How 10 years of sports psychology research can be utilised in your training programme
Sport psychology is a relatively young science but, as Andy Lane and Tracey Devonport explain, the years since the turn of the century have seen some major advances in understanding the role of the mind in sport
It is commonly accepted that playing sport can produce strong emotional responses. Examining how people manage these emotions has opened up new and exciting lines of research intended to inform ways of practice. For example, £2.2 million has recently been invested by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to examine this subject and the resulting Emotion Regulation of Others and Self research group is currently conducting a four-year project due to finish in 2012. This research will capture some of the major advances in psychology with a view to turning these ideas into practice.
Sport psychologists have tended to focus on emotions experienced before, during and after competition. In many ways, this is to be expected because these experiences are rich in emotional detail. However, a limitation of this approach is that it tends to ignore the carry-over effect of emotions experienced in daily life.
For example, athletes who are stressed by work or by colleagues tend to become intensely emotional in sport, and have fragile belief in their ability to maintain appropriate performance states during intense competition. Meanwhile, athletes who are aware of, and able to effectively implement strategies to up-regulate emotions such as excitement, and down-regulate feelings such as lethargy and sluggishness, have an advantage over those that can’t or won’t.
Athletes are commonly required to balance the demands of full-time employment or education with the demands of elite competition. Sport psychologists who have worked with elite athletes will be aware that pressures away from competition can affect preparation for the contest. As such, sport psychologists have begun teaching athletes coping skills that can transfer from one situation to another.
It has been shown that teaching athletes proactive coping skills leads to improved performance across domains and enhanced psychological well-being (1). Teaching athletes to be proactive in identifying barriers to goal attainment can be a helpful starting point. Athletes should be encouraged to reflect on their ambitions and goals, identify the qualities needed to deliver those goals, and prevent or minimise barriers. For example, an athlete may say: ‘I need to learn to relax because I get anxious and these feelings prevent me from focusing on what I need to do to hole a putt (golf).’ The role of the sport psychologist is to explore why the athlete feels this way and what can be done to help. In many cases, the athlete may have an existing strategy that requires refining or reinforcing to enhance its efficacy. In other cases, it may be necessary to teach new psychological skills.
The tradition in sport psychology has been to use standard mental training packages (2). The ‘toolbox’ approach includes teaching imagery, goal setting, relaxation and attentional control techniques. While such an approach remains popular and effective in terms of performance enhancement, recent work has shifted the focus of such strategies toward changes in psychological states such as emotions (3). Thus, the focus of goal setting is to enhance emotional control rather than to achieve a specific performance outcome.
Developing confidence in athletes so that they can manage performance states successfully is an important objective. For example, one consequence of a failure to manage stress and corresponding emotions is a narrowed focus of concentration. This can lead to an athlete missing important performance cues, and thus performance declines accordingly.
Recent applied research has endeavoured to enhance emotion regulation amongst athletes by developing interventions designed around self-help packs(1). The intervention outlined in figure 1 (below) was guided by a self-help pack designed for use by junior national netball players (aged 14-19 years). The use, application, and maintenance of this pack was supported by trained mentors and a sport psychologist(4). The pack uses a three-stage approach to competency development, starting with preparation for change.
When preparing for change, players complete an emotion regulation questionnaire and the results are compared with population norms to identify strengths and areas for development. The findings form a basis for discussions with player and mentor, resulting in agreed goals for enhancing emotion regulation along with means of achieving and maintaining change.
The second stage is the training phase where players implement interventions designed to meet personal needs in strengthening emotional and social competencies. For example, players could be encouraged to make a conscious effort to be aware of feelings, to try to understand them and see if there are deeper meanings to their feelings. Alternatively, they could be encouraged to practise expressing feelings to others as well as the reasons behind these feelings.
The third stage is the transfer and maintenance of learned skills. Mentors encourage players to reflect on activities completed in applying and developing emotion regulation skills. In doing so, they can identify barriers and facilitating factors for continued development.
The use of self-help packs for emotional regulation is not the only technique to emerge in recent years. ‘If-then’ planning(5) is a psychological skill that has been found to be effective in general psychology across a range of situations such as promoting health, managing competitive emotions, and dealing with bullies at school.
At face value if-then planning looks overly simplistic. The ‘if’ identifies the barrier – the problem – and this is always context-specific. It might be an emotion, the choice to eat fatty foods, or to manage interpersonal threats from a bully. The ‘then’ identifies the solution. For example, ‘If I feel anxious, then I remind myself that even my worst performance is still pretty good.’
If-then planning has been shown to be more effective than strategies such as goal-setting. It is proposed that by putting the problem alongside the solution in one sentence, and having athletes remind themselves of this link daily, they can then automatically choose the desired solution. If-then planning is proposed to produce an effortless and automatic solution to potential problems. Research and practice in sport psychology has just begun to report the benefits of this technique (5).
In the task outlined in table 1 (below) we have presented some emotions that individuals present as barriers for good performance in the ‘if’ category. In the ‘then’ category we have provided examples of how standard psychological skills could be used. In this approach, we make use of traditional approaches to sport psychology and incorporate recent developments.
With reference to the example above, the athlete selected the following two if-then plans: ‘If I feel worn-out, then I will focus on good technique;’ and ‘If I feel miserable, then I will say to myself I am good enough to perform to the best of my abilities’. Repeating the if-then statement five times each day reinforces implementation of these strategies, and conditions the response so that when it is needed it is automatic.
