Choking In Sport

Sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole looks at the main reasons why many athletes can easily perform in training but struggle on competition day.

Choking in sport is basically any decrease in performance due to pressure or psychological factors

What Exactly is Choking in Sport?

Choking is one of those interesting terms which is commonly associated with sport psychology but not so common in the scientific literature. In other words it was first used colloquially to describe ‘falling apart under the pressure of competition’. Since then it seems to have ‘stuck’ as the term used most often to describe mental disintegration.

In this 2013 journal article choking is defined as follows:

In sport, choking under pressure is a negative athletic experience that may have psychologically damaging effects. The media recognises that choking is a dramatic drop in performance, whereas researchers have labeled choking as any decrease in performance under pressure. This discrepancy between the media’s and researchers’ perception of choking leads to ambiguity among terms and confusion among researchers, applied practitioners, and the general public.

As a practising sport psychologist I typically don’t use the words choke or choking at all. I prefer to describe the same challenge in a little more details. For example, underperforming in competition due to pressure. Or maybe due to poor concentration?

Can You Help? I Keep Choking …

There are literally hundreds of reasons why people contact us here at Condor Performance. One of the most common, however, is the athlete/performer who excels in practice situations but struggles to reach anywhere near this level during actual competitions. Most of the time they’ll refer to this as choking. “I keep choking” or “I am a choker”.

It’s worth mentioning that there is always a risk when writing about the psychological aspects anything of oversimplifying matters. This is certainly the case here. Be aware of this when I suggest that although there are potentially hundreds of causes of choking most can be attributed to one or a combination of the below.

  • a practice environment that is mentally far too easy (for that person)
  • a competition mindset that is far too taxing (for that person)
  • the perfect storm – a combination of both of the above

And In This Lies The Solution

Quite simply most of those who are better at executing their skills in practice are better as they are doing so in a false environment. One where more often than not there are little or no consequences involved. Go to any golf driving range in the world and you’ll see dozens of golfers (if we can call them that) smashing balls into the distance without caring about where they end up. Take the same golfers and plonk them onto the first tee with three other golfers watching and see how suddenly smashing this particular ball into the distance makes them tighten up and duck hook it straight out of bounds.

Even those who practice smart and try to replicate the mental demands of competition in their preparation often struggle as they tend to fall short of being able to mimic feelings of extreme pressure. The result is that they then have to try and execute their skills in competition whilst experiencing feeling like extreme nerves or stress that were not there during practice. To add insult to injury, they then fuse with these feelings unaware that feelings and actions can be separated.

There are a number of tried and tested ways around. Although reading this blog should never take the place of working 1-on-1 with a qualified sport psychologist the below might be enough to at least get the ball rolling.

1. Make Your Practice Mentally Harder

By harder we mean mentally harder not physically harder. The easiest way to try and do this is by replicating situations that you don’t like or that you find hard. For example, you might prefer to practice in the morning so you intentionally switch some practice sessions to the afternoon. Or you might enjoy practising with others so you do more and more training alone. To get the sweet-spot is not easy. You’re looking for the practice session(s) to be psychologically demanding but not too demanding. A great analogy for this is weight training. If the weights are too light then not much will happen. If they are too heavy they might cause injury and long term harm. It’s the same with mental demands. Too little means no growth, too much means damage. British sport psychologist Dan Abrahams refers to this as stretch and support. Too much and too little stretch are what we’re trying to avoid here. If you are not confident at being able to create your own sweet-spot mentally harder practice session(s) then please contact us here and so we can lend you a hand.

2. Make Your Competition As Relaxed As Possible

Is it possible for an athlete to be too relaxed whilst competing? Not really (don’t confuse tiredness with being relaxed) so we suggest you do what the great Usain Bolt used to do. He only “worked” on things in training. This freed up his competitions to just exist, enjoy himself and let his training express itself without a worried mind getting in the way. In particular, he didn’t worry about being worried. Easier said than done many might say. I often use the analogy of driving a car (apologies to our younger readers). Manoeuvring a vehicle around safely is a difficult motor skill with huge consequences if you get it wrong. Yet, most of us (who drive) do a great job of trusting our muscle memory. We quickly get to a level of expertise behind the wheel were we don’t actually have to try hard to drive well, we just do. What if you approached sporting contests in the same way? Arrive, ready, relax, trust your training.

3. Use Performance Routines

Action-only pre-performance routines can be a great way to keep you grounded at certain key moments both in practice and during competitions. The reason they work so well is that they’re built using the most influenceable aspect of performance – present actions. This means they should remain both easy to do and consistent regardless of the thoughts and emotions of the current situations. You didn’t really think that Rafa Nadel actually sweated that much did you? Rafa’s use of the towel is a great example of a mentally astute athlete using the action of wiping as a reset between points.

If you’d like to read a lot more about routines then you can read this blog or this one. And as always, please use the space below to let us know your thoughts and/or questions on the topic of Choking in Sport.

Sport Psychology Into The Future

Sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole muses about where sport psychology is headed and guesses what the field will look like in 2050.

What will the sport psychology landscape look like 30 years from now? Picture from FROM MOVIESTORE COLLECTION/REX/REX USA.

Back From The Future

Ok readers, I borrowed the Delorean and just got back from the year 2050. And you will not believe what I saw. Doncaster Rovers F.C. win the English Premier League for the second year in a row. And sport psychology is nothing like it is in 2020. It’s mainstream, it’s normal and it is regarded as the most important part of competitive sports.

I am of course kidding (wish I wasn’t). And in case some of you missed the Delorean reference let me context you. In 1989 the writers and producers of the classic movie Back To The Future 2 made some predictions about what life would be like in 2015. Marty McFly (pictured above) then went into the future in a Delorean time machine (also pictured above).

This Vanity Fair article actually shows how accurate some of these educated guesses turned out to be. Forecasting the future is one of the most remarkable aspects of being human. No other species can do it quite like we can. But it’s both a blessing and a curse. The upside is our ability to plan and things three moves ahead of our opponent. The downside is wasting mental energy such as “I just know I am going to play poorly tomorrow”.

Sport Psychology In 2050?

During a number of interviews between UK sport psychologist Dan Abrahams and his guests on the highly recommended The Sport Psych Show he asked them to imagine using a time machine to go back in time. I thought it might be fun and thought provoking to use it to go into the future instead!

In this article I will predict what the sport psychology landscape will look like thirty years from now. Just like Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale (creators of the Back To The Future Trilogy) I will make some educated guesses. Feel free to save a copy and then get in touch in 2050. Let me know how accurate or inaccurate they turn out to be. I will not, in this article, focus on the problematic aspects of future-based thinking. But I will say this. We now know that one of the key aspects of sporting mental toughness is being able to focus at will on the present moment. In others words there are many occasions in a competitive sporting situation in which we literally want to ‘turn off’ our ability to think about the future. More on this during another article (which when written I will link here).

