About Sports Psychology: 32 Misconceptions About The Mental Game
Of Sports Explained.
Sport is a mind game. A place
where a small difference in mental powers often makes a big difference
between winning and losing. The field of sports psychology can help
athletes and coaches succeed faster and achieve higher sports goals
than they ever dreamed possible, but there are many myths and mysteries
surrounding this fascinating field. This article examines 32 sport
psychology myths and offers facts and analysis to shed new light
on age-old misinformation and misunderstandings.
Myths About Sports Psychology
32 Misconceptions About The Mental Game Of Sports
Bill Cole, MS, MA
Founder and CEO
William B. Cole Consultants
Silicon Valley, California
History shows that in 1920 the world's first sport
psychology laboratory was founded in Berlin Germany. Soon after
that another laboratory began in Russia, and in 1925 America's first
sport psychologist Coleman Griffith founded the first sport psychology
laboratory in North America at the University of Illinois. He wrote
the first sport psychology book published, The Psychology of
Coaching, in 1926.
From the first days of sports psychology in the 1920's there have
been controversies, misunderstandings and myths surrounding this
fascinating field. Sports psychology, while more accepted than ever,
and utilized at the highest levels of sport, still carries a stigma
in the eyes of some athletes and coaches.
This article examines the many myths about sports psychology that
still exist, separates fact from fiction, and attempts to dispel
many of them. It answers some of these critical questions about
- How does sports psychology work?
- Who can benefit from working with a sports psychologist?
- What are the approaches and techniques of sports psychology?
- What misinformation about sports psychology exists?
It is hoped that this article will lead to broader
and more robust discussions around the values, ethics, processes
and future of sports psychology.
32 Myths About Sports Psychology
||All Sports Have The Same Type And Degree Of Psychological
||Different sports have differing degrees and types of mental
requirements for success. Perhaps every competitor would say
that their sport is very mentally demanding, and it is true
that each sport has its own specific mental requirements. Athletes
who are mentally strong in one sport perhaps often could not
imagine themselves handling the mental challenges in another.
A sport like weight lifting, for example, is clearly less mental
than a complicated sport like competitive tennis. Tennis incorporates
complex strategies and tactics, is played over a longer time
frame, has deception, and is a high-technique sport, requiring
many hours of learning and grooving strokes.
Which sports are "more mental" than others? And how would one
measure this? One somewhat objective measure of which sports
seem to be the most mentally demanding could be based on the
volume of literature on the psychological aspects of the sport.
This may demonstrate the degree of difficulty in learning and
mastering the mental demands of the sport. Two sports stand
out in this respect. Golf has, by far, the most books and articles
written about the "mental side" of the game, with tennis a close
second. It seems reasonable to say that individual sports create
the most mental hazards and internal pressures on a performer,
far more than team sports. There is no place to hide, and the
winning and losing belongs only to the individual. These sports
are also usually more technique-laden and hence subject to mental
||Sports Are At Least "90% Mental" At Higher Skill Levels.
||Yogi Berra, the legendary baseball great, was known to once
say, "Baseball is 90% mental -- the other half is physical."
So much for mathematical science. It is true that in the upper
levels of a sport, the mental game becomes more critical. After
all, beginners in a sport are simply struggling to achieve a
basic competence in physical skills. Thinking about complex
game strategies and competitive psychological issues are the
least of their concerns.
Another common statistic (spoken with such conviction as to
sound downright scientific) thrown around is that humans use
only 10% of their brain power. How can anyone possibly measure
or prove a statement like this? Because these percentage-based
statements are impossible to verify, they add little credible
discourse to sport psychology.
Here, though, is one never-ending oddity. If at least 90% of
all athletes and coaches state that the mental arena is vital,
and absolutely critical at the higher reaches of a sport, then
why do they also admit that they rarely practice mental skills?
