Sports Psychology Tips

Some Free Sports Psychology Tips to help you perform better by leading performance psychologist David Barracosa of Condor Performance

An A to Z Guide To Sports Psychology

An A to Z Guide To Sports Psychology

I have added N to Z below the A to M section so if you’ve already read A to Z then just scroll down. If you don’t already get email notifications from us and would like to please subscribe by completing the form here. Enjoy and forward.

A is for Attitude

It may be surprising but in our work, as sport and performance psychologists we actually don’t refer to attitude much. Attitude is actually just one of the many types of human cognition of which thoughts, beliefs and values are the most common. When a coach refers to an athlete as having a ‘good attitude’ or ‘the right attitude’ he or she is probably suggesting that this athlete’s values and beliefs are roughly in line with their own.

For example, both might regard sporting results as important but not as important as hard work and effort. The most interesting aspect of attitude is it is often assessed via observations (a coach watching an athlete in training) and therefore it is probably body language that is actually being appraised. Attitude, if we take the term literally, is not directly observable as it’s occurring inside the mind.

B is for Body Language

Body language is a fascinating area of performance psychology. Research suggests that it dominates how we communicate compared with the actual words we use. In sporting contexts, this makes even more sense as it is quite normal for their to be little or no verbal communication. With maybe the exception of the captains or leaders of sporting teams, most athletes of most sports don’t say very much during both training and whilst competing.

For this majority, communicating with either teammates or opponents is taking place via the body. By the body, we mean entire body from facial expressions to posture to hand gestures and everything in between. How do you improve body language? I would suggest starting out by filming yourself in a variety of situations and then watch it back with the sound off.

If you’d like some help learning from what you watch then shoot us an email to info@condorperformance.com asking about our 1-on-1 sport and performance psychology services via Skype or FaceTime video.

C is for Consistency

Sometimes we refer to consistency as ‘the holy grail’ of competitive sport. As can be read in this extensive blog by my colleague Chris Pomfret improved consistency is really just the consequence of taking the mental side of your sport (or performance area) seriously.

D is for Determination

Determination is very similar to the mental concept as motivation without being a synonym. Motivation, at least as defined by our coaching philosophy Metuf, is more about enthusiasm, enjoyment, desire and dreams. Determination might be a good word to refer to the actions we continue with during times in which the natural love and enthusiasm for our sport is not there. One of the most common examples of this is when the scoreboard is not in your favour (no way to win with time remaining) and yet you decide to preservative anyway. This is a great example of sporting determination.

E is for Enjoyment

The enjoyment we’re referring to in this instance is the kind that most kids tend to have towards their sport before it becomes ‘serious’. The fun of chasing the ball more than getting to it first. At the time of writing, my children are six and four years of age and are taking part in a variety of sports programs. One of them is Little Kickers, a football/soccer program whereby the fun factor is central to everything they do. The issue is, this enjoyment tends to dissipate once the stakes increase as far too many sporting coaches become far too intense during competitions due to a lack of sports psychology training during their accreditation.

F is for Focus 

Learning to improve focus is actually one of the easier mental skills as it really boils down to knowing when and how to switch on – and then practising this like any other skill. There are many great examples of how to do this but amongst the most effective are the short performance routines that I wrote about in our last blog article. I say easier in comparison to various other mental skills which although very effective can be somewhat critic in nature.

There is no getting away from the fact that training the mind is always going to be a trickier mountain to climb due to the investable nature of what we’re targeting for improvement. For example, areas such as focus.

G is for Grit 

Grit is a term which has gained a lot of momentum recently due mainly to the works of Angela Duckworth (see YouTube video below). Grit is defined via it’s Wikipedia page as a “…non-cognitive trait based on an individual’s perseverance of effort combined with the passion for a particular long-term goal or end state (a powerful motivation to achieve an objective). This perseverance of effort promotes the overcoming of obstacles or challenges that lie on the path to accomplishment and serves as a driving force in achievement realisation. Distinct but commonly associated concepts within the field of psychology include “perseverance”, “hardiness“, “resilience“, “ambition”, “need for achievement” and “conscientiousness“.

Our monthly clients, as well as long-time readers of the Mental Toughness Digest, will rightly feel that many of these words – perseverance, effort, ambition are very familiar to them as they are cornerstone concepts of Metuf.

H is for Hard Work

There is simply no substitute for hard work. 

I is for Influence

Knowing the amount of influence you have on some of the more common aspects of your sport (or performance areas) is mighty useful. A great little exercise you can do is to start a simple three-column table. The heading of the first column is ‘Lots of Influence’, for the second write “Some Influence” and for the final one label it “Little Influence”.

Now start to fill in the table with whatever comes to mind. For example, you might be spending a lot of time thinking about an upcoming competition combined with memories of how you did at the same venue last year. So you might decide to put the Future in the middle column and the Past in the right-hand column – for instance.

J is for Junior Sport

If I were in charge of sport in a particular state or country I would flip funding so that the vast majority of recourses went into the junior or developmental side of sports. In other words, the best coaches, equipment and facilities normally only accessible to the top 0.1% of athletes would be diverted to athletes under the age of 16.

For example, those regarded as the very best coaches – like Wayne Bennett in rugby league – would be invited to coach junior rugby league players instead. I would make sure that whatever position was created for this had the same or greater salary as top-flight professional coaches.

11 K is for Keeping Going

Maybe the most powerful cue words in sport. Your mind will virtually always quit on you before your body does. Tell it to Keep Going and see what happens.

12 L is for Learning

There is a reason why some of the very best sporting coaches of all time – for example, Jake White – are formers teachers. They treat the process of performance enhancement as one long learning experience for both themselves and their players. The most appealing aspect of this angle is that poor performances are used as learning opportunities. Errors, for example, are considered as invaluable elements of feedback – data that can be used to inform better choices moving forward. 

