Gareth J. Mole is widely regarded as one of the leading sports psychologists in the world and is very proud of his South African heritage
Meet a South African Sport Psychologist – But Not As You Know It
Gareth John Mole was born in Transvaal (that’s what Gauteng was called then) in 1976 to a South African father and an Australian mother.
Maybe a career in sport was his destiny as he was named after the great Gareth Edwards – the standout rugby union scrumhalf (halfback) for Wales and The Lions during that era.
He attended St Peters Preparatory School in Rivonia whereby his love for all sports was formed. “Most of my memories from St Peters are sports-related” he reminisces. “Of course in those days it was mostly rugby [union], cricket and athletics” he adds.
In the 1980s, unaware that most of the rest of the country were suffering during apartheid, Gareth could be found either watching or playing sport at the family home near Kyalami (yes, the race track) with his older brother Davin and youngest sister Tamara.
“Although there was no Formula One at Kyalami in those days there was still plenty of motorsport taking place all the time. The background soundtrack to my childhood was the roar of racing cars and the screech of tyres” Gareth recalls. “It’s no coincidence that my love of motorsport and motor racing has a lot to do with the fact that I grew up five kilometres from the premier circuit in Africa”.
Although Gareth and his team of sport and performance psychologists assist athletes of all sports from right across the globe he himself has become especially well known in motor racing circles for the work he does helping drivers and riders to improve their mental toughness.
“Competitive motor racing is mentally very, very hard and although the drivers and riders have to be supremely fit it’s really their mindset and tactical abilities that separate the good from the best” he mentions.
“Nigel Mansell was far from being one of the fittest Formula One drivers during his time but he mental toughness and outstanding tactical preparation resulted in him being one of the best competitors of the Eighties”.
From South Africa To The World
At the age of ten, Gareth moved from South African to The UK to attend boarding school. It was at Oundle that the breadth of his sporting knowledge grew exponentially.
“Had I stayed in South Africa I suspect that my sporting knowledge might have remained somewhat limited. My time in England exposed me to many of the other major sports – in particular, football (soccer), hockey, squash and volleyball” Gareth says.
After finishing up at Oundle and taking a gap year, Gareth moved north in order to do a Psychology Degree at the University of Leeds. It was during the undergraduate years that his preexisting love of sport fused with his new psychology training.
“Sports psychology was only a small inclusion during my degree at Leeds but it was enough for me to think – I like this, I want to be a sports psychologist” he states.
At the time Masters degrees in The UK specialising in Sports Psychology were virtually non-existent. So in 2004, he found himself on a one-way flight to Sydney, Australia.
“Oh, how things have changed. In 2019 England is one of the best countries in the world in order to qualify as a sports psychologist – but in 2004 there were more options in Australia – so that’s where I went” Gareth declares.
After finishing his Masters and therefore becoming a qualified sports psychologist he set up Condor Performance – which had a very international perspective right from the start.
“I didn’t like the idea that I would only be able to assist athletes and coaches from Australia” Gareth recalls, “so from the very beginning we were on the front foot regarding webcam technologies such as Skype”. He goes on to say “As the technology improved word soon caught on that athletes and coaches from anywhere in the world could access our performance psychology services. Interesting, and maybe due to the dearth of sports psychologists physically located in South Africa we got and continue to get many enquiries from Cape Town to Johannesburg and everywhere in between”.
Sticking By The Term Sports Psychologist
As many qualified sports psychologists find it easier to use terms such as ‘mental skills coach’, ‘performance coach’ or just ‘coach’ Gareth has always stuck by the much-maligned title of ‘sport psychologist’.
“I liken sticking with the term ‘sports psychologists’ to those who have stuck by South Africa during the tough times,” he says. “When all the best dentists in the country leave then, of course, they are making the problem worse”. He goes on “the main reason that many choose not to refer to themselves as psychologists – despite having the qualifications to do so – it due to the stigma attached with the word psychologist”.
He concludes “the only way to remove that stigma is for sports psychologists to do excellent work and then keep using the title sport psychologist so that eventually it will not be associated with mental health problems and therapy/counselling”.
If you’d like more information about working 1-on-1 with Gareth you can email him directly at email@example.com ~ making sure to include details of your location, sport, goals and current mental challenges. He will typically get back to you within 48 hours.
A Quick Guide For Parents / Guardians
A significant number of the regular readers of our Mental Toughness Digest blog are the parents or guardians of young athletes that we are either currently working with or who we have worked with previously.
With very few exceptions I have generally found that the parents of our young sporting clients have acted impeccably before, during and after the mental conditioning process. Almost all of them are readily available if need be but tend to be very respectful of the psychologist–athlete relationship and tend to give their child (or children) plenty of space and privacy.