3 Majors Changes To Sport Psychology Are Coming

I hypothesise three major changes in the coming decades to dramatically change what sport psychology looks like. I predict that by the middle of this century the following will be taking place or have happened already.

  • The phasing out of generic (non-sport specific) sport psychology.
  • The phasing in of much greater checks about qualifications (or lack of).
  • A spike in sporting coaches working 1-on-1 with sport psychologists / performance psychologists. And the first few head coaches who are in fact sport psychologists themselves.

I will now go into more detail about each of the above.

Phasing Out of Generic Sport Psychology

By the end of this decade it will be universally accepted that the ‘interventions’ used to help someone with clinical depression are different from ‘the mental tools’ used to motivate a mentally well athlete whose training enthusiasm has dropped. (For those of you who are reading this who think this has already happened trust me it hasn’t. But we are getting there).

This move towards more specificity will then continue past 2030, More and more will accept that snooker and boxing are too different to be aided with the same psychological tools. There are so many sports now and we can’t pretend they all have the same mental requirements and therefore solutions.

Let’s Consider A Couple Of Key Questions

  • How much do the general strategies used by most (non-sport) 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? Or even from one specific sport to a different sport?

When trying to answer the first question we need to be a little careful not to imply that all psychologists use the same models. But there are some well established models which are likely to be more prevalent than others. That is for sure. So, how easily do these methods apply to sport and performance? The simple answer, in my opinion, is ‘about one third’ (see below for more on this).

For example, if the athlete 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 mental health and wellbeing. We would most likely measure it via the Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale every couple of months just to keep an eye on it. But the majority of the sport psychology sessions would be related to the mental aspects of the client’s sport.

This is not to say that some of the mental methods we often use from the get-go don’t have clinical origins. But the final versions which are presented to our clients would be largely unrecognisable to our non-performance focussed colleagues.

Examples

A great example of this would be our approach to goal setting. When we help our clients set goals 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. 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 the discusses by asking lots of ‘why’ questions. A practitioner with more of a mental health angle might default to just making the client feel better about this type of non-compliance. (‘You committed to 5 hours of practice a week, this didn’t occur, totally understandable given the current challenges’).

Another example might be mindfulness. Mindfulness looks rather different when you are doing some at home with few outside distractions to the version you might use on the golf course, for example. And the version you might use on the golf course is hopefully only partially the same as what a competitive tennis player might adopt.

How Transferable

So, how ‘transferable’ are mental skills from one performance area to another? Or even from one specific sport to another? In answering this question I often like to use the rule of thirds. Roughly a third of the mental ideas are due to generic sport psychology principles. Another third wants to acknowledge that although Olympic bob-sleighing and Clay Target Shooting are both sports they are bloody different pursuits. And the final third is further adapting the mental training program to that individual. To that person’s personality and learning styles.

In other words, the sports psychology services that we’d deliver to a competitive pro golfer with a drinking problem and a rugby league coach looking to improve their coaching abilities might only have a crossover of about 15 to 20%. One of the commonalities between these very different hypothetical client might be using some key aspects from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. For example, educational processes around “we are not our thoughts” might be useful for both of them. I have found a Behaviour First (only) approach to be universally beneficial in my sport psychology work regardless of who I am sitting in front of.

Some Sports Are Mentally Very Similar

Although I predict a phasing out of generic sport psychology we need to remember some sports are psychologically very similar. When you put the technical and tactical aspects to one side the same kinds of mental tools should work just as well for certain sports. Probably the best example that comes to mind is the work we do around Short Performance Routines to aid with concentration and execution under pressure. In helping a golfer create or improve his or her Pre Shot Routine(s) the principles will be almost identical in working a snooker player on their PSR.

Greater Checks about Qualifications

This is how I think it will work in 2050. If you want to charge a fee for advice on X then you need some kind of approved qualification in X. No exceptions. So if you want to be a personal trainer that goes to people’s houses and gives fitness advice in exchange for a fee you’ll need to genuinely qualified. I gather the whole physical conditioning industry is trying to make this happen at the moment.

Psychology in sport is years behind our S&C friends and co-workers but we will catch up. Over the next 30 years there will be a gradual phasing out of entities charging a fee for psychological advice (even if they call it something else) who doesn’t have some kind of approved training in psychology. This is a very difficult area and I suspect that more than a few tears will be shed along the way. The hardest part will be to get everyone to agree on what ‘approved training in psychology’ is. And then afterwards educating the public in such a way to reduce assumptions that Mindset Coach and a Sport Psychologist are one and the same.

More Coaches Working 1-on-1 With Sport Psychologists

This has already started to happen. In 2005 I worked with no sporting coaches. In 2020 roughly a third of all my monthly clients are coaches. The premise is this. Coaching education programs the world over are lacking in highly effective mental toughness training elements. We could try and improve all of these coach ed programs or even ask the coaches to do ‘approved training in psychology’ but there is an easier and better way. All sporting coaches, especially at the elite level, will be working behind the scenes with a genuine expert in sporting mental toughness.

This coach-sport psychologist collaboration will eventually result in sport psychologists taking up positions as assistant coaches and then eventually getting the ‘top job’ themselves. When this happens, and these professionals are successful and they stick with the title sport psychologist over Head Coach or Manager whilst in the top job, we can say we’re made it.

If you are a sporting coach and would like to get ahead of the curve then start by completing this questionnaire. This questionnaire will assess, amongst other factors, your current mental coaching abilities. You will then be contacted by one of our team within a day or two.

Motivation, Sport Psychology and Marshmallows

Motivation is about more than a subcomponent of sport psychology and mental toughness. This article looks at delayed gratification and more.

Child eating two marshmellows
“If you don’t eat this marshmallow, you’ll get two later on”

Too Many Theories

I have long held the view that most areas of psychology are blighted with too many theories. Don’t get me wrong, I know we need research to support our professional decision making. But in my view there are simply too many below par theories, models and papers out there. Google Motivation and sport psychology theories and you’ll see what I mean.

This then blows out the work load of applied sport psychologists such as myself. I try to read as many peer-reviewed journals on sport psychology as possible. Unfortunately have to sort through the mountain to find the gems.

Oh, and there are some real gems.

One of these is the work done around Delayed Gratification via The Stanford Marshmallow Experiments. Starting in the 60s Walter Mischel did a series of studies that gave us with a huge clue about the motivational requirements of successful people.

One Marshmallow Now Or Two Later?