13 M is for Monitoring

If you are not monitoring at least one aspect of your endeavours you’re missing out. At Condor Performance we encourage our sporting and non-sporting clients to record one or more “monthly checks”. As can be read in detail from this recent blog post these monthly checks are like our key performance indicators. As long as you know the right number of monthly checks to monitor (not too many) and the amount of influence you have on each of these results (not as much as you think) there is zero downsides to this kind of self-monitoring and plenty of upsides.


N is for Numbers

Whether you like it or not competitive sport – especially at the elite level – is full of numbers. In fact certain sports, like cricket and baseball are so mathematical in nature that the coaches of these sports would be forgiven for thinking of themselves more like statisticians from time to time. This is one of the reasons why we encourage our monthly clients to monitor their own progress – to allow them to function, even thrive in a results-oriented world. The other reasons have already been mentioned above in the M for monitoring.

O is for Objectivity

Both the M and the N above help with objectively but alone might not be enough. Objectively is roughly the opposite of subjectively with the latter being heavy on opinions with the former much more based on facts. For example, it’s quite normal for athletes and coaches to assess past performances based mostly (or only) on memory or even worse, based on the final result. This is highly subjective and a bit like any human pursuit we’d want to be careful about how much of our analysis is subjective. Objective analysis – for example, the number of missed tackles –  will be more valuable as the numbers don’t lie.

Actually, this is not true – numbers can lie but are less likely to do so than opinions.

P is for Pressure

‘Pressure’ is one of the most fascinating aspects of sports psychology. For a start, it’s 100% internal – it’s a feeling with very real physiological sensations – a little bit like hunger. Because it’s going on inside it’s less tangible and therefore harder to manage. To start with, it’s really important not to consider pressure as being good or bad. Let me use hunger to explain. Hunger, for most of us, is simply a signal for us to go an eat something. Once we do, the hunger goes away. The food that alleviates the hunger that is pressure is practice. That’s right, high-quality practice is like a pile of organic veggies.

Of course, there is also a benefit to learning to deal with hunger/pressure in case there is no food/practice available. By far the best way to do this – in my opinion – is to work with a qualified sport/performance psychologist like one of the members of our team.

Q is for Quantity and Quality

This is how we break down practice or effort. Quantity is ‘how much’ and wants to be in the right amount. Quality is how good and wants to be as high as possible. We often find it useful to multiply these together. For example, if the highest score for each is 10 then combined the highest score is 100.

What number did your last training session get?

R is for Routines

See my recent blog post for a full break down on routines.

S is for Stigma

There are still a huge number of people out there whose beliefs about what sports psychologists or performance psychologists do get in the way of us being able to help them. The stigma comes from the word ‘psychologist’ which too many people still associate with having some kind of mental problem. The general premise of working with a psychologist being a sign of weakness needs to be broken. A band-aid solution to this is to refer to ourselves as a coach or performance coaches or mental skills trainers instead. The issue with this is it doesn’t help to remove the stigma. Also, it seems a pity not to be able to use the title psychologist that took us seven or so years to earn.

T is for Time Management

Being able to manage your own time, your needs and your wants is one of the most underrated of all mental skills. I work with a LOT of young elite athletes (teenagers on track to be the world’s best in their chosen sport) and on the whole, they come to me with either poor or non-existent time management skills. Sometimes, a simple suggestion like buying a $5 diary to start recording upcoming commitments can do wonders in terms of accountability, planning, knowing when to say ‘no’ or ‘yes’ to invitations and moving their mindset more towards effort and further from results.

U is for Unity

If you’d like to learn more about how to improve the team unity of your team then watch the Unity video from the Metuf online program by clicking here.

V is for Values and W is for Why

Our values and beliefs guide our thoughts so if you’d like to update your daily thought processes then it can be a good idea to think about your values. By values, we really mean what you consider to be valuable or important. A nice little exercise to get the ball rolling is to simply list everything you consider to be important in your life and why. For example, you might write ‘8 hours of sleep a night’ and follow that with ‘because it helps me get the most of various training sessions the following day’. The ‘why’ part is very important as this links our endeavours to our internal motivation.

X is for eXcellence

Are you striving for excellence? Do you want to become excellent at what you do? How would you define and measure excellence? Is your training excellence? Do you know how to increase your chances of becoming the best possible athlete or coach you can be? If not get in touch and we’ll lend you a hand.

Y is for Yourself

One of the best ways of helping others is to look after yourself first.

Z is for Zest

Zest is one of the traits that we look for when we are interviewing psychologists looking to join our team of sport and performance psychologists. Do they have a passion for sports and helping athletes and coaches become better versions of themselves? If not, getting up at 5 am to deliver a Skype session to a monthly client from another country might just prove to be too hard.

What Is Mental Toughness?

What Is Mental Toughness is one of the questions that international sports psychologist Gareth J. Mole addresses in his new book – due out in Oct 2019.

What is Mental Toughness? It’s a bit like one of the engines on a four engine plane.

I am sure almost everyone thinks about writing a book at one stage in their lives. I have felt like I have a couple of book in me for many years but for reasons beyond my control I have not ‘stepped up’ … until now. Since the start of 2019, I have been tapping away behind the scenes and am delighted to confirm that we’ll be seeking interest from publishers around Sept / Oct of this year. I am yet to pick a title for the book – which will be aimed at serious athletes and sporting coaches – but a large chunk of it is about mental toughness.

What is mental toughness, what is it not and how to improve it permanently are amongst the main topics that I explore in what I am calling a ‘guidebook’?

Partly due to the fact that my kids are currently on school holidays (which halves the amount of time I get to work) and partly to ‘test the water’ of my penmanship for this latest Mental Toughness Digest blog I have decided to paste an expert from the book – which is about two thirds finished. Enjoy, forward and constructive feedback via the comments sections below might just get you a free copy of the hardback in the post after we go to print.


Mental Toughness Targeted By Mental Preparation

Before going through the subcomponents of Mental Toughness I need to address what I assume will be the main point of controversy about this book – separating the mental side of performance from general wellbeing.

