Sport Psychology


What percentage of a sportsman’s success lies within the mind?

The most important aspect of sport achievement is the mental side but unfortunately the average sportsman spends the least time on it.  A lot of time and energy are spent on physical training and tactics before problems arise, and it is only after realising that there is a problem that the (sport) psychologist is called in.

It is not possible to start with stamina or power three days before competition.  Why would the mental training be different?  Fortunately, unlike physical achievement, more immediate positive changes are possible with mental work.



The initial training of mental exercises so as to become capable of applying the following skills, takes about six to eight weeks, depending on how many hours are spent on it.  It provides the sportsman with an important mental toolkit.

2.1          Attitude

When people receive a paper jet, they will do one of three things: Some people would just copy the example, some would copy it perfectly, and others would even try and better it.  The last two options are what we look for in competitors.  It implies that how you execute something, is more important than the fact that you are doing it.  How you practice can be seen in your body language.  At the USA Olympic headquarters is written: “Not every 4 years, every day”.  The how in every exercise is thus very important.

2.2          Motivation

Three types of motivation can be identified, namely intrinsic, a-motivation and extrinsic.  A-motivation is no motivation at all.  Intrinsic motivation refers to inner rewards like enjoyment in participating.  Some extrinsic motivators like a prize for the backline player of the team (awarded where teammates are present) are positive.  Other types like money, fear and winning are not as effective.

2.3          Goal setting

Setting goals should be systematic planning regarding specific outcomes within a certain time frame.  For goals to be effective, it must adhere to the following:

Goals have to be specific because vague terms will lead to vague outcomes.  To do “50 push-ups every weekday at 5pm” is a much better goal than to strive for “I am going to strengthen my arms”.

Goals must be measureable (see above example) to ascertain whether it has been reached.

Difficult but achievable goals are the best.  If it is too easy, boredom sets in, and if it is too difficult, one starts too feel discouraged.  The satisfaction of achieving a rather difficult goal is priceless.

All goals should be time based so you know when it needs to happen and when it has to be finished.

Written goals are more effective because they are difficult to deny and act as visual reminders.

Goals always have to be formulated in positive terms.  The brain reacts better to “look at the ball till I connect” than to “don’t lift your head”.

The achievement of short term goals should lead to long term goal achievement.

2.4          Self-talk

Every participant needs to have short and powerful words or groups of words (“Relax now”) that helps them to focus.  These need to be positively formulated in a certain tone of voice – even if it is only in the imagination.  Keep in mind that love rather than fear based words are more effective.  Fear (like fear of losing) creates anxiety, leading to increased cortisol secretion that makes it easier to get injured.

2.5          Visualisation

Thoughts have minimal muscle movement consequences, therefore you can train your muscles while just thinking of doing an activity.  It also helps with your attitude, especially the day before the game.  All five senses can be involved as if it is happening now and obviously you visualise what you want to achieve rather than what you want to avoid.

2.6          Anxiety management

Breathing techniques (with the diaphragm) is probably the best way to relax and needs to be trained regularly.  Questions like “What’s the worst that could happen?” and follow-up ones like “would that be so terrible?” helps to keep things in perspective.  It is also important to focus on the now rather than the future.  Homework exercises play an important role here.

2.7          Focus / Concentration

The best type of focus to be trained in, differs from sportsman to sportsman because personality and type of sport determines it.  Some need to focus the whole time (most of the practice/game) while others need to focus only certain times.  However, everyone still needs to learn how to switch on and off at specific times.  The training of specific routines are especially important.

2.8          People Skills

This is about the learning or enhancement of assertiveness, decision making, listening skills, leadership, media communication etc.

2.9          Managing Emotions

Techniques on how to work through and/or discard fear, sadness, anger, guilt etc.



A psychologist with interest in the psychology of sport can be of assistance in all of the above-mentioned skills. Furthermore, if something deep-seated keeps a player from giving their best, for example negativity, perfectionism, fear of losing, self-image, trauma, loss etc., a psychologist needs to be seen.  In these situations clinical work needs to be done on an individual basis by a clinical psychologist to sort out the underlying issue(s).


Below is a Table listing certain skills.  Look at where the control lies.  Only the aspects that you can change are in your hands.  Luckily most of these a sportsman has control over.  Keep in mind that winning is not in your control.  Don’t even think of trying to control the things you do not have control over!


Muscle volume

Lung capacity



Reaction time





















Free kick


Fake opposition

Practice games


Result Result   Result   Result  

About thatpsychologist

Clinical Psychologist in private practice in George and Mossel-Bay Kliniese Sielkundige in privaat praktyk op George en Mosselbaai.

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