How Can Sports Psychology Enhance Athletic Performance?

What is sports psychology?

According to dictionary.com psychology is defined as:

  1. the science of the mind or of mental states and processes.
  2. the science of human and animal behaviour.
  3. the sum or characteristics of the mental states and processes of a person or class of persons, or of the mental states and processes involved in a field of activity: the psychology of a soldier; the psychology of politics.
  4. mental ploys or strategy: He used psychology on his parents to get a larger allowance.

So when applied to sport this is the role of the mind in sporting activities.

Why is sports psychology so important?

The mind is an extraordinarily powerful asset we all possess.  With this being the case it makes sense to put as much effort into training it as we do the body.  Mind over matter and the placebo effect are just two examples where the mind can overcome physical difficulties. There is so much more it can do, in the words of Henry Ford:

Henry Ford quote 

Almost everything in life can be seen to go in positive or negative (often known as vicious) cycles. Breaking any negative cycles and creating positive ones is the only way to really progress in life.

Positive vs negative cycles

As you can see from the super simple example above it is extremely easy to get stuck in the negative cycle and it takes a lot of effort to move out of it.  Unfortunately, the positive cycle is more difficult to stay in. A change of circumstances, maybe through injury or disappointing result can quickly knock you into a negative cycle unless you are mentally strong enough to stay in the positive one.

Sports psychology can assist you both get into that positive cycle and keep you there regardless of any outside influence.

Another reason sports psychology is so important is that it promotes your strength of mind when it comes to overcoming difficulties and dealing with unexpected situations. These can be during training, competition or even in your personal life (which can also have a massive effect on athletic performance).

Real life examples

Michael Jordan Quote

Michael Jordan is known as one of, if not the greatest basketball players of all time.  His sporting career includes winning 6 NBA championships along with 2 Olympic gold medals.

However, after reading the above quote it can be seen that much of his success is due to his mindset and mental strength.  Without this, no matter how talented he is, he would have given up before success came.  Michael Jordan's ability to keep going through failure, to learn from it and to continue working towards his goals despite how his current situation looked is what allowed him to reach his potential.

Lionel Messi is another example of a someone who is at the absolute top of their sport.

Lionel Messi quote

It's easy to look at others and believe that they haven't really had to struggle or work hard to get to where they are.  Whether it's a professional sports person, actor, singer, successful entrepreneur or other famous person you only hear about them once they have already made it. This means the time taken and obstacles overcome to get to where they are is often forgotten about.  This can be very demotivating for anyone trying to become successful in their own right.

Seeing progress towards your goal as a journey with which you require patience is crucial.  The journey will contain highs and lows, many obstacles, successes and disappointments.  Seeing every part of your journey as an opportunity to learn, gain strength and knowledge that prepares you to be successful and to stay at that level makes the whole journey far more enjoyable and rewarding. An enjoyable, rewarding journey is much easier to continue on, especially long term.

Sports psychology gives you the tools you require continue on your journey no matter what the current situation appears to be.  The mental strength and dedication Lionel Messi maintained for his 17 year journey is what has allowed him to tap into his potential and become the player he is today.

Tools to build a positive mindset and mental strength

There are a great many tools available to you to help build a positive mindset and increase mental strength. Here are some of the more common ones:

Positive mental attitude

This is about seeing all situations from a positive side.  Every single thing in life has both positive and negative aspects to them.  Training yourself to be able to identify both positive and negative sides (especially with perceived negative events) allows you to then choose to focus on the positive.

Often many opportunities present themselves when unwanted events happen, however if you are feeling negative and not seeing any good you will most likely not see these opportunities and therefore miss them.

An example of this could be a young sportsperson who is about to move up to the next level of their sport.  Just before they do they injure themselves in training and although this is not a career ending injury, they require 6 weeks of rest to fully recover and the chance to go to the new team is lost.

