Sports psychologists work with teams and individuals with issues such as selfconfidence, nerves and anxiety, concentration, motivation, sports injuries and temperament. In other words, they specialise in sports and exercise but cover a wide range of what we generally regard as mental health issues.
As most people now accept, the concepts of mental and physical health and wellbeing definitely overlap with each dependent, to some extent, on the other. If there is an initial myth to ‘bust’ it’s that it isn’t just star football players or America’s Cup yachtsmen that receive help from sports psychologists; in fact, they operate at all levels, with people who have never participated in sports, right up to the elite.
Some disabled people might already be familiar with sports psychologists since they are sometimes found within rehabilitation settings where sports and exercise are used to help people with their recovery from injuries. Further to that they also advise and counsel patients who might benefit from sport and exercise and work to promote better lifestyle habits with individuals or by setting up programmes in hospitals – or even workplaces and the like. They also study the reasons why some people are more active than others – and perhaps that’s really the point where the psychology begins.
By this point some readers might suggest that sports (and exercise) are all about physical input and physical outcomes. Of course, some people are naturally more likely to get involved in sports; those with high energy levels or a competitive personality, for example. Those that don’t get involved in sports might well have physical issues which they assume to be prohibitive but here again, psychological precedents need to be considered. Perhaps they’ve been told they ‘can’t’ or perhaps they’ve never felt the joy of success in sport or maybe there are associated issues such as body dysmorphia manifested in an awkwardness in wearing sports kit that shows aspects of their physical self that they don’t like.
Back to sports specifically; to play games or compete requires not only some physical ability but also an adherence to rules. Rules are the remit of the thinking mind. The challenge is to play effectively and sometimes even aggressively within those parameters and this takes the form of rapid decision making. Depending on the state of the game, for example, a footballer might pass, tackle, shoot or run in a particular direction at a particular moment and at a particular speed. Decisions, decisions, decisions… Thinking, thinking, thinking! Surely, to be a sportsperson then, it’s important to condition mind and body both.
It isn’t just a case of understanding and playing to the rules, it’s about psychological issues. Is a more confident footballer more likely to shoot for goal, given that they believe in their ability to score? Probably. Whilst it could be argued that this is overconfidence and might be their undoing in the game it’s clear that the mind can have a profound effect on the feet – and any other physiological aspect of the sportsperson. This is where a sports psychologist has genuine value to a team or individual participant.
So what can disabled people learn from sports psychology? Well, firstly that mental health and physical health combine to produce a level of wellbeing. Secondly, that psychology can be powerful stuff. The third point is slightly trickier to deal with in that psychology can also be negative – though not necessarily a bad thing with it.
Take top sportspeople again for a moment. They’re the ones most interviewed on the telly so it’s really only their views of sport that are well publicised. They are of course, modesty aside, usually their own harshest critics and seemingly motivated then, not just with winning but by fear of failure. How many times has a winner expressed their ‘relief’ rather than their joy?
Even so and irrespective that sports science has been practiced since the 1920’s there are still sceptics that would suggest that it’s more hocus pocus and that ‘mind over matter’ as it’s often referred to is a ﬂimsy construct. Leading sports psychologist, Jeremy Snape, himself a former international cricketer and now one of the men singled out for his success in transforming the fortunes of the England rugby union squad (since their shock exit in the ﬁrst round of the last world cup), explained in an interview with the Guardian newspaper that: “Our society celebrates iconic celebrities who are billed as gifted, talented and perfect so it’s a contradiction for those people to express any doubts or vulnerability.
Whether it’s a business leader or a sports star, the road to mastery gets steeper and more hazardous as you progress, so we are all bound to experience fear of failure or setbacks as we push ourselves further. The scepticism has been replaced by fascination now and it’s seen as courageous, not a weakness, to explore the mental game as readily as we do the physical one.”
New scientiﬁc developments such as those in functional MRI scanning (imaging) and neuroscience have even proved recently that ‘self-talk’ where people use the power of words to change their perspective (and mental state) isn’t without power. In fact, it has been shown to create structures and connections in the brain which are strengthened by repeated reinforcement. In other words it connects thought directly with success or failure.
Sports psychologists then, focus on the things that contribute to success and use the inherent power of thought to control emotional disturbances – or thoughts of failure. This composure enables people to plan and visualise success. In other words, if you’re just working on your physical ﬁtness, you’re only doing half the job.