Or using terms you’re more likely to come across – considering both mental health and mental toughness as important but different.

For some of you, the aeroplane analogy will automatically do the explaining for me. Although the aircraft can be thought of as a single vessel in the same way that a person can be thought of as one being the fact is that each of these is made up of different interconnecting ‘bits’.

In the event that the aeroplane analogy doesn’t quite get the job done let me justify this approach future using some of the other engines as examples.

Most human beings do not require super fitness, amazing physical strength nor excellent flexiblity in order to function, thrive and be good at what they do. In fact, only relatively small amounts of physical activity may be needed in order for most people to experience the day to day benefits of exercise on their wellbeing. 

But if this person happens to be an athlete – and in particular an athlete of a physically demanding sport – such as biathlon or triathlon – then these small amounts of psychical activity will not be sufficient if they want to go as far in their chose sport as possible. 

Just Like An Aeroplane

If the purpose of the aircraft is simply to go for short 20 minute flights as part of a hobby group for amateur fliers then it still needs to function but the efficiency of the engines is less critical compared with an aeroplane that wants to fly as far as possible (safely).

So Mental Toughness joins the previously covered Physical Capabilities, Technical Consistency and Tactical Wisdom to make up the fourth and final engine – the four groups of ‘extras’ needed to go much further than might otherwise be possible. 

With this in mind, I will be guiding you through a number of different ideas that most people really never need to consider adding to their weekly routine. But the mental requirements of becoming the best possible athlete or sporting coach you can be are far from the mental requirements of basic functioning and wellbeing.

So what is Mental Toughness then? What are the subcomponents of this engine, what areas can we target for improvement in our quest to become mentally tougher?

After 15 years of helping mostly athletes with mostly their performance mental toughness, I believe that it is best broken down into these five key psychological subcomponents:

  • Motivation
  • Emotions
  • Thoughts
  • Unity
  • Focus

In other words the best possible answer I can give at this stage to the question ‘what is mental toughness’ is something along these lines:

Mental Toughness is an umbrella term that refers to varying levels and combinations of motivation towards training and competing, the ability to manage the full spectrum of emotions and thoughts, knowing when and how to switch on or off as well as team related factors such learning to respect your teammates.

Gareth J. Mole – Sports Psychologist – 2019

Most of the other labels that you’d expect to be here are either synonyms of one of these words or a type of one of the subcomponents or a combination of the both of these. For example, the words concentration and attention are both synonyms of focus. Confidence, pressure. fear and feeling relaxed are all types of emotions. Flow, one of the most common words in modern-day sport psychology, is really just a blend of high focus and relaxation.

In fact, I’m happy to invite any fan of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory to compare what you currently do to get into a state of flow with my suggestions below and let me know which is more effective.


If you can wait until the book gets published to find out what the ‘below’ means then get in touch via our Contact Us form and ask for some information about our 1-on-1 mental toughness training options. We typically reply in less than 24 hours.

Performance Psychologists

Performance psychologists are highly qualified mental coaches who specialise in assisting performers with both their mental health and mental toughness.

Without giving away too many secrets about the Condor Performance business model it would be fair to say that we take a keen interest in the number of Google searches that occur for certain keywords. For those of you who have worked with one of us and are familiar with the concept of “monthly checks” these internet trends form part of our “monthly checks” (key performance indicators we measure once a month to a) track progress and b) ensure a certain level of comfort operating within the results-focused environment that we typically find ourselves in).

For example, the number of times the term “performance psychologist” is tapped into the Google search bar this month versus last month or this year compared with last year. This is very useful data from our point of view as it essentially tells us if the profession is on the up or on the slide.

It works the same way as a young trampolinist who measures her flexibility once a month by doing a stretch and reach test. As Bill Gates once said, “I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition”.

As mentioned in one of my previous blogs I do believe that the word ‘performance’ does need to appear in there somewhere. In other words, both ‘performance psychologist’ and ‘sport and performance psychologists’ would get my vote but ‘sports psychologist’ or ‘sport and exercise psychologist’ are both misleading in my opinion.

With that in mind let us dive into the numbers!

Worldwide the “peak” for search enquiries for ‘performance psychologist’ was in 2004 and early 2005. In fact, as can be seen by the below graph the 100 searches per day that was taking place around the world in January 2005 has never come close to being beaten. After this month the number of times that athletes, coaches, students, journalists and bored teenagers typed in the words ‘performance psychologist’ into Google took a sudden nosedive.

Number of searches for the term “performance psychologists” since 2004 using Google.

What might have caused both the spike and decline? It’s impossible to really know but I would guess that maybe the 2004 Olympics Games in Athens had something to do with the spike. With such a massive international sporting event all that would have been required was a single story about the impact made by a performance psychologist and “boom”. But as The Games ended and these stories got lost in cyberspace then the return to the default searches alone returned.

Interestingly – again looking at the graph above – it does appear that an ever so slow recovery is taking place. More encouraging than the sudden increase that took place 15 years ago, this increase is happening steadily.

Why Is Steady Improvement Better Than Rapid Gains?

In the work that my colleagues and I do with athletes and coaches, I am often quick to point out the advantages of slow improvement over sudden gains. Slow improvements always feel more sustainable compared with overnight success. Take, for example, a young golfer trying to lower her handicap. A massive drop in her handicap of 15 to 5 over par in a month might feel like it’s better than the same improvement (in golf, the lower the handicap the better) that takes place over a year but not for me – not for this performance psychologist.

I often use the reality show “The Biggest Loser” as an example when explaining this to my monthly clients. This show, in case you missed it, was above getting overweight contestants to try and lose as much weight as fast as possible with the winner being rewarded with a huge cash prize.

From a psychological point of view, there is a lot wrong with the entire premise of the show – enough for at least a whole blog post on its own – but one of the “biggest issues” with “The Biggest Loser” is the speed that the weight loss of all the contestants took place. In many cases, it was commonplace for individuals to drop 20+ kgs in a single week!

