What is Sport Psychology?
According to the Essentials of Strength and Conditioning textbook, sport psychology is a sub-discipline of exercise science that seeks to understand how behavior processes influence skilled movement. There are three goals of sport psychology (Baechle, 2008). The first being measuring psychological phenomena. One might do this with surveys. The next goal is to investigate the relationship between performance and psychological variables. For example, a strength and conditioning coach may look out the anxiety level of an athlete and see how their performance suffers or improves. Lastly, sport psychology helps us optimize performance by applying psychological principles. What that means realistically is, as a coach, we want to be able to improve arousal and attention, help with goal setting, and employ the strategies of mental imagery. Each of these approaches will lead to a better performance state.
Ultimately, as a fitness professional, we want our clients or athletes to be in an ideal performance state come competition time. That includes obviously, the physical aspect of performance. We want out athletes to be strong, quick, and pain free. But we also want them to be mentally ready. We want confidence. Williams and Krane (Baechle, 2008) reported several facets underlie an ideal performance state. These include: an absence of fear, not thinking about performance, a narrow but specific focus of attention, a sense of effortlessness and personal control, and a distortion of time and space in which time seems to slow. A coach who knows a few principles of sport psychology can be incredibly beneficial to unlocking this state.
We know that, mentally, this is where an athlete needs to be when they compete. Their arousal and attention needs to be in the “sweet spot”. Yerkes and Dodson (Baechle, 2008) describe this sweet spot using their inverted U theory. Essentially, there is an optimal range of psychological arousal. It is common sense that too little arousal will lead to suboptimal performance. On the other hand, too much psychological arousal can also lead to a deterioration of performance. Figure A illustrates this phenomenon.
Figure A. Yerkes and Dodson’s Inverted U
This theory makes a lot of sense but it is relatively simplistic. As a coach, we know that everyone is different. Aspects like skill level, personality, task complexity, and trait anxiety all influence the individual athlete’s needed level of arousal. To highlight the importance of skill level and task complexity, look at an athlete learning how to clean and jerk. The task is quite complex, especially at first. So ‘psyching up’ and athlete before a heavy clean and jerk when the movement is new will probably lead to a decrease in performance; certainly, in the long run. This athlete needs to focus on skill acquisition. The process needs to become relatively automatic before a heightened level of arousal becomes performance enhancing. The bottom line is that everyone is different and it is important to recognize where an athlete is in developing a skill, and the personality of the athlete when it comes time for performance.
Radcliffe (2015) brought up an interesting phenomenon in regards to strength and conditioning coaches managing arousal. Music. In a weight room, there is almost always music playing and often it is taken for granted how much music can motivate and psychologically arouse us. It has been shown that music can alter psychomotor activation, and can both serve as a stimulant or a sedative (Karageorghis, 1997). Also, music has the power to turn our focus away from anxious or unpleasant emotions (Rejeski, 1985). This manipulation of arousal can no doubt be performance enhancing, and is important to note as, as fitness professionals, because we are also playing DJ much of the time.
A confident athlete is usually a successful athlete, and goal setting is crucial for the progression and development of true self efficacy. It is important to have an overall long term goal for the athlete to strive for. A coach can use this long-term goal to set the big picture, and can set up smaller goals along the way. The use of smaller goals coupled with the big picture can increase adherence, self-efficacy and motivation (Short, 2010). This goes for goal setting in general, not just in terms of physical fitness.
In a meta-analysis examining the use of sport psychology principles by strength and conditioning coaches, it was found that imagery is the psychological technique that strength and conditioning professionals used the least (Radcliffe, 2013). This is troubling because the use of imagery has been shown to increase strength (Lebon, 2010), electromyography activity (Wilson, 2010), technique development (Silbernagel, 2007), and stress regulation (Williams, 2010). It seems the benefits of using imagery are numerous, but it is underutilized in the world of fitness and strength and conditioning.
There are several possible reasons that coaches do not use imagery techniques as much as they should. Perhaps many coaches are simply unaware of the benefits of mental imagery. Also, many strength and conditioning professionals just do not know how to provide their athletes with appropriate, performance enhancing imagery (Wells, 1993). Another possible explanation is that coaches just do not think building psychological skills is important. Or they simply may not have the necessary time with the athletes, and their primary concern for the allotted time is that of physiological improvement.
