INTRODUCTION TO SPORTS PSYCHOLOGY
In the drive to get faster, the mind is often an untapped resource. Utilizing a variety of sports psychological skills can enhance performance, improve consistency in training and competition, and minimize or eliminate undesirable mental states, such as anger, frustration, and burnout. Although most athletes understand that their psychological status influences performance, too few actively use the skills necessary to help themselves. Frequently, after a poor race, the psychological factors go unrecognized and the athlete blames other aspects (e.g., diet, training). This article will introduce a few basic tools which may help you feel better in your training and give you that extra edge in racing.
One concept to appreciate is that the level of mental arousal influences performance. If this level is either too high or too low then performance suffers. The ideal zone is right in the middle. A common problem for some athletes is that they get “too keyed up”. This excessive level of arousal leads to increased muscular tension, poor decision making, loss of concentration, and disrupted rhythm and co-ordination. Recognizing and controlling the level of arousal is important to maximize athletic achievement. Some of the skills useful to regulate arousal (up or down) are visualization, centering, progressive muscular relaxation, and positive self-talk. In addition to regulating arousal these skills have a number of other benefits.
HISTORY OF SPORTS PSYCHOLOGY
Sports psychology is a relatively young discipline within psychology. In 1920, Carl Diem founded the world’s first sports psychology laboratory at the Deutsche Sporthochschule in Berlin, Germany. In 1925, two more sports psychology labs were established – one by A.Z. Puni at the Institute of Physical Culture in Leningrad and the other by Coleman Griffith at the University of Illinois.
Griffith began offering the first course in sports psychology in 1923, and later published the first book on the subject titled The Psychology of Coaching (1926). Unfortunately, Griffith’s lab was closed in 1932 due to lack of funds. After the lab was shut down, there was very little research on sports psychology until the subject experienced a revival of interest during the 1960s.
Ferruccio Antonelli established the International Society of Sport Psychology (ISSP) in 1965 and by the 1970s sports psychology had been introduced to university course offerings throughout North America.
The first academic journal, the International Journal of Sport Psychology, was introduced in 1970, which was then followed by the establishment of the Journal of Sport Psychology in 1979.
By the 1980s, sports psychology became the subject of a more rigorous scientific focus as researchers began to explore how psychology could be used to improve athletic performance, as well as how exercise could be utilized to improve mental well-being and lower stress levels.
Your body is a mass of muscles and nerves linked to the central processing unit – your brain. Just how do Olympic athletes develop the concentration, confidence, control and commitment to harness their muscles, nerves and brain together to break the gold medal frontiers of performance? And what use are their performance enhancement techniques off the track, out of the swimming pool or away from the pitch? Many top athletes and sportspeople consider their sports psychologist to be as important as their coach, and the mind-toughening techniques they learn are just as useful for business people fighting the mental battles of offices and boardrooms.
Sports psychology is a relatively new but growing specialism of psychology. It concentrates on both how psychological factors affect performance and how participation in sport affects psychological development, health and emotional wellbeing.
Sports psychology can be studied as a module in many psychology courses but there are now some that focus specifically on sports psychology and, importantly, several are recognised by the British Psychological Society. This means that they confer Graduate Basis for Registration, which allows graduates to do further professional training to become chartered psychologists.
IMPORTANCE AND BENEFITS OF EXERCISE & SPORTS PSYCHOLOGY
One benefit of sport psychology training is that it enhances performance on the court. Winning is one of the main objectives in tennis, but winning requires consistent performance at a high level. Mental proficiency helps ensure this consistency, guarding against fluctuations in performance. As the game becomes more sophisticated, coaches who fail to properly utilize psychological tools place their players, and themselves, at a disadvantage in performance and satisfaction. A full investment in sport psychology may spell the difference between high achievement and mediocrity for players.
For years sport psychologists have examined how psychological skills training, including mental skills training, helps athletes improve performance. Mental skills are procedures that help athletes control their minds efficiently and consistently as they execute sport-related goals. This not only involves developing skills such as concentration and stress control, but it also includes efforts to influence personal characteristics such as self-esteem and sportsmanship.
