My journey into Sport Psychology began with my undergraduate degree 11 years ago. Since then, the discussions around my choice of study and now career path have had reactions of curiosity and intrigue. 9 times out of 10, the response would be a version of the following...“ That sounds interesting… but what is it? ”
There is a chance that you too will be wondering the same. By the end of this blog, I hope to have put across my interpretation of what Sport Psychology is all about; what is mindset; and how both can influence mentality and performance.
If you google Sport Psychology, you will likely find various definitions of differing detail and complexity, however all with the same key principles. My philosophy as a consultant is to not overcomplicate a concept and to keep things simple to support understanding and application.
For me, Sport Psychology is...
“ Learning about and applying mental skills to help improve mindset, preparation and performance. ”
Let’s break this definition down: firstly, what is a mental skill?
Mental skills allow you to control your thoughts, emotions and behaviour. In any discipline that requires consistently high performance in a pressurised situation, such as sport, medicine, music or the performing arts, having control of your thoughts and emotions to allow for consistently high performance is what separates the best from the rest.
In sport, athletes spend the majority of their training improving physical skills (e.g., strength or endurance) and technical skills (e.g., a footballer practising free kicks or a golfer working on their putting). However, all athletes and coaches acknowledge the importance of mental skills. When being interviewed after scoring a hat-trick, a footballer will declare how confident, relaxed and focused they feel in front of goal. After a defeat in a major final, a coach will explain how their players struggled to handle the situation and couldn’t perform to their potential in the highly pressurised situation.
There is a reason the most successful sporting organisations, clubs and athletes employ or regularly use a Sport Psychologist. Being a great athlete not only requires great physical and technical attributes, but also a mastery of the mental game. As the most successful Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps, once said...
“ Everything is possible as long as you put your mind to it and you put the work and time into it. I think your mind really controls everything. ”
Your mindset is how you view yourself and the world around you. This can influence how you feel, think and behave in situations, either positively or negatively. Your mindset is also heavily connected to another vital part of sport - your preparation. A positive and healthy mindset allows for optimum preparation, giving you the opportunity to deliver your best performance.
There are two types of mindset: fixed and growth. In a sport setting, a fixed mindset believes talent and ability are innate and unchangeable. A growth mindset believes talent can be developed through effort and practice. Below are examples of an athlete with each of these mindsets…
Athlete 1 = Fixed Mindset
Athlete 2 = Growth Mindset
I’m either good at something or I’m not
I can improve my skills with effort and practice
I’m already really good at this. I don’t need to get any better.
There’s always room for improvement.
People who are naturally good at my sport don’t need to try hard to succeed.
No one is born good at sport. We can all improve with time, effort and practice.
Successful people have never experienced failure.
Failure is part of success. Most successful people have failed many times, but they succeeded because they didn’t quit.
If I don’t try new or difficult things, then I won’t fail.
I have to try new and challenging things in order to grow, even if I fail at first.
When I fail, I get frustrated and give up.
When I fail, I try again using the lessons I’ve learned.
Which mindset do you think the best sportsmen and women in the world possess? Which is more likely to lead to success in a competitive and demanding sporting environment? I know which athlete I would back!
As a coach, it is clear which mindset I promote in my athletes. The question is, are people capable of changing from a fixed to a growth mindset? The answer, I believe, is yes!
When an athlete has hit a challenging moment in their career and has requested my support and coaching, it is often because fixed mindset philosophies have begun to manifest themselves in their beliefs. The majority of athletes will have a growth mindset - it is very difficult to succeed in sport without one! However, a decline in confidence or other mental skills can allow for fixed mindset beliefs to emerge. Through Sport Psychology and Mindset Coaching, we can work to unfix these beliefs before they become permanent in an athlete’s mindset.
In my first consultation with clients/their parents, they are always keen to find out how Sport Psychology, Mindset and Performance Coaching can help them. There is usually a ‘problem’ that they have identified and want ‘fixing’.
The first thing I stress to all my clients is that I am not a ‘mental magician’. Just because we begin working together does not guarantee improvement and future success. As with physical and technical skills, improvement in mentality requires practice - quality practice. I can provide clients with the opportunity to improve through the mental skills and strategies we work on. However, this improvement is reliant on the hard work and dedication of the athlete. We may work together for 1 or 2 hours a week - it is up to them how productively they use the other 166 hours in the week to give themselves the best chance for mindset and performance improvement.
In my next blog, I will outline the 10 most important benefits I believe Sport Psychology and Mindset Coaching can have on sporting mentality, preparation and performance. For now though, one final point to note is the benefits this discipline can bring outside of the sporting context. One of the fundamental themes I share with my clients is the benefits our work can have on other aspects of modern life. For example, the strategies we develop to reduce the nerves before competing in sport can also be used when facing nerves before an exam or a driving test. The goal-setting strategies we use to ensure they reach their sporting ambitions and potential can also be used to set goals in their employment or education. The confidence-building and anxiety-reducing techniques we use can help their mental health and well-being in day-to-day life.
I finish with a quote from philosopher Sam Harris, which I believe sums up the importance and need for Sport Psychology and Mindset Coaching perfectly…
" Your mind is the basis of everything that you experience and of every contribution you make to the lives of others. Given this fact, it makes sense to train it. "