Sports | Sports psychology’s effects on athletes

A closer look into an ever expanding field

Recent years have seen a rise in scientific interest regarding how psychological factors affect the behaviour of athletes in competitive sport. Sports psychology is defined, in broad terms, as the study of how the mind influences athletic performance. While the discipline is no longer in its infancy, it is still criticized for being a patchwork of theories and therapies woven together and mistakenly called science. Plenty of athletes share this skepticism, including seven-time world bowling champion Margaret Johnston once quoted as saying “if I am going to lie on my back for an hour, I expect to be enjoying myself.” But it is well recognized that athletic performance is a direct reflection of mental state, so studying the behavioural outcome of psychological influences may provide an interesting lens through which the brain can be examined.

At first glance sports psychology is as unscientific as it gets: the pillar of the scientific method is the systematic account of observations by an objective investigator. But sport psychology is not delivered in a vacuum – it is by nature biased, depending both on the implementer of the program and the subject on whom it is applied. Psychologists develop specific mental strategies – and if it contributes to the success of one individual, it doesn’t imply that it is universally beneficial.

Given these constrictions of partiality, sports psychology researchers garner respect from the scientific community by performing systematic experimental research. Investigators are compelled by their reviewers to rigorously demonstrate that their findings are objective – meaning that they are not the result of a strong relationship between psychologist and athlete, particular conditions, or a placebo effect. By stringent scientific standards, the validity of a sports psychologist’s technique must be proven to reside within the treatment itself rather than who is delivering it.

However, these randomized impartial clinical investigations may not be appropriate. The quality of a psychological approach is inseparable from the athlete and the implementer. If a technique improves an athlete’s performance, how can there be an argument against its effectiveness? Strategies are often developed in a highly idiosyncratic manner, so if psychologists are limited to the techniques that have emerged purely from empirical research, they miss the opportunity to cultivate individualized programs – potentially more successful.

So it seems that there exists a paradox. If obligated to publish findings void of experimental bias, the results obtained may prove to be useless in clinical practice. Peter Smith is the coach of the McGill Martlets hockey team and holds a Masters degree in sports psychology. He explains that while the relationship between theoretical and applied psychology may not always be harmonious, there are limitations to only acknowledging one or the other as legitimate.

“There can be a division between empirical scientific thinking and well, less scientific thinking…[and] for your players to be successful, you have to recognize that there is an important mix of both of those areas,” said Smith. He adds that a significant aspect of athlete-psychologist interaction is “that intuition, sensing what your team needs, and what you can give them [in terms of] mental training.”

At several points throughout the season, Smith brings in experts to give lectures on topics like focus, goal setting, and dealing with defeat. “I think it is important to get different viewpoints that give the players information, so they can process it and figure out what’s best for them.”

He stresses that being up-to-date on current research enables sports psychologists to construct strategies that are founded upon experimental findings. “I don’t think its necessary for an athlete to know everything there is about myelin and synapses but there are experts who can take that knowledge and translate it into practical applications,” said Smith.

Whether derived from systematic research or not, more and more athletes are turning to sports psychology to give them a competitive edge. George Banks, McGill Redmen soccer midfielder, explained that while some of the exercises may be mundane, there are others that really help.

“One good thing [our team’s sports psychologist] does before every game is we sit down in the locker room and have ‘visualization’ sessions,” added Banks. “We close our eyes, turn off the lights, and then he walks us through a scenario…[i]t’s fairly general imagery, but at the least it’s calming and gets you to loosen your nerves before the game. In pretty much every sport, teams have better records at home than away, and I imagine a big reason is players are more comfortable.”

“[Sports psychologists] are really valuable if you use them on a regular basis,” he added. “They can recognize patterns in your performance that you might not notice on your own.”

Though on the surface sports psychology seems to propagate archaic concepts about untapped energy and the extension of human capabilities, the close relationship between the mind and body during competitive sport is relevant for athletes and scientists alike. Our further exploration of the brain relies on finding novel and experimental approaches – and the information we can gain is indispensable both on and off the playing field.


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