In these studies, children between four and eight years of age were offered a choice. Each child, in turn, could pick between one small reward immediately or two later. One marshmallow now or two later, you decide? If the child decided to have two marshmallows later then it would be on the condition that the single treat was still there when the experimenter returned. This was normally after about 15 minute.

Remarkably in the majority of the testing about half the children gobbled down the one marshmallow almost immediately. The other half would exercise great will power and wait for the experimenter to return. In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to “delay their gratification” tended to have better life outcomes. For example, these high will power youngsters went on to get better exam results. They were happier and more likely to have good relationships. They ended up with much better jobs than the lower will power kids.

Below is a 6 minute Ted talk which explains the concept and experiments in more details.

Here is the video link to Joachim de Posada’s TED talk in 2009 that we keep banging on about in the context of delayed gratification as a key mindset for peak performance. Enjoy.

Although I am assume that Professor Mischel had little interest in the specific field of sport psychology I can’t imagine another branch of psychology whereby the concept of delayed gratification is more relevant.

Delayed Gratification

Delayed gratification is really just “doing something difficult now in the hope that it will be prove worth it later on”.

Of all the hundreds of theories on motivation pertaining to sport psychology this is most useful. Quite simply put, one of the chief explanations about why so few succeed is because they can’t link their short term struggle with their long term aspirations.

Most athletes and coaches try and find shortcuts. They throw in the towel when the rewards for their effort are not immediate and obvious. They gobble down the single marshmallow instead of waiting for two. Very few people actually love getting up at 4am in order to do laps under floodlights. But the champions and champions-in-the-making do it anyway.

In the defence of ‘most athletes’ it’s unlikely that anyone has taken the time to carefully explain to them that improving is all about patience. Doing the hard yards in the preseason so the rewards can come during the season.

What If The Kids Had Been Coached First?

What would have happened had all the Marshmallow experimentees been coached beforehand. Imagine a performance psychologist had been allowed to spend time helping the kids mentally prepare first. How about the impact if a performance psychologist shows pictures of other kids succeeding. Imagine if all the subjects has been taught proper mindfulness techniques thus allowing ‘urges’ to just be noticed.

But of course elite sport, especially at the highest level, requires a little more delayed gratification than 15 minutes. On many occasions the truly meaningful “payoff” for effort might only be 10 or even 20 years down the track. That’s a long time to wait for that second marshmallow! Think about the young athletes who sacrifice time with friends and family whilst they are teenagers only to see the rewards in their twenties and thirties.

Remember, the experiments centred around one marshmallow now or two later. The children were not left with a brussell sprout for 15 minutes. This is a super important point. There was nothing mean about leaving the kids alone in a room with one marshmallow. The only difficultly some of them experienced was the tussle between their own strength of mind and their own temptations.

Applied Sport Psychology

At Condor Performance one of the ways we help those we work with to embrace delayed gratification is by encouraging them to keep track of their progress.

Key Performance Indictors can “bridge the gap” between the daily and weekly grind and possible moments of glory. These monthly checks act a little like licking the marshmallow but not eating it. They help remind us about what we might get later on down the track. They remind us about why we’re doing what we’re doing even if it’s uncomfortable. MCs are, in my opinion, the most powerful motivators available when you can’t actually use marshmallows!


Easier said than done? If you’d like to receive details about our sport psychology services then you can get in touch a number of ways.

Sporting Comebacks – A Mental Perspective

Sporting comebacks are easier to understand when you look at the different areas that make up optimal sporting performances.

AUGUSTA, GEORGIA – APRIL 14: Tiger Woods of the United States celebrates after sinking his putt to win during the final round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on April 14, 2019 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

The Term ‘Comeback’ Is An Interesting One

What first comes to my mind when I think about ‘sporting comebacks’ is ‘coming back to what’? The Oxford Living Dictionary defines comeback as ‘a return by a well-known person, especially an entertainer or sports player, to the activity in which they have formerly been successful’. Which of courses begs the question successful as defined by who and what?

What are some of the most memorable comebacks that you have been involved in as a coach or athlete? How about as a sports fan? Is it the size of the deficit that was overcome or the amount of surprise caused?

Last year, in 2019, we were treated to two of the most remarkable comebacks I can ever remember. But each earned the label epic comeback for very different reasons.

Tiger Wood’s Comeback Win at The 2019 US Masters

Apologies if you already know all of this. However, it’s important for the non-golf followers out there to be aware of the facts around this remarkable sporting victory.

Tiger dominated the international golf scene for just over a decade. It is easy to understand why many regard Tiger’s ‘hot’ years as having no equal in individual sports. Lance might have been a contender but we all know what happened to him! Roger had to share most of the spoils with Rafa and Novak.

Of Tiger’s fifteen major titles fourteen of them came between 1997 (winning his first US Masters) and 2008 (a third US Open). Fourteen majors in eleven years mean he was averaging more than one per year during his glory years.

The Decline …By His Standards

Only Tiger will really know what contributed to the slide in his form. He went from more than a Major a year to none for the following ten years. Theories-a-plenty suggests a combination of factors. Maybe ageing, injuries, improved opponents and non-golfing scandals or a combination? Between 2009 and 2018 his trophy cabinet did not continue to fill up at quite the same rate as per the previous decade.

Tiger won most of his golf tournaments (so far) during the first half of his career.

The above graph is very telling in many ways. For me, the most meaningful takeaway is this notion of success as defined by who and what – as mentioned earlier. I work 1-on-1 with dozens of professional golfers who would love to have Tiger’s trophies from 2010 – 2018 where he managed “only” 9 tour victories (and no majors). In other words, like so much in sport psychology, comebacks are all relative.

Tiger’s win at Augusta in April 2019 will be regarded as a comeback because he used to win these events without even breaking a sweat. Then he didn’t for a while. This resulted in many of these lesser golfing achievements (top 5 and top 10 finishes for example) getting ignored, dismissed or underplayed. Let me say it again. Most pro golfers would give their left leg to have achieved what TW did during his “slump years”.

Sporting Success Is About So More Than Trophies and Medals

I advise my athletes and coaches to be mindful of not letting results (influenceable) play too big a role in what they regard as success. And if you must use sporting results collect a whole bunch of stats not just wins.

Our Metuf model suggests there are five major areas that all contribute to performance success. Physical, Technical, Mental (which includes emotional) and Tactical Preparation act as four ‘engines’ on a performance plane. The rest of the aircraft is like their health and wellbeing. To increase your chances of winning anything you’re better of focussing on there five areas. Sport psychology stalwart Dr Chris Shambrook says it best. “Focus on the input, and let the output take care of itself”.

Tiger is now known to have had a number of physical and personal challenges for most of the previous decade. Maybe these were enough to result in him “only” coming 2nd and 3rd in the hardest golf events in the world. But we will never really know (nor will he) because we can’t unbake the cake.

