What is Sport Psychology? 

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines sport psychology as “a proficiency that uses psychological knowledge and skills to address optimal performance and well-being of athletes, developmental and social aspects of sports participation, and systemic issues associated with sports settings and organizations.” There are three widely accepted orientations to sport psychology: psychophysiological, social-psychological, and cognitive-behavioral orientation. 

A psychophysiological orientation focuses on the behavior during sports by examining the physiological processes of the brain and their influences on physical activity. For example, heart rate, brain wave activity, and muscle action potentials are assessed to determine relationships between these physiological measures and sport behaviors. A second orientation, social-psychological orientation, assumes that behavior is determined by a complex interaction between the environment and the personal makeup of the athlete. The last orientation is cognitive-behavioral. This approach suggests that an athlete’s cognitions or thoughts are central in determining behavior (Weinberg & Gould, 2019). 

Psychological Skills Training

Positive psychology focuses on the development of positive attributes (e.g., hope, happiness, optimism, etc.), rather than focusing on “what is wrong” with someone (e.g., depression, anxiety, etc.). The goal of a sport psychology program is to help athletes improve their psychological skills to better manage stress and anxiety, increase motivation, and improve confidence levels in the context of sports, as well as highlight their strengths to optimize performance. Teams or individual athletes can be expected to be assessed and educated in the following domains:

  • Arousal Regulation
  • Imagery 
  • Self-Confidence
  • Goal Setting
  • Concentration

Research (Krane and Williams, 2015) suggests that more successful athletes had higher confidence, greater self-regulation of arousal, better concentration, an “in control but not forcing it ” attitude, positive thoughts and imagery, and more determination and commitment. They concluded that by using mental skills the athletes achieve peak performance (as cited in Weinberg & Gould, 2019). Additional interviews with coaches and athletes suggested that those who performed up to their potential had developed plans for competition, performance evaluation, and dealing with disruptions. One study suggested 13 out of 15 Olympic athletes indicated that they used psychological skills training (PST) and one even said “I prepared mentally each and every day” (Greenleaf et al., 2001, p. 165 as cited in Weinberg & Gould, 2019).

Psychological skills training (PST) is a practice of methods used to enhance an athlete’s performance, by improving one’s psychological skills. The methods and techniques that are the standard elements for PST include behavioral modification, cognitive theory and therapy, rational emotive therapy, goal setting, attentional control, progressiove muscle relaxation, and systematic desentization. Psychological skills training is broken down into three phases: Education, Acquisition, and Practice. Each module will cover the three phases in a session; however, mental coaches and athletes should note that the length of each phase varies. 

The Education Phase. Athletes are educated on how important it is to acquire psychological skills and how the skills affect performance. This phase lasts as long as it takes for the athlete to understand the importance of developing their psychological skills (Weinberg & Gould, 2019).

Ken Racizza (2001), who is a top mental training consultant, uses a traffic light analogy to think about their performance in three ways: green light, yellow light, and red light situations.

  • Green light: The athlete is performing well and functions on autopilot.
  • Yellow light: The athlete may be struggling and needs to beware of destructive thoughts and the ways they can interfere with performance. The athlete should use refocusing strategies to get back on track.
  • Red light: The athlete is in real trouble and performing very poorly. The athlete may need to pause competition, get relaxed, and re-engage. 

The idea of the analogy is to allow athletes to start tracking and monitoring their mental status in the context of their sport performance (as cited in Weinberg & Gould, 2019). 

The Acquisition Phase. The Acquisition Phase focuses on learning the methods for acquiring and developing the different psychological skills. Formal meetings with the mental coach are where these skills can be taught. The needs should be tailored to the specific athlete (Weinberg & Gould, 2019).  For example, if an athlete experiences anxiety manifesting as muscle tension, they may benefit from learning relaxation techniques. 

The Practice Phase. The Practice Phase is the longest phase of the three phases. This phase is when the athlete just practices and practices the methods that are relevant to them, until they have accomplished the three primary objectives of this stage.

  • To automate skills through overlearning
  • To teach athletes to integrate psychological skills into their sport
  • To simulate skills athletes will want to utilize during competition (Weinberg & Gould, 2019).

During this phase, the athlete should maintain a logbook to record frequency and perceived effectiveness of learned strategies. 

What to expect:

If you are looking to receive psychological skills training for your team, you can expect a group assessment that sees what areas can be further developed and what areas may be seen as a strength. Once each team member completes the assessments, a sport performance consultant will review the results and obtain in aggregate form to provide consultative services to the coach and group based training for the players/parents/coaches. 

If you are interested in an individualized program, the athlete will complete an assessment to gather a baseline of their psychological skills and participate in a 6-week program to develop and implement skills into their game.

What Sport Psychology is not:

It is important to note that there are instances where athletes will also face mental health struggles or actual mental illness. In instances where sports performance may also be impacted by mental illness, but the sport performance is not the primary goal of the professional relationship, principles of performance psychology may be leveraged, but the treatment of mental illness will be the primary concern, not sport performance. Additionally, while there may be instances where a mental illness may be affecting sports performance, sport psychology consulting can be utilized if and when treatment is being provided or mental health conditions are stable. 

These caveats are important and will be discussed on an individual basis to ensure the most appropriate services are provided to the athletes.