The mind - Sport's final frontier

Sports performance is determined by a combination of physiological factors, technique and state of mind. The latter of these has traditionally not been paid as much attention as the first two.

While everyone recognises that the mind is important, very few actually bother to train it in the way that they train technique. Coaches may tell us to concentrate, but very seldom do they teach us how.

More recently however, this has begun to change. As the pressure on sportsmen and women continues to grow, psychological factors are attracting increasing attention. Having done all they can physically and technically, golfers and other athletes are now turning to the mental factor for further improvement and consistency. This offers the opportunity of getting an edge over a competitor who technically and physically may be of similar ability.

Sport psychology defined

Sport psychology, very simply, deals with the mental aspects of sport. By applying psychological principles, it aims to improve the sports performance and general well being of sports men and women. The past three decades has seen the collection of a large body of scientific research documenting the positive effects of many sport psychology interventions.

Some of the areas most commonly dealt with include:

  • mental preparation for competition
  • self-management skills
  • concentration
  • motivation
  • arousal control (e.g. how to stay calm under pressure)
  • communication skills
  • thought control
  • conflict resolution
  • team-building
  • psychological aspects of injury rehabilitation

The area covered by sport psychology is clearly very broad. This is not surprising if one considers that sport is simply one part of life. Sport affects, and is in turn affected by, all the other areas of an athlete's life.

Many top athletes learn these skills through trial and error. By teaching the appropriate skills, sport psychology however short-cuts this process. It can also develop the mental skills of the younger, still developing athlete.

Mental toughness

One of the core psychological skills is mental toughness. This can be defined as the ability to keep the internal environment stable, regardless of what is happening in the external environment.

The internal environment refers to personal factors such as one's thoughts, how tense or relaxed one's body is, and one's behaviour. These factors are all under the individual's control. The external environment refers to everything that is going on around the athlete, such as the conditions, the opposition, the referee or even the match situation. These factors are at best only partly under the athlete's control.

The mentally tough athlete learns to get him/herself into that ideal internal state, in which he/she is most likely to perform well. The athlete then maintains this state, regardless of the external environment. This contributes significantly to more consistent performances.

Mental toughness is a skill which can be developed just like any physical skill. The role of sport psychology is to teach the steps necessary to this process, with the end-goal of making the athlete independent of the psychologist. The degree of benefit which the athlete derives however, ultimately depends on the amount of training he/she is prepared to do in this regard. Mental skills take practice, in the same way that technical skills do.

Finally, it is interesting to note that while we use the term "sport psychology", the principles involved apply equally to other areas of human performance. Be it on the golf course, the boardroom or in human relationships, the same factors hinder performance, and the same principles are used in dealing with these hindrances to personal potential.

By Clinton Gahwiler (BA Hons MA)


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