Psychological skills training (PST) is as important to the athlete as physical training and can contribute 50-90% of their performance. Goal setting, self-talk, mental imagery and mental rehearsal, and relaxation are the four most prominent PST methods used by athletes.
Like technical or tactical aspects of a sport, they must be learned, developed, and practiced by the athlete. Each athlete has different sporting needs, psychological skill development, orientations and experience, so every PST program must be individualized to fit that athlete.
Psychological Skills Training:
The Other Side Of The Coin In The Success Of An Athlete
Psychological skills training (PST) is the deliberate, systematic practice of strategies and methods designed to enhance an athlete's performance, by enhancing their psychological skills.
PST is as important to the athlete as physical training, and in most sports success comes from utilizing and maximizing a combination of technical, tactical, physical, and psychological abilities (Hardy, Jones & Gould, 1997; Hodge, 2007; Orlick, 2000; Weinberg & Gould, 1999).
For example, Weinberg and Gould (1999) state that some coaches attribute between 50-90% of an athlete's success to their psychological skills, and that detriments to performance can arise from none or improper mental preparation (Orlick, 2000; Weinberg & Gould, 1999). This article is going to discuss the conceptual basis of PST.
Myths Surrounding Psychological Skills Training
There are four myths about the use of PST in maximizing sports performance (Gould & Eckland, 1991):
- That it is for "problem" athletes only—PST focuses on developing psychological skills of "normal" athletes;
- That it is for elite athletes only—Young and developing athletes (Hellestedt, 1987) and special populations will benefit from PST (Asken, 1991, as cited in Weinberg & Gould, 1999; Clark & Sachs, 1991, as cited in Weinberg & Gould, 1999);
- That it provides "quick-fix" solutions; and
- That it is not useful (Weinberg & Gould, 1999).
Other reasons that athletes do not incorporate PST into their sports training are that they do not realize that psychological skills actually have to be learned and developed; they have a lack of knowledge about PST and what it can do to help their performance; or they do not have enough time (Weinberg & Gould, 1999).
Subsections Of Psychological Skills
Psychological skills, like technical or tactical aspects of a sport, must be learned, developed, and practiced by the athlete (Hardy, Jones & Gould, 1997; Hodge, 2007; Weinberg & Gould, 1999).
There are three subsections of psychological skills: Foundation skills, performance skills, and facilitative skills. Like physical skills, psychological skills have different times in which they should be developed and practiced (Hodge, 2007).
As aerobic endurance is the foundation for any athlete's physical fitness, so foundation skills are the psychological skills that form the 'foundation' for the rest of the psychological skills that an athlete needs. Foundation skills include commitment, motivation, self-confidence, and self-esteem (Hodge, 2007).
Once the foundation skills have been developed, performance skills need to be concentrated on. These are the psychological skills that the athlete uses during training and their actual competition. These are concentration/attention, coping with pressure (arousal regulation) (Weinberg & Gould, 1999), and control activation (mental preparation and readiness).
For example, an athlete needs to know how to block out the irrelevant aspects of competition, such as the crowd in a 500 meter time trial, and focus on the important details, like the gunshot that starts the clock, and trying to keep their cadence and speed up throughout the duration of the time trial (Hodge, 2007).
Facilitative skills are necessary in order to be able to utilize performance skills effectively. These include communication, training motivation, teambuilding, teamwork and team spirit, psychological rehabilitation from injury, and retirement and lifestyle management.
For example, an athlete may never be able to compete to the best of their ability or reach the level that they desire if they have no training motivation, and thus miss most of their scheduled training sessions (Hodge, 2007).
Psychological Skills Training Methods
Psychological skills are learned and developed through using PST methods (Hardy, et. al., 1997; Hodge, 2007; Orlick, 2000; Porter, 2003; Weinberg & Gould, 1999). As with psychological skills PST methods can be divided into categories: Foundation methods and specific PST methods.
Foundation methods are the self analysis of an athlete of their current PST; the education of that athlete on the basis of PST and the specific PST methods that will be useful to them in developing the psychological skills that they are weak in; and the actual physical practice of those methods (Hodge, 2007).
Specific PST methods include goal setting, relaxation, mental preparation, self-talk, and mental imagery and mental rehearsal (Hodge, 2007).
Psychological Skills Training Methods
Goal setting, self-talk, mental imagery and mental rehearsal, and relaxation are the four PST methods that Vealy (1988) identified as being the four most prominent PST methods in sports psychology books (as cited in Hardy, et al., 1997).
Each method enables the athlete to work on developing more than one psychological skill, so that they are also working on improving and maintaining their strengths, such as commitment, concentration/attention, and motivation, as they build up their weak areas (Hardy, et. al., 1999; Weinberg & Gould, 1999).
