Without a doubt, the most frequently asked question I get from prospective clients as well as from fitness-minded friends and colleagues about what I do professionally is, “What exactly is sports psychology?” Although sports psychology has been around for decades, there continues to be great deal of confusion and—even, believe it or not, among high level coaches and trainers—skepticism about it. In an effort to educate Austin fitness enthusiasts about this field, I would like to share some general thoughts about what I do in my day-to-day work as a sports psychologist.
The first order of business is to dispel a myth about sports psychology: It is not a clinical intervention. From a mental health perspective, there is not anything particularly wrong or deficient or dysfunctional with a client of sports psychology services. Unfortunately, sports psychology is often confused with clinical psychology, which (broadly stated) is a field that focuses on the study, diagnosis, and treatment of mental disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and so on. By contrast, sports psychology provides tools, strategies, and techniques for the purpose of increasing, enhancing, and elevating athletic performance. In other words, a good sports psychologist attempts to take what an athlete is already doing well and help him or her get better at it.
Perhaps the most frequent reason that prompts an athlete to consult with me is event-related anxiety, also known as performance anxiety. It is important to note that this type of anxiety is not necessarily clinical—that is, the client does not need medication or treatment—although the symptoms often mimic or overlap with clinical anxiety. These symptoms may include any of the following: a feeling of increasing nervousness and even panic as the date of competition approaches, self-defeating thoughts about performance, comparing oneself unfavorably to other competitors, a marked decrease in performance level during a competition relative to training and practice, a tendency to be overly self-critical (note: being overly self-critical is different than being self-critical), negative or pessimistic forecasting (i.e., imagining failure as inevitable or probable), and various somatic indicators of stress and nervousness (e.g., racing heart rate, labored breathing, excessive sweating, racing thoughts, decreased ability to focus, trembling and shakiness, sleep problems, etc.).
Although my approach in working with athletes differs depending on what it is that they are focused on achieving, from the very start I work toward developing a deep understanding of how they think. More specifically, I focus on appreciating what they believe deep down inside about themselves, their sport, and the upcoming competition. This effort on my part comprises one of the two primary activities in sports psychology to assist an athlete in coping more successfully with performance anxiety. The other activity pertains to instruction in relaxation and focusing techniques, which I will address at another time.
It is by no means an accident that I have been drawing a distinction between “thought” and “belief.” We have thoughts about a whole lot of things all the time. Thoughts race through our heads so fast at times we don’t even notice them or the internal dialogue they set in motion. The mistake many people make, however, is when they assume that their thoughts reflect an undiluted view of reality rather than being an inescapably biased interpretation of that reality.
What does all of this have to do with increasing and enhancing performance? In case you were thinking you had mistakenly gotten diverted to a philosophy article, let me emphasize the important point here: We can think something without believing it, but only if we are able to react to our thoughts in a certain way. Just because I think something does not make that thought true objectively, unless of course I believe that thought so much that my subsequent actions end up living it out, which is sometimes referred to as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Guiding our thoughts, but also in certain ways being informed by them, are our beliefs. Beliefs constitute our identity, and our core beliefs lie at the very heart of who we are and how we act in the world, including out on the playing field. I’m sure this led the famous college basketball coach John Wooden to comment that sports do not build character but reveal it.
Once I saw a bumper sticker that expresses exactly the perspective I’m trying to convey. It read, “Don’t believe everything you think.” I often tell my sports psychology clients to be mindful of what they tell themselves, because chances are they’ll believe it. Not surprisingly, an athlete’s thoughts and beliefs turn out to be a primary focus of sports psychology sessions. More specifically, in my sessions with athletes I attempt to work out, decrease, and eliminate unproductive, unsuccessful, and ultimately unsatisfying patterns of thought and belief. We then focus on replacing these unproductive cognitive patterns with thoughts and beliefs associated with higher levels of performance and satisfaction.
Some methods used to achieve the aforementioned goal include visualization and self-affirming statements. Contrary to what some may think, visualization should not be confused with daydreaming; it takes a heck of a lot more effort, consistency, and practice. The details of instructing athletes in the use of visualization are too numerous to go into now, but suffice it to say that I urge my athletes to use this technique prior to and during competitions as well as before and during training and practice sessions, and prior to sleep. Visualization is a skill, and the more you do it under the guidance and instruction of a trained sports psychologist or coach, the better you get at it. Like anything else we try to achieve in life, visualization works for you if you work it. You can’t expect visualization to increase your performance if you only do it the night before a big competition; it must become a daily part of your training.
In my experience, athletes gets so much more out of their training by taking even just a few moments beforehand to vividly imagine or visualize the movements, skills, and routines they will be performing and thus get their minds in the right place for success. Their performance also benefits enormously from increased confidence and belief in self, and I will sometimes devote considerable time and energy during a sports psychology session to providing an athlete with instruction in various ways to affirm him- or herself. Like visualization, sports-related self-affirmation must be practiced on a daily basis. Moreover, the more detailed an athlete can be about affirming him- or herself in the specific training activities performed, the deeper and more powerful is the self-belief that is developed.
The best way I have found to start using self-affirmation is to increase an athlete’s training intensity. Briefly stated, if athletes can break through the doubt and negativity that invariably come up when they are pushing their bodies to the limit, they not only become mentally tougher but, as a result, they are better able to push their bodies to produce and achieve more. I typically tell athletes in my practice that if they do not encounter some form of doubt during a training session, they’re not pushing themselves hard enough. By facing and overcoming our doubts, we push through psychological and physical barriers, and utilizing self-affirming statements and imagery are great assets in this effort.
I hope your understanding of sports psychology is better now than 15 minutes ago, although there is so much more I can share about this field and how it might benefit your sports- and fitness-related activities. Feel free to send any questions about sports psychology you have to AFM Editor in Chief Leah Nyfeler (firstname.lastname@example.org), as well as topics within sports psychology you would be interested in hearing more about.