Do All ‘Best Practice’ Mental Skills Work For All Sports?
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:
- 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?
- How ‘transferable’ are various mental skills from one performance area to another and even from one specific sport to a different sport?
When trying to answer the first question about what percentage of generic strategies used by psychologists who don’t specialise in sport apply in performance situations, one needs to be a little careful not to imply that all psychologists are, or would want to be, the same. But there are some well established therapeutic models which are likely to be more prevalent in clinical and counselling psychology (for example).
But there are some well established therapeutic models which are likely to be more prevalent in clinical and counselling psychology (for example).
So, how easily do these methods apply to sport and performance? The simple answer, in my opinion, is ‘about half’.
For example, if the athlete or coach (yes, we work 1-on-1 with sporting coaches too) 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 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 focussed colleagues.
A great example of this would be our approach to goal setting. When we help our clients set goals – something we typically do very early on and then continually review and update depending on progress – 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 and 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 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 Knowing It (control versus influence).
Furthermore, the psychological techniques become even more universally beneficial when you focus only on competitive sports (in other words, you exclude sport that is done purely for social and/or health reasons) and you consider team sports as a different animal to individual ones. In doing this I’d suggest that around 70% of the work we do with these group would be very, very similar. In other words, the sports psychology services that we’d deliver to a competitive golfer and a competitive shooter both looking for performance gains would likely have about a 70% crossover of methods.
Don’t confuse this 70% with us applying a cookie-cutter approach to our 1-on-1 consulting. I am referring to the fact that the mental skills that we’d likely introduce with a competitive golfer and a competitive shooter are going to very similar due to the fact that these two sports are psychologically very similar (target based, lots of thinking time, stillness required, completely alone). The very fact that our services are individualised makes is nearly impossible for us to treat our sporting clients like clones.
The remaining 30% is made up of ideas that have to be adapted specially for the client sitting across the room or computer screen (most of our sports psychology consulting is now done via webcam) and their particular role/sport.
Probably the best example that comes to mind is the work we do around 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 microelements 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 their 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.
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. I personally don’t have an issue with that as long as they are not treating mentally well athletes in the same (similar) way as they treat mentally ill non-performers.
As the founding psychologist of Condor Performance, I am very proud of the fact that my team of sport and performance psychologists are genuine specialists when it comes to the psychology of human potential. Essentially we’re like performance coaches but with some actual qualifications and credentials.