Psychological skills techniques help athletes make adjustments to their actions, thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations that will improve their games. Players can use these techniques to
- help build self-confidence,
- set goals,
- manage their stress,
- use imagery and visualization to work on game skills,
- focus concentration and attention.
- Sport psychology also can help athletes with problems off the court that may affect performance on court.
Rainer Martens (1987a) defined self-confidence as an athlete’s realistic expectations about achieving success, and stated that self-confidence is not what athletes “hope” to accomplish, but rather what they realistically “expect” to accomplish. John Murray (1999) described confidence as “an umbrella term describing all the thoughts, feelings, actions, and sensations reflecting self-belief and expectations of success”.
To foster self-confidence in players, you should act confident yourself to set a good example, help players improve their skills and competencies, use frequent rewarding statements (see the later section “Positively Reinforce Players”), and encourage positive self-talk. You should also de-emphasize outcomes and help players to focus primarily on performance improvements and excellence.
GOAL SETTING/DEVELOPMENTAL PLANNING
Goals are something that we want to achieve or accomplish, and they give our energies specific direction. By setting goals, tennis players gain a sense of control over their actions and can move beyond beliefs or fears that may prevent high performance. Goal setting has been shown to enhance performance, reduce anxiety, increase confidence and understanding, and enhance purpose and motivation.
For goal setting to work, the athlete must set goals properly. The following are ten principles for goal setting accumulated from years of practical experience and scientific study:
Set goals for mental as well as physical skills.
Set goals that are specific and measurable.
Set a target date for completion.
Set goals that are difficult but realistic.
Set short-term, intermediate, and long-term goals.
Set goals for practice as well as for matches
Set goals that are positive (like “improving first serve percentage”) as opposed to negative (like “allowing fewer aces”).
Remain flexible enough to adjust goals as needed.
Write the goals down on paper.
Emphasize performance goals over outcome goals (such as winning).
Stress occurs, according to Martens (1987b), “when there is a substantial imbalance between what you perceive is being demanded of you from the environment and what you perceive your capabilities are, when you perceive the outcome to be important”. This means that stress has three elements: the environment, the individual’s perceptions, and the individual’s responses to these in the form of arousal (the activation of the mind and body).
As a coach, you can use sport psychology to help players work on each of these three elements. You and your players can find ways to alter the environment to make situations less uncertain or to reduce the importance of outcomes. For example, you can talk to parents to make sure they don’t pressure players too hard to win.
A number of psychological techniques have been developed to assist players in controlling their perceptions of events. These are called cognitive techniques, and these techniques focus on creating awareness of negative thoughts and changing such thought patterns by stopping them and replacing them with more productive ways of thinking.
Psychological techniques also have been developed that players can learn to help reduce their arousal levels. These techniques, known as somatic techniques, are generally related to relaxation. Some of these are imagery relaxation, self-directed relaxation, progressive relaxation training, and biofeedback relaxation.
IMAGERY AND VISUALIZATION
Imagery is the process of simulating sensory experiences in the mind in the absence of external stimuli. Whenever a tennis player daydreams of or imagines hitting an ace, the player is using imagery. While visualization typically describes simulation of visual stimuli, imagery may involve the simulation of many factors: sound, touch, body awareness, psychological states such as confidence, and numerous other mental and physical experiences. However, many coaches and sport psychologists use imagery and visualization as synonymous terms.
Imagery is popular in tennis, and much research evidence suggests that it positively improves performance. Factors believed to improve an individual’s ability to benefit from imagery include the ability to form vivid images, control the images, and relax before producing images.
Imagery is used to help tennis players anticipate and solve problems, prepare for tournaments, rehearse particular strokes and sequences, cope with adversity, and reinforce positive performance. Imagery may be performed individually or in a group, and it may be guided by a sport psychologist or a coach. Like all mental skills, imagery and visualization must be practiced by athletes consistently and correctly to produce positive effects.
CONCENTRATION AND ATTENTION CONTROL
Concentration and attention control are perhaps the most important mental skills to master in tennis. As there are so many potential distractions during play (sights, sounds, feelings, thoughts), remaining optimally focused pays dividends. Selective attention is the ability to choose the most appropriate stimuli to focus on, while concentration is the ability to sustain attention over time.