Positive Thoughts Negative Thoughts
I am going to use this time to research new training methods. I have missed my opportunity.
Maybe I wasn't ready, this gives me more time to prepare. I will probably never get another chance.
I am going to come back even better. Why me?
This has shown me how much I want my dream, I feel so motivated now. I may as well give up and find something else to do.

With the above example having positive or negative thoughts doesn't make any difference to the physical situation, but does make a massive difference to how the time is spent, and therefore the overall result. Positive thoughts in this situation leads to growth and moves the person towards their goal.  Negative thoughts leads to time wasting and moves them away from their goal (potentially to a point where their goal is never reached).

Visualisation

Whether we actually do something or just imagine doing it the brain responds in the same way.

Often there are events that we cannot accurately create in reality in order to practice what you will do. This may be due to the unlikelihood of the event happening naturally or resources available at the time.  Visualisation is an amazing tool allowing you to train whilst sat on public transport, in the break room at work or even laid in bed before you go to sleep or when waking up.

You able to practice for any situation, literally only limited by your imagination.  With COVID-19 affecting so much of our lives Lionel Messi has spoken about visualising playing a football match without a crowd.  This will have helped him with not being distracted by the unusual lack of noise and atmosphere.

By practising situations over and over again (even just in your head) prepares you to deal with the situation in the most effective way.  It will boost confidence, increase motor skills and assists with learning new skills.

Visualisation at it's best should be a multi-sensory experience.  Not only including vision, but also sounds and how your body feels during the event.  The visualisation is not necessary goal based but also for everything that leads to the goal too.  This includes everything that goes into your day in order to prepare yourself for the competition.

Positive affirmations

Positive affirmations are a great tool for promoting a positive mental attitude. A positive affirmation is a simple statement about what you are/can do/have etc

For example:

Positive affirmation for body

 

If this is currently completely true (even if you don’t believe it) then this acts as a great reminder and will help you realise this truth.

If this is not currently true you will create a gap between what your mind is now believing and what it is witnessing (so your mind is getting two opposing statements about one thing). Your mind does not like this and therefore must correct the situation.

This is why it is so important to say your positive affirmations daily (more if possible) because if you don’t keep telling your mind the version you want it to believe then it will believe the version it is constantly witnessing.

To fix this your mind will then start to look for opportunities to close the gap.  You are exposed to thousands of pieces of information every second so your mind filters out anything that it deems not relevant. So now your mind needs to make your body stronger and healthier.  It will then make you aware of information and opportunities that were always present but you never noticed them before.  You may become much more interested in eating better, see poster for a class in your local gym which you had walked past many times but never noticed.

As your body then starts to get stronger and healthier and you continue with your positive affirmation your mind will work to close any remaining gap until the affirmation matches the reality.

Healing metal blocks

Mental blocks are usually fear based.  They are rarely reality based; they normally stem from worst case scenario thinking.  The mind cannot tell the difference between real and imagined threat so will step in to protect you.  This will manifest often as self-sabotage.

Self-sabotage example

The first picture is the current, immediate goal, to train.  The second is the mental block showing up.  The block is the fear of being made fun of, even if he doesn’t play well it does not necessarily mean he will be made fun of, this is worst case scenario thinking.  The third picture shows his mind stepping in to protect him from the threat.  The simplest way to protect him from being made fun of is to not play and the simplest way for him to not play is to not get chosen.  The mind then creates a solution to ensure he is not chosen (by distracting him with other things until he runs out of time).

This is a case of your mind working against you rather than with you towards your goal.  Reprogramming your mind by healing these blockages will remove the fear and in turn the perceived threat therefore your mind will stop looking for ways to stop you.

Some metal blocks can be very simply overcome, others are deep-seated and take a lot of time, effort and determination to overcome.  The great news is with the correct tools and persistence all mental blocks can be healed.

It is important to learn how to overcome mental blocks in general rather than just the specific ones you have.  Your journey towards your goal and life itself will expose additional blocks, already having the necessary mental tools available to you will assist you with quickly overcoming these.

