Sport Psychology Barriers

Sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole outlines the seven most common sport psychology barriers and how to overcome a few of them!

There are many barriers to fully embracing sport psychology. One of them is what you imagine it to be like? Something like the above? Not even close …

The 7 Biggest Sport Psychology Barriers

One of my roles at Condor Performance is speaking to the many people who make enquiries about our sport psychology services. Since we have been operating and I would have spoken to approximately five thousand parents, coaches, athletes, performers and sporting administrators. In doing so we have learned a lot about the reasons why many athletes / performers still don’t bother to include bonafide sport psychology as part of their plans.

With this is mind below I will outline the seven most common of these barriers and where possible help you to put a step ladder up against a few of them. As always we welcome your comments and questions either publicly (via the comments box below) or privately (via info@condorperformance.com).


Sport Psychology Barrier #1: No Idea There is A Mental Side of Sport / Performance

Mental Toughness is not as tangible (visible, obvious) as the other performance areas. Consequently it’s not targeted for improvement because many athletes have no idea their motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus can be developed and strengthened just like other more obvious areas such as skills and fitness.

The only way around this barrier is through some kind of education so that an awareness of the mental side takes places. This will happen automatically if working with a qualified sport psychologist / performance psychologists but there are other ways too. One such way is to invest in your sport science knowledge, which now agrees that sporting mental toughness is a real thing. This doesn’t require you to complete a sport science degree, simply taking online courses such as Metuf can get the job done.


Sport Psychology Barrier #2: Confusing Mental Training with Something Else

Similar to the above but arguably worse. It’s very common for athletes to fall into the trap of thinking that working on the physical, technical and tactical aspects of their sport will naturally result in greater mental toughness. So for example, because it took motivation to get up at 6 am to go for a run in winter, it will automatically result in an improvement of your overall motivation.

Although this might happen, it also might not. Sport psychology, as with all types of psychology, wants to be and should be heavily evidence based. What this means is that the mental skills (or methods) used to improve areas such as motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus have been tried, tested and approved. So getting up at 6am in winter to go for a run might motivate some people some of the time. But really good goal setting (for example) will motivate most people, most of the time. There is a difference.

Even those who are aware of the importance of the mental side, and are motivated to try and improve it, can be left really struggling to find genuine, dependable ways to actual work on it. Most resort to Googling questions like ‘how to improve my concentration’ which results in millions of websites full of contradictory ideas.


Sport Psychology Barrier #3: Hoping For A Magic Bullet

By “magic bullet” we mean those who expect that a single session with a sport psychologist will suddenly make them mentally tough. That all of a sudden their nerves will vanish, they’ll can motivate themselves at will and can focus like a fighter pilot. When this doesn’t happen, they bail well before the sport psychology process starts to bear fruit.

The only way to overcome this barrier is to trust in the process and be patient. There are many ways to help with this. One is to show that improving the mind is a lot like improving the body. No one ever expects to go to the gym and have an 8 pack after one session with the exercise physiologist. Not even a dozen sessions. It works the same with sport psychology. If you wants results fast, fine, listen harder and apply the mental skills but don’t expect miracles.


Sport Psychology Barrier #4: Confusing Mental Toughness with Mental Health

Unfortunately the words ‘psychology’ and ‘psychologist’ still evoke thoughts of mental illness and disorders. Therefore, a large number of athletes incorrectly feel that seeking the assistance of a sport psychologist / performance psychologist is a sign of mental weakness. Not that long ago I wrote an entire blog post on this which you can read in full here.


Sport Psychology Barrier #5: It’s Too Expensive

Even when none of the above barriers apply, often cost gets in the way. The current recommended hourly rate for psychologists is about $250 an hour. This is the most awkward of the sport psychology barriers as it’s relative to your own income / wealth. For some people $250 an hour is chump chain, for others it’s a fortune.