Perhaps they don't know how to practice these skills, or are
not psychologically minded enough to seek assistance in this
area. There still remains, in many sports, a stigma associated
with an athlete who is "too mental". That's unfortunate.
||The Mental Game Always Makes The Difference Between Two Otherwise
Equal Athletes In A Competition.
||It has been said that if two athletes are equal in physical
skill and physical conditioning, and in experience, then the
factor that makes the difference between winning and losing
is mental. Indeed, it is said, at the higher levels of a sport,
the mental game is often the deciding factor, because most athletes
are equal in their technical and physical abilities. Experienced
coaches, players and commentators make this statement all the
time. This is not particularly insightful, but rather, a tautology,
an error of logic. Clearly, the mental game makes the difference
when all other factors are equal.
||Sports Psychology Is Only For Athletes Who Are Mentally Weak.
||The term "mentally weak" implies there is an inherently defective
or temporarily fragile mental quality in an athlete. This is
not a helpful or accurate statement, as many elite athletes
who are quite mentally strong still seek the services of sport
psychologists on a regular basis. This is one of the most pervasive
and damaging of the many myths about sport psychology. Think
for a moment. Why does Tiger Woods continuously have a golf
coach on his staff? His game is not "weak or broken". He works
with a coach so he can continue to improve, and to minimize
any backsliding. The same is true with athletes who seek the
services of sport psychologists. They want to improve their
||Sports Psychology Works With Athletes Who Are Mentally Ill.
||The definition of mental illness implies there is a serious
psychological disorder present. Sports psychology is, in part,
focused on the performance deficits of a person's sport experience.
There certainly are athletes with mental illness who need the
care of a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist and who continue
to participate in sport, but mainstream sport psychology does
not focus on or work with individuals who are mentally ill.
These individuals are referred to a proper mental health professional.
Athletes who are mentally healthy are the focus of sport psychologists.
An athlete who needs help improving mental skills undertakes
sport psychology training from an educational perspective, not
a mental health one.
||Sports Psychology Can't Make A Loser Into A Winner.
||Labeling people as losers is not a helpful endeavor. However,
countless individuals and teams with a record of predominating
losses have started winning with the help of sports psychology.
||Sports Psychology Can't Change The Innate Mental Abilities
Of An Athlete.
||Sports psychology can help athletes achieve results far beyond
what they ever thought possible. It can elevate people to levels
of performance about which they never would have dreamed. What
is considered innately limited and intractable can, indeed,
||Sports Psychology Is A Quick Fix.
||While sports psychology often can work quickly after a single
session, for more powerful, more consistent and longer-term
benefits to accrue, extended and dedicated study and application
of the content and tools of this field are needed.
||Sports Psychology Is Only For Elite Performers.
||Any level, age, gender and sport can benefit from the discipline
of sports psychology. Parents, coaches and officials also can
benefit. Sports psychology covers the entire range of sport
and movement behavior and offers assistance to anyone desiring
high quality experiences in these realms.
||Sports Psychology Can Work By Simply Reading About It.
||Having a cognitive, conceptual understanding of sport psychology
is important, but this alone is not sufficient to help an athlete
consistently perform under pressure. The principles of sports
psychology need to be practiced, used in actual game conditions
and mastered before they can be called upon in a reliable manner
day to day under competitive conditions.
||Sports Psychology Can Guarantee A Top Performance Will Happen
||No one discipline, technique or method can guarantee that
an athlete can perform on command or win on command. There are
too many intangibles and factors other than psychological with
which to contend.
||Sports Psychology Is Simply About "Hypnotizing" The Athlete.
||Even though hypnotism and self-hypnotic approaches are important
tools employed by some sports psychologists, these methods are
not the main crux of the field's interventions.
||Sports Psychology Takes Control Away From The Athlete And
Places It Into The Hands Of The Sport Psychologist.
||It is a common misconception that someone "hypnotizes" the
athlete and makes him or her act contrary to natural desires
or values. No one should control the athlete. Rather, the sports
psychologist teaches the athlete to have more self-awareness,
self-esteem and self-control. The athlete's self-control should
increase, not decrease.
||Sports Psychology Requires Religious Belief To Be Effective.
||Sports psychology does not embrace any religion or require
any religious belief to be effective.
||Sports Psychology Is Based On Far Eastern Mystical Philosophies,
And The Athlete Must Become An Adherent Of These To Gain Any
||Sports psychology does not embrace or represent any philosophical
tradition or theories of any individual guru. Some of the approaches
and philosophies in sports psychology do originate from historical
eastern traditions such as Zen Buddhism, but there is no requirement
for any belief or any faith-based declarations by any athlete.
