Psychology of Sport

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With Evidence Based Mental and Performance Training

Psychology of sport and how mental strength wins

What is sport psychology?

Sport psychology is a study of the mental skills that are truly relevant to improving a competitor's performance on the field of play. It explains to athletes what these skills are and how they can be developed to assist the competitor in beating his opponent. To understand performance correctly is to identify why we do what we do when we do them.

To explain this process we become more self aware of ourselves and with the help of others such as our coaches, we identify the areas where our technique is breaking down, our actions where the wrong choices were made at the time and why we lose focus, confidence and control over our mental state. To know is the major part of your transformation because at this point you can now develop your mental training to become mentally fitter, stronger and more flexible.

What is mental strength?

Mental strength is a term that is often misunderstood as is mental toughness. To be mentally strong needs a versatile and flexible mindset built upon a healthy body, brain and attitude. There is no separation of mind and body, they are one and to develop one without the other will create disharmony. There are neurons in the brain and in every major organ of the body, there are nerves that are connected and there are scanning processes continually scanning our mind and body couplings constantly.

If I was to explain metal strength to my athletes, I would talk about the psychology of sport direction, drive, control and mastery of my skills. Direction focusing upon goal achievement and goal setting. Drive would cover the motivational desire and hunger to win, control would be used to explain areas of the brain that are crucial to performance such as our emotions and our preparations and finally, mastery would look at the lifelong goal to become masterful at our craft.

Mental toughness and peak performance.

Mental toughness is a similar keyword to mental strength and is often used in its place. My explanations consider mental toughness to be developed through adversity and setback and the overcoming of these negatives as we build resilience through mental grit and determination to bounce back. It is not the failure or losing, because that is not fully under our control but it is the response to that setback. Do you concede and give up or do you regroup and assess and bounce back stronger, fitter and more prepared?

Mental training will help you understand about mental toughness but it will not fully develop your mental muscles as does experience and actions. So how can it help our performance? Easy, it's a state of mind that can be actioned when things get rough or a match becomes difficult. It can show you when under pressure that you have been here before and a plan B or c or even d that you can call upon when the unexpected happens. Peak performance is always achieved when you are psychologically prepared and it matters most.

How mental training develops the performer.

When you become an advocate of mental training you not only change mindsets and values, but also your beliefs and your established psychology. You start to rewire your brain structure which improves neuro-chemicals, the origin of all behaviours. Remember that exceptional performance is the outcome of exceptional actions and strategies. However, performance actions are the result of the correct psychological processing and control and mastery of our emotional system.

Imagine entering the ring or field knowing that you are fully prepared, fully practiced and fully confident to defeat your opponent. This is what developing your psychological skills can do. You enter the arena in a better mental state, you are fully relaxed and you enjoy the experience. You have understood that your brain is your greatest gift from your maker and why wouldn't you develop it so as to gain a competitive edge.

A winning mindset and performance .

Much talk has been made of mindsets and you will have heard the term growth mindset. But what is a mindset as it is difficult to explain. I like to explain that it is your outlook to the world. It is your inner self looking out from an internal perspective towards the wider environment. You can view the world as dark, dangerous and unfair or you can see it as colourful, friendly and full of opportunity.

Our preference is not one of caution but one of challenge and desire to be one's best. Of course it will not always be that way, but we will take positives from defeat and get ourselves back off the canvas and learn how to be better. Develop your mental skills and you will be joining an elite group of performers in this world who want to be their best from head to toe. Approach the goals with a challenge mindset and do not avoid your chances with a mindset that is full of threat.

How does neuroscience fit with the psychology of sport?

We cannot fully explain the psychology of sport without talking about neuroscience. Neuroscience is a discussion about the brain, how it is constructed and how it functions throughout its life. Every thought, emotion or action triggers an electro chemical reaction in the brain as it tries to create neural connections that are new or established. In simple terms we strengthen the good ones and bypass the ad ones. These neural pathways are connections of actions, thoughts, emotions and ultimately performances.

If we identify the right actions, goals and strategies and set about a process of strengthening them, then it becomes a powerful and easy process to win over the controllable factors. Certain deliberate practice and commitment will actually help myelin sheath production around our connections. These paths need less energy to fire which preserves brain energy and glucose. Trust me you need this fuel for cognitions and all conscious processing.

Actions, behaviours and exceptional performance.

So once we have mastered our mental skills and got a control over our thoughts and emotions, we are able to focus our attention towards our behaviours. But why are behaviours important in sports psychology? The reason is that from an understanding of cognitive behavioural therapy we know that our thoughts influence our emotions which then influence our behaviours and it is these behaviours which trigger the actions leading to exceptional or poor performances.

In contrast the double whammy here is that our behaviours then affect our emotions and thoughts which produces a never ending loop of interactions. So to do good things, in the right way, at the right time triggers great psychology and also perfects skills. I consider this a form of deliberate practice leading to excellent skill acquisitions and better neural pathways in the brain.

The true components of sport psychology.

Let's just consider some of the psychological skills training areas here a moment. There are your personality and character, mindset and attitude towards your performances, setting and achieving the correct type of goals, understanding and igniting motivation at a brain level, control and management of arousal, anxiety and stress, razor sharp focus and attention, how to psychologically prepare for battle, supreme self confidence in self and task, emotional mastery, positive thought control, mental toughness, ability to use visualisation and imagery and a consideration of team dynamics and cohesion for those in team sports.

This is the core of performance psychology and if we add understandings of neuroscience and all the behavioural sciences we expand the topic to a very deep root level and figure how we as athletes fit into the social fabric of society and learn to introduce a work/life balance that satisfies the needs of us and our relationship stakeholders.


Sport psychology and mental skills training of all types are considered crucial by elite performers in sport, business and the performing arts. It is a major part of the jigsaw when consideration is given to the whole person and their ability to perform. Imagine a highly pressurised situation that needs specific actions to win or succeed. Take this one step further and see a full mental meltdown when the individual cannot deal with the amount of pressure that they are experiencing. It makes no difference how physically fit that you are, how tactically prepared that you are with your game plan or how skilled your technique is. You will fail if your mental state fails you at that pressure or clutch moment.

This can apply in sport, business, leadership, performing arts or high pressured vocations. We all need to perform at some times in our lives whether you think it or not. It is a fact and you need to be ready and to be ready needs work now and forever going forward. Criteria such as confidence wanes under defeat and needs to be built back up, emotions and emotional memories can become more intense, mental strength can leave you with the wrong mindset and much much more. Often you only have one chance and you need to be ready to take it. Our online sport psychology courses and programs will ready you. We take pride in the fact that we underpin all our interventions with evidence based data and studies.

Geoff Greenwood FCCA MBA MSc

Performance Specialist