What Tiger had to endure from a physical point of view (injuries and surgeries) would have been enough to force most athletes into retirement. But most athletes don’t have the mindset (grit?) of Tiger Woods.

The nature of sport, especially at the pointy end, is that you just don’t have a chance to dominate if one of your four engines is not functioning properly. Of course, a much more common scenario across all sports are athletes who are physically fine (injury-free at least) but whose Mental Preparation and Toughness isn’t optimised. If this sounds like you please get in touch, we can help, it’s what we do.

The Rest of the Plane

The other major aspect of performance is ‘the rest of the plane’. We could refer to this as mental health and wellbeing. In my work as a sport psychologist I prefer to think about this from a solutions point of view. For example, sleep, nutrition, relationships, rest and purpose to name some of the most common.

It would certainly appear that these areas of Tiger’s life have improved significantly over the past year or so. I would suggest they may well have had an equal – or greater impact on Tiger’s comeback than his return to full fitness. But we will never really know (nor will he) because we can’t unbake the cake.

During the famous green jacket ceremony Tiger finishes it by saying ‘Yeah, I’m excited about show and tell at school’. This suggests how he is thinking about his family in the immediate aftermath of his most epic comeback ever.

Although there is still a lot of data missing proving the link between improved wellbeing and sporting results trust me the two are heavily linked.

Genuine sport psychology will only become mainstream when sporting decision makers realise that happy athletes win more – a lot more.

Another Epic Comeback in 2019

Some comebacks take much less time that the ten years it took Tiger to win another major. Some only take 45 minutes in fact.

Lets fast forward a few weeks and move from the greens of Augusta to the floodlit nights of Champions League football (soccer). The Champions League is Europe’s premier inter-club competition where the best teams from all the major leagues take part in a separate competition the following year.

Again, if you know how the Champions’ League work then skip this paragraph but it’s important to put all examples into context. The Champions’ League consists of first a round robin “pool” format (similar to FIFA World Cups) and then a second knock out stage. All the matches except for the final are played over two legs. This means that the scores from each pair or games get summed to decide the overall winner of the tie. In the event of deadlocks (even number of goals scores across the two games) the team who scores more goals ‘away’ from home will prevail.

In last year’s semi-finals Barcelona (of Spain) took on Liverpool FC (England) and Ajax (Holland) played Tottenham Hotspur (England). After the two first games, it was looking very unlikely that either of the English teams would advance to the final in Madrid. Barcelona took a 3-0 lead into the second leg meaning a single goal for the Catalans’s at Anfield would mean LFC would need to score 5 against arguably the best team in Europe! Ajax fans were forgiven for starting to think about a trip to the Spanish capital after their team beat Spurs 1-0 in London. So they would take a lead, an away goal and home field advantage into the decider.

Yet Despite All The Odds …

Yet despite all the odds both Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur prevailed. Both the second leg matches were remarkable in their own way and worthy of the label comeback. But the Liverpool comeback would have to go down as one of the comebacks of the century. Especially given that it resulted in them going onto to lift the trophy a couple of weeks afterwards.

There are some lessons to be learnt here from the men who orchestrated these comebacks. For a start, both the managers (head coaches) of these two famous English team appear to take the mental side very seriously. The have created a ‘never give up’ attitude with their respective playing squads. I suspect that their comebacks are always less of a surprise to them than their fans.

In fact, Jurgen Klopp – the German coach of Liverpool – described his players during the press conference after their remarkable 4-0 comeback semi final win as ‘mentality giants’. This is a term I have not come across before but will be passing onto my coaching clients for sure.

Mohamed Salah’s ‘Never Give Up’ T-shirt epitomises Liverpool’s mindset in Barcelona victory in the 2019 Champion League semi final.

How about you? Have you been involved in a sporting comeback? If you have add the details to the comments section below. Better still, describe your mindset before and during the comeback for others to read and benefit from.

Goal Setting – Done Right

Goal Setting is one of the best known of all mental skills – but we have come a very long way since the old days of S.M.A.R.T. goals.

Did you set some goals at the start of 2020 and then have them scuppered by the Corona Virus? Did you think to adjust your goals accordingly? Goal setting is actually the easy bit, it’s the getting that’s tricky.

This article was originally written in 2019 but has recently been updated. It now includes examples pertaining to the Corona Virus and associated challenges.

There are roughly 5000 separate searches for the term ‘goal setting’ every 24 hours around the world. This is the same number of searches for the term ‘sport psychology’. This suggests that athletes, coaches, students, bored teenagers and performers have heard of goal setting, want to do some but don’t really know how.

Before we help you out with this let’s remind ourselves of something important. It’s useful to seperate processes (methods) and their intended outcomes. In other areas of sports science, this is much easier. For example, in physical training one of the intended outcomes is cardio fitness. I assume you could list dozens of activities (processes) that would help improve cardio fitness. Moreover, you would never confuse skipping (for example) with the outcome of cardio fitness.

The Same Applies For Mental Training

The same framework can and should be applied to mental training but rarely is. Goal setting is the method. It’s a process but what are the intended areas we’re trying to influence when we do some goal setting? Furthermore, just like skipping which can be done well or poorly not all goal setting is the same. Most of the goal setting I have seen in the skipping equivalent of doing it once a year and hoping this will have a long last impact on cardio fitness.

Many sport psychologists will tell you that goal setting is all about improving motivation. But I would argue that it’s much broader than that. In fact, if done properly goal setting can become the entire foundation of your personal and sporting/performance endeavours.

Goal setting the Condor Performance way is really Goal getting. Setting long term outcome goals is actually rather easy. It’s the stuff required to get you there were the magic happens – so to speak.

Start With Your Preferences

The scientific literature refers to them as outcome goals, performance goals and process goals. It also suggests that ideally you’ll have all three types as part of your “goal setting” plan. I would agree.

Preferences are a much better label than outcome goals. The hard reality of elite competitive sport is that very few will actually achieve their long term goals. Preferences will soften the blow if you don’t make it without impacting on your motivation. Preferences want to be long term; between one and five years from now. They also want to be about both life and sport (performance). A simple 5 x 2 table of future preferences is ideal.

People with goals succeed because they know where they’re going! Do you know where you want to get to a year from now? What about five years from now?

This is nothing revolutionary. The highly overrated S.M.A.R.T Goals might get you to the same place as the above exercise. One of the key aspects missing from many goal setting systems is the concept of influence. It’s essential that the person coming up with their long term preferences knows this. We only have some influence on these futuristic outcomes.

I am updating this blog in the midst of the 2020 Corona Virus and associated challenges. I will use it to prove my point from the above paragraph. Almost every sporting goal set at the start of 2020 will not happen. Is it your fault? Of course not, you only have some influence on these preferences.

