the sake of completing a task) and extrinsic motivation (for the sake of your ego or the rewards that you will gain) and what these studies have confirmed is that intrinsic motivation is much more powerful when sustaining commitment to a goal.
Though there are several tactics for sustaining motivation and achieving motivation, here are some popular ones:
Goals help to focus your attention on something, stimulate dedication, strengthen perseverance and foster the formulation of strategies.
Many studies have found that talking to yourself in a positive manner helps improve performance. Whether you choose to speak verbally or internally, repeating sentences like “I can do this” boosts motivation.
Growing intrinsic motivation
This type of motivation is not always a given. Whether you are the coach or the athlete, finding new ways to encourage intrinsic motivation will help align with your basic psychological needs. This will help foster a sense of autonomy and competence.
Visualization is another incredibly useful technique that you are able to use to better your athletic performance. In visualization, you can rehearse a difficult set of movements or a stressful situation and this will help you increase your confidence. Visualization has been very closely linked to positive thinking techniques and helps promote those same results. This technique is widely used within the sports community and has been shown to increase success.
Here is a recommended process for when you get started with visualization:
See the environment and picture it in great detail. Notice the weather, how it would smell, what you would see, how you would feel, etc.
Now imagine yourself feeling confident, relaxed and in control.
Visualize yourself as prepared and ready to begin.
Feel what it is like to make each movement successfully.
Imagine what it would be like to win the game, race, match or competition.
Now, finally, visualize how you would look to all your competitors.
Lastly, we will be going over a few more practical tips that you can implement into your performance or your athletes’ performances to increase success.
Power words: Make positive changes regularly within your inner monologue. Don’t fight negative thoughts when they come up or feel discouraged. Instead, acknowledge them and reframe them in a more positive way.
Chunking goals: When training, focus on your immediate target. By breaking down your goals into small, manageable and actionable steps, you will be able to achieve your goals way easier as they won’t seem nearly as daunting.
Detach from the outcome: Concentrate only on what is going on in the moment and look at what you currently need to do. By doing this, the rest of the journey will take care of itself.
Focused attention: Be aware of the distractions that you face. Breathe out any unwanted thoughts that you begin to experience and refocus your attention instantly on what is important right in that moment.
Celebration: Enjoy your success. Make sure that you are taking time to take in your accomplishments instead of brushing them off and jumping right to the next goal.
The field of sports psychology offers many extremely valuable techniques that help unlock an athlete's full potential and helps them achieve optimal performance. By having even just a basic understanding and beginning to apply these psychological factors and practices into your life, you can enhance focus, dedication, performance and even strategy development. By embracing the principles and techniques of sports psychology, athletes can unlock their winning edge and reach new heights of achievement in their athletic pursuits.
These are some resources that helped me write this article and develop an understanding of the field of sports psychology.
Edited by: Kaya Crawford