Performance Profiling: Strengths and weaknesses in athletes

Performance profiling: a coaching tool for pinpointing strengths and weaknesses, designing training strategies and building better communication with athletes

Where sport psychology is concerned, it is often assumed that performers either have what it takes or are – and forever will be – somewhat lacking in mental skills. I have spent a considerable amount of time in my occupation trying to convince both coaches and athletes that mental skills can be learned in much the same way as physical ones can – through systematic training. Think about how often you have heard players attributing their success or failure to confidence, motivation or concentration. Then think about how much time athletes who attribute their failures to mental factors spend on mental training and trying to address areas that could be improved. I can assure you that there is little correlation between recognition of the problem and application of the appropriate remedy.

People who are not familiar with psychological skills training often don’t realise the range of options available to help improve performance. Furthermore, the psychological techniques that can lead to performance enhancement are often simple to learn and easy to incorporate into a regular training regime. The real skill of a psychologist or coach is in matching each athlete’s requirements to the appropriate techniques.

If a 5,000m runner appeared to lack speed towards the end of a race, an effective coach would observe this and design a training programme to tackle the specific problem. The solution would not be to simply run more laps in a training session, but would involve work on speed-related drills. Similarly, if psychological factors require attention, the intervention must be tailored to specific needs. But whereas speed – or lack of it – can be directly observed, psychological factors are often hidden. A key problem for coaches seeking to address such issues is how to work out what the problem is when they cannot observe what is going on in their performers’ minds. A direct question does not always yield useful results since athletes can be reluctant – at least initially – to discuss such things.

One approach that is becoming increasingly popular with sport psychologists and coaches in sport is performance profiling. This has many benefits and is useful for assessing physical and technical prowess as well as psychological factors. Evaluating strengths and weaknesses is a valuable process that can help in the planning of training régimes and the identification of long-term goals as a focus for self-improvement.

For many years the typical psychological evaluation resembled a medical consultation, with the psychologist making his or her assessment and deciding on techniques for a change and the athlete playing a relatively passive role. However, Butler and Hardy (1) identified an inherent weakness in this process since studies had shown that people’s intrinsic motivation can be weakened by the application of external controls (2). To put it simply, for athletes to remain motivated to adhere to psychological skills training programmes, they need to be more involved in the decision-making processes.

With performance profiling the athlete is self-determining and his or her perspective becomes a central rather than peripheral focus. In devising this technique, Butler also provided a mechanism by which athletes could explore aspects of their performance that they may have taken for granted and coaches and psychologists could gain further insight into their athletes’ cognitive processes (3).

The research evidence on performance profiling is certainly supportive. For example, Graham Jones of Loughborough University reported successfully employing the technique with an élite-level racket sport player(4). This performer had experienced temperamental problems when faced with pressure situations, but the profile identified an intervention appropriate for her specific needs and she showed significant improvements in her ability to cope with pressure following a six-month cognitive-behavioural programme.

According to Jones, performance profiling has three major purposes:

  1. To aid in identifying an appropriate intervention;
  2. To maximise the performer’s motivation and adherence to the programme;
  3. To monitor any changes over time.

Over the past few years, performance profiling has become a routine aspect of the improvement programmes used by many psychologists and coaches. For coaches who haven’t yet tried it, the next section offers some useful guidance, based on the work of Butler and Hardy.

Stage 1 – introducing the idea

The athlete needs to be made aware that the performance profile can help to direct training to areas of specific need. This process can be aided by a sense of mutual trust, and it should be made clear that any information gained about the athlete will remain strictly confidential. Coaches should stress that there are no right or wrong answers involved in the process but that honest appraisal will facilitate a more productive outcome. You need to explain that the process will focus on the athlete’s current feelings regarding his or her preparation for competition. Showing the athlete examples of previous profiles can help with this.

Stage 2 – the constructs

The athlete becomes actively involved in this stage of profiling, and the following question should be directed to the individual (or group in team situations): ‘What in your opinion are the fundamental qualities or characteristics of an élite performer in your sport?’

The next 5-10 minutes should be spent listing the qualities or characteristics that the athlete feels are important. If an athlete finds this difficult, you can use prompts, but it is for the athlete to decide on what characteristics or ‘constructs’ are chosen. In my role as a sport psychologist, I get athletes to list the key psychological factors, but the same process can be applied to technical skills or physical attributes, such as strength, speed, agility, balance etc. In a typical session I usually find 15-20 constructs are elicited.

Stage 3 – assessment

On a scale of 0 (not at all important) to 10 (extremely important), the athlete then rates the perceived importance (I) of each construct for an élite performer in his or her particular sport. These ratings must be highly specific, since different sports place different demands on performers.

