The Coach-Athlete Relationship

Sport psychology at work

Myths and Misconceptions of Sport Psychology

Why is there such reluctance to address psychological elements of performance?

When listening to coaches and athletes share their thoughts following competition, it appears that there is increasing acceptance that the psychological domain plays a central role in determining the nature of performance.  There is an abundance of commonly used phrases that individuals employ when attributing failure to their on-field performance including (but by no means limited to); “it’s the top two inches that count”, “we just didn’t show up”, “we played scared”, “our minds were elsewhere”, and the dreaded… “we choked”.  These types of comments are indicative of an individual, and collective, belief that our preparation, focus, and ability to manage our arousal and anxiety levels in ‘the moment’ will be influential in shaping the quality of our performance.  Being involved in, and observing, competitive sport, it does not seem however, that the majority of athletes and coaches spend a proportionate amount of time deliberately practicing these skills.

So why is there such reluctance to address psychological elements of performance, or commit time to developing strong mental skills?  There are various determining factors that will influence an individual’s likelihood of deliberately addressing psychological skills with their athletes and herein these will be considered.

The belief that mental skills cannot be taught (or do not need to be taught)

Whilst some are holding on to the belief that elite athletes are 100% born, or have been provided with gifts from a higher power, the majority of people subscribe to the belief that elite athletes (while perhaps have been fortunate enough to inherit good genes) have in reality worked extremely hard, and had significant support and guidance to reach the pinnacle of the athletic pyramid.  This typically includes, whether consciously pursued or manifesting as a result of a particular coaching style or philosophy, significant dedication to developing robust mental skills that will allow athletes to perform as desired. 

Of course some athletes naturally have an unwavering confidence, providing the unique self-belief which enables them to perform under immense pressure, while also (importantly) avoiding complacency, but unfortunately this is the exception, not the rule.  Most athletes that progress to the highest echelon of a particular sport will do so as a result of a collective (athlete and coach) commitment to developing both the physical and mental elements that encompass performance.

Remedial approach

As mentioned above, the acknowledgement of sport psychology is becoming increasingly prevalent; however, many still take a remedial approach to addressing mental skills which involves considering psychological issues if they arise.  Although this is better than not addressing them at all, why not take a more active and developmental stance, embracing the practice of mental skills to gain an edge over competition, as well as work towards preventing issues from arising? To utilise a very primitive analogy; we generally encourage athletes to drink before they experience thirst.  Also, as with dehydration, once issues do emerge, they can be fairly difficult to resolve, so remember, prevention is always easier than restoration. 

Limited time and resources

One of the more common rationales for not implementing mental skills into regular practice is the limited time (either perceived or real) that coaches have with their athletes.  This is at times perplexing however, due to the concurrent belief that it is ‘whoever turns up (mentally) on the day’ that will likely be successful.  The aim of this article is not to suggest that mental skills are more important than addressing physical elements, but it is unrealistic to think that just because an athlete can perform a certain skill in a low pressure environment, that they will naturally inherit the mental skills that are necessary to enable them to perform to the same level consistently under pressure.  Reflect on your approach regularly and assess what opportunities you are providing your athletes to practice performing in situations similar to those that will confront them in competition.  Also, think about what skills your athletes are developing to cope with pressure, setbacks, success, adversity, etc. as these are all inevitable in competitive sport.

Unsure of how, and when, to teach mental skills

Another reason we are still seeing a reluctance to teach mental skills is a ubiquitous unfamiliarity with exactly how to address mental skills.  Coaches often use instructions such as “stay positive” or “you need to focus” which are often acknowledged with a confused look on the athlete’s face.  If an athlete has just made a few errors, how does one go about staying positive? 

Sport psychologists and mental skills trainers are regularly approached by coaches asking how often mental skills should be addressed; once a week, once a fortnight, or at the beginning of the season?  The answer to this is EVERYDAY.  Mental skills should be made part of everyday practice. 

Developing effective strategies to cope with pressure, maintain focus, avoid distractions, and perform physically under stress requires systematic and deliberate practice, just like physical skills.  It is important to note, however, this does not mean that you need to break halfway through each training session to sit around a dry erase board and talk about feelings.  It may just mean before a particular drill, that you instruct your athlete to focus solely on arm movement, and then afterwards asking him/her to reflect on the technique.  By providing this instruction, and then a follow-up question, you have helped the athlete focus on a controllable element (which should help skill acquisition and avoid outcome thinking), as well as promoting reflective thinking (likely developing analytical skills) and heightening engagement. 

Sport psychology continues to gain momentum, predominantly as a result of high-profile athletes attributing success to a synthesis of physical and mental skills, and is moving closer towards receiving the deliberate attention that nutrition, strength and conditioning and biomechanics (rightfully) enjoy.  We are beginning to see greater use of the various skills and strategies that can enhance performance and wellbeing in competitive sport, and similar to the aforementioned fields, in time, sport psychology will become a mainstream field with the majority of coaches and athletes addressing this area as a critical part of preparation and performance.

If you are interested in practical suggestions of ways to implement mental skills training into your daily coaching routine, then look out for further posts in the ‘Coach-Athlete Relationship’ blog.

Warrick Wood is a lecturer of sport psychology at Massey University. He is currently teaching applied sport psychology and working towards his Ph.D.

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