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The increased stress of competitions can cause athletes to react both physically and mentally in a manner that can negatively affect their performance abilities. They may become tense, their heart rates race, they break into a cold sweat, they worry about the outcome of the competition, they find it hard to concentrate on the task in hand.
This has led coaches to take an increasing interest in the field of sport psychology and in particular in the area of competitive anxiety. That interest has focused on techniques that athletes can use in the competitive situation to maintain control and optimise their performance. Once learned, these techniques allow the athlete to relax and to focus his/her attention in a positive manner on the task of preparing for and participating in competition. Psychology is another weapon in the athlete’s armoury in gaining the winning edge.
Concentration, confidence, control and commitment (the 4C’s) are generally considered the main mental qualities that are important for successful performance in most sports .
- Concentration – ability to maintain focus
- Confidence – believe in one’s abilities
- Control – ability to maintain emotional control regardless of distraction
- Commitment – ability to continue working to agreed goals
The techniques of relaxation, centering and mental imagery can assist an athlete to achieve the 4C’s.
This is the mental quality to focus on the task in hand. If the athlete lacks concentration then their athletic abilities will not be effectively or efficiently applied to the task. Research has identified the following types of attention focus:
- Broad Narrow continuum – the athlete focuses on a large or small number of stimuli
- Internal External continuum – the athlete focuses on internal stimuli (feelings) or external stimuli (ball)
The demand for concentration varies with the sport:
- Sustained concentration – distance running, cycling, tennis, squash
- Short bursts of concentration – cricket, golf, shooting, athletic field events
- Intense concentration – sprinting events, bobsleigh, skiing
Common distractions are: anxiety, mistakes, fatigue, weather, public announcements, coach, manager, opponent, negative thoughts etc.
Strategies to improve concentration are very personal. One way to maintain focus is to set process goals for each session or competition. The athlete will have an overall goal for which the athlete will identify a number of process goals that help focus on specific aspects of the task. For each of these goals the athlete can use a trigger word (a word which instantly refocuses the athlete’s concentration to the goal) e.g. sprinting technique requires the athlete to focus on being tall, relaxed, smooth and to drive with the elbows – trigger word could be technique
Athletes will develop a routine for competition that may include the night before, the morning, pre competition, competition and post competition routines. If these routines are appropriately structured then they can prove a useful aid to concentration.
Confidence results from the comparison an athlete makes between the goal and their ability. The athlete will have self-confidence if they believe they can achieve their goal. (Comes back to a quote of mine – You only achieve what you believe ).
When an athlete has self confidence they will tend to: persevere even when things are not going to plan, show enthusiasm, be positive in their approach and take their share of the responsibility in success and fail.
To improve their self confidence, an athlete can use mental imagery to:
- visualise previous good performance to remind them of the look and feel
- imagine various scenarios and how they will cope with them
Good goal setting (challenging yet realistic) can bring feelings of success. If athletes can see that they are achieving their short term goals and moving towards their long term goals then confidence grows.
Confidence is a positive state of mind and a belief that you can meet the challenge ahead – a feeling of being in control. It is not the situation that directly affects confidence; thoughts, assumptions and expectations can build or destroy confidence.
High self confidence
- Thoughts – positive thoughts of success
- Feelings – excited, anticipation, calm, elation, prepared
- Focus – on self, on the task
- Behaviour – give maximum effort and commitment, willing to take chances, positive reaction to set backs, open to learning, take responsibility for outcomes
Low self confidence
- Thoughts – negative, defeat or failure, doubt
- Feelings – tense, dread, fear. not wanting to take part
- Focus – on others, on less relevant factors (coach, umpire, conditions)
- Behaviour – lack of effort, likely to give up, unwilling to take risks (rather play safe), blame others or conditions for outcome
Identifying when an athlete feels a particular emotion and understanding the reason for the feelings is an important stage of helping an athlete gain emotional control. An athlete’s ability to maintain control of their emotions in the face of adversity and remain positive is essential to successful performance. Two emotions that are often associated with poor performance are anxiety and anger.
Anxiety comes in two forms – Physical (butterflies, sweating, nausea, needing the toilet) and Mental (worry, negative thoughts, confusion, lack of concentration). Relaxation is a technique that can be used to reduce anxiety.
When an athlete becomes angry, the cause of the anger often becomes the focus of attention. This then leads to a lack of concentration on the task, performance deteriorates and confidence in ability is lost which fuels the anger – a slippery slope to failure.
Sports performance depends on the athlete being fully committed to numerous goals over many years. In competition with these goals the athlete will have many aspects of daily life to manage. The many competing interests and commitments include work, studies, family/partner, friends, social life and other hobbies/sports
Within the athlete’s sport, commitment can be undermined by:
- a perceived lack of progress or improvement
- not being sufficiently involved in developing the training program
- not understanding the objectives of the training program
- lack of enjoyment
- anxiety about performance – competition
- becoming bored
- coach athlete not working as a team
- lack of commitment by other athletes
Setting goals with the athlete will raise their feelings of value, give them joint ownership of the goals and therefore become more committed to achieving them. All goals should be SMARTER.
Many people (coach, medical support team, manager, friends, etc) can contribute to an athlete’s levels of commitment with appropriate levels of support and positive feedback, especially during times of injury, illness and poor performance.
Successful emotional states
The following are emotional states experienced with successful performance:
- Happy – felt that this was my opportunity to demonstrate an excellent performance. Felt I could beat anybody.
- Calm and nervous – Felt nervous but really at ease with these feelings. I accepted and expected to be nervous but felt ready to start.
- Anxious but excited – Felt so ready to compete but a little nervous. Nerves and excitement come together
- Confident – I remembered all the successful training sessions and previous best performances
Psychology Skills Training
Psychology skills training for the athlete should aim to improve their mental skills, such as self-confidence, motivation, the ability to relax under great pressure, and the ability to concentrate and usually has three phases:
- Education phase, during which athletes learn about the importance of psychological skills and how they affect performance
- Acquisition phase, during which athletes learn about the strategies and techniques to improve the specific psychological skills that they require
- Practice phase, during which athletes develop their psychological skills through repeated practice, simulations, and actual competition.
The following references provide additional information on this topic:
- JAMES, W. (2011) The principles of psychology. Digireads. com Publishing
- KOFFKA, K. (2013) Principles of Gestalt psychology. Routledge
- JOSEPH, P. T. (2014) Analysis of psychological characteristics of male and female sportspersons of selected sports discipline
- Parnell, A. (2014) The Psychology of Individual and Team Sports (Basic). Psychology
If you quote information from this page in your work then the reference for this page is:
- MACKENZIE, B. (1997) Psychology [WWW] Available from: https://www.brianmac.co.uk/psych.htm [Accessed
The following Sports Coach pages provide additional information on this topic: