Why are Psychological Skills Important for Athletes?

Is physical practice the only component of your training program? How do you learn to maximize your performance or even to be a consistent performer? Athletes and coaches always think they must only practice longer and harder - they are reluctant to include psychological tools in their training and performance regime.

To be a better athlete does not necessarily mean that you must train harder or longer. It could mean that you need to address all the components that make up a successful athletic performance - mental as well as physical. Since you do not enter into competition with a completely empty head, you must include mental skills in your training and conditioning programmes as well. This will enable you to develope the strategies which will prepare you to enter a competition with the “proper mindset”

If you are interested in getting the most of your athletic endeavors, you can no longer treat your performance as a combination of isolated factors which come together in some mysterious and unified way on the day of the competition. A long distance athlete would never think to enter a long distance race without spending time physically preparing the body to meet the conditioning demands of a race. Yet, most athletes probably enter a race without determining what psychological skills he or she would need to help achieve the best physical performance. Almost no one prepares and practices the necessary mental conditions.

As the science of sport performance evolves, it becomes increasingly important to integrate the mental and physical aspect of performance. Traditionally, no attention has been given to the cognitive aspects of performance. Coaches and athletes have devoted most of their attention to the physical components of performance.

Yet coaches, athletes and parents often attribute non- performance to things related to the mental aspects of performance such as “She was not hungry enough,” “He did not focus,” “I was so tense or I was psyched out,” “She is so good but she cannot handle the competition stress,” “I was so scared....,” “I wasn’t psyched enough.” These are all comments frequently used to describe competitive disappointments, but rarely do you find a coach who says that the athlete has not been taught the proper psychological skills and strategies.

An athlete seldom realizes that the failure to achieve was related to poor or inadequate preparation of psychological strategies. After a competition the greatest percentage of excuses are generally attributed to the mental and emotional aspects of the game. Yet, almost no time is spent in incorporating these into the training routine. Rather, it is a case of back to the drawing board for a new physical strategy or increased practice time.

It is much easier to evaluate cardiovascular or mechanical differences between athletes than it is to evaluate different athletic “mindsets” and psychological aspects around performance. Why is it that performance differs from practice to a competition? Improving performance is not accomplished by isolating the body from the mind but by providing cognitive skills and strategies that deal with skilled performance.

There are no marked changes in physical capacity, in skill level or biomechanical efficiency during a competition or between two competitions which immediately follow each other. An athlete does not suddenly lose or gain stamina, talent, skill or speed in a day, week, month or sometimes even years. What does change is psychological control or mindset.  When an athlete loses momentum or gains momentum, the change is created by psychological and emotional factors. He or she can gain or lose psychological control or get psyched out in split seconds, or what psychologists sometimes call “chocking.” Choking can occur in close competitive situations where psychological frame of reference interferes with skill execution.

This fluctuation in psychological regulation can be prevented by developing cognitive skills and strategies to manage anxiety, stress, negative thoughts and emotions - in other words, to help the athlete to cope with negative stimuli from the external world. An athlete must learn to take responsibility for recognizing their own arousal mechanism and to perform with it under control. This will establish cognitive behaviour which in turn will allow him to perform in a constant manner. Sometimes athletes blame the coach, parents, fans or the weather when things go wrong or if they don’t perform up to their potential. But it is the athlete’s own psychological mindset that controls performance.

It takes time to develop and optimize the individual behavioural skills necessary to maximize athletic performance. A plan A, B, or C or a one day lecture will not be enough. One requires training on a regular, systematic basis to develope and apply the correct skills. Psychological training should incorporate methods and techniques which teach one how to interpret what is happening to you and why. Then in the following order, how to cope with whatever is happening to and around you; how to cope with whatever you encounter; how to make decisions based on relevant cues and how to persist despite what is happening with you and to you. In short you need to learn the cognitive skills and strategies that are necessary for controlling sport performance and the environment. These skills are not concomitant learning that just happens when playing, practicing or during competition. In today’s world, each of us is responsible for controlling our own behaviour. We can no longer transfer the responsibility or excuse for failures to others or to some mysterious factor.

