Five ways a sport psychologist can help to improve performance

I still regularly come across the perception of sport psychologists as practitioners who ‘fix’ broken players or help to rebuild individuals once things have gone wrong. However, as all practitioners know this is only a small part of what we do (as sport psychology consultants). Indeed speak to the physical practitioners such as physiotherapists and doctors in sport and they will argue that prevention is much better that cure. This is true of the mental side of performance. Engage the services of a sport psychologist in a proactive approach to enhancing future performance and you can not only reduce the likelihood of something ‘breaking’ under pressure but also raise performance levels. With this in mind I highlight some (but my no means all) of the ways we can help:

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1. Developing a high class performance environment

It is true that the environment that is created for any team or individual has a significant impact upon performance. In particular the degree to which individuals can transfer the skills that they have developed into performance when it counts. There are two types of practice: practice to enhance skill development; and practice to be able to deploy these skills under pressure. Often sports focus too much on the first without really giving appropriate consideration to the second. As sport and performance psychology specialists we have a good understanding of what the pressurising constraints are in the ‘real environment’ and as such can ensure that practice is as effective and realistic as possible.

2. Enhance individual awareness and clarity

Under pressure we revert back to our habitual responses, and act as who we are rather than who we might want to be. So in order to be most effective sports performers need to be true to themselves. In order to do this they need to know the type of person they are and what their particular characteristics and strengths are. Then, with this understanding, performance can be built around this solid base. Key psychological factors such as risk-taking behaviour and decision-making preferences are important to understand to ensure that the individuals play to their strengths and their ‘expert’ skill set rather than what they would like to be expert in.

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3. Develop effective leaders and processes

In sport there is often a significant gamble made when elevating individual performers to leadership positions. Often the identification of potential leaders is very hit and miss, and so is the support that is offered to develop key leadership skills. Sport psychologists can help on both counts. Both in terms of identifying potential leaders but also helping them to develop. This is not just at the performer-leader level, but can also be at a higher level including the leadership of coaches and managers. Have good knowledge bases relating to leadership, communication, motivation, man-management etc sport psychologists are well placed to help to enhance the natural leadership abilities that some individuals might display.

4. Build mental skill ability

Instead of waiting for a performer to ‘fail’ before putting in place a mental skill development programme sport psychologists can work proactively to help to reduce the potential for failure, but also to enhance performance. Of all the ways that sport psychology is used in sport, particularly at a developmental/academy level, this is the most embraced and understood aspect.

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5. Enhance holistic understanding

Finally, it is important that sports performers appreciate that they (and their performance in sport) does not exist in isolation. Another strength of sport psychologists is to highlight how other aspects of life can impact upon sports performance, so a more holistic view of the self and of the stresses and pressures that exist is important. As is highlighting the importance of, and strategies to achieve, psychological and emotional recovery following competition and training. The physical aspects of recovery are well understood and embraced, but often it is the psychological side that is neglected. As a result sport psychologists can ensure that this is developed to enhance performance instead of having to retrospectively fix the consequences.

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