Every sports fan knows of high-profile instances when elite professional athletes suddenly and inexplicably seemed to lose the ability to execute even the most basic tasks on the playing field, maneuvers that are typically second nature to them: the major league infielder who can’t throw accurately to first base; the basketball star who can’t make a free throw, the big-name golfer who can’t sink a five-foot putt. Sport psychologists often come to the rescue.
“These athletes haven’t lost their skills,” says Dr. Richard Dauber of the Morris Psychological Group. “They’ve developed a psychological block. The events that triggered their difficulties are different, but the result is generally the same – a loss of confidence based on fear of failure actually causes the feared outcome. There are numerous techniques and strategies that psychologists may use to help these professionals get back to form. But these very public cases represent only a fraction of the applications of psychology to athletic performance and elite professionals aren’t the only ones who benefit.”
It is commonly said that winning is 90% mental. If that is the case, why isn’t as much attention paid to training an athlete’s mind as to developing physical skills? “It should be,” says Dr. Dauber. “All the best athletes – both professionals and amateurs – have well trained bodies and well developed skills, but those who break through and perform at the highest levels almost certainly have better focus, better motivation and better ability to visualize success. That’s where sport psychology comes in – it addresses the mental aspects of sports performance.”
What does a sport psychologist do?
Sport psychology is a relatively new discipline. It originated in the 1920s, but didn’t achieve wide prominence until the 1980s after visualization techniques were used by athletes in several sports at the 1984 Olympics. “Visualization is a powerful tool for improving performance,” says Dr. Dauber. “The simple act of repeatedly visualizing the performance of a particular maneuver with perfect form or of visualizing the successful outcome of a competition has a measurable effect on performance.” Visualization, also known as guided imagery or mental rehearsal, creates a mental image of the desired outcome and serves as a mechanism to train both the mind and the body. The athlete tries to imagine the details of the act and how it feels to perform in the desired way.”
Helping the athlete visualize success is one of the basic tools used by sport psychologists. Other facets of sports performance addressed include:
Motivation: Some athletes are primarily motivated by external factors, such as awards and recognition, others by internal factors, such as a sense of personal satisfaction in performing at one’s best. A psychologist can help an athlete tap the sources that will drive peak performance.
Relaxation: Pre-competition anxiety can cause a loss of confidence and feelings of apprehension strong enough to induce physical sickness. Anxiety affects athletes at all levels. Relaxation techniques that reduce anxiety might include yoga or other breathing exercises, possibly accompanied by music; and positive self-talk, perhaps as simple as reminding yourself of previous successes, to improve confidence and calm pre-competition jitters.
Emotional control: Psychologists help athletes learn to recognize when inevitable feelings of frustration, disappointment and anger are in danger of spiraling out of control. The ability to effectively use emotion to fuel success instead of letting intense feelings diminish performance is a powerful asset.
Focus: Any number of distractions can impair concentration. These distractions can originate from both external sources, such as screaming fans or field conditions, or they can come from internal sources, such as some negative thoughts or emotions. Techniques can be taught that can help the athlete tune them out and maintain focus on the task.
Who can be helped?
Sport psychologists are not consulted only when there is a problem. They help athletes at all levels improve performance and cope with pressure. Furthermore, they are often asked by coaches to work with a team to improve morale and camaraderie. “Sport psychology plays a unique role with our youngest athletes,” says Dr, Dauber. “Sometimes the focus simply has to be on helping children enjoy sports. Parents and coaches who believe they are simply being supportive may be unintentionally putting too much pressure on youngsters to succeed. Lowering expectations can raise confidence and, as a result, improve performance.”