Edition 39 (Dec 2015)

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Mental Toughness Digest for Sport & Performance. 

Sport-Specific Sport Psychology

By Gareth J. Mole (PSY0001372747)

Within our profession the notion of sport-specific sport psychology is a controversial topic and one that warrants some attention and discussion. To do this, it is worth considering a couple of key questions/ideas.

1) How much do the general strategies used by most psychologists apply to athletes and coaches who are trying to improve the mental aspects of their performance or coaching abilities? 2) How ‘transferable’ are various mental skills from one performance area to another and even from one specific sport to a different sport?

Given my 10 plus years of experience as a practising / applied sport and performance psychologist I feel I am in a position to now answer these two questions.

When trying to answer the first question about what percentage of generic strategies used by most psychologists apply in performance situations, one needs to be a little careful not to imply that all general psychologists are, or would want to be, the same. But there are some well established therapeutic collections which are likely to be more prevalent than not in the work of the most common types of psychology – such as clinical and counselling psychology.

So, how easily do these methods apply to sport and performance? The simple answer, in my opinion, is ‘not a lot’. For example, if the athlete or coach (yes, we work 1-on-1 with sporting coaches too) is entirely without mental illness then at Condor Performance we would not focus significant attention on something regarded as essential in most other psychology circles – a long and detailed history of the client’s difficulties. This is not to say that some of the mental methods we often use from the get-go don’t have clinical routes – but the final versions which are presented to our clients would largely be unrecognisable to our non-performance based colleagues.

A great example of this would be our approach to goal setting (also known as Wanting It). When we help our clients set goals – something we typically do very early on and then continually revise and update depending on progress – we introduce a level of accountability to these targets that some mental health practitioners might find objectionable. But from our stand point, this level of accountability is a key ingredient in helping them get to the next level and if it is confronting for the client (“you committed to 5 hours of practice a week, this didn’t occur, what happened?”) then great as we will use that to further improve their mental toughness by looking at what mental barriers exist between the person’s intentions and their actual effort.

What about the second question; how ‘transferable’ are various mental skills from one performance area to another and even from one specific sport to another? Certainly when you’re assisting mentally well performers who are trying to master ‘motor skills’ – be they surgeons or swimmers – the mental methods we use start to have a lot in common. In particular the ones we often refer to as the foundation methods such as Controlling It (control versus influence) and Simplifying It (Miller’s Law). Furthermore the psychological techniques become even more universally beneficial when you focus only on competitive sport and you consider team sports as a different animal to individual ones – by now I’d suggest that around 70% of the work we do within these group would be very, very similar.

“What about the other 30%” I can hear you shout?

Some of this is made up of ideas that have to be adapted specially for the client sitting across the room or computer screen (yes, we can do everything via Skype or FaceTime if location was / has been a reason for not getting started on one of our mental toughness programs) but the rest is only applicable to that sport. Probably the best example that comes to mind is the work we do using Short Performance Routines to aid with concentration, execution under pressure and ultimately the Holy Grail of consistency. Although there might be some similarities between a golfer’s Pre Shot Routine and the routines used by a goal kicker in soccer, rugby union, rugby union, AFL, NFL etc there are simply too many micro elements that only relate to each of these sports to risk working on them with a generic approach.

In helping a golfer create or improve his or her Pre Shot Routines (one for long game, one for short game and one for putting for example) we want everything to be golf related and everything to be about helping that particular golfer – not all golfers. From this, an individual is able to build their mental toughness and see how it applies to their sport and/or performance endeavours.

One of the reasons why this topic is somewhat controversial boils down to the fact that there are many psychologists out there who like to dabble in performance psychology and they benefit from the incorrect notion that clinical psychology interventions can easily be converted into mental toughness / performance psychology methods.

Well they can’t – leave it to the specialists!

Author: Condor Performance

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