Goal setting is defined as "what an individual is trying to accomplish; it is the object or aim of an action" (Locke, Shaw, Saari & Latham, 1981, p. 126).
The athlete has clear short and long-term goals for their performance, but they have no "process" goals - i.e. 'steps in short or long-term goal orientation, to aid them in getting there. They also either visualize or verbalize their goals, alone and with their coach, instead of writing them down.
Writing down their goals can help the athlete to set process goals. Weinberg (1993) showed that achieving process goals leads to increased self-confidence, by goal achievement showing improved physical skill mastery and performance (as cited in Hardy, et. al., 1997; Weinberg & Gould, 1999).
Self-talk is an internal distracter, and is what we do whenever we talk to ourselves (Weinberg & Gould, 1999). Self-talk has cognitive and motivational functions. (Hardy, et al., 1997; Hardy, et al., 2004). The motivational functions are concerned with a variety of things, amongst them being self-confidence, relaxation and arousal control, (Hardy, et. al., 1997, Hardy, et. al., 2004; Weinberg & Gould, 1999) and maintaining and increasing drive (Hardy, et. al., 2004).
In a study done by Perkos et al. (2002), it was found that a self-talk intervention program increased confidence and anxiety control (as cited in Hatzigeorgiadis, Zourbanos & Theodorakis, 2007), which in turn enhances performance (Hardy, et. al., 1997; Landin, 1994, as cited n Hamilton, Scott & MacDougall, 2007).
By increasing drive self-talk acts towards goal achievement, which enhances self-confidence (Weinberg & Gould, 1999), Johnson et. al. (2004) suggested that self-talk enhances performance by focusing on a desired thought - i.e. the goal, which leads to the desired outcome (as cited in Hatzigeorgiadis, et al., 2007).
Despite studies (Hamilton, et. al., 2007) done on cyclists showing that both positive and negative self-talk enhanced performance, it has been shown that positive self-talking techniques - i.e. cognitive restructuring, countering, and thought stopping, enhance performance more than negative self-talk, because they enhance self-esteem and attentional focus; whilst negative self-talk increases anxiety by being critical, which has generally been associated with worse performances (Dagrou et al., 1992, as cited in Hardy, et al., 1997; Weinberg & Gould, 1999). It has also been shown that individual athletes utilize self-talk more than team athletes (Hamilton, et al., 2007).
Mental imagery, when used in conjunction with goal setting and positive self-talk, has been shown to enhance performance more than either PST method used alone (Hardy, et al., 2004; Porter, 2003).
Imagery can be used to improve both physical and psychological skills, including the latter skills of self-confidence, control activation, and arousal regulation. For example, visualizing a successful performance under any, especially stressful circumstances, can improve self- confidence; and visualizing such a situation with positive responses and self-talk, is more likely to result in an improved performance (Weinberg & Gould, 1999).
Mental imagery simulates the perfect performance, which in turn "trains" the neuromuscular system. "Physical performance improves because your mind can't distinguish between a visualized and actual experience" (Porter, 2003, p. 64). Mental imagery has also been found to improve mental rehearsal (Hardy, et. al., 1997).
Mental rehearsal is very similar to mental imagery. It has been shown that mental rehearsal works best when used in conjunction with the actual physical activity—i.e. before practice or competition, although it has also been shown to improve performance in the absence of any physical activity (Meacci & Price, 1985, as cited in Hardy, et al., 1997; Price, 1985, as cited in Hardy, et al., 1999).
Relaxation is crucial at top sporting levels; and it is the primary PST technique that athletes use in order to cope with pressure (Hardy, et al., 1997). Because the athlete has difficulty getting to sleep, especially nearing and during competition, relaxation must become an important daily aspect.
The most common form of physical relaxation is progressive muscular relaxation (PMR), a method that takes 2-15 minutes to complete. PMR has been used to enhance sporting performance by reducing anxiety and enhancing self-efficacy (Haney, 2004).
Another form of relaxation is transcendental meditation; this is best used on competition days, anywhere up until an hour before competing, to regain composure and control (Jones, 1999, as cited in Hardy, et. al., 1999). "Reddy et al.'s (1976) study showed that, when compared to a control group, athletes who meditated for twenty minutes a day during a six-week athletic conditioning program showed significantly greater improvement in sprinting" (Hardy, et al., 1997, p. 16).
The athlete is a sprinter; therefore meditation is likely to enhance their performance. Relaxation also allows the mind to be more open to mental imagery, which in turn enhances performance further (Porter, 2003).
Psychological Skills Training And Athletes
PST developed a knowledge base from original research studies using elite athletes, and the observation and experience of both athletes and coaches (Orlick, 2000; Porter, 2003; Weinberg & Gould, 1999).