Modern sports psychology is based on sound, researched science,
and proven by studies and field work with thousands of athletes
at all levels of sport.
||Sports Psychology Is Incompatible With An Athlete's Religious
||Sport psychology is not affiliated with, or based on, any
religion. Meditation, visualization, relaxation training and
other sport psychology modalities have nothing to do with any
belief system or religion and they can be used by anyone.
||Sports Psychology Requires Long Hours Of Training To See Any
||Some benefits can be realized immediately in sports psychology.
Other techniques need more time. A good formula to consider
is this: If a mental problem has been long standing, it probably
won't be corrected overnight. Furthermore, the higher the degree
of performance outcome desired, the more rigorous is the work
needed in the mental arena.
||Sports Psychology Only Works With Athletes With Special Mental
||A good sports psychologist takes athletes from whatever psychological
capabilities they possess and develops their mental games beyond
that level. There is no requirement that an athlete already
have a strong mental game, or any particular psychological prowess
to benefit from mental training.
||Sports Psychology Works Best With Highly Skilled Athletes.
||All levels of athletes, in all sports, can benefit from sport
psychology. Elite athletes probably get the most press and publicity
as users of sports psychology. Truly, they can benefit more
from psychological training than pure novices because beginners
must first learn the basics of technique, strategy and tactics,
and how to play their sport before they can benefit from a high
degree of mental training.
||Sports Psychology Training Takes The Place Of Physical Conditioning
And Sports Skills.
||No amount of psychological training can overcome poor sports
technique and inadequate physical conditioning. As Vic Braden,
famed tennis coach says, "If you have lousy strokes, and a positive
attitude, you'll still just be a happy loser." Sport psychology
is an adjunct to other sports training, not a replacement for
it. No amount of mental training can ever take the place of
hard work and dedication to learning the physical skills and
strategic mastery of the sport.
||All Sports Psychology Techniques Work Equally Well For All
Athletes, And All Performance Issues.
||Not all sports psychology methodologies are recommended for
all problems, sports, teams or individual athletes. For example,
the public considers visualization to be one of the most commonly
utilized techniques in sports psychology, yet it has been estimated
that fewer than 60% of athletes can benefit from it. Some athletes
are unable to generate imagery at all, even after extensive
||There Is A Single Methodology Or System In Sports Psychology
That Works Well For All Athletes.
||There is no single technique or modality that works equally
well across the board in sports psychology, for all athletes,
for all issues. Just as the field of medicine has various specialties
and modalities to address the multitudinous issues that patients
present, sports psychology has an array of interventions that
can be customized to adapt to the wide variety of psychological
issues athletes face.
||Sports Psychology Uses The Same Approach And Methods As Psychotherapy.
||Although sports psychology uses many of the same methods and
approaches as psychotherapy, the aims, purposes and outcomes
are quite different. Sports psychology at its core is essentially
an educational approach, while psychotherapy is a therapeutic
||Sports Psychology Seeks To Change The Athlete's Personality
To Improve Performance.
||It is a stretch to say that intensive psychotherapy itself,
much less sports psychology, will change anyone's basic personality
and temperament. Sports psychology does not aim to alter a person's
personality, but one of its goals is to take the performance
aspects of the athlete's mind and body and maximize their natural
||Sports Psychology Seeks To Change The Athlete's Personality
To Make It Match The Ideal Profile Of A Specific Sport.
||There are a variety of personality and temperament profiles
of champions and high performers in every sport. Top achievers
have ranged from introverts to extroverts, organized to disorganized,
intelligent to average intelligence, socializers to loners,
etc. This range of personalities and mental capabilities in
successful athletes leads to the conclusion that there is no
one ideal character type, personality type or temperament profile
in any sport, or sports.
||Sports Psychology Has Its Own Methods And Does Not Use Clinical,
Counseling Or Psychotherapeutic Modalities And Techniques.
||Every helping profession-- consulting, teaching, counseling,
psychotherapy, coaching and others-- uses techniques and approaches
from multiple disciplines. No single people-helping profession
can claim proprietary possession of any particular technique
that can enhance performance. Sports psychology is no exception.
