What is sport psychology?1 Opinion
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About Sophie Walton
Having been a high performing Rhythmic Gymnast and a sports coach to a variety of abilities, ages, cultures and backgrounds, this has significantly shaped who I am. These experiences greatly influenced my academic choices which led to studying Sport (BA Hons) at Durham University. As my knowledge of sport psychology grew, I soon realised how much influence it had on my own career as a gymnast and a coach. This led me to further pursue my academic studies, graduating with an MSc in Sport Psychology from University of Roehampton and embarking on the BASES SE Accreditation pathway. I have had experience with GB Rowing, Professional Football players, Junior GB Volleyball athletes, research, publications and more.
Back in 1925, Coleman Griffith (soon to become known as the Grandfather of Sport Psychology) became the first person to make a career out of Sport Psychology by working with the athletes at the University of Illinois. In the 1960s Sport Psychology gathered momentum and saw Soviet Bloc countries adopting key principles. This then led to a significant interest in the application of Sport Science in the Western cultures in the 1980s. Since this time and particularly in the last 30 years, Sport Psychology has seen a tremendous surge of interest and slowly Sport Psychologists and their applications are becoming increasingly valued and are increasingly welcome as an integral part of the Sport Science support teams. Sport Psychology was influenced by Physical Education and Sports Sciences and draws on principles from Kinesiology and general Psychology. It soon established its own value after it was realised just how important the mental aspect of sport was and how having the “right mental approach” was positively influential to performance outcome and personal wellbeing.
Despite rising interest and increased applications of Sport Psychology principles in today’s sporting and organisational domains, many people are still unsure of what exactly Sport Psychology is. It is not uncommon, for example when listening to sports commentary, analysis shows, or reading newspaper articles on a Monday morning that you read such statements as, “they look mentality fatigued”, “he showed great mental toughness in the game”, “they don’t have the right mental attitude to beat them”, “he was frustrated and lost his cool”. How often however, are such comments made with true understanding of the theory behind the words? How little is still known and how much is still assumed about what Sport Psychology is and how Sport Psychologists work?
Sport Psychology focuses on the relationship and interactions between psychological functioning and athletic performance. It aims to positively influence this relationship and create the best possible opportunity for the athlete or athletes to experience optimal performance levels. The psychological component of sport is often the last of the 4 corners considered (technical, tactical, physical and psychological) despite the large influential role it plays on performance ability. Elka Graham, Australian Swimming legend once said, “in training everyone focuses on 90 percent physical and 10 percent mental, but in the races its 90 mental because there’s very little that separates us physically at the elite level”. This percentage ratio is not uncommonly referred to amongst those in the sports industry, but important to note here is the value that Sport Psychology also plays at junior, academy and amateur levels too.
So how do Sport Psychologists achieve their aim to maximise opportunities for athletes to experience optimal levels of performance? Karageorghis and Terry (2011) have suggested that Sport Psychology is a “science and an art”. The key theoretical principles of sport psychology form the scientific foundations by which to practice as a Sport Psychologist. The art is the ability of the Sport Psychologist to apply the right mix of interventions using imagination and creativity to best suit the clients personal needs. This highlights the differing roles a Sport Psychologist can play; an academic role, research role or applied role. Having the ability to transform theoretical knowledge into an applied setting is considered an art form and can be a difficult process. However, it is imperative that in order to work successfully, Sport Psychologists must understand their clients’ personal needs, often as a human before an athlete. Prioritising their needs to ensure the best results moving forward and enhance personal wellbeing and therefore performance ability is crucial.
Clients’ needs can vary immensely and can stem from a range of various factors. Often these factors can fall under either performance enhancement or psychological wellbeing. Typically therefore, a Sport Psychologist could have two perspectives – a performance enhancement philosophy or a more holistic approach whereby a combination of performance enhancement and psychological wellbeing principles are adopted. In recent times, there has been a larger consensus that the life outside of sport and our general psychological wellbeing plays an influential role on performance enhancement and therefore play an equally important role as performance levels do.
Therefore, Sport Psychology is an applied practice of sound methodologies from a specifically trained and accredited consultant, who aims to enhance psychological readiness and psychological wellbeing and provide a foundation to maximise opportunities to experience optimal performance based on the clients personal needs.