A recent (and, it should be said, not very scientific) poll at my local triathlon club about sport psychology led to an interesting, and somewhat unexpected, result – the majority of triathletes didn’t know what sport psychology was, nor how it could benefit them in their training. With this in mind, I set out to write a short paper with the aim of shedding some light on the practice of sport psychology.
To start with, I paid a visit to the websites of three of the global powerhouses of psychology – the British Psychological Society (BPS), The American Psychological Association (APA) and the Australian Psychological Society (APS). The common theme in how each of these bodies describes sport psychology means I should probably have titled this paper where is sport psychology instead of what is sport psychology. You see, sport psychology is more about the environment than it is about the work. As my first sport psychology professor put it, ‘sport psychology is just psychology applied to sports’. The APA probably sums it up the best:
The focus of professionals in this field of specialization is quite diverse. Individuals come from sub-specialties within psychology such as developmental, educational, clinical, counseling, industrial, comparative, physiological, social, personality, hypnosis, motivation, human factors, ergonomics and health psychology. Although professionals and students in this area represent numerous specialties within psychology, they are bonded together by a common interest in sport.
With such a mix of backgrounds of practitioners within the sport psychology field it is not surprising that a number of different approaches can be seen. The most commonly seen approach to sport psychology is described as Psychological Skills Training (PST). With many early sport psychologists either coming out of sports science backgrounds, or attempting to commoditize their interventions to compare with physiologists, nutritionists and biomechanists, PST advocates for the development in athletes of specific mental skills with the aim of reducing the variability of performance due to psychological factors such as anxiety. Typically this would include topics such as goal setting, concentration, arousal and relaxation, imagery, pre-performance routines and the like.
Many PST topics are well researched in their own rights and the wealth of evidence-based-practice is a strength to this approach. For example, studies have shown that cognitive interventions such as thought control increase both physical and decision-making performance as well as reducing anxiety (Maynard, Smith & Warwick-Evans, 1995). Furthermore, the skill of imagery has been shown to assist in the reduction of anxiety and the improvement of confidence (Smith et al., 2007). Against a backdrop that suggests coaches often neglect psychological training in their programming with a focus purely on perfecting biomechanical efficiency (Davis & Sime, 2005), it is not surprising that sport psychology has become both popular and effective.
One criticism of the traditional PST approaches is their tendency towards reductionism, advocating that discreet interventions will create psychological strength, but perhaps missing some of the deeper psychological issues that are relevant to sporting success and failure. Sporting organisations are of course far more complex than this, yet much of sport psychology training still focuses on individual and team interventions, rather than systemic ones. In recent years, the broadening of the practitioner backgrounds (as mentioned in the APA quote above) has resulted in a reduction in the reliance on PST as the primary practice among sport psychologists. A number of practitioners advocate different perspectives, such as Mark Andersen (psychodynamics) and Mark Nesti (existentialist phenomenology). These practices move sport psychology away from PST and into a deeper engagement with the human endeavor around sports and spirituality. It is perhaps a shame, then that much post graduate training in the subject still emphasizes PST concepts over other, equally valid, approaches.
Recent growth in the area of ‘performance psychology’ has further widened the remit of traditional sport psychologists. This links closely to the positive psychology movement and runs in some ways opposite to clinical psychology. In other words, it is about how to create and nurture high performance regardless of operating context. This is reinforced by Aoyagi et al (2011) who make the distinction between performance-based interventions and therapeutic-based interventions, suggesting that the full range of sport psychology interventions includes performance excellence, mental health counselling and consulting psychology.
One important point to highlight is that sport psychology does not necessarily require a sport psychologist. For example, it has been proposed that coaches should treat the development of core psychological skills in their athletes, such as dealing with anxiety, the same way as any aspect of skill acquisition (Suinn, 2005). To this end, the ability to deliver PST to athletes and teams is becoming more mainstream in coach education programs, freeing up psychologists to deal with more complex issues.
In summary, sport psychology is the application of psychological concepts to people in sporting environments. Traditionally this has been through discreet mental skills training in areas such as imagery, concentration, relaxation, and goal setting. Increasingly, psychological skills training is being incorporated into coach-led training programs, leaving psychologists to support individuals, teams and sporting organisations in more complex issues such as eating disorders, exercise addiction, burnout, injury rehabilitation, transition to retirement, team effectiveness, reflection on failure, motivation over time, grit and perseverance.