When doing goal setting / getting with my clients I normally start with preferences. But not always. If I feel that for the individuals in front of me (on the screen) ending with preferences will be best then I do just that.

Progress – The Key To Effective Goal Setting

Let’s assume for the sake of simplicity that you have started with your long term preferences. You have done your 5 x 2 table and have ten sporting and personal achievements clarified on paper. What next? The research calls them performance goals, we call them monthly checks.

Monthly Checks are typically performance aims and indicators that we have more influence on compared with our long terms preferences. Normally, we have a lot of influence on these key performance indicators. And here one of the secrets of many of the world’s best athletes. Due to having more influences on their KPIs compared with LTOGs they value the former more than the latter. Most competitive athletes do the opposite and wonder why they spend so much of their time frustrated.

Examples of monthly checks might be statistics from competitions. For example, maybe you’ll track ‘greens in regulation’ for all rounds of golf for the month of February and compare that with March. Or maybe you focus on training progress instead. Maybe you see if all that skipping is actually doing anything by repeating a heart rate recovery test at the start of each month.

Processes – How Champions Are Really Made

The final piece of the goal setting / getting puzzle is arguably the most important. What processes (activities) are best right now for you? By ‘right now’ I mean today and this week. There are two keys in doing this effectively. First, realise (know) that you have even more influence on your processes that you do on your progress and preferences. I would say ‘a huge amount’. You have a huge amount of influence on how to spend your time. Secondly, focus on what you can do. Good process planning doesn’t even consider what you can’t do not what you used to be able to do.

The current Corona Virus is a great example of this. Most athletes and coaches around the world are spending too much time thinking (talking) about what they can’t do right now. This common but unhealthy mental habit then makes it harder to think about the thousands of ways around challenges like lockdown.

If you’d like some professional help to set and then get some goals then get in touch. You can request a Call Back (form to the right on computers, below on smaller devices). Even better (as it gives us more background on you) is complete one of our questionnaires in which you can ask for info on our 1-on-1 sport psychology services.

Mental Skills Etc.

Mental Skills are often confused with the methods aimed to help improve mental toughness. One of our sport psychologists sets the record straight.

Mental Skills
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Mental Skills?

The term mental skill (or mental skills) is one of the most misused in elite sporting circles. In fact, it’s used incorrectly almost everywhere in my experience. And here’s why.

The skills are the outcomes not the processes yet most people accidentally refer to them as the latter.

When we talk about an athlete who is technically skilful we are referring to the amount of technical skill (ability) they already have. We are not referring to how they became skilful only that they are skilful. So with the technical side (engine) it’s quite easy to seperate the outcomes (ability) with the processes (how).

Let’s take a soccer (football) player as an example and consider the skill of dribbling the ball. If I compare myself with Leonel Messi you’ll see what I mean. Messi’s ability to dribble the ball is far better than mine. He has far better skills in this technical aspect of soccer than I do. But we can’t say the same about the methods (processes) that each of us use (have used) to work on this skill.

Because the most common way to become better at dribbling is by actually dribbling a ball then the skill and the process got mixed up along the way.

But dribbling is not the only way to become better at dribbling.

As I explain in this recent visualisation video I created imagining yourself dribbling can be just as effective. So what we end up with is a variety of “methods” that can be used to better our skills. And these skills are not limited to technical skills. The can and should include physical skills, mental skills and tactical skills.

The main reason that the term mental skill(s) is useful incorrectly is it is often used to describe the methods when it should be describing the outcomes.

Let’s All Use The Correct Terms

If I were in charge of the “sports science dictionary” so to speak I would insist on the following. All processes (activities) should contain the word ‘method’ and all outcomes (abilities) should use the word ‘skill’. So for example catching a baseball is regarded as one of the technical skills of baseball. But there might be dozens of method that good practice coaches use to hone this particular skill.

How This Plays Out For Mental Skills

There are two main reasons why this doesn’t happen for mental methods and mental skills as much. First, the mental side is less visible and less tangible than the psychical and tactical engines. Second, it’s a much more recent participant at the performance enhancement top table.

At Condor Performance we regard the five most common mental skills of performance as being motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus.

Think of emotions as being rather similar to dribbling a soccer ball. You are either very good at handling your emotions or very poor or somewhere in the middle. And of course, regardless of how good you are, you could always get better.

So emotional management (intelligence) becomes the focus of the endeavours. If you Google ‘mental skills’ you’ll find furphies all over the screen suggesting that goal setting, visualisation and mindfulnesses are all common mental skills used in sport and performance.

They are common, but they are not mental skills – they are mental methods (processes).

The area of sports science that does the best job of separating methods from intended outcomes is the physical side.

Try to finish these sentences off by just using what comes to mind …

  • I could improve my flexibility by …
  • To improve my cardio fitness I could …
  • I could improve my upper body strength by …

In these three examples, the word in bold is the target – the thing you’re aiming to improve. Therefore the methods or processes need to be added at the end. For example:

I could improve my cardio fitness by running, skipping, rowing, walking, cycling and/or swimming.

One target with many physical methods.

Now let’s see how you go with the mental side of performance (also known as mental toughness). 

  • I could improve my motivation by …
  • To improve my handling of emotions I could …
  • I could improve my thoughts by …
  • To improve the unity of my team I could …
  • I could improve my focus by …

Not Quite So Easy Is It?

Remember motivation is the mental skill here. So the question is what processes might help improve or maintain desirable levels of motivation?

Our old friend goal setting might be one and we recently wrote an entire article on the mental method that some people call goal setting which you can read here. Crucially goal setting is just one of hundreds of ways to target motivations. Just in the same way that skipping is just one methods to improve fitness.

How about the mental skill of emotional intelligence? Very Simple Mindfulness is a ‘hum-dinger’ and we recently created this free VSM audio file that anyone can download.

What about thoughts and thinking? I bet you never thought of thinking as a skill, did you? The best method in my professional opinion is simply knowing the amount of influence you have on common performance factors. For example, do you instinctively know that you have more influence on your effort than your sporting results?

How about the mental skill of Team Unity? I would suggest doing some research into someone called the 10 R’s for more on this one.

Finally, the mental skill of focus otherwise knows as attention or concentration. How is it possible to vastly improve your focusing abilities (skills)? In my career so far as a sport psychologist I have had huge success in helping my clients improve their focus with the use of routines.

If you’d like to develop these ideas further then there a couple of options. First, you can reach out to us and ask about the process to work 1-on-1 with one of our sport / performance psychologists. Our hourly rate varies a little depending on location and monthly option but is roughly AUS$ 200 (US$ 150) and hour. If this is beyond your budget then consider doing one of our online Mental Toughness courses instead.