Players need to be able to shift attention rapidly and accurately. For example, a player first broadly scans internal thoughts to find a winning strategy. He or she then shifts attention quickly to external elements such as the ball height, spin, or the position of the opponent, and finally narrows attention to the ball for the winning volley. This constant mental shifting from external to internal, broad to narrow, and back is the essence of attention control. Proper attention control allows a player to choose what is important, stay focused upon it as long as necessary, and shift focus as needed.
Concentration and attention are often enhanced with strategies such as reciting key phrases to oneself, remaining centered in the present, sustaining attention during distractions, and using imagery and self-talk to refocus when distracted. Although novices often think proper focus requires strain and exertion, the most complete attention (sometimes called “flow” or “the zone”) is usually experienced as a joyful absorption in the moment rather than conscious struggle.
Sage defined motivation in 1977 as “the intensity and direction of effort” (Weinberg & Gould, 1999, p. 48). Some tennis players are primarily motivated by task goals such as the desire to learn and improve regardless of outcome. Others are motivated more by ego-centered goals such as displaying competence over others, which makes winning and losing extremely important.
According to findings described in Weinberg and Gould (1999), males appear to score higher on competitive and win orientation, whereas females score higher on goal orientation (oriented more toward improving performance). Elite athletes appear to be higher on both win and goal orientations than less skilled athletes.
Another area of motivation is intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivational factors are states within the athlete, such as pride or satisfaction, while external motivational factors are rewards from outside the athlete, such as money or attention. You can increase intrinsic motivation by allowing athletes to make important decisions and feel competent (see the later section “Promote Intrinsic Motivation”). As tennis is played for so many different reasons (such as joy, money, ego, learning, or recognition), you must treat each athlete as a unique individual and seek an approach that is optimally motivating for that person. Pitfalls occur when athletes are primarily motivated to please others rather than themselves, or when outcomes are so important that players becomes threatened by fear of failure or base their self-worth solely on how well they play tennis.
The use of sport psychology may extend far beyond mental skills training. For example, problems such as academic stress, strained relationships, time management, family conflict, and financial concerns affect everyone at one time or another. Although these issues rarely represent severe distress, they may easily compromise a player’s tennis performance. When such problems arise, discuss them with your players and seek professional assistance when needed, as there is much at stake for both of you. When you recommend the services of a sport psychologist — whether for mental skills development, resolution of off-court issues, or treatment of more serious distress — introduce it to the player as a positive opportunity to improve performance and well being by learning new mental skills and reducing distractions.
SPORTS MEDICINE SERVICES FOR ATHLETES
UW Health Sports Medicine offers sport psychology services for athletes who want to best use their mental and emotional skills to achieve peak athletic performance.
Competition can cause some athletes to react both physically and mentally in a way that can affect their performance negatively. Recreational, amateur and professional athletes can work through these issues and improve athletic performance with the help of a sport psychologist.
HOW DO SPORT PSYCHOLOGISTS HELP ATHLETES?
- Sport psychologists can assist athletes in developing the following skills:
- Improve focus and deal with distractions
- Increase confidence and cope with doubts
- Develop coping skills to deal with setbacks and errors
- Find the right zone of intensity for optimal performance
- Build a healthy belief system and identify irrational thoughts
- Improve or balance motivation for optimal performance
- Refine game-specific strategies and game plans
- Learn visualization to enhance performance
- Address team dynamics
WHAT TYPE OF SERVICES DO SPORT PSYCHOLOGISTS PROVIDE?
Some of the techniques used to work with athletes include:
- Imagery: Involves visualizing the performance of a task, such as participating in an athletic event or successfully performing a particular skill.
- Motivation: Involves looking at both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators.
- Attentional focus: Involves the ability to tune out distractions and focus attention on the task at hand.
- Self-regulation: Involves the ability to exert control over thoughts, feelings and actions to optimize performance
Once learned, these techniques allow the athlete to relax and to focus his/her attention in a positive manner on the task of preparing for and participating in competition.