I feel the need to have a straightforward statement on the site about sports psychology. Not to inform or entertain – simply something I can link back to in the future.
What is Sports Psychology?
It’s an offshoot of psychology, which is the study of human behaviour. Sports psychology studies sporting performance and looks for ways to improve it. This can involve the study of successful sporting performance and the search for replicable elements within it. For example, what approaches enable one sprinter to remain focussed before a race whereas another, equally talented, is distracted by the pressure of a race occasion and fails to match the times they achieve routinely in training? A sports psychologist will attempt to discover those approaches and find a way to communicate them to other sportspeople.
Neither psychology nor sports psychology are explicitly concerned with the broad mental health of individuals. In the United Kingdom, mental health is the concern of psychiatry and psychotherapy, both of which are quite separate fields from psychology, with clearly differentiated research focii and personnel. It is common to confuse psychology and sports psychology with psychotherapy and psychiatry. Common, but wrong.
Every so often, a famous sportsperson will encounter personal problems – for instance, Paul Gascoigne has experienced strong “tics” and compulsive behaviour (one half of what is best known as OCD) for most of his life. In such instances, sports psychology has nothing to contribute. These cases are the concern of psychiatry and psychotherapy. Of course, the personal problems will affect that person’s performance within their sport, but nonetheless those problems are not sports psychology’s area.
Some valid criticisms of sports psychology
It would be fair to say that sports psychology has not attracted the greatest minds of humanity. It would also be fair to say that about psychology as well. Both fields are prone to statements of the obvious. However, this has to be done sometimes: “the obvious”, or “common sense”, aren’t always true, and research can establish that. By the same ticket, research can also confirm the obvious and the commonsensical.
An important part of sports psychology is communicating to sportspeople. Teaching, in other words. The translation of psychology into easily remembered, usable information often gives rise to what seem like trite nostrums. These trite nostrums are often taken to be all that there is. Let’s take an example. In golf, it is very important to put mistakes behind you quickly so that they don’t spoil the rest of the round. That means focussing entirely on the shot you are taking, not thinking about past and future shots. A particular kind of focus is called for – not gibbering over-concentration, but something more direct and more meditative. It will take a while for me to describe what I want from the player in those terms, or I could just say “Be the Ball”. However complex the situation a player’s facing in sports psychology terms, it has to be made simple and portable. That isn’t always easy to do. “Be the Ball” is risible.
Some abilities are innate. We all recognise that there are people who simply have the ability to bring the best out of us, whether friends, parents, bosses, colleagues or whoever. Some of what they do that leads to such a good outcome can be identified and copied by others. Not all of it. The “X” factor is real. Some people just don’t have the “X” factor, and some of them are sports psychologists. That lack of the “X” factor undoubtedly leads some of them to take themselves far too seriously – to try to take some of the limelight away from their clients – and in doing so they make fools of themselves and fools of their profession.
Being active in sports psychology does not give the sports psychologist an automatic advantage over sports people. In football, there have been a number of managers – Jock Stein, Sir Matt Busby, Brian Clough, Bob Paisley, Martin O’Neill and Jose Mourinho – who are in of themselves the best sports psychologists around. Naturals. This is only to be expected. We all partake, to some extent, in our own psychology; we are all, to some degree, experts in ourselves. But that does not devalue attempts to explain and replicate successful sporting behaviour.
On my own account, I am unimpressed with sports psychology, interested in its potential, and irritated by its critics, especially when they confuse sports psychology with psychiatry and psychotherapy. I am in an awkward position to say so. Most of my work is psychotherapeutic in nature – I treat sufferers from depression, anxiety, phobia, panic, OCD and other related disorders. And, I work with golfers, football coaches, tennis players, Bridge players etc. to help them perform better. What I do with sports people is completely divorced from the other side of my work.
The difference between sports psychology and psychotherapy/psychiatry is well illustrated by the fact that some of the attributes of top sportsmen are regarded by psychotherapists/psychiatrists as undesirable. Top sportspeople devote themselves entirely to their sport – neglecting family, social life, career. Some of the attributes of top sportsmen – the desire to crush the opposition, to win because it means that others lose – do not translate easily into success in normal life or into moral behaviour as most non-sportspeople would recognise it.
Broadcasters such as the BBC spend a lot of time presenting sport as an “inspiration to youth” – without much thought being given to the kind of life sport might be encouraging young people to adopt. One of the drivers behind the growth of organised sport in nineteenth century Britain was that sport encouraged moral behaviour – but it’s often lamented that the “Corinthian ideals” of Victorian sport included a hang-up about winning, and included the sense that sport was a form of training for life, not an end in itself. Both of those accusations are true, and neither of them excuse national broadcasters for missing the point that sport is not the ideal moral life compass that they would like it to be. It says something about our culture that Nelson Mandela – or pick the political/intellectual figure of your choice if Mandela offends – is held up as a role model in the UK somewhat less frequently than Steven Gerrard or Paula Radcliffe.