Mental Toughness Is Not The Same As Mental Health

Leading Sport Psychologist Gareth J. Mole explains the difference between Mental Toughness for Performance and Clinical Mental Health.

Mental Health and Mental Toughness are not the same.
Being Mentally Well and Mentally Tough are not the same thing.

There is an encouraging change taking place behind the scenes in elite sport around the world. Mental health (wellbeing) is starting to be considered an important part of sporting excellence. This is a welcome change from the “win-at-all-cost” and “suck it up” ideologies that existed before. But it’s not all roses and bubblegum. With this Wellbeing Movement there is a risk that many people involved in the pointy end of sport will confuse mental health with mental toughness. Of course although they are related due to both being related to the mind, they are not one and the same.

Thousands of Psychological Models

Psychologists the world over vary considerably when it comes to which frameworks they use to inform their work. Maybe more so than any other regulated profession disagreement about which theories are best is common. On the one hand this is healthy as it encourages robust discussion – a key improvement ingredient of any profession. The issue with psychology, especially sport psychology, is both the size of the disagreements and how they’re handled.

When I started Condor Performance in 2005 one of my goals was to only have the healthy bit (above). By this I mean I set out to put together a team of sport and performance psychologists who all agreed on the core elements of what we did. To this day I am happy for the team to disagree about the smaller stuff but we need to be in unison about which framework is best for our sport and performance clients.

In 2005, most of the sport psychology theories were geared towards either performance enhancement or person enhancement. Often the ideas contained within wouldn’t work together. In fact, some of them would actually damage the other side. As a new qualified sport psychologist I was not satisfied with this status quo. Our clients deserved better.

Metuf Is Born

This was my starting point. Most registered psychologists are quite capable of assisting people with mental health issues (e.g. severe depression). However not many psychologists can help sporting clients with their “mental game”. The part that is getting referred to in famous phrases like “golf is 90% mental”.

I wanted to be able to do both, I wanted to bake my cake and eat it. Then I wanted other performance psychologists to be able to do the same. As 99% of the consulting we do at Condor Performance is one-on-one then I wanted to be a councillor, a coach or both to our growing client base.

Metuf didn’t come about suddenly. In fact the main elements from Metuf didn’t even have a proper name before 2010. They existed as a series of worksheets that we’d use with our clients. These PDFs, now part of our archives, declared that general wellbeing and happiness are not the complete psychological requirements needed to reach ambitious sporting goals.

There are other psychological aspects that may not be that useful for normal, everyday people. But these mental skills are mighty useful when it comes to achieving consistent success. The best umbrella term for these extra psychological strengths is Mental Toughness. 

Pre Shot Routines – A Great Example

Whenever I am asked to defend this position – that mental toughness and mental health are not the same – I use the same example. One of the most useful mental skill for start-stop sports (like golf, shooting, lawn bowls) is a Pre X Routine. For golf, that X is shot but for tennis it’s means point. These short routines have nothing to do with mental health and wellbeing. They never have, they never will.

As Metuf evolved so did it’s place in the bigger picture. We used to believe the ideas would only really work on the mentally well. In other words in the early days we’d often refer our clients to clinical psychologists for “fixing” first. But eventually we worked out that many people where quite capable of working on their mental health and mental toughness at the same time.

Where Does The Word Metuf Comes From?

Despite there being hundreds of mental skills that can be used to enhance human performance there are only a few mental targets. By this I mean when you seperate mental health from mental toughness and try to break down the latter into smaller parts you’re not left with a lot. When we refer to mental toughness five potential improvement areas keep coming up over and over again:

Motivation, Emotions, Thoughts, Unity and Focus. 

The first letter of each of these five words spells Metuf – which is pronounced with a soft ‘e’ as in egg not a hard ‘e’ as in me.

If we look at these five labels we can see where the confusion between Mental Health and Mental Toughness can come from. The first three in particular look like they’d be pretty handy for anyone struggling with their mental health (think depression and motivation, or severe anxiety and emotions). 

But the M in Metuf that stands for motivation is from the context of performance not daily life. The kind of interventions that a clinical psychologist might use to motivate someone with clinical depression don’t resemble the kind of Mental Methods we use to motivate mentally well athletes, coaches, officials and performers. And the same applies for the E, T, U and F.

The Aeroplane Analogy

The analogy that we have been using more recently is that competitive athletes are like four engines aeroplanes. Overall wellbeing is like the main body of the aircraft, Mental Toughness is like one of the engines. In other words there is no point in having Rolls Royce engines if they’re attached to an aeroplane that is falling to bits.

A full explanation of this analogy can be seen through the Introduction Videos of our online Mental Toughness training courses. These intro videos can be seen for free before you decide if you’d like to pay for the entire course.

If watching some video presentations isn’t your thing then reach out to us instead. We now have a team of almost ten psychologists. All of whom can help you with either your mental health, your mental toughness or both.


Team Unity and How To Improve It

Team unity, also known as culture, is the glue that sticks together the members of sporting teams so that they work together and not against each other.

Does your team work together or are you just a group of individuals?

Team unity is also known by other names such as culture, team cohesion and team chemistry. All of these labels describes the factors that can result in some sporting teams being completely unified. Whilst others can resemble the boys from the famous novel The Lord of the Flies.

Team Unity is possibly the most intriguing aspect of sporting mental toughness. It is without a doubt the area that athletes expect to be good without having to do any work. All athletes understand that to improve muscle strength they’ll need to do some work. Most athletes understand that to improve managing emotions they’ll need to do some work. But most athletes expect their teammates to respect them just by existing.

In other words, the culture of most sporting teams, even the professional ones, is typically not that flash. The second factor is that regardless of the current state of your team’s culture it can be improved. That’s right, if it’s currently poor it can be bettered and if it’s already excellent it can still be improved further.

When Team Unity Falls Apart

Between 2005 and 2015 Kevin Pietersen was the top run scorer for the English men’s nation cricket team. However he was regarded by many of his teammates as a prickly character. They tried to address this but couldn’t. Many sporting teams would simply have accepted this. However, unity was considered so important by The ECB they eventually stopped selecting their top batsman. Kevin Pietersen’s book with the same name is a must read for anyone looking to learn more about the team aspects of elite sport.

Between 2005 and 2015 Kevin Pietersen was the top run scorer for the English men’s nation cricket team. However he was regarded by many of his teammates as a prickly character. They tried to address this but couldn’t.

Many sporting teams would simply have accepted this. However, unity was considered so important by The ECB they eventually stopped selecting their top batsman. Kevin Pietersen’s book with the same name is a must read for anyone looking to learn more about the team aspects of elite sport.

