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The Effects of Psychology on Athletic Performance

Many psychological influences on athletic performance are subconscious.

Negative external or internal psychological factors can lead to mental blocks, causing breaks in focus and preparation, poor performance and, at times, injuries to the athlete. They can produce physical disruptions such as muscle tightening, shaking, and increased perspiration.

If not dealt with, these factors may not only affect the athlete but the team as a whole. To combat these powerful effects, coaches and athletes can focus their efforts on tactics such as goal setting, routines, visualization, and confidence.

Goal Setting in Athletics

Goal setting can be a successful tactic to improve athletic psychology. These goals, however, must be realistic. Goals should be designed in small increments that are genuinely achievable in the short term. I have seen swimmers who have struggled to meet larger goals, such as reaching a certain stage of competition or improvements in their swimming times.

Not reaching these exaggerated goals can lead to a loss of confidence and weak self-efficacy. Time goals set by athletes, such as swimmers and runners, should be minimal. For basketball players, minor increases in points per quarter are a more attainable goal than all-around statistical increases or wins.

It is incredibly important not only to make attainable goals but also to break them down into small components to understand how a goal is going to be achieved. Once these small goals are established, the next stage of goal-setting in athletics should be accomplished: completion. An athlete should write down and physically check off each and every goal.

This exercise is beneficial for the psychology and confidence of the athlete. Checking off accomplished goals is tangible and visual, and it paints a clear picture of achievements. It also helps the athlete with visualization, a sense of self-worth and strong self-efficacy. When athletes can see their goals being achieved, they are empowered and confident.

Visualization and Athletic Performance

Athletes who can visualize themselves having success will be successful. Individuals must battle the inner voice that is telling them they cannot complete their goals. To silence this negative voice, athletes can visualize success and practice self-talk. Positive self-talk goes hand in hand with visualization with the athlete both hearing and seeing success.

The more athletes imagine practicing a task, the easier it is for them to accomplish the task in a physical environment. They can rely on their visualized cues to help guide them through the act. Ice skaters, for example, visualize the different elements of their performance. Mentally, away from the ice, they feel the air, they hear the music and they complete their jumps. Visualization is more important to individual sports such as ice skating and gymnastics than for team sports.

Practicing visualization is a form of meditation. It is critical for the athlete to be in a state of relaxation. This is harder for some athletes, whose minds are constantly running. It may help the individual to listen to soothing music and cover his or her eyes. At first, the athlete may need a form of guided meditation, but it does not take long for successful visualization to happen alone.

Athlete Routine and Performance

While some athletes are not affected by routine, others can be superstitious and obsessively follow patterns before, during, and after practice and competition. A popular routine that jumps to mind is listening to music. Some athletes prefer soothing music and others prefer louder, fast paced tunes. Relying on music for a routine can backfire when an athlete forgets their music or has technical difficulties with it. Once out of a routine, athletes may believe they aren’t prepared and cannot focus.

Visualization is often a part of a routine. For example, on the way to the mat, some wrestlers may become nervous. To combat this anxiety, the wrestler may visualize a special place as a distraction. Whether it is a trip to an amusement park or relaxing on the beach, they work to take themselves out of their current situation to keep their mind off of stepping on the mat and the anxiety of performance. While this works for some athletes, others do not want to be distracted. They may thrive under pressure and want to stay in the moment as best they can.

From goal setting to visualization, the effects of psychology on athletic performance are evident.

More from Laura M. Miele Ph.D.
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