Many studies of elite athletes (Hardy, Hall & Alexander, 2001; Hardy, et. al., 1997; Harwood, Cumming & Fletcher, 2004; Weinberg & Gould, 1999) show that more successful and skilled athletes have more commitment, self-confidence, better task-orientation, and arousal regulation (Gould, Eckland & Jackson, 1992, as cited in Weinberg & Gould, 1999) than less successful athletes.
Studies also show that more successful athletes use positive thinking and positive imagery to visualize success more than less successful athletes (Hardy, et al., 2001; Porter, 2003; Weinberg & Gould, 1999).
In addition, athletes and coaches, especially at the Olympic level, have expressed that concentration/attention, relaxation, self-talk, mental imagery, and team cohesion as important psychological skills and methods of an athlete (Weinberg & Gould, 1999).
The Psychological Skills Training Program
Once an athlete's psychological skills weaknesses and strengths are assessed and identified, either though an interview or a series of PST questionnaires, a PST training program, based upon the athlete's goals and needs, can be put together for the athlete.
Because each athlete has different needs, due to their sporting needs (technical, tactical, and physical), their psychological skill development, their orientations and experience, every PST program must be individualized to fit that athlete.
Thus, every PST program is different, and only needs to include the PST methods required to meet the athlete's PST requirements - i.e. develop and maintain their strengths, and enhance their weaknesses (Hodge, 2007; Weinberg & Gould, 1999).
Phases Of The Psychological Skills Training Program
However, despite each PST program being unique, they all follow a general structure broken into three distinct phases:
- The Education Phase
- The Acquisition Phase
- The Practice Phase (Hodge, 2007; Weinberg & Gould, 1999).
The Education Phase
In the Education Phase it is important to teach the athlete about the importance and benefits of PST training to their performance. In this phase the athlete learns about the PST methods through which psychological skills can be learned. This phase lasts as long as it takes for the athlete to understand the importance of developing their psychological skills (Weinberg & Gould, 1999).
The Acquisition Phase
The Acquisition Phase focuses on learning the methods for acquiring and developing the different psychological skills. Formal sessions with an instructor are used to teach the athlete the relevant methods that they require, and then they should practice them by themselves, until they are competent in those methods (Weinberg & Gould, 1999).
The Practice Phase
The Practice Phase is the longest phase of the three phases. This phase is when the athlete just practices and practices the methods that are relevant to them, until they have accomplished the three primary objectives of this stage.
The three primary objectives are:
- To automate psychological skills through over learning—i.e. practicing PST methods every day until the skills that the athlete wants become automatic;
- To teach the athlete to systematically integrate psychological skills into their competitive situations—i.e. using relaxation before a competition to decrease anxiety;
- To simulate the psychological skills that athlete needs in competition—i.e. using self-talk to increase self-confidence (Weinberg & Gould, 1999).
Evaluation Of The Psychological Skills Training Program
Once an athlete has been given a PST program, as they do with their physical training, they must keep a logbook, so that they can continually reevaluate it as they make progress and their needs change, to ensure that their psychological skills are developing (Hodge, 2007; Weinberg & Gould, 1999).
Goal setting, positive self-talk, mental imagery and mental rehearsal, and relaxation PST methods have all been proven to improve the psychological skills self-confidence, control activation, and arousal regulation, amongst others, as well as enhancing the actual physical athletic performance of an athlete.
All four methods have been identified as the most prominent PST methods among both the psychology literature and those utilized by athletes (Vealy, 1988, as cited in Hardy, et al., 1999).
Goal setting will build self-confidence through goal achievement (Weinberg, 1993, as cited in Hardy, et al., 1997; Weinberg & Gould, 1999). Positive self-talk will allow the athlete to restructure their cognitive processes, through thought stoppage and countering, which will in turn enhance their performance by mentally preparing them for the competition and decreasing anxiety levels (Hamilton, et al., 2007; Hatzigeorgiadis, et al., 2007; Weinberg & Gould, 1999).
Used alongside goal setting, positive self-talk, and relaxation, mental imagery and mental rehearsal will increase the athlete's self-confidence and manage their arousal, and thus enhance their performance, by ensuring that they know what their objective is, visualizing their goal endlessly with nothing but success, with everything executed perfectly, while they are in the optimal state of arousal (Hardy, et al., 1997; Porter, 2003; Weinberg & Gould, 1999).
Relaxation, especially in the form of transcendental meditation, before a competition serves to control the athlete's anxiety and improve their self-confidence, which will enhance their sprinting performance (Reddy et al., 1976, as cited in Hardy, et al., 1997; Weinberg & Gould, 1999).
By following a PST program athletes will develop and strengthen their psychological skills, thereby enhancing and improving their sporting abilities and performance.
After their next major competition, or the achievement of their short-term goal, the athlete should reassess their PST program, evaluate what they have done, and make any necessary adjustments.
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