By Bo Hanson – 4x Olympian, Coaching Consultant & Director of Athlete Assessments
While Sport Psychologists can provide a valuable service in sport, sport coaches need a basic knowledge of Sport Psychology.
Understanding the importance of sport and exercise psychology is paramount to getting better results on the field, in the pool or on the court. Often though, coaches find the topic daunting and therefore put it in the “too hard” basket. Other coaches employ the services of a sport psychologist to assist their athletes and miss important benefits of a holistic coaching approach. In this article, we define what sport psychology is and what aspects are best incorporated into training and competition day by the sports coach.
What is Sport Psychology?
Sport psychology is the understanding of how the mind influences an athlete’s performance in their chosen sport. Within the principles of sport psychology are various concepts such as how do athletes prefer to learn, what is their personality, how can they attain states of relaxation and concentration (narrow and broad focus), how does an athlete learn to visualize a successful performance, do they understand and overcome their limiting beliefs and how does an athlete develop high levels of self-awareness.
Why is Sport Psychology Important?
The importance of sport psychology has been realized for decades, however many coaches and athletes pay too little attention to how it can help them perform better. Many coaches and athletes still overly focus on the physical aspect of sporting performance at the detriment of the non-physical. There is a greater emphasis on proven physical training programs and biomechanical analysis of the equipment and technique. These physical aspects of sport are critical and they become even more valuable when combined with an effective mental training program.
No athlete, no matter how strong or physically gifted can be successful if for example, they let their nerves overtake them and they crumble in the heat and pressure of competition.
Sport Psychology is not just the domain of a sport psychologist and there are many aspects that coaches can become very effective themselves, to the benefit of their athletes and team. This can also have the additional benefit that it is incorporated into a holistic training program and more potent then one-time interventions. Having said that, some issues athletes have to deal with may not be of a sporting nature and are in fact clinical psychology issues. An example would be if an athlete has an eating disorder or other serious psychological challenge. If a coach realizes this, then we strongly advise the coach to seek professional help for their athlete.
So what can a coach do that falls under the realm of sport psychology and that will make a significant impact on their athletes’ performances?
The most important aspects of Sport Psychology for Coaches
Firstly, focus on the relationship you have with your athletes. The coach-athlete relationship is critical to sporting success and there is more and more research being done that shows that this should be a key focus area in sport. For example in the study by the Canadian Olympic Committee they found the most significant contributor to a medal winning performance or a personal best performance at the Beijing Olympics, was a strong coach-athlete relationship.
A quality coach-athlete relationship does not happen instantly, instead it needs to develop over time. As such, creating an effective relationship between you and your athletes, is about investing the time and resources. This is in the same manner as you would invest time and resources into a quality weights or conditioning program.
The difference between the physical training and your relationship with your athletes, is that the physical training can be hard work and with the associated pain and sweat. Building a better relationship is about conversations, observing and learning about each other.
One of the most fundamental aspects of sport psychology that is within the coach’s role, is to understand their athlete’s behavioral patterns and their individual personality. All coaches already do this to some extent. The best coaches do this to a deep level. Understanding an athlete gives a window into how to communicate, build an effective environment for them, assist them to build on their strengths and overcome their weaknesses. (You might also enjoy another article about the movie The Blind Side that is a recent example of this point.)
It is often suggested, self-awareness is 75% of any solution to improving performance. A primary role of any sports coach is also to help their athletes understand themselves better. When athletes understand themselves they are in a better position to self-assess and monitor their own performances.
Having a deeper understanding of each of your athletes is not a difficult thing to do as there are non-confronting assessments which can give a coach (and an athlete) all the answers they need. For example, our AthleteDISC and CoachDISC profiles are specifically for this purpose. (If you want to know more about the AthleteDISC and CoachDISC profiles, go to the pages specifically for athletes, for coaches and/or for performance consultants.)
Mental Visualization, Goal Setting, Feedback and Self-Talk
Mental visualization is a key sport psychology skill that coaches can help their athletes develop. This may entail specific training sessions that practice mental visualization of the perfect execution of technique or practicing the race or game plan. It can also be as simple as a few minutes of visualization before practice commences. Before a training session, coaches can ask their athletes to think about what it is they are about to do and then see themselves performing the training effectively.
Visualization often requires an athlete to firstly relax, mentally focus on the present and then run through what is to be rehearsed in their mind. If a coach isn’t yet confident in being able to run visualization sessions with their athletes, then engage a sport psychologist to teach and mentor the coach on how to do this well. There is also a great deal of information available on this topic in books and on the internet. This is a great skill coaches can get great at and teach their athletes.
Another sport psychology area that is relatively simple but vitally important is goal setting. Coaches can be very effective to make sure their athletes have set SMART goals. These are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time framed. Every successful athlete needs to set goals and then know to break these goals into smaller chunks. Coaches can keep their athletes on track by constantly having smaller goals to focus on each session that contribute to the more significant goals. Having these smaller goals also teaches narrow concentration skills and how to focus on the process rather than the outcome of a performance. Again, there are numerous resources available on this topic.
A coach can also use an effective feedback model combined with appropriate positive language. For example, when a coach tells their athlete what they are doing incorrectly, they must also explain how to fix the technical error. When the athlete attempts to fix the technique, the coach should positively encourage the athlete for their effort and to support them to train outside of their personal comfort zone. This helps boost the athlete’s self-belief in their ability to make changes and they begin to feel more comfortable while operating outside of their comfort zone. We recommend the ‘feedback sandwich’ which is detailed in the article ‘Delivering Feedback to Your Athletes’.
The final sport psychology concept to cover that coaches can teach their athletes is how to monitor their own self-talk. Everyone talks to themselves. (It is that voice now that is asking whether you talk to yourself!) An athlete’s internal talk impacts their performance. By asking your athletes to begin to notice their internal conversations and if they are positive or not, can help an athlete begin to change negative self-talk. An athlete’s internal conversation is often a representation of their own self-beliefs. Once again, becoming aware of these internal conversations is the first step towards changing them to be more positive and hence being able to create better performances. You might like to also refer to the article ‘What to do when your athletes don’t compete as well as they train’ for more on this topic.
Sports coaches who have developed their own skills in the above areas, are the best qualified to teach their athletes these critical sport psychology skills to improve their performances. This way they are continuously reinforced during training and more effective on competition day. Remember, the most critical contributor to athletic performance is the coach-athlete relationship. Dedicate time to develop these relationships to improve your sporting results. This starts with understanding yourself and your athletes.