Keep Your Head in the Game

Sport psychology and mental performance

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

Anyone who has competed in sports knows it can be a mental game as much as a physical one.

So what are the mental keys that separate the good athletes from the great athletes? And how much do psychological factors like rituals and mental control contribute to physical performance?

A Mental Coach

Sport psychology is a field of psychology that focuses on helping athletes improve their performance and overcome certain issues they may be facing.

According the the American Psychological Association (APA), sport psychologists may provide a number of tools, including mental strategies like motivation, relaxation and visualization techniques.

They can also assist in injury recovery, as “after an injury, athletes may need help tolerating pain, adhering to their physical therapy regimens or adjusting to being sidelined,” reports the APA.

Sport psychologists often work with athletes to cope with pressure from coaches, parents, fans and themselves.

Plenty of new of research is also being done by these professionals to explore what makes athletes excel and how they can sharpen these traits.

Mental Toughness

One 2010 study by Graham Jones of the University of Wales explored the idea of “mental toughness,” an aspect long considered crucial for athletes competing at a high level.

The study, published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, aimed to gain a deeper understanding of what defines this mental toughness and what attributes create it.

To do so, the researchers completed a series of interviews with ten athletes who had competed in major international competitions like the Olympics. Three women and seven men with an average age of 31.2 years were interviewed, representing a wide range of sports, including triathlons, rugby, golf, swimming, rhythmic gymnastics and sprinting, and had an average of five years international experience.

At the conclusion of the study, which included both individual discussions and focus groups, the researchers developed the following definition of mental toughness:

Mental toughness is having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to:

  • Generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sport places on a performer.
  • Specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure.

The authors also identified 12 specific attributes that are key to being a mentally tough athlete. These included “having an unshakable self belief in your ability to achieve your competition goals” and “bouncing back from performance set-backs as a result of increased determination to succeed.”

This study was using a very small number of subjects, but very elite. The researchers suggest that this could be a jumping off point for more in-depth research of what qualities set mentally tough athletes apart. Furthermore, it could provide new insight for athletes and sport psychologists for potentially important aspects towards developing athletic mental toughness.

Good Luck Effect

Athletes, and the psychologists and coaches that support them, often engage in rituals or superstitions before games or performances. For some, this could be having a particular routine, for others it might be a lucky pair of socks. A 2010 study led by Lysann Damisch, PhD, from The University of Cologne examined how much of an effect these good-luck habits have.

The researchers completed four experiments, each “activating good-luck-related superstitions via a common saying or action” (like the phrase “break a leg” or with a good-luck charm).

For example, in one experiment, 28 college students were asked to putt a golf ball towards a goal ten times.

The subjects were randomly assigned to either the experimental group, in which during preparation they were told, “Here is your ball. So far it has turned out to be a lucky ball,” or the control group, who was told, ”This is the ball everyone has used so far.“

The group who was told their ball was lucky performed better, with an average of 6.42 out of ten successful putts, as compared to 4.75 in the control group.

In all four of the experiments completed (which also included memory and dexterity games), the “superstition-activated” groups performed better than the control groups. The authors found that, “activating a superstition boosts participants’ confidence in mastering upcoming tasks, which in turn improves performance.”

Routines and Rituals

These superstitions can often take the form of a routine or ritual. According to Sean McCann, PhD and sport psychologist with the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC), these routines can benefit athletes in a number of ways.

In an article in the USOC’s Olympic Coach publication, McCann cited numerous advantages behind these routines, including making new environments seem familiar and comfortable and reducing mindless thinking in favor of improved focus.

Enhancing a feeling of control and confidence is also a positive effect of a ritual - a key attribute of the “mental toughness” explored in the University of Wales study. According to McCann, “A routine helps an athlete feel in control, no matter what the stakes of success or failure.”

McCann suggests that coaches encourage the creation of these rituals, suggesting, “if a coach develops great routines, and the athletes develop great habits, then the habits make them great players.”

With the Olympics upon us, it will be interesting to watch these world-class athletes focus their mental state, engage in superstitions and practice pre-game routines ahead of what may be the biggest competitions of their lives.

As research expands, we are likely to learn more about sport psychology and the mental aspects behind what makes great players great.

Review Date: 
July 30, 2012