In fact if I think back to all the young athletes that I have assisted myself over the last 15 years – which would easily be more than a thousand – I can only think of a single occasion whereby I felt that’s a parent was obstructing my attempt to help their son to improve both sporting mental toughness and overall well-being.
What is far more common is for the relationship between the young athlete and either one or both parents to become a topic that needs some attention when putting complex concepts such as emotions and motivation under the microscope.
For example questions such as “how do I explain to my father that’s I would rather he not attend my competitions because of the win-at-all-costs mindset that he has?” or “I would like to have a boyfriend but I know that Mum would see this as me getting distracted from my long term sporting goals” or “if I start having sex will this have a negative impact on my sporting abilities?”.
Humdingers like this are common – especially after the coaching relationship has become very comfortable whereby the young athlete feels they can tell their sport/performance psychologist “anything” (at Condor Performance we really pride ourselves in the rapport building / maintaining aspects of our 1-on-1 work).
As a general guide when it comes to providing advice in the face of these types of difficult but important questions it is exceptionally rare that we try and change the parents’ way of thinking in any way. For example, if a parent has a “win-at-all-costs” attitude it’s very unlikely that I would try and explain to that parent why that way of thinking might seem productive but is actually anything but (for more on this topic read this Blog post from 2018).
For a start we prefer to spend all of the consultation time that comes with our various monthly options with the athletes and although we’re happy to have the occasional brief conversation with a parent (particularly if it’s adding to the overall process) we do not have the luxury of allowing extensive conversations with those involved in our client’s lives if they themselves are not one of our clients. This is where email/text message has revolutionised sports psychology services as it allows parents/guardian to share concerns or ideas with their son or daughter’s performance psychologists but without having to use up any of the 1-on-1 consultation time that we have with their son or daughter (or both)!
So the advice that we generally give in these scenarios is roughly along these lines:
Genuine mental tests come in many packages but one of the most common is that the people you spend time with will not always make what you’re trying to do easy. Sometimes on purpose (e.g. sledging) but more often by mistake managing both family and non-family relationships can be very, very hard. The Mental Toughness process will remain incomplete untill this is something you can manage regardless of who you spend your time with
If family comes up as an “issue” during the mental conditioning process this provides us with a golden opportunity to get some genuine mental toughness training done. In other words – instead of having to try and make a situation mental harder on purpose then we can use the “issues” to practice our new found mental skills.
Real confidence only really happens when you have seen it work in actual, real life situations
How Much To Push?
Of the Mothers of one of our clients recently asked the psychologist working with her daughter if he had any advice on the overall topic of how pushy to be or not to be. In other words given the added demands faced by young athletes how much pushing, nagging, cajoling is necessary and when does it become too much?
This is an excellent question
I have had a few weeks to think about this since the question was sent to me and now that I have this is my response.
The clues to many – but not all – psychological dilemmas is often “somewhere in the middle”. In other words, trying not to end up at either extreme is useful. A analogy of water temperature can be useful here. When running a bath for your baby son/daughter we take huge care of making sure that the water temperature is “somewhere in the middle” (warm) and would never think about bathing the infant in water that was too hot nor too cold.
In fact, when my daughter and son (now 6 and 4) were babies I had a thermometer to ensure that the water temperature was as close to 37.0 degrees as possible. As they aged the “degrees of freedom” grew so nowadays anything between 35 and 40 degrees is fine.
From my point of view this analogy is the ideal guide for the parents of young athletes. The younger they are the more I’d suggest that you reduce the possibility of extremes (for example too much practice and too little, too many competitive situations and not enough). But as they grow older we’d want to allow more and more degrees of freedoms. In other words, although you still try and motivate them to do their homework the acceptable range becomes bigger and bigger. You might insist on them doing some homework each day but you become flexible with when this takes place and the duration.
In other words, if you’re the Mum or Dad of a 10-year-old athlete who is inclined to overtrain then I’d suggest making it virtually impossible for this to take place due to their age. However, if your son/daughter is almost an adult (16 – 18) and is “not putting in the work” then it might be better for everyone if you just become a gentle reminder service + helper.
Sometimes simple little strategies such as helping take the training equipment out before some home training and helping them pack away can do wonders when it comes to helping teenage athletes find the “sweet spot”.
8 ‘Quick Wins’ for Sporting Parents:
- Communicate with your child in a way that shows you are more interested / invested in their effort (highly influenceable) than their sporting results (somewhat influenceable).
- Get them to complete the free Mental Toughness Questionnaire for Athletes here and go through the results with them.
- The relationship you have with your son/daughter will always be more important than their sporting success – try not to sacrifice the former for the latter.
- Be there for them during the good times and the not-so-good times. Let them ride the ups and downs that come with elite sport with you always being available if they want someone to talk to.
