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There is an intense mental toll of reaching—and remaining—at the pinnacle of a sport. “The top six inches of the body matter just as much the rest,” says Matthew Cunliffe, a sports psychologist, who spoke with Quartz about what goes through the minds of elite athletes and how psychologists can help them win. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Take Rich Garvin, the CEO of an athletic shoe manufacturing company with sales in excess of $100 million a year. Despite his company’s size, Garvin had never hired a coach for any of his direct reports. He knew that his HR director used trainers and coaches, but Garvin was a finance guy first and foremost. And since the athletic shoe industry was flying high, he left personnel matters to those who were paid to worry about them. But in the late 1990s, the market for athletic shoes collapsed. In Garvin’s world, the most immediate casualty was his COO, who snapped under the strain of failing to meet sales estimates for three consecutive quarters. The COO began venting his frustration on store managers, buyers, and suppliers.
In North America, early years of sport psychology included isolated studies of motor behavior, social facilitation, and habit formation. During the 1890s, E. W. Scripture conducted a range of behavioral experiments, including measuring the reaction time of runners, thought time in school children, and the accuracy of an orchestra conductor's baton. Despite Scripture's previous experiments, the first recognized sports psychology study was carried out by an American psychologist Norman Triplett, in 1898. The work of Norman Triplett demonstrated that bicyclists were more likely to cycle faster with a pacemaker or a competitor, which has been foundational in the literature of social psychology and social facilitation. He wrote about his findings in what was regarded as the first scientific paper on sports psychology, titled “The Dynamogenic Factors in Pacemaking and Competition”, which was published in 1898, in the American Journal of Psychology. Research by ornithologists Lashley and Watson on the learning curve for novice archers provided a robust template for future habit formation research, as they argued that humans would have higher levels of motivation to achieve in a task like archery compared to a mundane task. Researchers Albert Johanson and Joseph Holmes tested baseball player Babe Ruth in 1921, as reported by sportswriter Hugh S. Fullerton. Ruth's swing speed, his breathing right before hitting a baseball, his coordination and rapidity of wrist movement, and his reaction time were all measured, with the researchers concluding that Ruth's talent could be attributed in part to motor skills and reflexes that were well above those of the average person.
The popularity of executive coaching owes much to the modern craze for easy answers. Businesspeople in general—and American ones in particular—constantly look for new ways to change as quickly and painlessly as possible. Self-help manuals abound. Success is defined in 12 simple steps or seven effective habits. In this environment of quick fixes, psychotherapy has become marginalized. And executive coaches have stepped in to fill the gap, offering a kind of instant alternative. As management guru Warren Bennis observes, “A lot of executive coaching is really an acceptable form of psychotherapy. It’s still tough to say, ‘I’m going to see my therapist.’ It’s okay to say, ‘I’m getting counseling from my coach.’”
Depending on practical application of skills and various licensing organizations, sports psychology may be considered a specialty under either applied or clinical psychology. Applied sports psychologists typically advise teams, coaches, trainers and managers in methods of stress-management, relaxation and visualization designed to optimize performance in the game. Clinical application of these skills tends to involve counseling athletes in personal crisis; addressing performance issues, anxiety or mental or physical injury rehabilitation; and more.
In 1979, Devi at the University of Illinois published an article ("About Smocks and Jocks") in which he contended that it was difficult to apply specific laboratory research to sporting situations. For instance, how can the pressure of shooting a foul shot in front of 12,000 screaming fans be duplicated in the lab? Rainer Martens contended: "I have grave doubts that isolated psychological studies which manipulate a few variables, attempting to uncover the effects of X on Y, can be cumulative to form a coherent picture of human behavior. I sense that the elegant control achieved in laboratory research is such that all meaning is drained from the experimental situation. The external validity of laboratory studies is at best limited to predicting behavior in other laboratories." Martens urged researchers to get out of the laboratory and onto the field to meet athletes and coaches on their own turf. Martens' article spurred an increased interest in qualitative research methods in sport psychology, such as the seminal article "Mental Links to Excellence."
Margaret, a 90-year old (not a typo!) musician from Manhattan, has been tobacco-free for a whopping 26 years, after a pack-a-day smoking career that spanned six decades. She’d quit before, cold turkey, but lasted only two days before she relapsed. Years later, she decided to try hypnosis at the recommendation of a trusted friend. “It wasn’t scary,” she remembers. “I was quite unaware that I was being hypnotized. The hypnosis was just deep enough for everything she said to take root. She told me that I shouldn’t ever touch another cigarette, not to think I can smoke and get away with it, and that one cigarette can restart the addiction over again. It was very easy. I was really quite surprised.” Margaret hasn’t taken a puff since.
The history of sport psychology began back in the late 19th century, with Norman Triplett. Triplett was a psychology professor at Indiana University during this time, and he conducted research on cyclists. The results of his research showed that the cyclists in his experiments typically performed better when they were riding with others in a group, compared to when they were riding alone. In 1920, the first sport psychology laboratory was founded by Carl Diem in Germany. Coleman Griffith, who worked with athletes from the Chicago Cubs, soon followed suit and founded the first sport psychology laboratory in the United States. It wasn't until 1987, though, that the American Psychological Association created the sport psychology division, Division 47.
Practice in the field of applied sport and exercise psychology usually involves a combination of individual and group consulting or counseling depending on the style of the professional conducting the intervention and the needs of the client. Although there are many specific concepts within applied sport and exercise psychology (e.g., goal setting, concentration, motivation, relaxation, imagery), the general goal is to teach mental skills necessary to perform consistently in training and competition, increase adherence to exercise programs, and to help individuals realize their potential.
In order to help an athlete, a sport psychologist must be able to first identify the problem that the athlete is facing. An athlete might benefit from a counseling sport psychologist in a number of situations. Some athletes, for instance, may be having trouble concentrating due to a number of personal issues, such as family problems or relationship problems. Contrary to what some may think, athletes also suffer from such things as confidence issues, low self-esteem, and body image. Performance anxiety and burnout are other common problems faced by many athletes, no matter how talented they are.
Mental toughness is a psychological edge that helps one perform at a high level consistently. Mentally tough athletes exhibit four characteristics: a strong self-belief (confidence) in their ability to perform well, an internal motivation to be successful, the ability to focus one’s thoughts and feelings without distraction, and composure under pressure. Self-efficacy is a belief that one can successfully perform a specific task. In sport, self-efficacy has been conceptualized as sport-confidence. However, efficacy beliefs are specific to a certain task (e.g., I believe I can successfully make both free throws), whereas confidence is a more general feeling (e.g., I believe I will have a good game today). Arousal refers to one's physiological and cognitive activation. While many researchers have explored the relationship between arousal and performance, one unifying theory has not yet been developed. However, research does suggest perception of arousal (i.e., as either good or bad) is related to performance. Motivation can be defined broadly as the will to perform a given task. People who play or perform for internal reasons, such as enjoyment and satisfaction, are said to be intrinsically motivated, while people who play for external reasons, such as money or attention from others, are extrinsically motivated.
Modern hypnotherapy is widely accepted for the treatment of certain habit disorders, to control irrational fears, as well as in the treatment of conditions such as insomnia and addiction. Hypnosis has also been used to enhance recovery from non-psychological conditions such as after surgical procedures, in breast cancer care and even with gastro-intestinal problems, including IBS.