It is no longer appropriate to talk in psychological terms as if knowledgeable in psychology if we do not make some effort to become informed and educated in this area. This is a problem with many coaches. It is unreasonable to continue contributing shortcomings in performance to psychological factors and not to do something about it. The days of coaching and/or performing through “hope” are no longer appropriate or effective. There are brilliant techniques and strategies in the field of sport psychology that enable us to control and monitor our behaviour in sport. By using these techniques we can develop consistent performance and maximize our potential.

It stands to reason that no athlete performs correctly and perfectly all the time. However, you can be taught to analyze your own thoughts and behaviour so that you can recognize the cause of performance inconsistencies. The athlete that is taught to work toward consistent control over behaviour learns to analyze and determine the factors that influence it. In order to develop a sport-psychological skill strategy for control of behaviour, situations that are characteristic of the specific sport and the required behaviour for that specific sport must be understood. Once the athlete understands the behavioural demands being placed on him, he can cope better with these demands.

An athlete who competes competitively faces stressful situations and anxious moments hundreds of times over the course of a competitive career. You don’t have to be a professional athlete to experience those anxious moments when your hearts starts pounding, your hands are sweaty and you feel weak in the knees. Regardless how many times you have been in the situation, you still react in the same way. In other words, experience is not always the best teacher.

Moments of panic, anxiety and emotional ups and downs can interfere with the physical performance at every level. Athletes, who continue to perform with some degree of consistency despite of their feelings of anxiety, have learned to cope in one way or another. Relatively few of us, however, have been taught skills and strategies that would enable us to cope and maintain consistency in performance. Athletes have been helped with their physical skills and strategies, but few have attempted to help them with the development of the mental side of sport and sport performances.

Many athletes with superior physical capabilities have been systematically eliminated from competitive sports because they could not perform on the day of the competition. They might perform beautifully in practice but “choke” in competition. Coaches, parents and teachers have pulled their hair out over athletes who do things so correctly in practice for an entire week and on the day of competition just couldn’t do it again. Why do these things happen? Has it happened to you? What can you do to try to prevent these situations from repeating themselves year after year, season after season? What can we do to help an athlete who is physically talented but who does not appear to be able to perform on the big day. How can an athlete help himself or herself to perform consistently?

Many people feel having someone to teach psychological skills to an athlete means that the athlete is unstable, or has “mental problems” or is “totally mad.” There is a feeling among coaches and even some athletes is that psychologists are people who provide help to those who are disturbed or maladjusted. They would never consider that a “normal” athlete has the need of positive cognitive assistance of someone trained in psychology and specifically sport psychology. Further, many coaches want only tough minded athletes and they do not want what they think are “head cases.” Coaches have eliminated athletes who had all the necessary physical assets because they did not appear to be able to perform with any degree of consistency or because they “choked” under pressure. They have never stopped to ask if certain skills could be taught to these athletes which would enable them to use their physical abilities even more effectively.

I think that some athletes and coaches think that an athlete does not need this mental training. They are much like Avis, the Number 2 car rental agency who just “tries harder!” Trying harder is not always the solution; in many cases trying harder creates even greater problems. You may think that going back to the fundamentals and practicing harder and longer is the only solution to inconsistent performance. Frequently, longer and harder practices are used as punishment for not performing up to your expectations or to the coach’s. Obviously, too much emphasis has been placed on the physical aspect of sport performance without understanding all the components of psychological or the cognitive part of performance.

No one can dispute the fact that the state of mind has a lot to do with performance. Yet almost nothing has been done to identify the emotional and/or mental factors that tend to prevent good performance any more than trying to identify those factors that produce poor performance. Basically what sport psychology does for the athlete is to teach her/him how to identify the factors that lead to good performance and those that lead to poor performance. This provides a basis for understanding why an athlete performs well or inconsistently. The athlete will not have to say “I had a good competition” or “I had an off-day,” he or she will be able to analyze why it was a good or bad competition.

If you were told that the body and mind do not interact, you would most likely disagree. Examples to demonstrate how this interaction occurs such as experiencing fear and having the perception of fear being accompanied by sweating, increased heart rate, altered breathing, feelings of muscular weakness and nausea. Our bodies are a highly complex entity composed of a multitude of different, yet highly, integrated, biological systems which promote effective interaction between our internal and external environments. These highly different systems are integrated and monitored by the nervous system. This nervous system is anatomically divided into the central and the peripheral nervous systems. The brain and spinal cord compose the central nervous system; the network of nerves connecting the various organs and systems of the body to the central nervous system makes up the peripheral nervous system.

