The importance of sport psychology

The importance of sport psychology

WHEN THE LAYERS OF COMPLEXITY ARE REMOVED, football is, primarily, a science of preparation and execution. Players train on a daily basis for the challenges that await on the pitch so that when match day arrives, they can replicate their teachings from training as a means to achieve victory.

Of course, there are moments of magic and incidents of insanity on the football pitch which decorate the sport. These occasions are what makes the game so gripping to watch – the notion of unpredictability. While not everything in football can be prepared for, coaching and managing a team is about controlling the controllables; maximising the percentiles. That is where sports psychology and psychiatry comes into play.

In essence, sports psychology is the science of the psychological factors which affect performance and how the participation in sports affects the player cognitively and physically. Many psychological expanses are highly applicable to football; motivation, social dynamics and anxiety are all critical in such a highly competitive team sport with enormous exposure across the world.

The ramifications of sports psychology are vast. A frequently studied area within the field is the influence of personality on performance. Jones et al found that self-efficacy – the self-belief and the renowned ‘winning mentality’ – blossoms from a combination of confidence, intrinsic motivation, robust focus and composure under pressure. From this, player recruitment can encompass these factors during the scouting process, while coaches and sports psychologists can help synthesise these components to help stimulate the winning mentality needed to conquer the inevitable adversity a team will face during a season.

While some of these conclusions are tacit within football management, sports psychology offers scientific and measured techniques to improving the mental health of a player in a competitive environment. Dr Steve Peters (pictured) – a key figure in this field – identifies a metaphoric and easily digestible model based on ‘The Chimp’, ‘The Human’ and ‘The Computer’ to demonstrate the biological mechanisms of the brain and its multiple thought processes. This model can help improve the aforementioned building blocks of confidence, focus and composure to create self-efficacy. This method has been utilised with great success by sportsmen such as Chris Hoy, Ronnie O’ Sullivan, Craig Bellamy and Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers.

To summarise briefly, The Chimp thinks emotively and purely on survival instincts, The Human is the individual’s true personality and logical thinking process while The Computer is a database which both chimp and computer can write instructions to cross-reference and refer to in the future – like a best practice guide of what to do in certain situations.

Peters explains that when The Chimp’s survival instincts feel threatened, it will hijack the individual’s logical thinking, leading to unhelpful thoughts and emotions. This evolutionary instinct is what has steered the human race to survive and evolve, but is clearly counter-productive on a football pitch. The key area of expertise is demonstrated by what Peters refers to as ‘managing’ The Chimp, as sheer willpower alone doesn’t work in similar fashion to how physically fighting a chimp would end fruitless too. It’s more scientific than merely telling a player to ‘not worry’.

Peters identifies a few of his techniques in his novel The Chimp Paradox which influence the movement of bloody supply in an individual’s brain to encourage more constructive thinking, but will likely keep some of his practises discrete.

As well as building the renowned ‘winning mentality’ needed to achieve success in football, other psychological factors influence performance in football. Arousal refers to the amount of cognitive and physiological activation needed to maximise the player’s footballing ability; the Yerkes-Dodson Law refers to the inverted U shape that the biological effects of arousal has on performance, i.e. too much or too little arousal impedes a player’s ability. Therefore, arousal regulation mechanisms used by sports psychologists – such as meditation, progressive muscle relaxation and energising techniques – are key to performance maximisation.

While a sports psychologist may be a luxury too far for a club operating on a smaller scale, there are techniques coaches can implement in their training regimes to harvest the positive ramifications the field offers. A wealth of research into sporting performance has shown that specific, measurable and challenging (but realistic) goal-setting is a useful tool to yield success. Dr Eva Monsma builds on this by explaining that a series of easier short-term goals can be implemented to achieve more difficult longer-term goals. Investigations have also merited the importance of imagery – with players imagining themselves vividly in realistic pressure situations – in improving confidence and positive performance in competitive scenarios.

The ultimate precipice of sports psychology is the illustrious penalty shoot-out. Despite a relatively simple task of guiding the ball from close range into the net – particularly with highly-paid, elite footballers – the players seem to face greater difficulty than they would in training due to the added pressure of a crowd and a competitive, high-pressured environment.  An interesting study by Azar et al (2005) showed that goalkeepers are more likely to save a penalty if they stayed in the middle, but most avoided this as they would feel guilty had they not saved the shot and did not dive either left or right.

This is where the practices of arousal regulation, imagery, bereavement alleviation and Peters’ Chimp management come to the fore. It could be the difference between victory and defeat.

While sports psychology is a slowly increasing presence within the field of sport, the science’s reputation has taken a hit during the 2014 World Cup. Regina Brandão and Steve Peters, both revered for their outstanding contribution to sports psychology, suffered disappointing World Cup campaigns with Brazil and England, respectively. With both sides underperforming, critics are quick to point a finger due to the perception that their sides ‘buckled’ under pressure.

The field should not be taken out of context. The vast majority of a football team’s success and failure is down to factors such as talent, determination and effective team management. Sports psychology only provides the extra percentiles which could be the key supplement and unique competitive advantage needed to stretch a team to victory.

With an increasing emphasis on match analysis, performance statistics and bespoke training regimes to a player’s physical needs, sports psychology is a crucial yet relatively neglected area of preparation and in-game management. While players are receptive to these new practices, a social stigma remains with seeking psychological help; it can be perceived as a sign of weakness by the football fraternity. With billions invested into squads at the highest level of the footballing pyramid, it seems nonsensical to neglect expertise in sports psychology– yet many do. Perhaps, in the ascendancy of sports science within the game, that the field will eventually gain the credence it deserves.

By Tom McMahon. Follow @TomMc_Sports

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