Psychology is the study of the nature and function of the mind, with particular emphasis placed on the relationship between thought and physical action. Psychology has become increasingly important in sports, particularly with respect to the improvement and maintenance of athletic performance. Sport psychology is an aspect of sport training and preparation; this science is primarily directed at assisting individual athletes and teams maintain an optimal balance between mind and body, both in terms of the physical execution of the technical aspects of the sport and the related functions of emotion and mood. Many athletes who possess superior physical gifts are rarely able to seemingly combine athletic talent and mental control; sport psychology is directed at the building and reinforcement of that connection. Sport psychology is a separate but related study from sports medicine.
Formal psychological training is a combination of intense academic study and practical applications; sport psychology is an accepted subscript of the science. Sport psychologists typically are persons with an interest in and an understanding of the mechanics and the dynamics of both sport and sport coaching. At an elite competitive level, the athlete/coach/psychologist triangle is usually very tightly formed, particularly in support of athletes who compete in individual sports.
Sports psychology was not generally accepted as a formal science until the 1970s, when a body of knowledge began to develop concerning how athletes could be motivated to train harder and to maintain a peak emotional level prior to competition. Modern sport psychology is a multifaceted science, covering a broad and sometimes contradictory range of professional opinions about how to best stimulate the mind of the athlete to assist in the achievement of a desired result.
There is no single sports psychology approach. Team sports and the dynamics of group interaction are entirely different than the pursuits of individual competition. The nature of the sport itself will play a significant role in how the athlete may be assisted; certain sports, by their nature, are likely to attract certain types of personalities. A cross-country skier and the object of the sport are a polar opposite to the goals of a weightlifter or a boxer. While individuals in their sport may require varying psychological approaches, the science of sports psychology is founded on a number of constants. Sport psychology, as a support to the athlete, will invariably include work in three general areas: goal setting, imagery and simulation, and development of better powers of concentration.
Goal setting is a planning process that occurs as a part of an assessment of the overall needs and abilities of an athlete. Goals must ultimately be realistic; to set objectives that are unattainable for an athlete is to guarantee failure. Goal setting involves the determination of such issues as the athlete's ability to self-motivate and the personal measure of self-confidence. The sports psychologist, along with the athlete and the coaches, can play a role in the prioritizing of competitive events within the training year; effective coaches will create a schedule that is often referred to as periodization of training, when the year is divided into the constituent parts of competitive season, off-season and preseason. Sport psychology principles are of particular application in the athlete's development of a feedback loop, where the constant analysis, reevaluation, and refocusing of training and competitive direction, occurs regarding performance.
Imagery and simulation training and techniques form the second branch of sport psychology. Although commonly treated as a single entity, imagery and simulation are two distinct psychological approaches to sport training and preparation.
The physical training undertaken by any athlete requires the development of the athlete's brain and the pathways of the nervous system, particularly those of the peripheral system that extend to the musculoskeletal structure that is directed and powered to achieve movement. The more specific and focused the nerve impulses initiated by the brain in respect of the intended physical movements of the sport, the more effective the athlete will be in execution of the required movements of the sport.
Imagery is a psychological technique where the athlete is conditioned to prepare for sport through the use of the mind. Imagery includes the development of set thought patterns, composed of often abstract words or images that the athlete finds helpful in reinforcing the focus on the activity. Images are developed between the athlete and the psychologist to trigger certain types of emotions that the athlete may wish to harness at appropriate times. The common emotions that are tied to imagery are those that calm the athlete in a tense environment, ones that motivate the athlete to increase intensity where the athlete may be at a lower level of intensity than is desired, or images to heighten the ability to block out all extraneous activity or distraction.
The images may be personal to the athlete's experience, or they may be created to spur a particular reaction. Once taught, imagery is a self-motivational tool, portable in that the images and their keys are carried in the athlete's mind. An example is the use of the word "wind" and words associated with the performance and the nature of wind in relation to how a distance runner might imagine his or her own performance. The abstract wind is connected to the reality of what the athlete seeks to achieve.
Simulation is a mental training process that is a direct linkage between mental control and the sport. Simple simulations include the mental rehearsal of sport-specific techniques such as the mental review of all aspects of a foul shot in basketball, from the first approach to the foul line to the ball falling through the cylinder. An important component of effective simulation is the appreciation of all of the senses that the athlete would expect to engage at the time of the actual event being simulated. Using the basketball foul shot as an example, the player would be encouraged to think not only of the mechanics of the shot, but how the ball feels in the shooter's hand, the sensation of the player's shoes on the floor, and the sound made by the ball as it swishes through the mesh of the basket on a successful attempt. Simulation seeks to build the entire act and its surrounding physical circumstances in the mind, to better equip the athlete to deal with those related sensations during competition.
Simulation is the mental companion to the physical training involved in sports practice. The live drills used by teams to prepare for competition are the mirror to the mental training and psychological preparation of simulation. The overriding purpose of both imagery and simulation in sport is to assist in the development of confidence in the athlete.
The development of the athlete's powers of concentration is the third general component of sport psychology. In many respects, the maintenance of concentration powers is the most difficult mental effort extended by an athlete, as concentration is influenced by both physical circumstances such as fatigue or injury, as well as the mental aspects of competitive pressure and other distracting variables. Sports psychologists often seek to develop a number of specific attributes to mental performance as a general increase in the powers of concentration in an athlete. The first of these qualities is focus. In both training and competitive situations, an athlete must maintain a relentless attention on the matters at hand. Focus is applicable to both the mechanics of the sport, as well as the maintenance of the required intensity to perform at the desired level.
Mood is the next factor to be controlled in the enhancement of concentration powers. Sport psychology provides for an intensely individualized analysis when determining the ideal mood suitable for the best performance in any given athlete. As a general proposition, the psychologist will seek to assist the athlete in attaining the desired mood. Imagery is sometimes employed, as are external stimuli such as music.
The athlete's activation level is a concept closely related to the mood of the athlete, as every athlete has an emotional point where he or she is sufficiently mentally stimulated to possess the desire and the drive to perform, without being so excited by the prospect of competition that the athlete loses concentration regarding the execution of the required physical aspects of the sport. The phrase "to get psyched up" is a simple example of words that are used to take the athlete to the activation level. Another tool to maintain activation level in an athlete is positive self-talk, where the athlete is encouraged to talk silently for constant self-encouragement throughout an event.
Sports psychologists will also seek to equip the athlete with personal stress management tools; if an athlete succumbs to the stress of competition, he or she will not be able to succeed. The control of stressful factors by the athlete, especially when the athlete is able to direct some of the energy that is created by stress into positive performance, is among the goals of the psychologist.
Pressure is a more generalized emotional factor that is closely related to stress. Pressure is often driven by external circumstances, such as the expectations of a parent, a team, or a coach. It is a factor that tends to undermine the power of concentration. Pressure is often subtle and more diffuse than the stress that is associated with a specific event. Pressure may often be related to insecurity or a poor self-image on the part of the athlete. Sports psychologists often work with athletes to establish reasonable expectations to assist with the ability to deal with the variables of sport performance.
The overall maintenance of mental and emotional balance on the part of the athlete's mental outlook is a powerful weapon against overtraining. The science of psychology has long recognized two general classifications of personalities, labeled type A and type B. Type A persons are those who are intense, perfectionist, and demanding individuals;