Changes this fast are unsustainable so they really run the risk of having a negative impact on motivation in the future. For example, without some of the insights about the amount of influence people have on various aspects of performance (e.g. body weight – which is a result) from programs such as Metuf then it would be easy for a “Biggest Loser” contestant to become dejected by only losing a kilogram after the show when comparing it with the 5+ kgs they lost a week whilst ‘competing’.

Not too many people know this but shortly after Condor Performance was started in 2005 one of the main service offerings were group workshops for those struggling with their weight run by yours truly. These group interventions took place at the height of “The Biggest Loser” TV shows so even though the attendees were not taking part (thank goodness) I recall there were a lot of questions about “why are they losing weight so fast and I am not”?

The answer I gave to those questions is the same as the one I give to anyone frustrated when their progress is slow and steady.

Do It Once, Do It Properly And Make It Last Forever

So turning our attention back to the slow increase of the use of the title ‘performance psychologist’ then those of us who believe it will eventually replace the title of ‘sport psychologist’ would not want it any other way.

Performance Psychologists vs. Sports Psychologist

To finish I thought it would be interesting to show the same data since 2004 but for both the terms ‘performance psychologist’ (blue line) and ‘sports psychologist’ (red line).

Data since 2004 for search terms ‘performance psychologist’ (blue line) and ‘sports psychologist’ (red line) on Google around the world.

Guess what? Searches for ‘sport psychologist’ are also increasing slowly and steady and it looks like it’ll take some time before ‘performance psychologist’ catches up!

If you’d like to speak with one of our performance psychologists over the phone then shoot us a quick email with your phone number (including the international dialling code) and we’ll call you back.

How To Measure Mental Toughness

Mental aspects of training, mental aspects of competing, general functioning / mental health and wellbeing can all be measured.

Measuring Mental Toughness is hard but that doesn’t mean we can’t attempt it.

“I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition”

Bill Gates

Okay, I’ll admit it – we’re a little jealous of professionals who assist athletes, coaches and teams with the physical side of performance. Tests like the VO2 max for cardiovascular endurance, stretch and reach tests to measure the flexibility of various regions of the body and even the humble bathroom scales used in order to find out body weight simply don’t have objective mental equivalents.

In fact, assessing mental toughness is so tricky that when Condor Performance first started offering sport and performance psychology services back in 2005 we didn’t even attempt to measure anything with any real conviction – preferring to simply ask a series of questions at the start of the coaching journey.

But if not bothering with something because it was hard was something we did frequently then we’d be in the wrong business – so over the years, we have tried on an ongoing basis to improve how we assess the very areas we help our clients with – mental health and mental toughness.

As the overwhelming majority of 5000+ readers of the Mental Toughness Digest are actual athletes, coaches and sporting parents rather than fellow psychologists then it’s worth quickly explaining that there is no direct way to measure anything psychological. We can try to assess a number of areas via questions and/or observations but at best the results to these will act as a “guide” to one or more psychological variables.

The exception to this would be a formal intelligence test (such as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale). Although it would be easy to fake a poor score on the WAIS (by giving incorrect answers on purpose) it would not be possible to get a high score without actually possessing those abilities. This makes tests such as the WAIS more objective than most other psychometrics which relies 100% on opinions and/or observation. Unfortunately, in the work we do knowing how intelligent someone is just isn’t that useful.

With the luxury of time (something we rarely have in our consulting) the reliability of the information collected can be improved through asking the opinions of those close to the client (e.g. their family, coach) and/or via direct observation. Observing the athletes, official, coach or performer in real life situations can be invaluable. Imagine how useful it is to watch a tennis player smash her racket during a match compared with just a couple of questions about her emotions.

But just because the answers and scores are being made up of the opinions of people doesn’t render these tool useless by any means. It’s just we need to be mindfulness of their relative subjectivity when interpreting the results.

“What exactly are we trying to measure here” is normally a great question when either choosing, designing or reviewing any psychological assessment. At Condor Performance we have always believed that the main purpose of the questionnaires – typically taken before now well know “Kick Start Session” – is as a massive time saver. In other words instead of spending that first 30 minutes with the client finding out what makes them tick we already have a pretty good idea. This then allows us to move onto ‘solutions’ much earlier in the process than might otherwise have been possible with the recently completed questionnaire.

For us, the sport and performance psychologists at Condor Performance, what we’re most eager to find out about before and during the journey fall into four general groups:

  • Mental aspects of training
  • Mental aspects of competing (if competing)
  • General functioning / mental health and wellbeing
  • Other important stuff like age, sport and long term goals

I will not go into any detail about why we measure mental aspects of performance (mental toughness) and mental health separately as you can read a full explanation of this in my recent blog post on this very subject here.

The open and closed questions about mental toughness then generate scores for the five areas of mental toughness – Motivation, Emotions, Thoughts, Unity and Focus. This provides the sports psychologist or performance psychologist with incredible insight into how to assist this performer. For example, the conversation and suggested solutions for an athlete who has high motivation but poor levels of focus are going to be very different compared with if those two areas were the other way around.

Mental Health is also assessed (screened) due to the inclusion of The Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale (DASS-21) at the end of our Mental Toughness Questionnaires. Due to the fact that 99% of our work is done 1-on-1 then we can work on both mental toughness and mental health at the same time without pretending they are the same thing!

I have to admit the name of our four questionnaires – all which start with the words Mental Toughness – have become misleading due to the fact that they measure more than just mental toughness now (they didn’t at the start – hence a bit like a nickname – it has stuck).

The four questionnaires – which can be completed by anyone for free looking to gain insight into the areas already mentions – are listed below. The questionnaires are all similar but use language relevant to that role (for example, officiating instead of performing). The coaches’ questionnaire is the most different as this also includes a section asking about the coaches’ perceived mental coaching abilities. Let’s not pretend or assume that being mentally tough and mentally well automatically makes you a good mental coach.

