I have been both a devotee and strong advocate of the importance of Psychology in Sport ever since I started playing Professional Rugby aged 17. I have always believed it was an essential part of my 360-degree approach to rugby and it sat alongside training, conditioning and skills as amongst the most importance components of my planning and approach to the game.
In fact my Rugby Training Academy, The Young Guns Academy was the first ever youth rugby training academy to feature Sport Psychology as a fixed part of the two-day coaching ciriculum. Very interestingly bearing in mind the average age range of the participants, it was also amongst the most popular and talked about sessions.
I have been using the same Psychologst Dr Gill Owen from the very beginning and have found her advice, guidance and tutelage to be of immense value and benefit. I don't consult her before every game but I tend to go and see her before a major series or competition such as the Six Nations and of course the World Cup.
The interesting thing about sport psychology is that everyone who has ever picked up a ball or even just gone to the gym has already done it. Take a look at these quotes from sports people who are talking about psychology without even knowing it:
"We were mentally prepared and ready to win" Germany football captain Philip Lahm after World Cup Final triumph
"My only goal was to make England (Rugby) the best team in the world" Rugby World Cup winning England manager Clive Woodward
"I was so focussed... I felt in total control" Formula One driver David Coulthard
These three quotes illustrate three of the most important areas of Sport Psychology and what it does. Lahm's quote looks at the importance of confidence, a central pillar of psychology. Often, confidence is perceived to be a natural trait, a 'you either have it or you don't' kind of a thing. This isn't true.
Try this little test: think about something you're very confident at succeeding in. It could be anything from playing a video game to finishing a book. Now think about something you're not confident in doing (i.e. riding a motorbike or getting a strike in bowling).
What are the fundamental differences between these two scenarios? Practice and preparation.
We are confident at the things we are prepared in and are comfortable doing.
Sport Psychology helps us practice on the relevant aspects of our performance and to reinforce our competence in these areas. Confidence is learned and trained, like a skill, and it has massive implications on success. Just listen to Philip Lahm.
Woodward's quote highlights another integral part of Sport Psychology; goal setting. A clear vision has numerous advantages that have been evidenced in many studies. Effective goal setting enhances motivation, which essentially means we direct more effort into a task. It also means we are less likely to give up when we face difficulties and will try and think of new strategies to succeed. Anyone can goal set - the only thing we need to know is how to do it right and this is where a psychologist can help. A sport psychologist aids in the setting, monitoring and evaluation of goals, meaning the athlete can do what they are best at: performing.
The final quote discusses focus and control. This leads us onto the three aims of sport psychology: to predict performance, improve performance and maintain performance. By improving psychological qualities such as focus it is hoped that all three of these aims can be met. A rugby player needs to concentrate for 80 minutes without ever taking his or her mind off the game. A psychologist can help implement exercises that improve their capacity to do this in much the same way a physical trainer helps them improve their explosive speed or a technical coach improves their passing ability. This brings us onto the final point of this first blog: what psychology doesn't do.
Sport Psychology is not for those 'with a problem'. The sport psychologist works in the field, with the trainers, not in a room with a couch. It doesn't fix anything, because there is nothing to be fixed; it improves what is already there. By training psychological aspects of performance such as concentration, focus, motivation and adaptability, the psychologist improves a player in any sport. The key is that this is done systematically and practically. It's fascinating that even those who haven't paid it much attention all testify to the importance of the above traits and qualities. You never know, that ability to concentrate a little longer might be the difference between winning and losing...
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