Tag Archives: sports psychology

Sports Psychology, Part 4: Psychological Management Strategies

21 Sep

Mental preparation is an important part of athletic performance.  According to Baechle and Earle in The Psychology of Athletic Preparation and Performance, “Applied sport psychology involves the employment of techniques to gain control over psychological factors, which influence sport performance.  The validation of such techniques is one mission of the scientific discipline of sport psychology.”  There are several strategies that can help athletes and coaches work together to improve athletic performance outcomes.

Goal Setting

Coaches can potentially improve athletic performance by incorporating appropriate goals for their athletes.  Coaches can instill a sense of success, achievement, and self-efficacy through positive and negative reinforcement.  Goal setting involves a process that pursues progressively challenging standards of performance in an attempt to increase the likelihood of perceived success.

  • Process Goals can be achieved under the athlete’s control.  If the athlete puts forth the effort, success is likely.  Weight loss could be considered a process goal.
  • Outcome Goals are those over which the athlete has little control.  Winning a game or race might be an example of an outcome goal.
  • Short-Term Goals are those that, while challenging, are close to the athlete’s present ability level.  They increase confidence, self-esteem, and self-efficacy.
  • Long-Term Goals are “big picture” goals, like winning a championship.  Athletes may see more relevance in short-term goals if they understand how they contribute to long-term goals.

Long-term goals and short-term goals are interdependent.  Long-term goals provide a sense of significance for pursuing short-term goals.  The attainment of short-term goals provides a progressive sense of mastery and success that builds self-confidence.  Athletes should define process goals to focus on elements of their performance over which they have control.

Relaxation Techniques are intended to reduce physiological arousal and increase task-relevant focus.  These techniques are critical when attempting to execute complex, difficult-to-learn tasks.  Examples of relaxation techniques are diaphragmatic breathing, muscular relaxation, and visualization.

Diaphragmatic breathing, referred to as belly breathing, focuses the athlete’s thought on breathing to clear the mind.  It requires that attention be directed away from the chest and instead to the abdominal region, as the source of conscious breathing.

Muscular relaxation is accomplished by going through a series of alternate muscular tensing and relaxing phases.  This process can help athletes learn to become aware of somatic (voluntary) tension and thereby control it.

Visualization is a skill in which the athlete uses all the senses to create a mental experience of an athletic performance.  The perspective of the image can be internal (the athlete himself or herself) or external (another person).  Visualization can help an athlete to reinforce a particular behavior or skill.

Coaches and athletes can improve performance and increase the enjoyment of competition by understanding and embracing the mental aspects of performance.  Positive, goal-oriented coaching is a powerful contributor to psychological preparation for sport.  Physical and nutritional preparation should be the foundation on which performance potential is based.  An adequate understanding of the mind-body relationship can help athletes to manage emotion and arousal.

Your thoughts?

Sports Psychology, Part 3: Motivation

19 Sep

Motivation is an important component of athletic performance.  Intrinsic motivation has a profound impact on the athlete’s desire to train and compete.  Achievement motivation relates to the athlete’s competitiveness; his or her desire to engage in competition.  Positive and negative reinforcement in coaching can have a considerable influence on an athlete’s motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is important for any athlete.  The athlete who is intrinsically motivated is self-motivated because he or she loves the game.  Coaching team sports can be much more effective when athletes are self-motivated.

Achievement motivation is fueled by an athlete’s competitiveness.  All things being equal between two athletes, the one with greater achievement motivation will be the better athlete because of his or her “appetite” for competition.

Positive reinforcement involves the use of rewards – praise, helmet decals, prizes, and awards – to increase the probability that a particular behavior will be repeated.

Negative reinforcement also increases the probability that a behavior will be repeated, by removing an event that is perceived to be unappealing or undesirable.  For example, if a team has a productive practice, the coach could announce that no sprints will be run at the end of the session.

Positive punishment describes an action that is presented after a behavior, that could decrease the behavior’s recurrence.  Reprimanding a basketball player after a turnover is an example of positive punishment.

Negative punishment is the removal of something valued.  Loss of privileges or playing time (benching) are examples of negative punishment.

Coaches should generally subscribe to a reinforcement strategy that helps athletes to focus on what they do correctly.  Punishment should be used sparingly because it emphasizes what the athlete is doing wrong, thus focusing his or her attention on incorrect behavior.  Overall, positive reinforcement helps athletes focus on task-relevant cues, while punishment can overload the athlete’s focus with task-irrelevant cues.

Your thoughts?

Next: Psychological Management Strategies

Sports Psychology, Part 2: The Ideal Performance State

17 Sep

The ideal performance state has been studied from a number of perspectives.  In their article, Psychological Characteristics of Peak Performance, Williams and Kane list the characteristics of the ideal performance state:

  • Absence of fear – no fear of failure
  • No thinking about or analysis of performance
  • A narrow focus of attention concentrated on the activity itself
  • A sense of effortlessness
  • A sense of personal control
  • A distortion of time and space, in which time seems to slow

The ideal performance state is characterized by a “quiet mind” that results in less mental and physical interference; an absence of negative self-talk; a strong feeling of efficacy; and a narrow focus on the task at-hand.  An athlete’s positive mental state is built on a foundation that includes a sound physical training program and a history of performance success.

When a basketball player goes to the foul line to shoot free throws, he or she should block out the crowd, opposition, and any other potential distractions, and focus on proper shooting mechanics (for example, feet/body position, release, follow-through).  The player should not focus his or her attention and thoughts on making or missing the shot.

Walter Payton, one of the premiere running backs in the history of the National Football League, is an example of an athlete who demonstrated great mental focus.  When he was on the football field, he was able to selectively eliminate distractions and “zero in” on what he was supposed to be doing.  Of course, Payton’s off-season physical preparation was legendary.  Combined with superior performance on the field, his physical training contributed greatly to his focused, confident psychological state.

Your thoughts?

Next: Motivation

Sports Psychology, Part 1: Anxiety

14 Sep

Sports psychology is concerned with understanding the influence of behavior on sports performance.  It is considered a component of Exercise Science.  This post, the first in a series, will explore the psychological aspect of athletic performance and its effects.

Sports psychology has three primary goals:

  • Measurement of psychological phenomena
  • Investigation of the relationship between psychology and performance
  • Applying this knowledge to improve athletic performance

Anxiety is a state of situational apprehension and uncertainty experienced by athletes.  Cognitive anxiety manifests itself in worrisome thoughts, while somatic anxiety results in physical symptoms (for example, tense muscles and rapid heart rate).  Anxiety can adversely affect athletic performance in at least three ways:

  • A perceived threat to self-esteem
  • A perceived discrepancy between one’s abilities and the demands for athletic success
  • A fear of the consequences of failure (disapproval from teammates, coach, family, or peers)

Stress is anything that disrupts a state of mental and physical calm.  Although stress has a negative connotation, it can actually be negative or positive.  A “psyched-up” athlete is not necessarily an anxious athlete.  For example, an athlete aroused by stress may experience significant mental activation, resulting in positive thoughts and a strong sense of control, potentially enhancing athletic performance.

Selective attention is commonly referred to by athletes as their level of focus, and describes their ability to “block out” task-irrelevant stimuli and thoughts.  Successful athletes are able to utilize selective attention to focus on task-relevant cues by developing a mental checklist that directs their attention toward controllable concerns (for example, a placekicker breathing, checking the turf, and stretching the hamstrings).  Coaches can help athletes to focus, and avoid becoming overloaded, by situationally and appropriately helping them block out external stimuli and directing their focus on a limited number of cues.

Your thoughts?

Next: The Ideal Performance State

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