A sudden wave of nervousness washes over you like adrenaline courses through your veins. This is the moment you have been training for. Your body is ready and your mind is focused.  After waiting four long years, finally, you stand here, about to perform your sport at the Olympic or Paralympic Games in Rio.

But as we watch this, years games on tenterhooks for that next gold, we have to wonder, how important is sports psychology to our Olympic and Paralympic athletes? We all know how much training we need to put our bodies through in order to compete in sport, but how much of our performance ability is driven by our mind?

Let us take a moment to discuss the importance of sports psychology and whether it really makes that much of a difference when it comes to our performance in sport.

What is Sports Psychology?

Sports Psychology is the scientific study of two different aspects:

  • What effect does your mental health have on your physical performance?
  • What effect does participation in sport and exercise have on your psychological development?

Mental Skills Training (MST)

Mental skills is the practice of using your own abilities as an athlete to focus your mind to enhance your physical performance. Sports psychologists believe that the techniques used in mental skills training (MST) enables athletes to train their minds, in turn using that focus to achieve their physical goals in the sport. Sports psychologists use a number of techniques such as visualisation and relaxation methods to aid performance.

What is a Sports Psychologist?

Sports psychologists are professionals in the field of Sports Psychology who offer assistance to a sportsperson in order to help them achieve their professional goals in the sport. Often, a sports psychologist may work with an individual athlete, an entire sports team, or with the coaching staff, giving hands-on advice on how to improve performance.

Why do Athletes use Sports Psychologists?

Both professional and amateur athletes can equally find an array of benefits from using a sports psychologist to assist them in sport. Not only can a sports psychologist help competitors who are suffering from some sort of problem, such as performance anxiety for example, but also simply to support a sportsperson to reach their full potential.

Just as the coaching staff enable the members of their team to achieve goals physically; ensuring an athletes mind is ready for competition can be imperative to accomplishing success.

Sports psychologists can assist athletes in a number of areas including:

  • Enhancing Performance
  • Performance Anxiety
  • Anger Management
  • Coping with the Stress of Competition
  • Injury Recovery

Professional Examples of Outstanding Sports Psychology

A number of professional sports stars use the teachings and practices of sports psychology in order to build mental strength, aiding them to achieve their professional sporting goals.

An excellent example of this is that of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt. The Olympic gold medal winner’s main key to success is down to his abundance of self-confidence. Bolt shows us that developing strength mentally and truly believing in your own abilities is the first step on the road to sporting success and that enjoying competing is paramount. What is notable about watching Bolt compared to other sprinters is that Bolt, unlike the rest, looks to enjoy everything he does. He jokes, laughs, and has fun until he’s ready to go where he then focuses with laser-like precision. Other athletes look to be focused and highly serious all the time which can be mentally draining and a pile of pressure that causes a crumble in performance.

Another outstanding example of the positive benefits of sports psychology can be seen in 21-year-old, British Olympic swimmer Adam Peaty. With complete mental focus, Peaty managed to earn himself not one, but two Olympic medals during the current Olympic games in Rio. What was most notable was his attitude to the event. An Olympian deals with an enormous amount of pressure, both external and internal which can make staying calm difficult. Adam Peaty seems to have a fantastic ability to separate himself from this pressure and perform. In one interview he made the comment…

“It’s just two lengths of the pool, the same as what we do in training every day”

Adam Peaty, Rio Olympics

While this may seem common sense, many participating in sport suddenly lose form when competing. A certain degree of a professional’s success comes from relentless practice to ensure their technique holds up under pressure, but an even larger degree comes from the ability to detach the significance of the situation from performing. This involves a process of becoming present to the moment and quieting the mind. As soon as you take notice of thoughts linked with the future outcomes or past results, you lose focus in the present and performance diminishes. Simply focusing on your breath is enough to bring you back into the moment and help improve performance.

When Sports Psychology goes wrong

Just as following good practices of sports psychology can result in positive physical effects, using these same techniques incorrectly, can be detrimental to an athlete’s performance. Often, this is most apparent in the grassroots of sports. Repeatedly, inexperienced coaches use “tough love” as a teaching technique. More often than not, this results in coaches tearing down the self-confidence of young athletes, when in reality they should be trying to build it up.

Frequently, through scaring and humiliating budding sports stars, poorly qualified coaches end up taking the fun out of the sport. As this is usually the reason young athletes get into sport in the first place, they are often left unmotivated and lose interest in participating. This is why it is imperative that athletes have positive mental stimulation in order to achieve positive physical results.

So, as the 2016 Olympic closing ceremony approaches, it is an excellent time to reflect on how important correct sports psychology has helped our Olympians achieve repeated success. Showing that no matter how impressive physically, or how naturally talented you may be, having mental strength and applying the techniques of sports psychology essential if you want to leave with that all-important gold medal!