The Mind Game: What is Sport Psychology?

By Naira S. Orbeta

Last ten seconds of the game. Crowd is wild. Coach is screaming. The other team is a point ahead. Ball is in motion and it lands in your hands. You are in your sweet spot – in practice 4 paces away from the basket, you never miss. This is it! Your heart skips a beat, your hands feel sweaty. You jump and launch the ball in the air. Then…

In waking moments, in dreams and in sleep – you replay that moment again and again in your head. Would it be a memory to treasure and savor or something you wish you could erase and do over?

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Glisten by Chris Hunkeler / CC BY-SA 2.0

This scenario in many forms and in different sports plays itself out repeatedly. Will the athlete keep his composure and mental toughness until the end? Will he choke and falter? Will he be celebrated as the man of the match or be remembered as the one who lost the game? Whatever the case, imagine being the person in this situation. Think about how much pressure and stress happens when winning and losing is on the line. While many may scoff that sports is a game, it has proven to be a very lucrative and influential industry, taking attention from not just fans, but corporate sponsors and politicians as well. It has made millionaires of the likes of Manny Pacquiao and has made 17-year-old Michael Christian Martinez – a skater from our tropical country, an instant sensation. It has spawned businesses, such as sports drinks, clothing gear, and shoes, and popularized disciplines, such as Sports Medicine and the Sports Sciences. In other words, the sports industry is BIG, and what goes on in the minds of the parties involved, especially the athletes’ becomes as important as their physical health. This is why a field called Sport Psychology emerged as an area worth examining.

A simple way to define Sport Psychology is that it utilizes psychological principles to the specialized field of sport. If you even vaguely recall Psych 101 from your school days or watched any popular psychological suspense movies, you will know that psychology is interested in why people behave the way they do. Now, add sports to that mix.

In her book Coaching for the Inner Edge (2005), Dr. Robin Vealey defined it as the study of how individuals think, act, and feel when participating in sport. It targets everyone involved – from athletes, coaches, sports enthusiasts, administrators, managers and allied professionals to the parents and supporters of athletes. You can be as elite as Efren “Bata” Reyes and Paeng Nepumoceno or a relative unknown toiling away in a Muay Thai gym – and still be a client of Sport Psychology.

"Volunteer Duty" Psychology Testing by Chris Hope / CC BY 2.0
“Volunteer Duty” Psychology Testing by Chris Hope / CC BY 2.0

Why is it important? Because while sport is thought of as a physical endeavor, people are not robots. They bring everything with them to practice and competition. If they fought with their coach or failed in a test;  if they are distracted by the sights and sounds of the arena; if they are in a good mood or foul mood – all that may affect sport expression. So the general idea is to train EVERYTHING. Don’t just condition the body and learn the physical skills. Condition the cognitive (mind) and the emotional (feelings) and learn psychological skills. Pay attention to the social aspect – the relationships of the athlete on and off the court, so that it helps rather than hinders performance. Consider the spiritual-moral dimension: what are the player’s beliefs and values about sport and life? Will this aid his over-all wellbeing?

This brings us to the goals of Sport Psychology. The most obvious is how to really enhance performance – honing skills, reaching higher levels, winning over losing. However, every Sport Psychologist worth his or her salt always incorporates the idea of holistic wellness, growth and development in all life areas. We want athletes to become productive and fulfilled individuals capable of dealing with both challenges and successes. To this end, we talk to them alone or with a group. We try to create profiles and gather information, so as better to serve our clients. We provide support and counseling. We observe and monitor during practice and games. We are there when they cry and when they celebrate.

All this must be done with the express consent of important people surrounding the athlete. If it is a kid, parents or guardians must be part of the consultative process. When a student-athlete is involved, coaches and school management must allow access and a clear agreement before we intrude. If an injured player comes to see us, we apply an inter-disciplinary approach with their doctors and physical therapists.

This, in a nutshell, is what lay people should know about the discipline. The truth of the matter is that anyone can benefit from the principles and practices of Sport Psychology. It’s time that it is recognized as a vital aspect that will help better the industry.

NOTE: In case you see the term “Sport and Exercise Psychology” in books, this is due to the fact that Division 47 in the American Psychological Association (APA) combines them (Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/about/division/div47.aspx). The area of Exercise incorporates aspects of physical activity for all age groups – the youth to the elderly. It is, likewise, a specialized field and an interesting area for research and practice.