At Condor Performance, instead of reducing our rates and cheapening what we do we add extra value to our 1-on-1 sport psychology services instead. How? Our rates are per month not per session so we allow and encourage email / text communication between sessions. Furthermore the first 30 minute session is not charged for, it’s free. For a more in depth understanding of our monthly approach watch the below video that Dave and I created recently. Here is the link to the FAQs page referenced in the video.


Sport Psychology Barrier #6: There Are No Sport Psychologists Near Me

The Corona Virus of 2020 is / was a terrible thing but there were some benefits. Suddenly, the whole world realised that a sport psychology session via video call was / is just as good as one where the sport psychologist and client are in the same room. We knew this early on and started delivering sport psychology sessions this was as early as 2008. So maybe this barrier is not really a barrier nowadays but we’ll still keep it here anyway.

In fact we’re almost at the point now where we could say that sessions via Zoom, FaceTime video, Skype and other platforms are better than what we call Same Place Sessions. Why? For a start, they are a lot more convenient with no travel time required. Athletes and performers can and do have sessions just before practice, competitions and sometimes – where allowed – during both of these. I would suggest we are less than a decade away from Same Place Sessions with any kind of psychologist being almost unheard of.


Sport Psychology Barrier #7: Now Is Not The Right Time ..
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Tricky, tricky, tricky. If your Granny passed away so you had to postpone your start then this sounds like a sensible option rather than a barrier. But most of the time when we hear this is for these kinds of reasons. I am too busy. I’m in my offseason. I have just picked up an injury so need to focus on that. I have too much going on. I’m playing really well, will get in touch when I am in a slump.

Trust me when I conclude with this. All of the above suggest you will be well advised to start some kind if sport psychology process now. If you feel that this process should be working with a sport psychologist / performance psychologist then get in touch and will send you detailed info and costing about how we go about it.

Sport Psychology Barriers? What Sport Psychology Barriers?


Practice Makes Permanent Not Perfect

Perfection in sport or life can be thought of being like the Loch Ness Monster. It’s doesn’t really exist, but you can have a lot of fun trying to look for this mythical beast.

The Sporting World Is Full Of Clichés

The majority of them are normally harmless. However some are either mentally beneficial or potentially damaging. Recently I wrote a blog containing some of the best quotes from a sports psychology point of you in my opinion. But what about the duds? What about the quotes or clichés that sound good but in actual fact are detrimental to performance? Fortunately there are a lot less of these “stinkers” compared to the good ones. Those that I would be more than happy to see my sporting clients right on post-it notes for inspiration outnumber the ones that should be banned.

It may come as a surprise to some of you that a number of the least useful but very well-known sport psychology quotes come from Vince Lombardi. I do not want to criticise Vince nor take anything away from his amazing achievements as a coach. But some of the quotes that he is most known for are psychological bloopers. Chief among them are these three:

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

“We didn’t lose the game; we just ran out of time.”

“Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”

I won’t go into too much detail about why the first two above simply send the wrong message to anybody playing competitive sport. Suffice to say that for the first one think Lance Armstrong and the “win at all costs mindset”. For the second one it just sounds like an excuse to me. I know it’s supposed to be cheeky but saying you only lost the game because you ran out of time is no different to saying you only lost the game because the opposition scored more points than you. 

Practice Makes Permanent Not Perfect

But it is this third quote that I really have an issue with. In particular the shortened version which is ‘practice makes perfect’. Fun fact ‘practice makes perfect’ currently gets 976,000,000 hits on Google. Practice Makes Permanent, the correct version, gets half the amount at 515,000,000 results.

For those of you who we have had the privilege of working with since we opened our doors in 2005 you’ll likely be aware of the fact that we do not do too much by way of cognitive restructuring during the mental conditioning process. By this I mean that by and large we let people think what they think. We would much rather help our clients to accept their thoughts and execute their motor skills anyway. Sometimes this philosophy is slightly misunderstood as us not being interested in cognitions at all. This is not true, let me explain.

