Sport Psychology

In earlier days sports psychology was mostly concerned with developing assessment methods that would identify those people with the potential to become serious superior athletes. Today the focus is on psychological training, exercises that strengthen the mental skills that will help athletic performances on the path to excellence. These skills include mental imagery and focus training. If an athlete is serious about becoming the best he or she can possibly be, the most essential ingredient is commitment to practice the right things. It takes incredible commitment to reach the top: a commitment to rest and train the body so it can perform under the most demanding conditions and a commitment to train the mind to focus totally on executing your best performance skills under the most stressful circumstances. (Tutko,T 1976 pg.5) To excel in a sport is a contest with yourself, to call upon the natural abilities within you own mind and body. Each person begins at a different location mentally, physically and with respect to the support we are given. An athlete quest for personal excellence requires the most of what you have- whatever that may be.
“Your images lead your reality”
One of the best practice fields for peak performance is the mind. Many athletes use mental imagery for quick rehearsal before an event: A diver, for instance, might perform a double somersault with a half twist one final time in his mind as he readies himself on the board. Mental imagery can also help people prepare for possible hazards. A squash player might run through a difficult back court return in his or her mind to rehearse the various options that might be necessary in case of a delayed reaction. Psychologists suggest that people develop an image bank of various scenario’s they can call on to help relax, to get motivated, or to revisit a finest hour to help build confidence. Visualization is a common term used to describe guided imagery or the process of forming images in our mind like pictures or moves, images recreating our best performances, and the way it feels to perform just the way we want it to. These images can be visual, kinesthetic- how our body feels, tactile-how it feels to the touch, auditory-how it sounds, even olfactory-what we smell. Using mind power we can call upon these images over and over, enhancing skill through repetition rehearsal. The mind and body can become more prepared to actually perform the skill, and can improve both physical and mental reactions in certain situations. The developing athletes, who make the fastest progress and who ultimately become their best, make extensive use of mental imagery. They use it daily, as a means of directing what will happen in training, and as a way of pre-experiencing their best competition performances. Mental imagery often starts out simply, as you think though your goals, your moves, and your desired competitive performances.
Kelly Kryczka, former world champion in synchronized swimming duet discuses the use of on site imagery. “We did a lot of imagery during training sessions, especially as the competition approached. When we were doing compulsory figures in practice, a minute before doing certain ones the coach would say, “Okay, you are going to do a best one. You are going to do a whole compulsory figure.” So before we went out there and did it, we would sit on the edge of the pool and image ourselves doing it right on, and feel how it feels. You image yourself right on, perfectly. Then go out there and do it. Doing a lot of imagery was the major difference in our preparation last year, not just the duet, but also the compulsory figures.” The ultimate goal is to draw on all of your sense to feel yourself executing skills perfectly.
“Where the mind goes, everything follows.”
When an athlete is focused in sport he or she is aware of only those things that are critical to their performance, to the exclusion of everything else. In a very real sense an athlete and his or her performance becomes one, and nothing else in the world exists for that period of time. In individual sports, best performances occur when athletes are totally connected or riveted to their performance, often to the point of performing on autopilot and letting their bodies lead, without interference. In team sports best performances likewise occur when players are totally focused and absorbed in the crucial aspects of their performance (Barrington, J.1987). They are totally aware of the flow of relevant play around them, completely trusting in their capacity to automatically read and react to that awareness, and totally connected to the execution of their own moves. Their focus must be readily adaptable like the zoom lens on a camera, capable of zooming in and out. For example, a point guard in basketball or a quarterback in football needs a wide-angle perspective when focused on reading the field for an open receiver, then a zooming in on the open player and an inner awareness of making a crisp and accurate pass. The ideal performance focus is total connection to performance even though the demands may be constantly changing. (Barrington, J.1987pg.34)
It is important for an athlete to discover what focus works best for you and under what specific circumstances. Initially they may experience it for only short periods, but hard work on allowing this focus to become a natural part of all performances will pay off (Orlick,T.1990,pg.18). A lot of focusing practice in sport involves learning to stay connected to what is being done, to the body and its feelings; not letting irrelevant or distracting thoughts interfere with the natural performance program in the mind and body; trusting the body to do what it’s been trained to do without forcing: and directing your body when it begins to tire or deviate from an efficient performance program.
Scientists are showing that one crucial aspect of peak performance (going into a state of intense concentration) I associated with profound changes in the brain. The University of Maryland’s Hatfield attached skilled marksmen with tiny electrodes that measure the brain’s electrical activity and monitored their minds as they shot at a target. He found that just before an expert shooter pulls the trigger, the left side of the brain erupts in a burst of so-called alpha waves, which are indicative of a relaxed trance like state. Similar results have been discovered in basketball players shooting a free throw or golfers as they putt. This shift in brain waves appears to reflect a dramatic change in athletes mental state at the moment of peak performance, says Hatfield. Neuroscientists have long known that each hemisphere of the human brain specializes in certain activities, with the left brain being more actively involved in language and analytical skills and the right brain being more adapt at spatial relations and pattern recognition. Hatfield’s research suggests that during peak performance, the mind relaxes its analytical side and allows its right side to control the body. The result is the trance like “flow” state that many athletes and other people report experiencing when they are intensely engaged in an activity. (Allam.F,1992pg.56)
One world champion archer described focusing as “blocking out everything in my world, expect me and my target. The bow becomes an extension of me. All attention is focused on lining up my pin (sight) with the center of the target. At this point n time, that is all I see, hear, or feel. With the bow drawn and sight on target, a quick body scan can tell me if anything is off. If everything feels right, I hold focus and simply let the arrow fly. It will find the target. If something feels off I lower the bow and draw again.”
Once a person has trained his muscles and nervous system to shoot an arrow into the middle of a target, theoretically he should be able to put it into the center every time. What prevents him from doing this? Like most other athletes, archers are prevented from achieving total focus or accuracy by worry, by distracting thoughts, by over activation, by loss of focus, or by lack of connection with target. They have the program in their brain to perform the skill flawlessly. They can do it without thinking. Their challenge is to free the body and mind to connect totally with the goal. What these athletes must seek, and must perfect is a relaxed focus. It’s not that the focus itself if relaxed in the sense of lacking intensity, it’s rather the mind is cleared of irrelevant thoughts, the body is cleared of irrelevant tensions, and the focus is centered only on what is important at that moment for executing the skill to perfection. The body is relaxed but ready and the mind clam but focused. Outside thoughts and unwanted tension are absent. The focus is centered on specific target. The target may be the image of the perfect move, a total connection with one’s own body, or the center of the target that is waiting to receive that shot. Relax focusing often follows a sequence, from mind (mental imagery) to body, from target to performance. Each step eliminates nonessentials so that the single focus or vision can fully absorb the performer’s awareness. (Barrington.J,1987.61.53) Developing an ability to directly focus on critical performance cues and hold it there until the body is free to follow the visions of the mind is crucial to high level performance.
The principles of sport psychology are helping athletes succeed far beyond just body strength but past their mind barriers. An achievement that can only be attained with dedication and a will to let your mind explore the all possibilities no matter how extravagant. Thanks to the extensive coverage of psychological training, the sports enthusiast can understand the need for an benefits of sport psychology.
Bibliography:
Tutko,T 1976
Barrington, J.1987

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