Sports Psychology Myths, Half-Truths and Furphies

Three of the most common myths about sports psychology and mental toughness are debunked by leading Sports Psychologist Gareth J. Mole

Busting Three Myths About Sports Psychology
Busting Some Common Myths About Sports Psychology

Sports Psychology Myths – Where To Start?

I am sure all professionals feel like this to some degree. That their working world is full of myths and half-truths. But the nature of the work we do and how relatively new our profession is I believe sport psychology is surely up there when it comes to a number of misconceptions. Below are some of my favourites – in no particular order. I use the word favourite due to both a combination of how often we come across them as well as the potential benefits to every one of debunking them. So if you enjoy this article then make sure you share it by sharing the URL with others:

Myth 1: Sports Psychology Is Like Counselling, Therapy

This is a classic half-truth in that is literally half correct. Some elements of the work we do have similarities to the work of counsellors, therapists or clinical psychologists. For example, the confidential nature of the relationship and we will often talk about “feelings” and “thoughts”. But the other half of the process is much more likely to resemble a specialist coach where the conversations will be more about the client’s sports and performance aspirations and challenges.

Obviously, some performance psychologists will tend to be a little bit more like a therapist whilst others will lean more towards the coaching approach. This is one of the biggest advantages enjoyed by our clients, they have a growing choice of which of our sport psychologists/performance psychologists to work with.

Myth 2: The Natural Talent Myth

This is a humdinger – the notion that we are born to be potentially excellent at something regardless of the amount of effort we put in. In my view, people confuse what they regard as “natural talent” for biological and genetic variation.

The classic example is when young athletes hit puberty and some of them suddenly become taller and heavier than their peers. Although there is no doubt these growth spurts play a role in influencing the outcomes of sporting contests, they should not (yet often are) be regarded as natural talent as there is nothing talented about your genetic makeup.

In fact, I try to get my monthly clients to stop using the word “talent” altogether regardless of whether it’s preceded by the word “natural” or not. Quite simply there are performance variables which are either controllable, influenceable or uninfluenceable. What you inherited from your parents falls into the last of these three categories because you cannot influence your genetics, and therefore should occupy as little of your attention as possible.

Myth 2: The Best Time to Start Myth

Mondays, or the 1st of the month or the old favourite January 1st. Don’t get me wrong, in much of the work we do we encourage our clients to record a series of Monthly Checks (basically key performance indicators to see if we’re heading in the right direction) and many choose to record these as per the calendar months (i.e. their improvement in concentration from 1st October to 1st November). However, these time point myths are often used as an excuse to delay effort.

We know this first hand by the number of enquiries we get for our Sports Psychology / Mental Toughness Training services based on the time of year. We still get about the same number of requests for information in December compared with any other month, but unlike other months most people who decide to start working with one of our sport and performance psychologists delay it until January.

This is despite the fact that we continue to be available to our current and future clients right through the Christmas and New Year period. It’s also worth mentioning that almost without exception when people ask us when the best time to do/start something that is going to benefit them we answer ‘now’ / ‘as soon as possible’.

Myth 3: The Thoughts can be Controlled Myth

As current and past Condor Performance clients will know we’re often encouraging our clients to consider the amount of control or influence they have on different aspects of their performance. Just over 10 years ago, when clients of ours added ‘thoughts’ to the controllable column we didn’t challenge it but recent research suggests that although we might be able to influence our thoughts we can never control (guarantee) them. This is not to suggest that traditional thought improvement strategies (such as reframing) are a waste of time but that thoughts (as opposed to actions) should not be relied on as an essential ingredient of your performance plans.

A classic example of this is the work we do around Pre Performance Routines in start-stop sports such as golf, cricket and most target and racquet sports. In the old days we constructed – say for example a Pre Shot Routine for Golf – routines with both actions (put on my glove) with thoughts (“focus on just this shot”) but in recent times we have not only removed the thought component we’ve actually started getting clients to experiment with random thoughts so as not to become dependent on premeditated cognitions that may not be possible across every situation.

If you’d like to debunk dozens of extra performance myths – particularly around sports psychology and mental toughness for sport – then a great place to start is our sister program; Metuf for Sports. This online, self-guided, mental toughness program has a free introductory chapter which is a “must watch” for anyone looking to further their understanding.