Thought and memory are the responsibility of the central nervous system. However, the entire nervous system allows the body to interpret consciously and unconsciously to our external and internal environments. Some nerves are specialized for sight, smell, touch, temperature, pain etc., but the entire nervous system coordinates bodily responses to the internal and external environments. In sport, as well as all other situations, a combination of reactions occurs. Some of these reactions are at the conscious level while others may occur at a subconscious level.

So the truth is that our muscles do not function unless directed to do so by the brain. We do not perform physical skills in isolation without mental skills. Sport performance must be approached from a holistic perspective to integrate the” thinking with our muscles” to produce high levels of performance.

Hardly anyone disputes the fact that your mental state has a great deal to do with your physical performance. We all know that worry, negative emotions and anxiety about your performance can cause sub-par performance. One of the ways to avoid this and prepare the “whole” person is through holistic coaching and preparation. That is, to incorporate physical and mental skills and strategies in practice and performance of any talented athlete. After an athlete becomes aware of how this relationship affects performances, he or she will be ready to learn skills and strategies to help control factors like worry and anxiety.

An Olympic champion said he choked terribly in his first Olympic Games. “I had worked very hard but wasn’t mentally prepared.” In his preparation for the next Olympic Games he talked with other Olympic champions about how they had prepared mentally and he employed sport psychology strategies, ultimately developing his own mental training programme. He practiced his programme regularly for the next four years and credits this for his gold medal performance at the next Olympic Games.

The vast majority of elite athletes recognize the importance of psychological training for competition. Sport performances are 90% mental, and many great athletes also credit the mental side of the game as crucially important in determining the outcome. These athletes know the importance of physical skill and preparation. What they mean when they stress the psychological preparation as extremely important, is that once athletes have developed their physical skills to a high level and when they are competing at that level, is that the winner is more likely to be the person who is best prepared psychologically. Coaches also recognize the significance of being mentally prepared in order to compete well. Yet many coaches remain reluctant to send their athletes to a sport psychologist. So, if the mental side of the game accounts for 90 percent of the outcome or only 50 percent, or even only 10 percent, doesn’t it make sense to devote at least some time to mental training?

Why is sport psychology neglected? The answer is most likely that coaches do not know how to teach athletes the essential psychological skills. There are also coaches that are of the opinion that psychosocial qualities are innate characteristics that cannot be taught. Some of them think that athletes either have these psychological qualities or that they don’t. If they don’t, then competition will eliminate them as they compete at higher and higher levels. A few coaches also believe that psychological training is unimportant and that only hard physical work is necessary to prepare athletes.

Nowadays the vast majority of coaches, parents and teachers recognize the importance of psychological training, but simply do not know how to implement such training.

Some athletes and coaches feel that it is a waste of time to practice these skills and think that just developing an awareness of the relationship of anxiety and performance is sufficient. It should be emphasized again and again that only practice on a regular basis can attain the skill. Once all psychological skills are learnt, they are incorporated into regular practice sessions and then into competitions, without a specified time being set aside for their practice. As athletes begin to acquire the skills, many of the responses are subtle. Most athletes are not aware of them unless they are really “tuned in” to their bodies. At the same time, the practices scheduled for mental skills should be short compared to the physical practices. It is important to practice for short periods of time and on a regular basis.

In short, like most other things, the more you use it appropriately, the better you will become. With time the responses practiced and the psychological skills and strategies learnt become automatic. Eventually, this type of behavioural responses becomes a way of life. It comes a way of responding to a particular situation in a more effective, positive, controlled way. These more conducive responses will help to realize your potential in whatever you pursue. Sport psychological principles are the same for regulating your awareness and managing your worries about performance whether it is on the athletic field, being interviewed for a job, taking an examination, public speaking, acting or giving a musical performance on stage. Learning these sport psychological skills will last you a lifetime and allow you to enjoy your performance much more at a much higher level than you have previously attained.

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