- Try not to assume what is best for you is best for them. If you are telling them what to do all the time with few / no choices this should be a red flag.
- If you want to be a parent-coach (both their Mum / Dad and their coach) then first discuss the pros and cons with them and second clarify the dual role on paper before you jump in.
- Read this blog post from 2018.
- Read the below guidelines from the Western Australia Department of Sport and Recreation – Clubs guide to encouraging positive parent behaviour:
Sport-Specific Sports Psychology refers to sports psychology methods working best when they are adapted with the client’s particular sport in mind
Do All ‘Best Practice’ Mental Skills Work For All Sports?
Within our profession, the notion of sport-specific sport psychology is a controversial topic and one that warrants some attention and discussion. To do this, it is worth considering a couple of key questions/ideas:
- How much do the general strategies used by most psychologists apply to athletes and coaches who are trying to improve the mental aspects of their performance or coaching abilities?
- How ‘transferable’ are various mental skills from one performance area to another and even from one specific sport to a different sport?
When trying to answer the first question about what percentage of generic strategies used by psychologists who don’t specialise in sport apply in performance situations, one needs to be a little careful not to imply that all psychologists are, or would want to be, the same. But there are some well established therapeutic models which are likely to be more prevalent in clinical and counselling psychology (for example).
But there are some well established therapeutic models which are likely to be more prevalent in clinical and counselling psychology (for example).
So, how easily do these methods apply to sport and performance? The simple answer, in my opinion, is ‘about half’.
For example, if the athlete or coach (yes, we work 1-on-1 with sporting coaches too) is functionally well (without a recognised mental illness) then at Condor Performance we would not focus significant attention on a long and detailed history of the client’s difficulties. This is not to say that some of the mental methods we often use from the get-go don’t have clinical routes – but the final versions which are presented to our clients would largely be unrecognisable to our non-performance focussed colleagues.
A great example of this would be our approach to goal setting. When we help our clients set goals – something we typically do very early on and then continually review and update depending on progress – we often introduce a level of accountability to these targets that some mental health practitioners might find objectionable. But from our standpoint, this level of accountability is a key ingredient in helping them get to the next level and if it is confronting for the client (‘you committed to 5 hours of practice a week, this didn’t occur, what happened?’) then we will use that to further improve their mental toughness by looking at what mental barriers exist between the person’s intentions and their actual effort.
What about the second question; how ‘transferable’ are various mental skills from one performance area to another and even from one specific sport to another? Certainly when you’re assisting mentally well performers who are trying to master ‘motor skills’ – be they surgeons or swimmers – the mental methods we use start to have a lot in common. In particular the ones we often refer to as the foundation methods such as Knowing It (control versus influence).
Furthermore, the psychological techniques become even more universally beneficial when you focus only on competitive sports (in other words, you exclude sport that is done purely for social and/or health reasons) and you consider team sports as a different animal to individual ones. In doing this I’d suggest that around 70% of the work we do with these group would be very, very similar. In other words, the sports psychology services that we’d deliver to a competitive golfer and a competitive shooter both looking for performance gains would likely have about a 70% crossover of methods.
Don’t confuse this 70% with us applying a cookie-cutter approach to our 1-on-1 consulting. I am referring to the fact that the mental skills that we’d likely introduce with a competitive golfer and a competitive shooter are going to very similar due to the fact that these two sports are psychologically very similar (target based, lots of thinking time, stillness required, completely alone). The very fact that our services are individualised makes is nearly impossible for us to treat our sporting clients like clones.
The remaining 30% is made up of ideas that have to be adapted specially for the client sitting across the room or computer screen (most of our sports psychology consulting is now done via webcam) and their particular role/sport.
Probably the best example that comes to mind is the work we do around Short Performance Routines to aid with concentration, execution under pressure and ultimately the Holy Grail of consistency. Although there might be some similarities between a golfer’s Pre Shot Routine and the routines used by a goal kicker in soccer, rugby union, rugby union, AFL, NFL etc there are simply too many microelements that only relate to each of these sports to risk working on them with a generic approach.
In helping a golfer create or improve his or her Pre Shot Routines (one for their long game, one for short game and one for putting for example) we want everything to be golf related and everything to be about helping that particular golfer – not all golfers.
One of the reasons why this topic is somewhat controversial boils down to the fact that there are many psychologists out there who like to dabble in performance psychology. I personally don’t have an issue with that as long as they are not treating mentally well athletes in the same (similar) way as they treat mentally ill non-performers.
As the founding psychologist of Condor Performance, I am very proud of the fact that my team of sport and performance psychologists are genuine specialists when it comes to the psychology of human potential. Essentially we’re like performance coaches but with some actual qualifications and credentials.