Delivered correctly, it is an eclectic blend of many disciplines
||The Core Of Sports Psychology Is Visualization And Positive
||Many people think these two approaches are the crux of sports
psychology, and perhaps these are among the best known interventions,
but they are only two of many approaches to improving sport
||Sports Psychology Can Cure Anyone's Mental Difficulties And
Make Them Perform Better.
||Quite often sports psychology can be the powerful tool that
helps people overcome their mental and emotional blocks and
rise to higher levels of performance. However, sometimes a referral
to a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist is appropriate, if
the problems a player presents are outside the scope of the
work of the sports psychologist. Sports psychology, while very
effective, can not help everyone, or every situation.
||The Sports Psychologist Takes Charge When Working With A Team.
||The Head Coach and coaching staff are in charge of the team.
The sports psychologist works for the Head Coach, and in conjunction
with the coaching staff. Ideally, the relationship is a collaborative
one that serves the best interests of the team and coaches,
individually and collectively.
||A Sports Psychologist Should Work With An Athlete When The
Parents Ask, In Spite Of Objections From The Athlete.
||This is a recipe for disaster. A relationship that begins
on a coerced, negative or manipulative basis has little hope
of being beneficial. Even if the parents have the best of intentions,
the child should be allowed to enter into sports psychology
coaching freely if any substantive progress is to be made.
||Sports Psychology Can Overcome Physical, Strategic, Nutritional,
Work Ethic, And Other Factors To Make An Athlete Succeed.
||Sports psychology is but only one approach to helping athletes
succeed. It alone can't overcome deficiencies in the above areas.
||Sports Psychology Fosters An Athlete's Dependency On The Sport
||The goal of any sports psychology consultant should be to
minimize dependency as quickly as possible. That means the consultant's
sports knowledge and mental skills should be transferred by
teaching the client a self-coaching skill set. The client should
become autonomous and able to function at a high level independently
of the consultant.
Sports psychology is a field with huge potential,
one that can provide untold benefits to people as they experience
sports and physical activity. It can help people maximize their
sport experiences and bring more meaning to their lives through
higher quality experiences in sports, fitness, health, and movement.
Every discipline and field of human endeavor labors under numerous
myths and misunderstandings. Sports psychology is no exception.
This article's purpose is to examine the many myths in the field,
deepen understandings, explain some of the misunderstandings present
and generate healthy discussion. Hopefully this discussion will
continue, and the author welcomes continued dialogue, inquiries
and additions to this list of myths.
To learn more about how sport psychology coaching can help you become
a better, more confident athlete, visit Bill Cole, MS, MA, the Mental
Game Coach at www.mentalgamecoach.com/Services/SportPsychologyCoaching.html.
Go to the International Mental Game Coaching website to see hundreds
of additional free
articles on sports psychology. IMGCA has the world's largest
collection of mental game articles from experts around the world,
including leading-edge strategies on the mental game, mental training,
peak performance, sports psychology, sports psychiatry, sports philosophy,
sports sociology, sports medicine, human performance, exercise psychology,
stress control, youth sports, motor learning, sports coaching, teaching,
teamwork, sports ethics, mind-body disciplines and human movement.
For additional information on this topic, see a list of Best
Sports Psychology books, as recommended by Bill Cole on Amazon.com.
Bill Cole, MS, MA. All rights reserved.
Bill Cole, MS, MA, a leading authority
on peak performance, mental toughness and coaching, is founder and
CEO of William B. Cole Consultants, a consulting firm that helps
organizations and professionals achieve more success in business,
life and sports. He is also the Founder and President of the International
Mental Game Coaching Association (www.mentalgamecoaching.com),
an organization dedicated to advancing the research, development,
professionalism and growth of mental game coaching worldwide. He
is a multiple Hall-Of-Fame honoree as an athlete, coach and school
alumnus, an award-winning scholar-athlete, published book author
and articles author, and has coached at the highest levels of major-league
pro sports, big-time college athletics and corporate America. For
a free, extensive article archive, or for questions and comments
visit him at www.MentalGameCoach.com.
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