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.

Author: Gareth J. Mole

Gareth J. Mole is an endorsed Sport and Exercise Psychologist. He is the founder of Condor Performance and co-creator of Metuf™. He lives between Canberra and Sydney (Australia) with his wife, their two children and their fourteen chickens.

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