How Is Team Unity Best Improved In Sporting Teams?

The best way but also the most costly is to engage the services of a qualified sport or performance psychologist. I can’t speak for all sport psychologists but at Condor Performance the way we go about this is reasonably simple.

We work mainly with the coaches so that we make ourselves redundant.

One of the main jobs of the coach of a sporting team is to unify the team and them keep them unified. The problem is most of them attempt to do this delicate work under-equipped. This results in millions of well-intended coaches around the world doing an average job of this key component of performance.

So we work with the coaches, ideally one-on-one and put what we call The 10 R’s under the microscope. The 10 R’s refers to five pairs of words that each start with the letter R. They provide a great starting point for discussions on how to improve the unity of any given team.

Roles and Rules

It is virtually impossible for a team to be unified without clear rules and roles. If the individual members are not clear about their roles this will cause frustration and infighting. The ‘blame-game’ is rife in sporting teams with poor role clarification.

The same applies for rules. What is and is not acceptable should form a key part of pre-season for all competitive sporting teams. The most effective rules are confirmed in consultation with all the members of the team. Then they are written down. Then all parties sign ‘on the dotted lin’ to agree to abide by them.

Relationships and Respect

It is important to mention that the members of a team don’t actually need to be the best of friends. In fact, they don’t even really have to like one another. But they do need to respect one another. Mutual respect tends to result from teams whereby cliques are not allowed to form. In other words, there is some kind of relationship between all members of the team. 

Reassurance and Reasons

More for the coaches but important nonetheless is giving frequent reassurance and reasons to the playing group. Humans are not mind-readers. Athletes are humans too. Some love getting reassurance they they are on track. Others need this reassurance. This is where the magic of the ‘why’ come in. Letting players know why they’re progressing or struggling is the magic dust.

Ready and Relaxed

One furphy in elite sport is that one of the best ways to boost team chemistry is to win more. This is like putting the cart before the horse. In actual fact, one of the best ways is to help them prepare very well. Performers who feel ready and relaxed tend to get along much better than their stressed counterparts.

Recognition and Rewards

In sports, the obvious wins are often too obvious. There really is no need to celebrate winning the league or going the entire season undefeated. I am a much greater believer in recognising and celebrating the less obvious wins. What about the time that your teammate smashes her PB on the Beep Test. Or when all of you are able to attend training without anyone having an injury concern. Teams with a strong culture recognise these smaller milestones.

At Condor Performance we practice what we preach. Due to the monthly approach that we use in our consulting we all accrue months. Each time a client pays for another month we add one month to our records for that psychologist. We then celebrate 50, 100, 500, 1000 and 2000 months together. For example below is a short video we made when David reached 2000 months.

If your sporting team is on a tight budget and you’d like to learn more about The R’s then sign up for our online Mental Toughness training program. If, on the other hand, you have some funds to spend on performance consider contacting us at info@condorperformance.com with the details of your sporting team. One of our team will be in touch to explain who we can assist with factors such as team unity.

Mental Health Challenges for Athletes

Are athletes and coaches more or less likely to experience mental health issues compared with the general pollution? Sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole addresses this and other related questions.

Mental Health Challenges for Athletes
Mental Health Challenges for Athletes

As this previous article suggests at Condor Performance we consider Mental Health and Mental Toughness to be different concepts. Not opposites nor completely unrelated but far from one and the same.

Mental Health is ‘the condition of the mind’ as it relates to the individual and their ability to function. Genuine mental health issues will most likely have an impact across a number of aspects of the sufferer’s life.

So the severity of the mental illness is related to how they function as a person interacting with their society. If this person is an elite athlete then of course it might impact on their performances. However, it’s likely to hinder them in a number of other areas as well. By way of an example let’s consider a competitive athlete who has clinical depression. This serious mental challenge may well decrease their motivation to train in their chosen sport. But if it’s a genuine Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) then their motivation will be down across most (all) areas of their life not just their sporting commitments.

The most extreme cases result in the sufferer being institutionalised. For example, having to spend time in either a hospital or prison.

Sporting Mental Toughness, on the other hand, doesn’t work like that. It’s much more likely to be confined to performance aspects only. Let’s use the example of a team sport such as volleyball. One of the subcategories of Sporting Mental Toughness (SMT) is Unity (cohesion, group dynamics, culture). It’s very possible that the lack of team unity experienced by a volleyball team has no adverse affects away from training and games.

Mental Issues Common In Sport

If you’re looking for some cold, hard facts about mental health issues common in sport I have added a couple of articles to the bottom of this article. But this is how I see it. Athletes are human too so as humans they are susceptible to all the normal psychological risks of the general population. However, the world in which they find themselves might increase the chances of facing certain mental issues.

One great example is stress. Eloquently described in the below TEDx video by volleyballer Victoria Garrick. High performance circles are breeding grounds for stress. This is especially true for those involved in low or non-paying sports. The demands of training and competing on top of a job and/or study can be really stressful.

A recent Ted Talk about The Mental Health Challenges faced by Athletes.

There are some excellent questions being debated at the moment around all of this. One is ‘surely everyone would want to be mentally tougher not just performers?’ Not really. First, building genuine mental toughness is very hard. So, although everyone can attempt to it’s probably not worth it if you’re not likely to encounter ‘extreme mental challenges’.

An Analogy

Think of it as being similar to physical health and physical strength. Everyone could try and work towards being able to lift 150 kgs but how useful is it for most of us? Where is the ‘return on investment’? Maybe using the equivalent training time to practice mindfulness would be more sensible. But if you are a weight lifter, rugby player, bodyguard or defensive tackle – for example – then developing the muscle strength to be able to bench press that amount of weight clearly has a pay off in their performance areas. If you’re a librarian on the other hand, not so much. No disrespect to librarians intended. I am sure many librarians are elite performers in their field. But upper body strength is not that beneficial in pursuing librarian excellence.

Developing Mental Toughness works the same. Although everybody would probably be happy to process extraordinarily levels of focus (for example) is it worth investing the time required to get there if you’re never really going to need it?

Some recent publications have asked the question ‘Are Mental Toughness and Mental Health Contradictory Concepts in Elite Sport?’. In other words, do increasing levels of mental toughness have a negative impact on mental health? My contribution to this discussion would be as followers.

No, unless the individual is mentally ill and chooses to only improve their mental toughness. This is like the weightlifter ignoring their broken wrist and continuing to benchpress anyway.

What Does The Data Tell Us?