Next, the athlete uses the same 0-10 scale to rate his current perceptions of himself (Subject Self-Assessment or SSA) in relation to an ideal state of 10 (Ideal Self-Assessment or ISA). Then a simple calculation can be carried out to take account of both the importance ascribed to the construct and the subject’s self-assessment in relation to the ideal. This is known as the ‘discrepancy score’, and higher discrepancies indicate areas that may need to be addressed through training or other intervention.

The table below provides a hypothetical example of these calculations for part of a tennis player’s profile.

Table 1 – an example section of a tennis player’s performance profile
Construct (I) ISA SSA (ISA-SSA) Discrepancy (ISA-SSA) x I
Confidence 10 10 8 2 20
Concentration 10 10 6 4 40
Refocusing after errors 10 10 5 5 50
Enjoyment 9 10 8 2 18
Relaxed attitude 8 10 7 3 24

For this particular performer, it would appear that refocusing after errors and concentration are key concerns that could be addressed via intervention strategies such as thought-stopping, self-talk or a quick set routine, depending on the exact circumstances and preferences of the individual. Once the profile has been completed, the results should be placed into a visual format for easy display (see figure 1, below, for an example), which can form the basis of dialogue between you and the athlete. The athlete can be encouraged to offer further information relating to key constructs and invited to work on these as a means of improving performance.

Figure 1: assessment of backhand strokes by tennis player and coach

The performance profile can also be used to monitor progress, and if the training strategies which have been identified are suitable and effective, the discrepancy scores should be reduced over time. I normally advise athletes to reassess their state of preparedness at least every few months as this can aid motivation if clear progress is highlighted and demonstrate the need for further training alterations if it is not. Remember that reassessment should always relate to the same constructs identified in the initial profiling process.

The example presented on the previous page is one way to use a performance profile, but there are variations which can be used to gain additional information. For example, the coach can carry out his own assessment of the athlete in relation to the agreed constructs and so pinpoint areas of agreement on the one hand and differing perceptions on the other. Most people would agree that the coach-athlete relationship is much stronger when vision, goals and targets are shared and agreed and, conversely, that difficulties can arise when the opposite is true.

For example, a boxing coach might place a high priority on punching power (importance rating of 10) and believe his boxer needs to raise his game in this respect because he rates his performance in this respect as 6. The boxer, on the other hand, might perceive his power as adequate because he rates the construct as less important than the speed of his punch. He may believe that working on his power might compromise his speed and thus may be resistant to any recommendations geared to boosting this. The point about involving both parties in the profiling process is that such differences are highlighted and can then be dealt with effectively through dialogue. Butler and Hardy explain that, in such circumstances, the coach and athlete might work on developing power through technical modifications in order to preserve the punching speed that the boxer rates as more important. Thus, where conflict might have arisen, the profile helps to focus training in a more productive fashion.

Figure 1, above, illustrates a tennis player’s self-assessment and his coach’s assessment in relation to his backhand strokes. This shows that coach and athlete are in general agreement over most of the relevant constructs but in major disagreement over the backhand volley. In such circumstances, video analysis of the player’s performance might be a good way to resolve such differences and produce agreement on how to proceed.

Another useful variation on the standard performance profile is for the athlete to compare his or her current status in relation to the agreed constructs with a previous best standard rather than an ideal. If the performer has regressed as a result of an injury, this may provide a more realistic and motivating target in the short term.

According to Butler and Hardy, performance profiling can help coaches and psychologists develop a better understanding of their athletes by:

  1. Highlighting perceived strengths and weaknesses;
  2. Clarifying the athlete’s and coach’s vision of the key determinants of élite performance, and highlighting any differences;
  3. Establishing areas where the athlete might resist change (as demonstrated by the perceived low importance of one or more constructs);
  4. Providing a means of monitoring progress;
  5. Highlighting discrepancies between the athlete’s and coach’s assessment of performance.

In summary, then, the performance profile appears to be a tool that is particularly useful for aiding the design of specific mental, physical and technical training programmes. The central involvement of the athlete in the process is a key strength that may boost motivation and promote adherence to any intervention strategies devised. It may also facilitate the coach-athlete relationship by promoting dialogue and addressing any perceived discrepancies. Additionally, the profile can be used as a monitoring device to assess the effectiveness of any interventions and highlight areas of good and poor progress.

Lee Crust

References

  1. The Sport Psychologist, 6, 253-264
  2. Deci, EL, & Ryan, RM (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behaviour. New York: Plenum Press
  3. Butler, RJ (1989). Psychological preparation of Olympic boxers. In J Kremer & W, Crawford (Eds), The psychology of sport: theory and practice (pp.74-84). Leicester: British Psychological Society
  4. The Sport Psychologist, 7, 160-172

performance profiling, mental training

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