Sports psychology: worth the attention?

Daragh McCashin takes a look at the rise of sports psychology, that elsuive practice of keeping a player in the much-hyped mental “zone.”

Nearly every professional golfer has one on tour with them, it is one of the fastest growing areas in academic psychology and practicing psychology and, today, there is widespread acknowledgment of it in the form of intense curiosity and sharp scepticism. This article intends to break it down to its core and explain what it is and is not in light of the many misconceptions circling it.

Speak with any sporting individual and you will endlessly hear mental explanations for sporting results and performances. Irrespective of the endless training a professional soccer player puts in (weights, core, drills, ball-work, tactics and so on), you will always hear responses stating that confidence, focus, endurance or belief (or a lack thereof of these qualities) were, in the end, the overall catalyst for the outcome of the given event. Many a non-professional can relate, be it a student who does not have the perseverance to stick with a New Year gym-routine resolution or a seasoned rugby player who ‘chokes’ at the all important moment, the overall pattern appears to be universally relevant. On top of this, particularly within team sports, there exists a culture of what one psychologist calls ‘folk psychology’. That is, there is usually individuals (typically an older coach, a veteran player, a captain or other dominant personalities) who communicate folk non-scientific words of wisdom which, consciously or unconsciously, affect everyone, usually to detrimental affect in the long run. In short: it is where the public label psychology as a useless dodgy self-help cult.  Think of a young developing athlete (a hockey player, a young person beginning weights) who is told to ‘dig deep’ and give it ‘110%’ consistently. Or consider the GAA player who is overplayed and told to ‘suck it up’, to ‘stay strong’ because ‘all the others are doing it, you have to be tough’. This encourages a mental aspect to training in a, of course, a non-scientific misguided manner which leads to a group psychology which is usually unhelpful to the individual as an athlete. Any self-help approach is usually ridiculed in many sporting communities (not all). In my view, this is in stark contrast to the reality: modern day psychology research is based upon rigorous scientific methodologies, in the same way health sciences or ‘harder’ sciences go about their business. The eventual recognition of these facts should stand you in good stead to approach the notion of sports psychology, in a helpfully positive manner.

Enter sports psychology – essentially, sports psychology asks this simple question: considering the undeniable role mental life plays in deciding the outcomes of our sporting efforts, why is mental training not incorporated to the equivalent degree into the athlete’s typical training? If one is susceptible to letting their head get the better of them (temper issues, choking, anxiety), then why should they spend their training working on their strengths (the physical side). How often have you seen an athlete stretch their quad just for the sake of it because it seems like the thing to do? If a hurling team suddenly starts conceding easy goals in a season, you can be sure defence will be prioritised in training. The same cannot be said of a scenario whereby the hurling captain fails to focus when things do not go well, or when the free-kick taker makes a habit of ‘bottling it’. Perhaps the argument is obvious, few will debate the mind-body connection, but where do you start with incorporating mental training? Does it involve quirky old men who spew psychobabble?

Despite the obvious rationale for sports psychology, there exists much scepticism chiefly from older generations who are perhaps are embedded within folk psychological ideals (similar to that of a new product which they did not need in their day!). For example, Irish marathoner Jerry Kiernan, who holds some of the best marathon times for an Irishman said he would ‘walk the opposite direction’ if he saw a sports psychologist. Conversely, international 400m sprinter David Gillick only made his breakthrough (winning gold in Europe) after consistent work with former GAA player turned sports psychologist Enda McNulty, which he attributes much of his progress to (‘I’m blown away by how much sport psychology has to do with winning, it’s unbelievable’). It is crucial to accept, that although the public consciousness of psychology (in general) is similar to that of a commodity and is packaged accordingly, its essence really lies at the academic level

Of course, one obvious starting point between the physical and mental is stretching exercises, as alluded to earlier. Here, athletes can learn the difference between feeling tense and relaxed. Knowing how to flap out the tension from your shoulders and arms (e.g., by doing gentle neck rolling exercises when there’s a break the event) can make a huge difference. The main goal of psychology training is to teach athletes to focus only on what they can control in the event not on what opponents are doing or on what might happen in the future. According to Aidan Moran, a UCD sports psychologist who published a very accessible book ‘Pure Sport: Practical sports psychology’, sporting performance is a jigsaw with 4 main components – the physical (e.g. fitness), technical (skill), tactical (strategy) and the psychological (e.g. ability to focus under pressure). In order to play consistently to their full potential, athletes need to be confident that they have worked on each of these areas. There are at least three benefits to working on the mental side of your game. First, psychology training can help athletes to perform more consistently. Interestingly, one of the reasons why athletes consult psychologists is because they can’t understand why they perform well one day but badly the next day. Second, psychological techniques can help athletes to control their emotions more effectively during an event. Finally, psychology can help athletes to find the ideal preparation routine that they should follow in order to deliver their best performance.

Other useful aspects of sports psychology emphasise the ability to invite relaxation and concentration into a given situation when required. Before winning a prestigious 5000m race, former Olympian Eamonn Coughlan was seen sipping a few bottles of beer whilst playing pool the night before, much to the shock of his fellow competitors. His response to this was that this was what he did to relax normally, so why should it be any different just because it is before a big race? Granted, sports science has moved on from this and shown the negative affects of alcohol for athletes but the mental principle is the same. Indeed, there are many other examples of sportspeople deploying special routines and behaviours at key occasions.

It is not all in the mind, it is not all in the body, it is not all in the realm in-between – rather it is a balance between all three which sports psychology seeks to aid people to achieve. The successful use of it will not earn you emphatic world-beating sporting triumph but it will help you positively influence the things you can control and help you realise the things choking you up. Go on, you might be surprised……..

Additional research by Aidan Moran