The Psychological Factor in Sports

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By Dr. Joe Jacobs

In this section we discuss three aspects of mental training and preparation as they apply to sport. If ‘you got game’, chances are you are using one or more mental strategies in your game. Competitive athletes today have a basic knowledge of the psychological aspects of sport and how it proves beneficial to their game. Applied sport psychology is a process whereby athletes engage themselves in understanding their own sport behaviors while reviewing fundamental psychological concepts aimed at enhancing their sport performance by developing sport routines that fit their personalities.

The first aspect of mental training and preparation addresses useful terms and concepts with which you may or may not be familiar, but should be. Let’s examine coachability, motivation, anxiety, and sport behavior interventions. What is meant by ‘coachability’, how can you become more coachable, why should you want to? No doubt you have had coaches who helped you tremendously and coaches whom you wish you never had. The truth is each coach teaches you something about yourself, and if you are strong enough mentally, you can take a lesson from each to improve your game. Your practice and game performances are irrevocably intertwined: one begets the other, and coaches should act as the resource agent providing you with insights about using your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to accomplish your best performance. Remember, to view each coach as a resource and expect to learn something to help your game.

Motivation talks to the drive you have or need you feel to showcase your sport talent. How you first became involved and what kept you in sport means less than what keeps you in sport now. Clearly, on page 8, you are provided with guidelines for evaluating your talent, and on pages, 83-85, you are given guidelines for goal setting. As you read those pages it is important to determine for yourself what pushes you to work out, stay in shape, study your game, and practice your skills. In an ideal world, the more you can say your reasons for playing come from within yourself, the stronger your mental game will develop.

Anxiety, let’s face it, it’s a fact of life. There are no athletes who never experienced pre-game jitters, rather, most seasoned athletes expect nervousness and believe it to be more of a wake-up call and get-ready signal. Many successful athletes deal with anxiety in personal and unique ways, and still many others chose one or more of the sport behavior interventions discussed at the end of this section. Research has documented time and again that beneficial outcomes, better performance and better results, are attributed to sport behavior interventions. Some of the more popular techniques include various coping, relaxation, or energizing strategies. Toward the end of this section more will be said about imagery, self-talk, visualization, and attentional focus.

The second aspect of mental training and preparation is called ‘performance profiling’, which refers to your personal profile; what describes your abilities, what characterizes your behavior, and what best represents the whole you. Think of your performance profile as a self-assessment exercise and reality check. This is when you have to be honest with yourself and judge fairly your competencies and admit your weaknesses.

Picture your performance profile as a pie chart with individual sections each representing a certain skill or quality you must possess to be successful in your athlete role. Remember you have many different roles, or identities, like being a student, a teenager, a daughter or son, and each requires you to possess certain skills or qualities if you want to be good in that role. Athletes are referred to as student-athletes for this very reason. When you take the time to construct your sport performance profile, you will likely benefit from constructing a student performance profile side by side.

The performance profile requires you to name or identify each skill and assign it a portion of the pie chart equal in space size to the amount of importance it holds. For example, a basketball point guard would identify dribbling as a major necessary skill (a bigger slice of the pie) and in-bound passing as less important (a smaller slice). Once you identify all the essential skills and proportionately space them on the pie chart, rate yourself “honestly and accurately” for each skill by assigning a letter grade of A, B, C, D, or F. As you view the performance profile, see what portions get low marks and what amount of space they take up. A lot of space and a low mark is an attention getter, take action immediately. If you use this exercise to evaluate your performance at this point in time, to make it pay off requires you to devise some goal statements to improve on that skill. Short-term and long-term goals are described in pages 83-86 and will help you focus in on improvement strategies. While each performance profile should be an individual creation, it doesn’t mean it has to be done individually. In fact, experience using performance profiling suggests pairing with a teammate or group of athletes raises the levels of interest, commitment, and accountability. Over time, reconstructing an updated performance profile can provide you with an illustrated history of your record of progress. Conducting several over a season, or over a full calendar year, or over a span of years will become an illustration of the effects of positive influences on your improvement and developing sport performance.

The third and final aspect of mental training and preparation introduces sport behavior interventions. Earlier, we spoke of some of the more popular techniques including coping, relaxation, or energizing strategies, and introduced such terms as imagery, self-talk, visualization, and attentional focus. More and more athletes are becoming fascinated with mental training and preparation because it makes so much sense to realize how much your thoughts and feelings affect your being. Whether or not you take time out daily to monitor your thoughts, they are in fact, monitoring you. Each thought occupies space and time in your mind, and like everything else, this space and time is valuable. Athletes can be trained in ways to use both thoughts and feelings to their advantage in sport, and with practice, here are several ways you can help yourself.

Self-talk is practiced by both novice and elite athletes and makes a difference. Using anchor words that train your thinking to focus on a specific aspect of a skill, like ‘keep your eye on the ball’, as simple as it sounds, really work. Elite athletes often zero in with their choice of words on key elements like ‘read the spin’, or sometimes broaden their thought suggestion to ‘smooth as silk’. Calming oneself down with words and thoughts like ‘nice and easy’, or energizing performance with ‘nail it’ or ‘see ya’, are popular choices. Self-talk must sound like you, feel like you, and be like you, otherwise, you won’t listen. Emotion-based phrases like “c’mon, get with it” or “come and get it” can be used to train one’s thoughts to get back on track, refocus, and re-energize performance. Many athletes used practice routines and rehearsed lines to prepare themselves for challenging situations.

Like self-talk, athletes can prepare themselves by visualizing a setting or circumstance they’re likely to face. In their mind’s eye, they ‘see’ themselves executing a skill and meeting the challenge. Visual practice provides a sense of comfort with one’s surroundings by planting familiar visual cues and rehearsing one’s projected performance.

Many athletes perform relaxation techniques, both physical and mental, as a means of establishing a proper balance of excitement and stress. Reaction patterns and response behaviors to different situations are different among athletes. This explains why some prefer quiet time in the pre-game lockerroom, while others want loud music. It is the task of each athlete to know their preferred routine, and actively plan and program it into their performance. Ultimately, focusing one’s attention to the task at hand is paramount.

If not focused enough, an athlete can find’s oneself distracted and ‘not with it’. There is also the case where being overly focused and narrow-minded results in an athlete missing some valuable cue, either in the environment or within one’s individual internal feedback system. For example, a pitcher too focused on the base runner starts to rush his or her delivery, or vice versa, a pitcher too focused on his or her follow through begins short-arming the ball.

Mental training and preparation strategies must be synchronized with individual personality. Much research conducted on personality traits, state of mind, and mood as reported in sport settings confirm an assumption that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. Each of us carry our own repertoire of behavior tendencies, most of which were learned from watching others or taught to us by others. At some point, all of us must claim full responsibility for each and every behavior we choose to do, and a stronger personality achieves that claim sooner than a weaker personality. Looking at the psychological factors in sport is a must for taking your game to the next level.

Dr. Joe Jacobs is a consulting sport psychologist and Director of Sports Management at Alvernia College in Reading, PA.

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