The Best Sports Psychologist You Can Be

Sports Psychologist Gareth J. Mole makes 5 suggestions on how to be ‘the best sports psychologist you can be’ and in turn lift the entire profession.

I believe that I am currently the best sports psychologist that I can be.

So what stage in someone’s career have they notched up enough experience to start giving advice? Some might suggest that it’s best to wait until toward the very end of their career or even into retirement. The issue with that is you’re likely to be making suggestions well after you were at your best.

If your profession requires a lot of brain power then I am of the view that the ideal time to be giving tips is somewhere in the middle. I started working as a sports psychologist shortly after completing my Master’s degree in Sports Psychology from the University of Western Sydney (Australia) in 2005. I was 28 years old and very keen to start working with sporting clients – some would say I was too keen.

Condor Performance came about due to the lack of jobs out there for qualified sports psychologists. My mindset was simple – ‘I can’t get frustrated by the lack of opportunities if I haven’t tried to create some for myself’.

In the fifteen years since I have gone from being 28 to 43 year of age. I am now married to ‘the only one’, have two amazing kids and now live near Moss Vales (New South Wales) which is half way to Canberra. Oh, and Condor Performance has grown from a one-man band with a few clients to a growing team of performance psychologists who work with hundreds of athletes and coaches from around the world.

If I am right, that the best time to be waxing lyrical about ‘how to be the best sports psychologist you can be’ is about halfway through the journey – then for me, that would be about now. I have worked full time for 15 years and suspect I have about the same number of years left in me.

With this in mind, I have put together a short list of suggestions. Of course, if you are either a current sports psychologist or trying to become one then these will be both immediately and obviously useful. But as I look down at the list that I jotted down on paper earlier it’s already obvious to me that many of the ideas are likely to be handy for sporting coaches too. In particular sporting coaches who are already aware of the huge role that sports psychology plays in terms of helping athletes become the best that they can be.

Quite frankly, I am over trying to convince anyone that the mind (the brain) is an important aspect of human performance and that it can and should be targeted for improvement.

Tip One: Know Your Sports

Having an in-depth understanding of as many major sports as possible is, in my view, the foundation of being an excellence sports psychologist. There are many reasons for this but the most prominent are:

  • A good understanding of how sports works will allow you to build rapport with clients of those sports in a way that nothing else will
  • If you work less on mental health issues and more on performance challenges (like I do) then it’s likely the conversations will become very “sporty”. From sessions with golfers that are 100% dedicated to improving different types of pre-shot routine for various types of golf shot to workshops with gymnastics coaches who want views on the different mental demands of the different types of gymnastics disciplines and apparatus

My own knowledge of sport comes mostly from my childhood. I remember watching every ball of every cricket test match during my long school holidays. I remember creating my own tennis scoreboard using an old whiteboard so I could play umpire during Wimbledon matches. So you could say that I have been studying the sports side of sports psychology since I was about five or six years old. And South Africa during the 1980s was a great place to feast on live sport – as the bans from international competitions meant that regional and interstate rivalries were at there most frequent and engaging.

Over the years I have employed and supervised dozens of sports psychologists. I have, at times, been dumbfounded by the lack of passion and knowledge that many of them have when it comes to sport. And we’re not talking about boutique sports here like dragon boating or synchronised swimming. We are talking about major sports that at certain times of year are everywhere like golf, tennis, football and basketball.

In fact, so important is sporting expertise for me that I include it as part of the interview process. Nowadays, I am less intense but still require incoming sport and performance psychologists to self-asses their own sporting knowledge.

Universities with sports psychology courses take note – include sport as part of the student’s requirements and thanks me later.

Can you learn a passion and proficiency for sports even if your childhood was not like mine? Of course. If mental challenges like managing emotions and improving motivation can be overcome then so too can your understanding of sports. But it’s not going to happen by accident – you’d better get to work.

