Updated: Oct 26, 2021
Sport psychology has played a role in sports performance since its origin in the early 19th century (6). However, the lack of knowledge and misunderstanding experienced by athletes, coaches and national sporting organization's regarding the performance benefits associated with sport psychology have made implication difficult in many circumstances (5).
Upon introduction, sport psychology was associated with a negative stigma that if you need a sports psychologist there must be something wrong (4). Yet, as sporting performance has progressed and world records continue to fall, the physical capacity for improvement is becoming smaller and smaller, with only marginal differences between winning and losing among the world's elite athletes. The growing importance of sport psychology has highlighted that it is
"who turns up mentally on the day that is most likely to take the laurels" (1,3,4).
The foundations of a house are the first and most important aspect to building a strong and sturdy home. In the same way, implementing core mental strength is arguably one of the most critical facets of sport psychology. It creates the infrastructure for successful development of applied mental skills which alongside purposeful physical training enables an athlete to perform to their potential and produce the highest results possible (4).
The mind can be viewed in three distinct levels; conscious thinking, subconscious thinking and unconscious thinking. These levels significantly interrelate, yet it is the subconscious mind that acts as the default mechanism in pressured or unfamiliar situations. Hermansson (2011) states that "it is the most critical level in relation to performance" due to the more habitual thinking patterns that have been engrained in the subconscious mind over a long period of time. Although conscious thinking skills have their own independent effects, when aligned with sub conscious thinking the effects increase exponentially helping to produce a powerful mindset for competition and dealing with high pressured situations (4). This emphasises the importance of sport psychology and in particular core mental strength to enable successful development of positive and strong thought patterns in both the conscious and subconscious mind for the most effective performance.
Arguably the most important element of building core mental strength is generating an appropriate fundamental mindset. Carol Dweck, a psychologist from Stanford University concluded that people have one of two mindsets in how they view the world and therefore how their motivation is developed and/or changes within different environments (2). The mindset acquired by an individual in a specific setting lays the foundation for all thinking that takes place in both the conscious and subconscious mind and is therefore important in determining success, failure and the ability to deal with each of these circumstances (2). The fundamental mindset may significantly aid sporting performance producing positive outcomes but it can also be detrimental, especially under immense pressure.
The first mindset, known as the 'fixed mindset', occurs when an individual believes that acquired skill is innate, talent is a natural gift and no amount of hard work or training can change that (2). These athletes believe they are better than others and have created or feel as though they have a label attached to them such as "being the best runner in the district" (2). This high achieving status often results in avoidance of situations in which they feel their label could be threatened or they may have to work hard to attain the desired result. They therefore do not deal well with losing or the significant challenges that present themselves in the unpredictable sporting world. For those with a fixed mindset, sport can be their livelihood and bad results or performances hit home hard affecting an athlete’s self-worth and overall mindset. Their loss cannot be accounted for as they believe there is no possible way to improve (2).
The second mindset from Dweck's self-theories is the 'growth mindset' in which an individual believes that skill and ability can be learned and developed over time. Whilst you may be born with a certain amount of talent, there is no limit to what you can do and/or achieve through hard work (2). Those athletes with a growth mindset place a large emphasis on making mistakes, learning and improving. This is demonstrated by successful Olympic Gold Medalist Ian Thorpe, "for myself, losing is not coming second. It's getting out of the water and knowing you could've done better. For myself I have won every race I've ever been in". Thorpe's mindset supports the idea that growth driven athletes don't fear failure but see it as a test of their current ability. If they fail, they take the positive learning outcomes and apply them in the future to ensure they don't make the same mistake again. If they succeed they understand that it is based on their hard work and dedication (2).
Whilst the mindset you undertake can differ significantly among situations, acquiring a growth mindset regularly within the sporting context will be highly beneficial to your athletic performance (4). By having a healthy perception of mistakes, a drive to challenge yourself and achieve through process focused approach goals you are setting a strong foundation in which to build your mental skills. This helps to improve your performance on the sports field and achieve overall better and more satisfying outcomes.
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1. Clark, P. (2004). Coping with emotions of Olympic performance: A case study of winning the Olympic gold. In D. Lavelle, J. Thatcher & M. V. Jones, Coping and emotion in sport (pp. 237-251). Nova Science.
2. Dweck, C. S. (2007). Self-Theories: The Mindset of a Champion. In Tony Morris, Peter Terry and Sandy Gordon Sport and Exercise Psychology.
3. Haberl, P. (2007). The psychology of being an Olympic favourite. Athletic Insight: The Online Journal of Sport Psychology, 9(4), 37-49.
4. Hermansson, G. (2011). Going Mental in Sport: Excelling Through Mind Management. Palmerston North, NZ; Inside-Out Books.
5. Maniar, S. D., Curry, L. A., Sommers-Flanagan, J., & Walsh, J. A. (2001). Student athlete preferences in seeking help when confronted with performance problems. The Sport Psychologist, 15, 205–223.
6. Murphy, S. M. (2012). The oxford handbook of sport and performance psychology. Oxford University Press.