Positive Psychology in Sport and Performance

Are sporting coaches and competitive athletes amongst the more likely to benefit from the principles of positive psychology?

The Positive Psychology Movement is all about building on existing strengths.

Recently I was cleaning out my filing cabinet and I came across an email from a previous coach of mine which outlined some feedback on what he felt I needed to improve on after a recent tournament.  I scanned through the email and felt a heaviness settle in my stomach.  The feelings and emotions came back from the time I first received the email many years ago.  The feedback was all negative, however, it was phrased as ‘the areas I needed to improve on’.  Most of the comments were around ‘you need to do this more’, and ‘in this situation, you need to be doing this’. 

He even finished the email with recognising that this was his ‘critical observation’.   None of the feedback was given to me during the tournament, it was all put in an email and sent when we got back and with no follow-up.  What I noticed most was that there was no positive feedback, not one bit!  After reading his email, I felt unmotivated and deflated.  I’m sure this is not what he intended, however, is this the response we want from our athletes?  Is this type of feedback going to make them better athletes and competitors?

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to attend the Happiness and Its Causes conference in Perth, and I was curious, engaged, and fascinated by the content and the vibe of the conference.  I was introduced to Positive Psychology, the science of flourishing.  Dr Martin Seligman, one of the main researchers in this branch of psychology, believes that psychological practice should be as concerned with people’s strengths as well as their weaknesses.  Positive psychology asks the question: ‘what’s good in our lives’ compared to the traditional psychology approach which can focus more on ‘what’s wrong with us and how can we fix it’. 

As a performance psychologist, I have always had a passion for helping people thrive in their work and life, so this theory sat well with me and aligned with my goals.  I started introducing positive psychology initiatives into my work in organisations and as my sporting clients grew I felt that those striving for high performance also benefitted and that positive psychology has a lot to offer sport. 

Sport is also often focused on ‘fixing weaknesses and problems’, called deficit-based coaching.  How often do you come off the field at half time and a coach says “this is what we need to change because we’re not doing it right.”  Strengths-based coaching, on the other hand, is about identifying, enhancing and exploiting athletes’ and teams’ strengths and focusing on what we do well. 

Athletes, coaches and sporting organisations generally have the goal of excellence, both on and off the field, and by using positive psychology strategies, performance psychologists are able to support athletes, staff and families develop resilience and coping skills in order to deal with setbacks, focus on strengths to achieve their goals, and to strive to increase grit (the combination of perseverance and passion for long term goals).  These mental skills are just as vital to success as being able to hit a hockey ball, run fast, or shoot a basket.  Talent and technical ability is not enough.  Whilst it is very important, we all can name truly gifted athletes that never make it. 

What sets most athletes apart is their mental toughness: their character, their grit, their positive mindset, and their belief that their ability can be developed through dedication and hard work, most recently introduced as a growth-mindset according to Carol Dweck. 

So what are the key factors of positive psychology that can be applied to sport?

Strengths focus

Research has demonstrated that it is easier to promote a strength than it is to develop a weakness, and that our areas of greatest potential are our greatest strengths.  This is not to say don’t focus on your weaknesses, but the best results will come when you are also working on your strengths.  Research shows that those who use their strengths are more likely to have higher levels of confidence, vitality and energy, are likely to be more resilient, have higher self-esteem, and to perform better.  Coaches and athletes are encouraged to know their strengths and the focus of development should be around their strengths.  Many coaches have a negativity bias and need to train their brains to focus on the good things their athletes are doing.

The two key elements of a strength are “delivering a high level of performance and experiencing a sense of energy when you are doing it” (Linley, Willars, et al., 2010).  Spotting the energy is crucial to distinguishing the real strengths from learned behaviours.  So how do you know what your strengths are?  Ask yourself these questions:

  • What do you love about your sport?
  • What’s your favourite role?
  • What do you get complimented on?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • What do you do in your spare time?
  • How can I harness my strengths?

Growth Mindset

In 2006, Carol Dweck introduced us to the notion of growth and fixed mindset.  Those with a growth mindset are more comfortable with failure as they see it as a learning opportunity in comparison to those with a fixed mindset who believe their success is based on innate ability and talent.  Athletes with a growth mindset are more likely to see challenges as opportunities rather than barriers, and believe that they can improve, learn and get better with practice and effort.  The good news is, we can choose which mindset we want – we can choose to view our mistakes and setbacks as learning opportunities, or we can view them as limiting obstacles.  Those choosing a growth mindset are more likely to persist in difficult times than those with fixed mindsets.  And athletes know better than anyone, that if you want to achieve success, there are always barriers and obstacles in the way, including poor form, injury and confidence issues.

Positive Emotions

Sport is emotional – for athletes, coaches, and spectators.  Many emotions are felt from elation, excitement and nervousness to fear, sadness, anger and disappointment.  Emotions drive behaviour and often dictate how you perform as an athlete in competition.  To become a high performing athlete, you need to understand and manage your emotions so they help rather than hinder your performances.

Many people falsely believe that positive psychology only recognises positive aspects of people and their performances, and ignores the negative.  When viewing emotions, both positive and negative are considered, and the impact both these have on an athlete’s performances.  Negative emotions like anxiety and anger can trigger our body’s “Fight or Flight” response to threat and these emotions affect our bodies physically.  These physical effects can include increased heat rate, nausea, muscle tension, stomach aches, weakened focus, and physically drained.   Positive emotions on the other hand can have the opposite effect.  Happiness can relieve tension, lower your heart and blood pressure, strengthen your immune system and help to combat stress.  Staying calm, focused and positive can help you attend to what you need to by minimising distractions, keeping you relaxed, and increasing your confidence.  It also has the added benefit of being a pleasant person to be around!

The best way to increase your emotional intelligence in sport is to be aware of how your emotions impact your behaviour and performances, be able to manage those emotions that lead to poor performances, and create and enhance emotions that lead to good performances.