Another major sports psychology development of the noughties has been a major leap forward in our understanding of how music can enhance performance. This is partly due to the digital technology revolution, and in particular the advent of portable MP3 players, which have provided huge flexibility and options for listening to music.
Musical preference is so highly individualised that it makes finding one track to suit all tastes an impossible task. That said, the effect of music on human psyche has been known since the dawn of time. The 1990s saw the development of sport-specific theories on the effect of music in sport. This field was pioneered by Dr Costas Karageorghis, who was largely responsible for the subsequent refinement of theory and practical utility that emerged in the noughties (6).
Before this research, researchers and practitioners alike could not make head nor tail of findings from studies due to the random way in which they were conducted. An exaggerated example is that researchers testing whether music aids running might ask people to run while listening to a waltz. The 3/4 timing of a waltz is more likely to distract you from running rather than help you synchronise to the rhythm of the music. It would not be surprising if results showed that music was not helpful.
However, Karageorghis proposed a coherent methodology for assessing music in sport(6). From this, and with colleagues, he developed a theory and measure providing practitioners with guidelines for selecting motivational music. He has since revised this model to produce a simpler scale that can be used by individuals to select motivational music.
Just as goal-setting theory and practice is ingrained in the mindset of athletes, the music motivational tool could have the same wide-ranging effect and explains why some companies have embraced these developments, such as Nike designing the running shoe and iPod sports kits. The kit is marketed as being able to ‘motivate you mile after mile’. Table 2, below, provides an example of assessing how motivational your current playlist is. You use the scale by summing scores for each item and so the range is 6-42. A motivational song should yield a score of 36 or greater.
Athlete-sport psychologist relationship
It’s not so long ago that I (Andy Lane) was working with an athlete who insisted that I was called a ‘coach’ in order to avoid any suggestion that he was some kind of nutcase(7)! However, the benefits for athletes of using a sport psychologist are irrefutable, even for those who initially express negative preconceived ideas about the role of sport psychology. Having a sport psychologist working with an athlete is now (fortunately) gaining a much wider acceptance.
Increasingly, it is the norm for coaches and exercise instructors to be graduates of sport degree programmes, and sport and exercise psychology typically forms part of the curriculum. The upshot of this is that most coaches and exercise instructors have been exposed to the science of sport psychology in their training, especially at a theoretical level.
A series of articles offers a compelling argument that achieving sport success can be a collaborative goal with the athlete, but also that the primary goal of the sport and exercise psychologist should be the clients’ welfare (8). In recent years, the notion that the health, welfare and happiness of the athlete are the foundations of why sport psychologists do what they do (rather than just focusing on performance) represents a significant shift in the way sport psychologists conceptualise their work.
A sport psychologist will often share a common goal of maximising performance enhancement with the athlete(8). However, sport is a highly personal affair; for example, anxieties can be intimately tied to feelings of self-worth and negatively impact sport in a far from obvious way. An athlete reporting high anxiety based on the belief that it is helpful for performance might be maintaining this emotion by generating detrimental thoughts. In such cases, encouraging athletes to up-regulate anxiety and re-appraise it as facilitative of performance might be reinforcing maladaptive modes of thinking.
It is for these reasons we need to investigate beliefs and regulatory processes that govern emotions. Sport represents one aspect of an athlete’s life, but it is important to understand how an athlete copes with emotions deriving from other domains. Holistic approaches to understanding stress and associated emotions rather than an exclusive ‘sport-specific’ focus are likely to be beneficial both theoretically and practically.
The last 10 years have seen significant advances in sport psychology. Developments in understanding emotion regulation offer the promise of helping athletes to effectively implement strategies to up-regulate useful emotions and down-regulate unhelpful feelings. In addition, new interventions are being introduced and explored that may be useful in helping athletes attain ideal preparatory and performance states.
Meanwhile, technological advances offer greater flexibility in the range and use of interventions intended to enhance training and competitive performance. Probably the most significant of these is the use of music to enhance performance. Finally, the primary role of sport psychologists has been under scrutiny; although the psychologist continues to share the collaborative goal of seeking performance enhancement, the recent evidence suggests that this is best achieved from a position of awareness of the influence of goal achievement on the client’s well-being.
1. Sport and Exercise Psychology: Topics in Applied Psychology, 73-90, 2008.
2. Applied Sport Psychology: Enhancing Performance Using Psychological Skills Training, in Sport and Exercise Psychology: Topics in Applied Psychology, Lane, Editor, Hodder-Stoughton: UK. 1-162008.
3. The Sport Psychologist, 17, 471-486., 2003.
4. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching & Mentoring, 7, 50-63, 2009.
5. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 381-393, 2008.
6. Sport and Exercise Psychology: Topics in Applied Psychology, 109-138, 2008.
7. Consultancy in the Ring: Psychological Support to a World Champion Professional Boxer, in Applied Sport Psychology, eds. Hemmings and Holder, London: John Wiley & Sons Ltd. 51-63, 2009.
8. It’s All About Sport Performance… And Something Else, in The Sport Psychologist’s Handbook: A Guide for Sport-Specific Performance Enhancement, ed. Dosil. Chichester; John Wiley & Sons. 687-698, 2006.