Certain practitioners who subscribe to the ever increasingly popular Acceptance and Commitment Therapy model may choose to be completely distance from the meaning of words and the potential impact of one inspirational quote versus another.

This Is How We Show Our Clients To Bake Their Cake And Eat It

There are many, many types of thoughts. Let’s conceptualise thoughts in terms of how permanent they might be. A simple way to do this is to divide thoughts into two seperate types. The first group, which we could call VABs (for values, attitudes and beliefs) are rather permanent. They create most of the other type of thoughts, the second type. We could call these Current and Individual Thoughts (or CITs). 

This Is How VABs And CITs Interact

We all have some very well ingrained beliefs. Let’s imagine someone who has an ingrained belief that at work everybody should dress in a smart and presentable way. This would mean that they value people who take pride in their own appearance and choice of clothing. This is likely to have been the case in the past. It’s the case now and very likely to be the case into the future. It’s a permanent belief, one that would be hard to change.

Now imagine that somebody with these values and beliefs starts a new job. On the very first day of work they are provided with a mentor to show them the ropes. This mentor has come to work in attire that would potentially be more suitable for a lazy Sunday afternoon at home. The VAB about dressing well at work then combines with a desire to leave a good first impression to create a whole bunch of CITs. For example “I can’t believe she’s come to work dressed like that”. Or “don’t say anything, look beyond the Hoody and smile”.

It Works The Same In The World Of Highly Competitive Sport

For example consider an athlete who values effort above results. And maybe this athlete has a coach who has a ‘win at all cost mindset’. The athletes’ VABs might result in CITs such as “coach is going to be pissed again because we lost despite playing pretty well”. 

How this all plays out from a mental toughness training point of view is quite simple. As sport psychologists and performance psychologist we see the benefits of spending some time on your values, attitudes and beliefs. This can be done in many ways but ‘hoping for the best’ is not one of them. Most people simply develop their values, attitudes and beliefs from their childhood. It’s typically a very organic process. Now this is fantastic if you have been surrounded by psychologically astute people since you were born. But this is rare. For most of us we would need to sit down regularly in order to clarify our VABs. If you have absolutely no idea about how to go about it get in touch by completing your details on our contact form.

One of my beliefs, not just as an applied sport psychologist but as a person too, is that the concept of perfect does not exist. Striving to be perfect at something is alright as long as you know you’ll never get there. I am a very logical person and it is this analytical part of me which has led me to believe that chasing perfection is like trying to find the Loch Ness monster. Just because people talk about it doesn’t make it real. 

This Is The Reason Behind The Belief

Prefect implies that no more improvement can take place. As improvement is never ending then this renders the concept of perfection as a misnomer. Think about it, for each time you get to something that you mislabelled as perfect you can still improve it further! So it wasn’t perfect was it.

It should come as no surprise having read this why I dislike the “practice makes perfect” principle. And no Vince perfect prcatice doesn’t make perfect either.

What practice can do, if you go about it in the right way, is make something permanent. Practice makes permanent correctly suggests that through the process of repetition it will eventually become a habit, an automatic action that requires little or no front of mind awareness. Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent.

Often when I am helping my sporting clients with their values and I manage to convince them to replace practice makes perfect with practice makes permanent they ask me about how long it would take to make something permanent. Quite often the 10,000 hours principal comes up which is another furphy. There are too many variables to that question. It will depend on the complexity of the task and genetic factors. Are you starting as an absolute beginner or are you already reasonably adept at it? 

Having said that I did stumble across this very cool TEDTalk recently which suggests that a massive amount can be achieved in the first 20 hours:

But the goal for competitive sport and anybody wanting to perform consistently at their best should always be the same. You need to put in the effort so that the main motor skills required become automatic. This allows you to go into high-pressure situations with the aim of being present and enjoying yourself. Trust that the practice has made these skills permanent. Accept whatever thoughts and feelings that you happen to be experiencing on the day. And of course if you need a hand with all of this give us a shout.