Are athletes and coaches more or less likely to experience mental issues compared with the general pollution? Luckily, work has been done to answer this question. As mentioned in this excellent article by Joshua Sebbens, Peter Hassmén, Dimity Crisp and Kate Wensley “A study of elite athletes in Australia reported almost half were experiencing symptoms of a mental health problem, and the proportion meeting caseness cutoffs for mental illness were deemed comparable to community data (Gulliver et al., 2015). More broadly, Rice et al. (2016) conducted a systematic narrative review and also suggested the prevalence of mental illness in elite athletes was comparable to the general population”.

I believe this article confirms the values that my colleagues and I at Condor Performance have on this topic on the right ones. In summary;

  • Mental Health and Mental Toughness are not the same nor is one a “part” of the other.
  • Mental Health and Mental Toughness are not opposites whereby when one improves the other goes down and vice versa.
  • Keeping an eye on mental health needs to be part of all sporting programs.
  • Improving mental health has a direct benefit to performance.
  • Free mental health advice should come from anyone. Paid mental health advice should only come from those with recognised qualifications.

It’s Not Just About Problems

The Positive Psychology movement exists because many psychologists wanted to do more than just fix mental issues. Traditional psychotherapy tends to be to get people back to ‘just functioning enough’ and that’s it. It’s like leaving someone mid way through their journey.

Sport psychology and her focus mental toughness were, in many ways, the original positive psychologies.

Additional Reading Related To Mental Health Challenges for Athletes

Sport Psychology – A Brief History

Sport Psychologist Gareth J. Mole looks at the history of sport psychology and points out a few missed opportunities from the 100 year story so far.

Coleman Griffith

It was Coleman Griffith (right) who really put sport psychology on the map. His two classic publications in the 1920s are ‘must reads’ for anyone interested in History of Sport Psychology.

I like my history, I always have. One of the most interesting modules that I did during my psychology undergraduate degree at The University of Leeds in the late 90s was ‘The History of Psychotherapy’. From memory this course didn’t look back at different types of psychology. Instead it just covered general trends from the past. This led me to do my own research into the history of sport psychology as we know it today.

The Pioneers of Sport Psychology

The real origins of sport psychology had very little to do with traditional psychotherapy. In the early days, sport psychology was almost entirely about performance enhancement and building on existing strengths.

The real start of sport psychology as a specialisation was almost exactly 100 years ago. In 1921 baseballer Babe Ruth was tested at Columbia University in order to try and find out what made him so good. Many of the findings proved that his excellent boiled down to mental superiorities more than technical or physical ones. Sport psychology as a field, a specialty was born, when the below article was published.

A few years later, psychologist Walter Miles conducted a number of studies that focused on how to optimise the performance of American footballer during training.

The Psychology of Coaching

In 1928 the Psychology of Athletics was published and two years later Griffith wrote The Psychology of Coaching. For good reason he’s regarded as the father of modern sport psychology. I actually own a first edition of the ‘Psychology of Coaching: a Study of Coaching Methods From the Point of Psychology’. I stumbled across a copy in an antique store about 20 years ago. This book is one of the reasons why I am so passionate about working one on one with sporting coaches.

There is still a lot of hesitation amongst sporting coaches about working directly with a psychologist. Yet those who ‘give it a crack’ tend to be richly rewarded. If you are a sporting coach a good way to ‘dip your toes in the water’ is by completing our MTQ-C online.

‘Exercise’ Psychology Wants In

It should be noted that a close look at the History of Sport Psychology shows very little interest in exercise psychology.

Pioneers of sport psychology were mainly focused on performance. From their point of view, their population of interest was already very physically active. Any ‘advice’ pertaining to physical training should come from experts in fields such as exercise physiology.

All this changed between 1930 and 1960 when exercise and physical activity were formally added to the definition of sport psychology. Hence the more common modern description of ‘sport and exercise psychology’.

With the benefit of hindsight, I believe that this was the first collective error of the profession. I will explain by way of some examples.

Exercise psychology is essentially (should be) a branch of health psychology. It’s all about using psychological methods to increase physical activity. The typical client of an exercise psychologist might be a sedentary adult. Someone who has failed to become active after seeing an exercise physiologist.

Sport psychology has absolutely nothing to do with this kind of mental challenge. Our clients are already physical very active, they are anything but sedentary.

The Importance of The Right Labels

For a long time I have argued that the ideal label of the profession is performance psychology. Sport psychology would then become a subdiscipline of performance psychology. This is to recognise the fact that “performance” and “performing” extend well beyond elite sport.

Sport and performance psychology / psychologists are terms getting more use nowadays. But for me, this is just repeating. Sport is a type of performance so the word performance alone should be enough. That’s my opinion – what do you think?

What do you think is the best label for the profession?

More Recent History

From 1970 to the early 2000s, the professional enjoyed increasing recognition and growth across most of the developed world. In Australia, this saw an all-time high of four Masters program in ‘Sport and Exercise Psychology’. Boosted by the Sydney Olympics in 2000 Australia was a good place to study sport psychology 20 years ago.

For this very reason, I applied for a place on the Masters of Psychology (Sport and Exercise) at the University of Western Sydney intake of 2004. And I was thrilled upon being accepted despite it meaning I’d need to move halfway across the world.

Little did I know at the time that I would be joining the very last group to ever complete that particular program. The decline was about to start.

Did you know that our own Michelle Pain was one of the early pioneers of sport psychology in Australia?

The Decline

In 2020 there is now only one Sport and Exercise Psychology masters program remaining in Australia. So it begs the question what happened? More importantly what can we learn from the decline?

Like I said the first ‘dropped ball’ was spreading ourselves too thinly in trying to bring exercise and physical activity into the fold.

In 2006 Medicare introduced a two-tier system for psychologists. The policy implies that clinical psychologists were better a psychology work. The out-of-pocket costs to see a clinical psychologist became significantly less compared with all other types of psychologist.

This legislation resulted in an explosion of applicants for clinical psychology masters to the detriment of all the other programs.

The Recent Wellbeing Movement

In recent years sport psychology has started to really embrace the importance of mental health and wellbeing. I am glad about this but we need to be very, very careful.

The risk of the recent wellbeing movement is that sport psychology might lose its performance enhancement origins. These include mental skills training and coaching psychology.

In 50 years from now – if the profession still exists – what will the answers to these questions be? What do sport psychologists do? And what are sport psychologists really know for?

Will the answers be …

  • they help athletes with mental health and wellbeing challenges and the odd bit of mental skills training’ or will it be
  • they mainly help sporting and non-sporting performers to improve in their chosen sport or performance area and introduce mental health interventions for non-critical issues if and when required

Is It Possible For Us To Bounce Back?

Will we learn from our mistakes and bounce back? Can we learn from the History of Sport Psychology to improve the future of the profession? This sport psychologist thinks it’s possible. However, only with some major structural changes. And that, my friends, will be the topic of a later blog post; Sport Psychology – Looking To The Future.