Fortunately, the Essentials of Strength and Conditioning textbook lays a foundation for the use of imagery. To begin, it is recommended that an athlete begin with a simple visual image. It is important to start with a simple static image and to gradually increase the detail of the mental picture. For example, a football player may just imagine a simple football. With continued practice that football becomes a more vivid picture in the mind. Slowly, more senses can be added into the visualization. One might imagine how the leather feels when you grip the ball. Slowly the image can be moved around. For example, a quarterback may slowly progress their visualization skills and imagine them executing a perfect throw. Slowly but surely, the internal practice of successfully executing a skill will flood the subconscious mind with positive associations, and this has many benefits, one of them being increased confidence.
Relaxation and Breathing Techniques
A crucial technique for promoting relaxation is that of diaphragmatic breathing. This tool is the building block of all relaxation techniques, and can be extremely beneficial when incorporated with all mental training techniques. A diaphragmatic breath is simply a ‘belly breath’ in which the diaphragm is properly used during ventilation. Often times we use muscles in our neck and shoulders to breathe and that is simply incorrect and inefficient. Diaphragmatic breathing is a somatopsychic activity (Baechle 2008). Meaning, one that links the body and the mind. Because of the feedback mechanisms that link the respiratory system and cardiac system, this style of breathing can be extremely beneficial in controlling heart rate and reducing muscle tension. Ultimately, aiding parasympathic activity and promoting relaxation and recovery.
Diaphragmatic breathing is a relatively simple tool to begin implementing. At first it is best to have athletes stand while performing this style of breathing so they can see and feel how and what their abdomen is doing. It is crucial to have a relaxed abdominal wall while learning how to diaphragmatically breathe. The shoulders and neck should also be relaxed. These areas will usually be tense due to the fact they are overworked with regards to respiration. The entire inhalation process has three stages and takes place in three different areas: the lower abdomen, the midchest and the upper chest. The lower abdomen should ‘fill up’ with air first, while the upper chest should be the last area to inflate. Unfortunately, we usually have this backwards. Having a fitness professional that understands the relationship between the mind and body is critical. The breath is the ‘bridge’ between mind and body, and with enough practice this style of breathing can become easier and more automatic.
How to Cue
A cue is simply a word or phrase given to an athlete or client that corrects part of the movement they are performing. For example, if the athlete is not finishing at the top of their deadlift, a coach might say “hips through”. Cueing is crucial to the strength and conditioning professional, and it turns out how we cue movement really matters.
Two types of attentional focus can be achieved when a cue is used. It can either be internally focused or externally focused. An internally focused cue points the athlete’s attention toward their own body or one of their body parts. For example, “extend your hips” is an internal cue. On the other hand, an external cue focuses on a movement’s effect. For example, an external cue would be “throw the bar to the ceiling”. Table B has more examples of typical internal and external cues. It might sound simple, but this switch in attentional focus is crucial.
In terms of resistance training, the use of external cueing has produced greater force and lower electromyography readings (Makaruk, 2014). More force AND less effort was put into a bicep curl exercise. What that means is that the participants’ neuromuscular system was more efficient when utilizing an external attentional focus. Similar results to this have been found across a variety of exercise modalities; including running training and agility tasks (Porter, 2010). However, the use of internal cues is certainly not worthless. For example, if an athlete tends to overuse an incorrect body part during a movement, it might be best to give them an internal cue to get the underused muscle group to fire. A common issue is the overuse of the biceps during a pull up. If this is the case, it would be best to bring the athlete’s attention towards using their back during the movement. However, in terms of performance, it seems that having an athlete or client focus on completing a task, rather than activating a certain body part, helps the body work as a system.
A coach or personal trainer’s job is much more than simply helping athletes/clients work out. They need to help them set and achieve their goals, help them control their physiological and psychological arousal, use guided imagery to improve performance, improve their breathing and relaxation techniques, and also utilize cues specific to what the athlete/client needs.
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