Grit

Recent research has shown that one of the key factors in success is what is termed as ‘Grit’, defined as passion and perseverance in working toward significant long-term goals.  Elite athletes across many sports are grittier than non-elite athletes.  They also commit to their sports for a longer period of time.  This concept pioneered by Dr Angela Duckworth (2007), explains why some people achieve success without being gifted with unique intelligence or talent.  So, if you are an athlete or coach who feels like you missed the talent boat, then there is hope for you.  How many of you can credit your successes to your passion, commitment, resilience and perseverance? The good news is that you can develop your grit to become grittier.  Ways to do this include:

  • Develop your passion – find what you love doing, and it will be easier to stick to it.  Not many people stick to things they are not passionate about.  Ask yourself, what do I like to think about?  Where does my attention wander?  What do I really care about?
  • Practice deliberately – don’t waste your time at training, practice deliberately.  Set stretch goals, practice with full concentration and effort, seek feedback and reflect on what went well and what didn’t to refine for next time.
  • Consider your purpose – why are you doing what you do?  In life and sport, there are bound to be setbacks and challenges along the way.  If you have a purpose for what you are doing, then you are more likely to persevere and stay committed.  When times are tough, always go back to your ‘why’.
  • Adopt a ‘growth’ mindset.  Remember, those with a growth mindset believe their abilities can be developed through hard work and effort rather than ability.  Those with growth mindsets are much better at dealing with setbacks as they view them as learning experiences, rather than being directly related to their ability. 

Grit cannot be developed overnight; it is an ongoing process.  What we do know is that it’s worth developing – the gritty athlete is not only successful, s/he is also more likely to be happier and more satisfied with his/her ability than other athletes.

The adoption and implementation of positive psychology have been shown to have a significant impact on sports performances by shifting the focus from negative (what’s wrong with you) to positive (what’s right with you). 

Understanding your strengths and how to use them, adopting a growth mindset, using your emotions strategically and developing grit all contribute to building mental toughness, optimism, motivation and resilience.  I know from firsthand experience how focusing on the positive can have a much greater impact on an athlete and bring out the best in us. 

If you’d like more information about working with me on some of these ideas then get in touch by completing our Contact Us Form here and mention my name (“Mindy”) somewhere in the comments sections and I will call you back.

Sports Psychology – A Brief History

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

I have always been fascinated by history to some degree. This, despite the fact that one of the major aspects of the model we use – Metuf – centres around the importance of focusing as much as possible on the present moment – and therefore less on the past and the future. 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’.

My old mate Tom and I would often go for a bacon and avocado baguette after lectures and chat about various ‘psychological methods’ that they used to use in the ‘old days’ – such as frontal lobotomies and electrocuting people!

Yet despite all this, the area that I would eventually end up working in (sport psychology) was not mentioned once during The History of Psychotherapy course – and for good reason.

The Pioneers of Sports Psychology

You see, the real origins of sports psychology as a separate field had very little to do with traditional psychotherapy and was almost entirely about performance enhancement in the early days.

Basically – it was research and coaching but with more emphasis on mental aspects than before. Although even Ancient Greeks were interested in the mind-body connection the real start of sport psychology as a specialisation was almost exactly 100 years ago.

In 1921 baseball player Babe Ruth was tested at Columbia University in order to try and find out what made him so good – and so much better than the rest of the hitters at that time. A few years later, psychologist Walter Miles conducted a number of studies that focused entirely on how to optimise the performance of American football players and coaches whilst they were training and competing.

Coleman Griffith

But it was Coleman Griffith (right) who really put sport psychology on the map with two classic publications in the 1920s.

In 1928 the Psychology of Athletics was published and two years later Griffith wrote The Psychology of Coaching. Therefore and for good reason, he’s regarded as the father of modern sports psychology (at least as far as North America is concerned). I actually own a first edition of the ‘Psychology of Coaching: a Study of Coaching Methods From the Point of Psychology’ after stumbling across a copy in an antique store about 10 years ago and it is, in part, one of the reasons why I am so passionate about helping coaches to become better at coaching the mental aspects of their sports.

For sporting coaches reading this looking to take the first (or next) step to become a better mental coach then complete the Mental Toughness Questionnaire for Coaches here.

It should be noted that these early pioneers were not very interested in the psychology of exercise and physical activity. From their point of view, their population of interest were already very active and any ‘advice’ pertaining to their physical training should come from experts in other fields.

‘Exercise’ Psychology Wants In

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. Quite simply, a sedentary middle-aged couple who really would benefit from incorporating some walking into their weekly routine and a teenage basketballer who struggles with too much nervous energy before a game are simply too different to be best assisted by the same type of specialist – in my opinion.

At least here in Australia I can immediately think of at least two professions that might be better off assisting the sedentary middle aged couple – health psychologists and exercise physiologists.

Yet give my colleagues and me at Condor Performance a teenage basketballer who struggles with too much nervous energy before a game and we are in our element. It was we do, it’s what we’re best at.

The Importance of The Right Labels

If I had a time machine at least one of my trips would be to go back to Rome, (Italy) in 1965 and campaign hard at The First World Congress of Sport Psychology that our profession should be relabelled ‘sport and performance psychology’ and the experts within to be referred to as ‘sport and performance psychologists’ from that point forward.

Given the timing – it would also be tempting to hang around for a year and see if I could catch a few matches at the 1966 Football World Cup too! Oh to be able to have watched live some of the incredible saves made by Gordan Banks!

I understand the arguments from some quarters that sport is a type of performance so semantically the best label for the profession would actually be ‘performance psychology’ of which sport psychology would just be a subcomponent – and golf psychology or tennis psychology (for example) would be further subcomponents and specialisations.

But the very ‘sporty’ origins of sports psychology and the dominance of consulting within sport by modern performance psychologists would have me voting for the “locking in” of the terms ‘sport and performance psychology’ and ‘sport and performance psychologists’.

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

Recent History

Between about 1970 to 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’ nicely spread across the country by the time Sydney was hosting the Olympic Games in the year 2000.

