How Can Sports Psychology Help Athletes?
It’s no secret that the best athletes are physically talented — they have impressive aerobic and anaerobic capacities, can shoot perfect free throws, and they can perform at the highest of intensities for hours on end.
But the very best athletes also know how to best perform mentally. They can silence the noise and play as if they are the only person in the stadium, on the pitch, or on the golf course.
Research shows that mental training in sports psychology can improve results more than physical training alone . In fact, it’s changed the lives of many athletes, whether breaking through mental barriers, coming back from injury, or improving their performance.
With this in mind, in this blog post we discuss how sports psychology can help athletes.
Sports psychologists can:
- Reduce performance anxiety and increase athlete confidence
- Provide athletes with mental skills to deal with stressful situations
- Help athletes return after injury
What is sports psychology?
Sports psychology is all about the mind — it’s about developing mental fitness and resilience, and learning skills such as visualisation and effective goal setting to maximise an athlete’s performance.
In the last few years, there’s been a boom in sports psychology — every professional sports team has at least one, and some, have a whole team of psychologists on hand to provide mental skills training, support, and education to their athletes.
Athletes who train in both the physical and mental aspects of their sport are likely to achieve better results than an athlete who only trains on the field.
What do sports psychologists do?
Okay, now that you know what sports psychology is, what do sports psychologists actually do, aside from helping athletes get the most out of themselves?
- Help athletes mentally prepare for competition
- Teach effective goal setting techniques
- Develop attention and focus
- Break through mental barriers
- Improve self-confidence and reduce anxiety
- Help athletes return after injury
Help athletes mentally prepare for competition
Competition is tough, both mentally and physically. That shouldn’t be a surprise to athletes or coaches.
If an athlete’s mind is not in the right place, their physical performance may suffer.
Sports psychologists work with their athletes to prepare them mentally for competition.
But this isn’t something that happens overnight.
Let’s say you have an athlete who gets tense, anxious, and feels overwhelmed when taking a set piece such as a free throw in basketball. A psychologist could work with the athlete to develop a ritual to calm their nerves and silence the noise — this might include deep breathing exercises, cues such as relaxing their shoulders, or imagery to visualise the shot before taking it.
Want to see this in action? Watch Jonny Wilkinson perform his pre-kick ritual below:
Working with a sports psychologist is often very personalised — there is no one size fits all approach. Instead, it’s about working on an individual athlete’s strengths and weaknesses.
Teach effective goal setting techniques
All athletes have goals, whether you’re competing for an Olympic gold medal, want to break a 5k personal best, or win your basketball league tournament.
And we can all use effective goal setting techniques to improve self-confidence, performance, and the overall likelihood of success.
Sports psychologists and coaches should work with athletes to set goals using the following principles :
- Set specific goals that lead to better performance (vs. easy goals)
- Short-term goals should move the needle towards long-term goals
- An understanding that goals affect performance (effort, direction and attention, motivation, and strategy development)
- Feedback regarding process is crucial when working towards goals
- Goals must be accepted by the athlete
Related: What Qualities Make A Great Sports Coach?
Develop attention and focus
It’s natural for athletes to feel increased anxiety under pressure — it’s those moments before a freekick, a set piece, the closing moments of a game, or the final 100 metres of a 5,000-metre race.
A sports psychologist can help athletes regain focus and lessen their anxiety, allowing them to maximise performance.
Furthermore, some athletes might perform well, but struggle with attention and focus during training, perhaps preventing them from reaching that “next level.”
Athletes can work alongside a sports psychologist to improve their motivation, attention and focus during those oh-so-crucial moments.
Break through mental barriers
Athletes use mental coaching to break through barriers that may inhibit peak performance.
For example, an athlete may choke under high pressure regularly, fear task or performance failure after a specific event, or experience severe anxiety to the point where their performance is severely hindered.
Sports psychologists employ mental skills training techniques to break through these mental barriers , alleviating anxiety and providing athletes with the tools to face their unique challenges head-on.
And the best part is, you don’t need to be an elite athlete to benefit from sports psychology and mental training.
Improve self-confidence and reduce anxiety
Working with a psychologist can help athletes improve confidence and optimise focus for performance.
Using certain mental exercises, athletes can recall how they felt during past performances, and can even practise certain skills and techniques to work on their mental game. Often, this includes the visualisation of particular scenarios and sports outcomes.
Psychologists administer a mix of mental skills, including :
- Attentional control
- Goal setting
- Activation and relaxation
If you’re a coach and you want to start using mental skill training with your athletes, you can read our how to create a mental training program for athletes guide.
Help athletes return after injury
Returning from a sports injury is no easy feat. — many athletes push too hard too early and only make it worse.
And then there are other athletes who seemingly come back from the impossible. Take Chris Froome’s horrendous crash at the dauphiné back in 2019, for example. He fractured his right femur, elbow, and several ribs after hitting a wall at over 33 mph during a training ride — he was later airlifted to hospital.
Team Ineos did not renew his professional contract, and for many cyclists (and athletes), that would be the end of their careers. But not Froome.
And that’s only one example. There are others too, including Peyton Manning, who had multiple neck surgeries; Tiger Woods suffered from a double stress fracture in his left tibia; and Tom Brady who tore both the ACL and MCL in his knee.
All of these athletes returned back to their sport after going through rehabilitation with physiologists, doctors, and psychologists.
Why is sports psychology so important?
Sports psychology can help athletes reduce performance anxiety, come back from injury, break through mental barriers, and ultimately make them a more well-rounded and better athlete.
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If you’re a coach, you can use Rewire for teams to prime your athletes for performance.
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- Kumar, P. and Shirotriya, A.K., 2010. ‘Sports psychology’a crucial ingredient for athletes success: conceptual view. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 44(Suppl 1), pp.i55-i56.
- Locke, E.A. and Latham, G.P., 1985. The application of goal setting to sports. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 7(3), pp.205-222.
- Röthlin, P., Horvath, S., Trösch, S., Holtforth, M.G. and Birrer, D., 2020. Differential and shared effects of psychological skills training and mindfulness training on performance-relevant psychological factors in sport: a randomized controlled trial. BMC psychology, 8, pp.1-13.