One very effective exercise you can do is to actively think of the worst case scenario and realise both what the result would be if this happened and also how likely it is to actually happen.  To then think about all the other possibilities. Much more often than not then amount of positive and neutral possibilities far outweigh the number of negative ones.  Realising the chances of the treat you are concerned about actually happening alongside a plan if it does dissolves much of the fear instantly.

Another method is to use positive affirmations to counteract the fear.  Again the affirmation must be in the present tense and used constantly throughout the day.  If you really think about how many times you have the negative thought each day you must say (or think) the positive thought at least that many times in order to be effective.

Yet another way is to create a routine which you must carry out every day regardless of anything else going on.  This takes strength but just making yourself do it whether or not you want to will eventually become habit and you will just do it without planning or putting thought into it.  Doing it for the sake of doing it rather than for a reason helps to reduce the negative self-talk so the mind does not need to step in to protect you from those fears as you haven’t thought about them.

These methods can be used alone or combined together.  I would suggest the more deep-seated the mental block the more work it will take to remove.  A block that’s been present for 10yrs will not be fixed in a week.  Rather than looking at how much time is needed look at how much work is needed.  The more time each day you spend working on it the quicker it will be overcome.

The most important part in the process of healing mental blockages is to first correctly identify them.  Otherwise you will be treating the symptoms rather than the cause which will be far less effective and it will continue to manifest as new symptoms prolonging the healing process. When the healing process does not appear to be working it becomes extremely easy to give up on it therefore finding the root cause is vital.

Importance of Goal setting

Having goals is essential to improving athletic performance (and in all other areas of life).  When setting goals set one ultimate goal then mini goals which create stepping stones towards your ultimate goals.

Each mini goal builds from the previous one and works towards the ultimate goal.  The ultimate goal gives direction, keeping you on track. The mini goals give more opportunities to succeed, maintaining motivation and allow you to see progression.

Your ultimate goal is completely personal to you.  It is something you would love to achieve at a level you would feel successful at.  Success is also very personal. One person's goal could be to complete a marathon another's could be to win an Olympic gold medal in the marathon, both are equally valid.

Some people prefer to set goals they know they can achieve others just outside that and others way outside.  When deciding on a goal set something that inspires and pushes you without being totally overwhelming.  A goal that is too easy does not create the feeling of reward achieving a goal should, an overwhelming goal is too easy to give up on creating a feeling of failure and demotivation.

A great method is to set a goal then sit quietly and see how that goal makes you feel.  Positive, excited feelings means you have a great goal for yourself.  Negative feelings, boredom or feelings of dread means you need to find a different goal.

Keeping a journal of your current performance and goals achieved is a great way to boost motivation. It can be referred to any time you feel like you are not making any progress.

Utilising Brain Chemistry 

When thinking positively hormones called serotonin and dopamine are released into the brain.

Happy hormones

Serotonin

Serotonin has many functions throughout the body.  When you have normal levels of serotonin in your body you are:

  • less anxious
  • more emotionally stable
  • calmer
  • more focused
  • happier

Dopamine

Dopamine, like serotonin has many functions.  The following are most relevant to athletic performance.

  • Learning
  • Motivation
  • Memory
  • Attention
  • Movement

All of this will enhance athletic performance and reduces mistakes made, even more reasons to think positively.

Putting it all together

Sport is highly competitive, often the difference between qualifying and not, winning or losing is tiny; only mm or 10ths of a second.  With such close margins small adjustments to how you train, what you eat, the equipment you use etc can mean the difference between meeting your goals and not.

Therefore, if you can get your mind to work for you in as many ways as possible then you can create many benefits for yourself.  Understanding how the mind works and effects you allows you to utilise this to your own advantage.

In conclusion positive psychology in sports, alongside physical ability is essential to both teams and individuals to achieve their best.  Both the athlete’s mind and body must be at their prime to unlock their highest potential.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published