Tip Two: Be(come) Likeable and Smart

I know this is a controversial one but I am writing an opinion piece here so hear me out. The best sports psychologists I have met – some of whom I am very fortunate to have to work for me – have all been very likeable and very intelligent. By likeable I mean you’d almost prefer to be their friend instead of their boss. By intelligent, I mean super smart. The kind that doesn’t require a calculator when going through some of the numbers we gather once a month to monitor our own performance as “performance psychologists’.

You would imagine that in order to complete a university degree – the step before pursuing a career as a sports psychologist – you’d need to have at least some degree of mental quickness and people skills. Alas, this doesn’t always happen which of course makes my job of finding suitable candidates when we’re looking to expand so much harder. 

Tip Three: Never Stops Improving

The Japanese have a lovely word for it Kai-zen – which loosely translated into English means ‘constant improvement’. Maybe all professions fall victim to this. Once fully qualified is can be frightfully difficult to get some sports psychologists to actively continue their professional development. At Condor Performance we decided that prevention was always better than a cure and have, for as long as I can remember, paid for our psychologists to attend relevant conferences and other CPD events. By paid for I mean we both purchase their accreditation and allow them to attend during working time – not as part of their own leave.

I suspect some of my team think we’re doing it for their benefit but in actual fact, we’re doing is for ours. The best athletes and coaches in the world will only want to work with the best support staff in the world. It’s a horse and cart or chicken and egg thing.

Tip Four: Convert Frustration into Fuel

At the time of writing (2019), if you get a fancy sign with the words “Local Sports Psychologist” and stick it up by your front gate or door very, very few potential clients will come knocking. In the same way that some sports are organically very frustrating (golf and cricket are the first two to come to mind) so too is the profession of ‘sports psychologist’. In other words, nothing comes easy.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying there are professions out there without challenges and roadblocks but ours would have to rank inside the top 10% of ‘most difficult to convert years spent studying into take-home pay per week’.

I have had many conversions with sports psychologist colleagues (not Condor Performance employees) where the frustration was so much that it felt like I was in a session with a golfer who just couldn’t win his first tournament regardless of how hard he tried.

In fact, one chat over coffee in particular really sticks in my memory where I used such a golf analogy. Golf is frustrating ‘on purpose’ so that only the mentally tough would ‘find a way’. If it’s too hard for you, take up jogging instead.

Tip Five: Become A Sporting Coach Yourself 

Ok, honesty time. This is the only one of my tips that I currently don’t do myself but it’s not due to a lack of motivation but a lack of time (I would like to be around as much as possible whilst my children are still young).

If so much of coaching is actually sports psychology under a pseudonym put your money where your mouth is. Start using your training to help your local sports teams. Of course, three barriers are likely to stop you (excluding the barrier of you never thought about taking up coaching until now).

  • Few decsion makers will let you. That’s right, despite 6 or 7 years of formal training in how to make humans perform better your local netball team is still more likely to pick a former great as their head coach
  • You don’t want the accountability that comes with being Head Coach. Rightly or wrongly when we help sporting clients to improve their mental toughness there is rarely, if any, accountability if we don’t actually get the job done. But ask any coach at any level what will happen if they can’t produce results – they’ll know the answer
  • No time to do both. This is my excuse. If I didn’t need to work (the majority of my working time at Condor Performance is actually spent growing the business and on essential admin tasks) then one of the first things I’d do is offer my services pro bono at one or two of the local clubs near me in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales. By I know that doing a good job – or the best job possible – would take up a lot of time and so this will have to wait until my kids and my company are all a little bit older.

‘Performance Consistency’ – The Holy Grail of Sport

Performance Psychologist Chris Pomfret argues that ‘Performance Consistency’ should be the most highly valued goal for all elite athletes and performers.

Of all Usain Bolt's many achievements, maybe the most impressive was how consistent he was in major competitions.
Very few people understand what Usain Bolt needed to do to get to the top.