In fact, such were the impressive per capita options for budding sports psychologists in Australia at that time that it was regarded as one of the best places to covert a standard psychology degree into a vocation. 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 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 and the decline was about to start.

The Decline

Today, in 2019 there is only one final Sports Psychology masters program remaining in Australia (at the University of Queensland) and so it begs the question ‘what happened?’ and more importantly ‘what can we learn from the decline’?

As I have already implied the first ‘dropped ball’ was spreading our expertise too thinly by trying to bring exercise and physical activity into the fold. Of course, the very fact that there is thirty to forty times more sedentary folk out there than competitive athletes has resulted in confusion, distraction and a backwards step towards us being regarded as the ultimate ‘go to’ experts in the psychology of sport and performance.

Unique to Australia (I think) but a lesson that anyone interested in the ‘politics of professions’ would benefit from knowing is what happened in 2006. Medicare introduced a two-tier system, which essentially regarded the work of endorsed clinical psychologists as being more valuable to the system than all other psychologists. In other words, the out-of-pocket costs to see a clinical psychologist became significantly less compared with all other psychologist types – for example, sports psychologists, performance psychologists and organisational psychologists.

With the gap between the cost of living compared and salaries in Australia at an all-time high then, of course, this legislation resulted in an explosion of applicants for clinical psychology masters to the detriment of all the other specialisations.

I often wonder how many clinical psychologists out there are ‘winging it’ and giving Google-based advice to mentally well athletes looking for a mental boost simply because it will cost these athletes less to work with a clinical psychologist (assuming they have a referral from their GP).

The Recent Wellbeing Movement

I for one am glad that in recent years sports psychology has started to really embrace the important of mental health and wellbeing both in terms of athletic performance and general life satisfaction. But I think we need to be very, very careful that it doesn’t become the final nail in the coffin for the profession.

The risk of the recent wellbeing movement is that sport psychology might lose its performance enhancement, mental skills training and coaching traditions if we aren’t careful.

In 50 years from now – if the profession still exists – what will the answers to these questions be: ‘what do sports psychologists do?’ and ‘what are sports psychologists better at when compared with others’?

Will the answers be …

  • ‘we mainly help athletes with mental health and wellbeing challenges and the odd bit of mental skills training when required’ or will it be
  • ‘we 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’

(I say non-critical as I for one believe that if the psychological issues of athletes present as very serious – for example, schizophrenia – then it might be better if they work with psychologists who specialise in those clinical areas).

I’m pretty sure if you were able to ask Coleman Griffith which answer he’d prefer 150 years after his efforts put sport psychology on the map in the 1920s he’d pick the second one in a heartbeat.

Pity I don’t have that time machine!

Can We Bounce Back?

Can we as a professional do what we’re supposed to be able to help athletes and performers with? Can we learn from our mistakes and bounce back?

This sports psychologist thinks it’s possible but only with some major structural changes. And that, my friends, will be the topic of a later blog post; Sports Psychology – Looking To The Future.

Sports Psychologist Gareth J. Mole with The Hon Greg Hunt MP, Minister for Health

Just after I wrote this article I bumped into the Minister for Health and former Minister for Sports; Greg Hunt – whilst on holiday with my family in Melbourne.

Mental Health Challenges for Athletes

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

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

As one of my previous articles suggested I consider Mental Health and Mental Toughness to be different concepts. Not opposites nor completely unrelated but far from one and the same.

My definition of Mental Health is roughly ‘the condition of the mind’ as related to the individual, the person regardless of what they do (athlete, baker, candlestick maker). Mental Health is about day-to-day functioning so someone who has ‘a condition of the mind’ that prevents them from functioning and being well (aka well-being) could be described as having a mental health issue (concern, problem, disorder) or being mentally ill. The severity of the mental illness is therefore related to how well they function in the society they live with the most extreme cases being confined to prisons and hospitals.

The Positive Psychology movement was born from the fact that many psychologists were frustrated by the fact that the goal of traditional psychotherapy tended (tends) to be to get people back to ‘just functioning enough’ and did (does) little to assist them beyond this point.

I have never regarding the word ‘functioning’ as actually meaning ‘just functioning’. If you use the word in the context of a car – for example – it can and does gets uses to describe vehicles that have nothing wrong with them:

How is your old Mercedes going?

It’s functionally really well – runs like a brand new car.

So there are degrees of functioning whereby the highest ones might be thought of as ‘functioning really well’ in everyday situations. For example, someone who is very happy with most of the main areas of their life – sleep, relationships, work, etc. A ‘normal’ level of functioning might be when one or more of these ‘human’ aspects is not quite as it might be. This can include, for example, individuals whose relationships and sleep are great but they are somewhat stressed about their working situation. This stress is not “clinical” in that they still managed to get to work every day but there is no longer a smile when they walk into the office. They function but there are ‘everyday’ areas that could be improved. 

Finally, there are those who have “stopped” functioning altogether. By ‘stopped functioning’ we are really referring to the fact that many of the daily tasks – such as getting out of bed, eating, talking to others – have become too hard.

But what about if these “people” are performers? What if the person who is only functioning normally is a young athlete currently preparing for her first Grand Final? What if the person who has stopped functioning is a politician or sporting coach?

All of these individuals would benefit from improving both their everyday mental health and – due to what they do – their performance mental toughness as well. In the case of the politician or sporting coach (above) I’d suggest they focus solely on their mental health first as their lack of functioning would render all other “psychology work” untimely.

For the young athlete who is functioning OK (as well as those who are functioning well) then working on both their mental health and mental toughness in tandem can be a nice approach. One of the advantages of being an Australian trained sports psychologist is that I can easily assist my sporting and performance clients with both their mental health and mental toughness (often within the same session)!

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, very hard and although everyone can attempt to it’s probably not worth it if you’re not likely to encounter ‘extreme mental challenges’.

