The role of psychology in sport and advances in sports science and management.

The following is an interview that I did for Football Focus Magazine in 2012 and it provides a basic overview of the discipline of Sport Psychology and its link to performance and football.

The article can be accessed through the following link:

We knew sports performance is determined by a combination of factors including technical skill, tactical insight and a positive state of mind. In this feature we delve deeper into the subject with a couple of the UK’s finest experts in the field… Ian Mitchell, PhD., C.Psychol. a Senior Lecturer in Sport Psychology at Cardiff Metropolitan University.

Q Can you let me know more about the role of Psychology in Sport and how it affects performance?

Basically, sport psychology is the scientific study of the athlete’s mind and behavior. It involves the application of psychological theories and methods to prepare for competition to improve sport performance and psychological well-being. A sport psychologist tends to work with both individual athletes and or coaches and those performing within a team and can vary across levels from amateur to elite and different age groups. Sport psychology is a broad discipline and allows you to understand both coaches and athletes from a performance and exercise-related perspective. Typically, sport psychology has the potential to allow you to learn and understand the athletes/coaches that you are working with in relation to specific personalities, motivational aspects, the nature of different situations they may experience, confidence issues, concentration and focus, burnout, controlling aggression, coping with injury etc. In addition to these psychosocial aspects, sport psychology focuses on the motor control aspects of performance and will allow you to understand areas such as feedback, skill, and learning. Finally, sport psychology has an exercise element to it and can look at areas such as exercise behavior, physical activity promotion, and emotion and affect in exercise. These are obviously only highlighting some aspects of sport psychology but you can see it is a vast area that will allow someone to gain a broad understanding of psychological concepts across performance, learning, and exercise settings.

The question about how psychology affects performance is quite a difficult one as there are so many variables involved in a sporting performance. From my own experiences within football, players can present issues such as negative thoughts about a particular match or training session, behave differently when playing across different situations, physically react to certain things such as a bad challenge, referee decision, comment by another player or even be inconsistent with their mood at different times of the day or week. These all have the potential to impact upon performance and can be interconnected. When I have worked with players (or coaches) that talk to me about these issues I try and get them to firstly recognize what it is they are experiencing, evaluate, and then respond to their thoughts with a view of changing their behavior. This is a classic cognitive behavioural approach that has been shown to be useful for players and coaches to manage (and monitor) psychological aspects such as anxiety and loss of confidence. I guess the overriding principle of the role of sport psychology is to firstly identify those issues that may be impacting upon performance, get the player or coach to recognize them, and together with the specific needs of the individual, discuss a way forward that can allow them to control and manage them. Consequently, this can allow the player or coach to focus on the performance-related task rather than anything that may be irrelevant or indeed, could have the potential to influence optimal performance.

Q What are some of the best methods to enhance performance through psychology?

There are a number of evidence-based strategies that are prominent in the sport psychology literature that have been proven to enhance performance. Typically, these tend to focus on issues that surround motivation, confidence, and anxiety of players and coaches. Mental skills training tend to be prominent within professional football and can involve strategies such as goal-setting, relaxation, imagery and mental rehearsal, and self-talk. For example, if a player or coach has some difficulties maintaining motivation, there may be a need to (re) focus attention, increase his/her effort and intensity in what they are doing, and/or encourage persistence in the face of certain difficulty. Goal setting could then be an ideal way to help this kind of player/coach by discussing outcome, performance, or process related goals that highlight both the long- and short-term process and defines the proximal nature of each in relation to what is trying to be achieved. A potential caveat to this is when goals are not properly considered they can then become dysfunctional and promote anxiety in the individual so care should be taken in order to facilitate the process with the player or coach. More advanced strategies can be utilized in order to address issues such as self-confidence, stress, and concentration. Again, an example of a player or coach who is low in self-confidence may have issues in their ability to perform at (previous) high levels. Within an injury context, players may have confidence issues when returning to competitive games, particularly if they were injured in a tackle situation. This becomes more of a situation-specific confidence and a fear of re-injury for the player. Typically, with his kind of player we would try and enhance his/her competence to achieve in a similar tackle situation when they play again and tap into areas such as past (successful) performance and tackle situations. This can be enhanced by video images of the player or just getting them to talk through the process of a successful tackle. Alongside this we would simulate the training environment and break down the tackle situation into small processes to focus upon the technique of the tackle rather than the outcome. Medical staff can be brought in to talk to the player with regards to the actual strength of the injured area and we highlight the need to be verbally persuasive (in a positive manner) through coach feedback as well as his/her self-talk strategies. This is a typical theoretically based strategy that has been used consistently with confidence restoration issues in injured players and one that requires an inter-disciplinary approach within the rehabilitation context (i.e., communication between the different areas of support to the player). In addition to these a number of areas such as mental toughness and resiliency have received attention more recently due to the organizational aspects of the sport together with its ever-changing nature and associated financial benefits.

Q What are some of the biggest challenges that face the subject in the future and what are some of your hopes for its use in the game in the future?

I think one of the biggest challenges that the discipline faces at the moment is the actual process of becoming a chartered sport psychologist. Financially, this can be an expensive process and can take an individual a number of years to become eligible to work with individuals. In addition to this, gaining specific experience can also be problematic, particularly due to the confidential and sensitive nature of working with certain clients. Having said that, there are a number of very good undergraduate and postgraduate programmes that will allow the student to gain a good level of knowledge and experience in sport psychology. Our postgraduate programmes here at the Cardiff School of Sport provide students with the opportunity to extend theoretical and applied knowledge within a student-centered environment. In addition, a specific programme here forms stage 1 training of British Psychological Society (BPS) Chartered status and will enable students to progress onto stage 2 training. Our other sport psychology programme allow students to pursue the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES) route of Supervised Experience and accreditation or through a conversion course to BPS Chartership. With this in mind, I think that sport psychology does have a bright future and definitely developing in the right direction. Players and coaches are becoming more educated and understand the psychological nature of performance and the sport is starting to accept the discipline for what it is. Years ago there was a certain stigma attached to the role of sport psychologists and individuals would shy away from that specific kind of support. It goes without saying now that the health and well-being of individuals in football is more popular than ever, particularly as players and coaches are significant role models within every community. Sport psychology is not something to be afraid of, and should not only be brought to attention when there is a problem. Sport psychology should be integrated into the routine of every coach and player, alongside the other important disciplines such as physiology, biomechanics, and strength and conditioning particularly if they are serious about optimizing preparation and performance levels.