As anyone who is participating in an office footy tipping competition can attest, trying to pick winners week to week in any sport often feels like an exercise in futility. With a few notable exceptions (that’s the topic of a whole other edition – so stay tuned) there seems to be a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ element to many performances which has many of the participants and onlookers perplexed and tearing their hair out. At the elite level, you don’t have to wait long in a post-match press conference to hear someone voice their frustration at the dramatic turnaround in fortunes as they have gone from ‘world beaters’ in practice to a ‘rabble’ on game day. This brief article will explore some of the reasons behind inconsistent performances and conclude with a few tips on how to attempt a move towards The Holy Grail: Performance Consistency.

We call Performance Consistency the Holy Grail because it’s the ultimate sport and performance goal (for non-Monty Python fans / religious readers, the Holy Grail was the cup Christ used at the Last Supper which has been the quest by various pilgrims for centuries).

The Real Holy Grail
The Real Holy Grail

Every athlete, coach or performer knows what it’s like to hit that ‘purple patch’ where everything just seems to click into place. It might only last for a few seconds or could last for a whole day or two and terms such as ‘in the zone’ or ‘flow’ might come to mind when describing this aligning of the stars. This, of course, is not Performance Consistency as it often comes to end (often a sudden and ugly one). Performance Consistency occurs when you can extend this purple patch to a few weeks, a whole season, or even an entire career.

But first, what causes Performance Inconsistency?

I would suggest the number one cause of Performance Inconsistency is the overuse or misuse of performance reviews. Specially, athletes and coaches misunderstanding the amount of influence they have on their performance results (outcomes). In its simplest form ‘a performance’ is probably the consequence of about 25 to 30 areas of effort (that we put into several categories, one being mental toughness) and at least the same number of uncontrollable elements such as genetics.

For a lot more detail on how we – as performance psychologists – break down ‘performance’ then sign up for the free Introductory Video at Metuf – Online Mental Toughness Training for Sport and Performance.

After a particular performance it’s very common for the performer to ‘assign’ reasons for the result. For example, “I played really well because I have a new coach,” or “I played poorly because I have been out injured.” This then often leads to doing more of the things that you thought caused the ‘good performance’ and / or less of that which you believed caused the performance decline. And so begins the Performance Rollercoaster – the very opposite of Performance Consistency as effort becomes reactive (emotional) rather than premeditated (rational).

The reality is, you will never know exactly what ingredients went into making up a performance: at best (and this is assuming you record your training endeavours down to the minute) you might be able to develop a hunch that links some elements of effort to some variations in results, with a whole heap of unknowns leftover. Thoughts and beliefs are just that – thoughts and beliefs – and although they can feel incredibly reliable the truth is they are perceptions, not facts. So when you say “the reason why my performance was so great was due to X, Y or Z,” ask yourself if this is a fact or a thought that seems factual (they are very different).

Instead, plan your effort without factoring in results. Just consider what you believe might be worth spending time on without the distraction of strengths and weaknesses or good and bad. Second, ensure the effort is broken down into very clear categories and make sure you don’t end up with too many of them (a great analogy is the way the world is broken down: first continents, then countries, then states etc.). Finally, make sure you ‘buy into’ the 4 laws of effort below. If it were me, I’d copy and paste them into a Word document, max the font size so they take up the whole of an A4 sheet, print a dozen copies and then put them up as mini posters at home, where I study / work and where I train:

  • Improvement is never ending – you will never reach a point of mastery and be ‘good enough’ to then move on to something else.
  • The number of ways to improve is unlimited but the time and resources we have in order to get better are very limited.
  • Improvement is best achieved through the focus on training and practice which basically boils down to EFFORT.
  • Effort is fundamentally a combination of Quality and Quantity into the areas you are targeting for improvement.

Please use the comments box below if you have any questions or comments about this article. For a full list of previous editions of the Mental Toughness Digest click here.