You can learn a lot more about how we balance Mental health and Mental Toughness via our sister program Metuf

You might like to think of it as being similar to physical health (good blood sugar for example) and physical strength (being able to bench press 150 kgs). 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 (both codes), bodyguard, bouncer or defensive tackle (American Football) – for example – developing the muscle strength to be able to bench press that amount of weight clearly has a pay off in their performance areas.

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 is 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.

Are athletes and coaches more or less likely to experience mental health 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 confirms the position that our sport and performance psychologists have at the moment which in summary is:

  • 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 – not only due to the fact that athletes and coaches are people first – but improved mental health has a direct benefit to performance.

Psychology of Sports Injuries

The Psychology of Sports Injuries is a short article exploring the mental aspects of a very common physical challenge faced by athletes – getting injured

Rugby Union player getting taken from the field on a stretcher.
Sporting injuries are understandably regarded as the exclusive domain of physiotherapists yet there is growing evidence that the challenges are just as psychological in nature.

Introduction

Sports injuries – certainly from a mental point of view – are not exactly the same as the ones that can occur in non-sporting situations. For a start, they are a lot more likely to occur – particularly in high contact sports such as AFL, both rugby codes and American football. Secondly, the impact on goals and dreams of injuries – if you are an athlete – are likely to be much greater compared with injuries to non-sporting performers. I am very mindful of the fact that serious injuries can, of course, derail all types of dreams but the fact is that a dentist can still go to work with a torn ACL, a soccer player can’t. Hence the title of this article is The Psychology of Sports Injuries and not The Psychology of Injuries.

With This In Mind

A large portion of the content we write for the Mental Toughness Digest is aimed at helping you reach your full potential and perform at your best in competition. But what if you’re forced to spend time on the sideline battling with injury and going through rehabilitation to get back onto the field? This can be one of the most mentally challenging experiences athletes and performers face. Having a handful of tools and strategies to help you manage the journey can truly make a significant difference.

I should say that during the process of writing this digest I ruptured my ACL for the second time and am looking at another 9-month rehab stint following surgery, so I know the mental pain and frustration athletes go through. It’s interesting, though, because this frustration and emotion can come from a number of different places.

  • Disappointment and regret that you’re injured
  • Wondering what you could have done differently to prevent it
  • Watching your teammates still competing while you’re in a cast or brace
  • The setbacks or bad news you may receive along the journey
  • The fear that when you’re allowed to play you will find a way to injure yourself again.

With all of these mindsets, plus the many others you may experience, it’s crucial you have space where you can express these emotions. There’s nothing wrong with feeling the way you do because your sport/performance area that really matters to you has just been taken away for a period of time. As well, this emotion can really drive you and if we’re able to channel that into motivation and desire, it can act as a massive push when we’re looking to put the necessary work in during the rehabilitation process.

One of the keys to putting in the work is very strongly linked to a foundational concept of our Metuf model of mental toughness training – controlling the controllables.

All the statements I mentioned earlier exist outside of our bubble of responsibility because they are either influenceable or uninfluenceable.

They revolve around things such as the past, other people and the future. When we’re committing to our rehabilitation process we want to be sure our mind is focused on the controllables by applying the best effort to our intended actions in the present moment. By being injured we are restricted in our movements and achieving results (even the little ones) can take some time. From my experience, as well as listening to those I have worked with, the mental reward and satisfaction from knowing you have applied yourself to a gym or physiotherapy session can be equally or sometimes stronger than that felt when achieving a result. Plus, it’s more consistent, so even when you’re having a difficult day and results are out of reach, nothing can stop your application and effort. Knowing that can be a massive boost in morale, confidence and motivation to keep going.

This development of confidence is also a really key part of someone’s rehabilitation process, both in regards to regaining the confidence of the specific skill set required to compete in your sport/performance area and the confidence in the part of my body that has been injured. We want to be able to trust that once we start competing again, our bodies will hold up and keep us on the field without re-injury.

There are mental strategies we can use that help us develop this confidence and they often revolve around the way we mentally map out the rehabilitation journey. One of the most difficult challenges mentally is the fact that when injured we are comparatively a long way from the technical and physical levels of our optimal selves. If we see the gap between the two as one step it is often too big and unrealistic to expect that we can simply make that change.

A better way of viewing the situation is by seeing it as a process of stepping stones, each one getting us closer to our end goal. Some of these stepping stones are going to be about our physical capabilities (strength, fitness and flexibility) and have nothing to do with the specific skill set required to play our sport. Others are going to be very skill-set related.

The combination of these provides the complete picture of what is required for us to be at full capacity again. Each time we jump from one stone to the next this is another achievement and boost in our confidence that we’re heading in the right direction and further strengthens the trust we have in our body. This way of breaking things down doesn’t mean the journey won’t be challenging but allows it to be much more realistic and achievable. It also allows us to problem solve at a much more manageable level when things aren’t going our way.

Once we have successfully completed this rehabilitation journey and are ready to step back onto the field, we may be faced with new mental challenges. We may ask ourselves “Can I still compete at this level?”, “Am I ready?” or even “Have I done enough to be here?”.

In taking the time to break down the journey into smaller parts and continually keeping the focus on the controllables, it allows us not only to develop the physical readiness to step out onto the field but also the mental readiness. Each stage along the way has allowed us to mentally keep track of the work we are doing and the achievements we have made.

Now this is done and we’re running out into competition again, we want the same solid focus on effort. Keep our expectations of the match focused on the controllables and not expect ourselves to do what we could the last time we were here but rather thinking about what the work we have done off the field has positioned us to do. In other words, applying our best effort to our intended actions in the present moment. Taking care of this ensures we remain in touch with ourselves throughout the match and play to the level we have prepared for.

If you’re reading this and wish to discuss the mental side of your injury rehabilitation further, or wish to ask any questions about some of the mental toughness principles discussed, then please don’t hesitate to get in contact by emailing me directly and confidentially at david@condorperformance.com. I would love to help and be a part of your journey back to full fitness.

‘The Psychology of Sports Injuries’ was first written in 2016 but updated in 2019.