Whenever I talk to athletes and coaches, I ask them what aspect of their sport seems to have the greatest impact on how they perform. Almost unanimously they say the mental part. I then ask how much time they devote to their mental preparation and their answer is almost always little or no time.
Despite its obvious importance, the mental side of sport is most often neglected, at least until a problem arises. The mistake athletes and coaches make is that they don’t treat their mental game the way they treat the physical and technical aspects of their sport. Athletes don’t wait to get injured before they do physical conditioning. They don’t develop a technical flaw before they work on their technique. Rather, athletes do physical and technical training to prevent problems from arising. They should approach the mental game in the same way.
Also, athletes, coaches, and especially parents seem to hold sport psychology to a different standard than the physical and technical aspects of their sport. Many in sport seem to have the impression that sport psychology can produce miraculous results in a short time. For example, I frequently get calls from parents two weeks before an important competition asking me to get their child ready for the big event. Though I consider myself very good at what I do, I am definitely not a magician. Athletes don’t expect increases in strength by lifting weights a few times or an improvement in technique by working on it for a few hours. The only way to improve any area, whether physical, technical, or mental, is through commitment, hard work, and patience. But if athletes make the same commitment to their mental training as they do to their physical and technical training, sport psychology can play a key role in helping them achieve their goals.
So, to help demystify sport psychology and what it can offer, I thought it would be helpful to describe what I do in my work with athletes, so everyone can consider sport psychology in its proper context and, as a result, maximize its benefits.
What I Do
Let me begin by saying that there are many sport psychology consultants out there; I don’t know what they do or how they work. All I can tell you is how I work with athletes. I follow two paths in my consulting work with athletes. The first path emphasizes the development of the five psychological areas in my Prime Performance Pyramid (motivation, confidence, intensity, focus, and emotions) through the teaching and use of mental-training strategies, for example, goal setting, positive-thinking skills, intensity-control techniques, focusing techniques, mental imagery, and routines. This mental training occurs in two settings.
First, I introduce these concepts in either an indoor group setting to a team or an office setting to an individual athlete in which I describe their meaning and value to their sport performance, assess athletes’ relationship to the five factors, and describe the best strategies for developing these areas.
Second, and most powerfully, I then work with athletes in their actual training setting and show them how to use the mental skills while they are actually practicing. I have found that this “real time” experience with mental training enables athletes to ask questions, experiment, get feedback from me, and see the direct connection between doing the mental skills, being more mentally prepared, and, most importantly, performing better. If athletes see that connection between doing mental training and seeing improvement, I know that I will get buy in from them. My goal on this path is to strengthen the five Prime Performance Pyramid factors and give athletes a “toolbox” of mental skills that they can use so that they can gain the most benefit from their training and be maximally prepared to perform their best in competitions.
The second path explores any obstacles that may have been put into place that prevent athletes from performing their best, for example, habitual negativity, perfectionism, and fear of failure. I help athletes understand why these obstacles interfere with their your sport efforts, how they developed, and provide insights and tools to remove the obstacles and allow athletes to continue on the path toward their goals. This work generally occurs in an office setting, but I have also been productive in exploring these issues while in the training setting. For example, athletes can be very receptive to this exploration while, for example, out for a recovery run or in the weight room. I believe that this openness occurs because, in the practice setting, athletes are in an environment in which they are comfortable and confident, and they feel less pressure to “figure things out.”
I also want to note that if I recognize that these obstacles are grounded in more serious psychological issues, I will make a referral to an appropriately trained mental health professional and may or may not continue to work with the athlete depending the how those issues impact the pursuit of the athlete’s goals.
Getting buy-in on the psychological side of sports is the first and most challenging step in my work. A question I often ask athletes to help create that essential commitment is how much better I would need to guarantee they would get for them to really commit to the mental side of their sport. Without doing the math, they’ll toss out, say, 30 percent or 10 percent improvement. So, now let’s do the math. Let’s say you have a track athlete who runs the 1500m in 4:32. Thirty percent of 4:32 seconds is a 1:21, obviously an impossible amount of improvement. Even a 10 percent improvement, 27 seconds, isn’t going to happen in the short term. I then ask them if they would make a commitment to sport psychology if I would promise that they would go just one percent faster. That percentage seems so small that athletes are often skeptical. But, again, when we do the math, one percent on a 4:32 is 2.72 seconds, an eternity in track and, athletes usually agree, well worth the commitment of time and energy given the rewards.
I’m often asked how quickly athletes can expect results from a commitment to sport psychology. Positive change varies widely depending on the individual athlete and the issues that are present. For example, issues related to mental-skills training, such as relaxation or focusing, can be improved relatively quickly. I have found that athletes can expect to see improvements in their mental skills and performances within six to eight weeks. In contrast, issues related to the obstacles I described above, such as perfectionism and fear of failure, take more time. Athletes can expect to see positive changes in these deeper issues within three to six months.
So there you have it; what sport psychology entails and what I do in my work with athletes. I hope this article takes some of the mystery out of sport psychology and helps readers to better understand what sport psychology can and cannot do, and how it can help athletes, whether aspiring juniors or Olympians, to achieve their goals.