Sport Psychology Skills For Everyone
By Julia Tehovnik, LPC
The emerging field of Sport Psychology may seem foreign to people who are not familiar with this specialty. Quite often people will assume the field is a highly specialized niche reserved for elite athletes who eat, sleep, and breathe their sport. These athletes may recognize the advantages of working with a Sport Psychology consultant, but the skills they learn can be highly beneficial for non-athletes as well.
Sport Psychology aims to teach clients specific mental skills to enhance their performance and develop mental toughness. For athletes, this means helping them stay focused, motivated, and confident while maintaining control of their emotions. As Yogi Berra once said, “Baseball is 90% mental. The other half is physical.” While this all-star baseball catcher’s math may be a bit off, most athletes and coaches would agree that thoughts and emotions can influence physical performance.
Sport Psychology consultants help clients address mental health concerns such as low self-esteem, lack of motivation, negative thoughts, emotional reactivity, and difficulty coping with stress. These common challenges are experienced by both athletes and non-athletes alike. Developing mental toughness allows individuals to remain calm under pressure, manage their emotions, and maintain focus despite external distractions. These valuable skills facilitate optimal performance on the field, in the office, and in everyday life.
Here are some examples of mental skills and how they can be effective:
Being mindful means being self-aware of your thoughts, feelings, and surroundings. It also includes acknowledging these experiences and recognizing how they affect our behaviors. Mindfulness is an important component for emotional stability, maintaining focus, and staying grounded in stressful circumstances. Being mindful in the moment can help us stay focused on what’s happening in the present instead of worrying about an uncertain future or criticizing past events that we cannot change. Recognizing that we are worrying about the future allows us to recenter and focus on the present. When experiencing anxious thoughts, focusing on taking slow, deep breaths can control the body’s response to stress and redirect thoughts to the present.
How do you talk to yourself? What does the voice inside your head tell you? Our self-talk matters, and oftentimes we are our own worst critics. Telling ourselves “Don’t mess up!” or “You shouldn’t have done that!” focuses our attention on undesirable behaviors we’re trying to avoid or past events we cannot change. This negative self-talk can lead to guilt, low self-esteem, and low self-worth. Our internal dialogue allows us to become our own cheerleaders, which is especially helpful for individuals who may lack social support. We can affirm, encourage, and praise ourselves with phrases such as “I am capable,” “I can continue improving,” and “I did well enough.” When positive self-talk is repeated and developed, it can boost confidence and inspire internal motivation.
Attitude is everything! Henry Ford was onto something when he said “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right!” Our minds tend to emphasize mistakes and other negative experiences which causes overthinking and self-doubt. Reversely, being able to focus on our strengths, abilities, and other positive qualities keeps us driven toward desirable outcomes. For example, repeating the thought “Don’t make that mistake!” increases the chance that you’ll make that exact mistake because it’s what your mind is fixated on. Instead, focus on your strengths and the desired outcome with thoughts like “I’m going to do this correctly because I’ve done it before and I know I can do it again!” This positive outlook will help you feel hopeful, driven, and confident instead of hesitant and doubtful. It can be difficult to reframe negative thoughts, but doing so can inspire a contagious positive attitude.
Can you imagine yourself achieving your goals? Imagery is a type of mental rehearsal that can be used to improve performance and facilitate preparedness. By visualizing yourself completing a task, you are developing muscle memory that will help you perform that task later. Imagery is an effective preparation tool, especially for individuals who experience anxiety and may “freeze up” under pressure. For example, someone who feels intimidated and nervous around their boss may prepare for a big meeting by visualizing themselves in various scenarios. They may use imagery to rehearse entering the room and shaking their boss’s hand with confidence, and also to rehearse staying calm if their boss arrives late. Imagery could also help this individual prepare for potential situations that may cause stress by imagining themselves successfully using coping skills in the moment. This will help them feel ready despite their nerves and react effectively to external events.
5. Goal Setting
You may know what you want, but do you know how to get there? What is the motivation driving you toward achievement? Setting goals may seem easy, but there are necessary, incremental steps that must be taken to attain long-term goals and make lasting change. Using SMART goals - goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely - is helpful for maintaining motivation and staying on track. A relatable example would be an individual who wants to live a healthier lifestyle. This broad goal is very ambiguous because “healthy” can mean a lot of different things. To be more specific, we may restate the goal as eating more healthy food than unhealthy food in 6 months. This goal seems possible and attainable, has a reasonable time frame established, and is relevant because a healthy diet is a component of a healthy lifestyle. We may measure progress on this goal by setting incremental goals, such as going from consuming 30% healthy foods and 70% unhealthy foods after the first month to consuming 40% healthy foods and 60% unhealthy foods by the second month. Lofty goals that are beyond our capabilities or set with unreasonable time frames can be discouraging. This structure keeps us accountable, acknowledges our progress, and keeps us motivated.
These and other mental skills are best compiled as the 9 Mental Skills originally developed by Jack Lesyk in 1998. The 9 Mental Skills are still presently taught by Sport Psychology consultants due to their effectiveness and applicability. Learning and developing these tools can help individuals achieve their goals, improve their mental wellness, and make impactful lifestyle changes.
So whether you’re training for your upcoming sport season or just trying to stay motivated at work, Sport Psychology can be applied to your life!