Mental Mind Psych Guru Experts – What do they do then?

Ok, so this is an easy one. A while ago, the news at large announced that Roy Hodgson, (at the time, manager of the England football) team was considering using a Sport Psychologist ahead of the World Cup to boost England’s chances of not bowing out of yet another tournament on penalties. 

As a Newcastle supporter, I'm a big fan of Chris Waddle, but that 'pelanty' just reached the edge of our solar system.
As a Newcastle supporter, I’m a big fan of Chris Waddle, but that ‘pelanty’ just reached the edge of our solar system.

If you’re not familiar with England’s penalty woes (Or ‘pelanty’ woes if you’re Chris Waddle) they’ve lost penalty shootouts at World Cup 1990, Euro ’96, World Cup ’98, Euro ’04, World Cup ’06, and Euro 2012.  It has to be said, that’s a pretty spectacular record.

So yeah, get a psychologist in to help England with their penalty problems. Seems reasonable… well, sort of. There are a couple of things here that don’t quite sit well, but I haven’t really thought this through and I can’t figure out which is most important so I’m just going to do this in a random order, mkay?

1. Psychologists don’t fix things.

Uh… well that’s not strictly true, we can help athletes who are struggling with issues like anxiety, or a lack of confidence, athletes who might be struggling to come to terms with injuries, have problems concentrating on the right things at the right times, or who are dealing with the end of their careers.

The list goes on and I won’t bore you with it, but the point is that the media often portrays sport psychologists as problem solvers or fixers; people you can call in when something’s going wrong and who’ll provide a quick fix and make everything ok. WE’RE GONNA WIN THE WORLD CUP!

Ok, hold on.

First, there’s not really any such thing as a quick fix. That’s not to say that sport psych can’t have an impact after a session or two, but working on the mental aspects of your performance requires time, work, and patience. Despite what my email inbox tells me, to get bigger and stronger, I need to spend hours in the gym, I need to eat right, and look after myself. There is no magic pill.

It’s the same with sport psychology. If I want to get better at handling nerves, I need to spend some time understanding when and why I get nervous, I need to learn some skills that will help me to manage those nerves, I need to practice those skills and eventually start taking them into competition settings. But if you put the time and effort in, it can make a huge difference.

Probably a nice guy, but is INSTANT overselling it a bit. For starters, I'm assuming you have to read the book.
Probably a nice guy, but is INSTANT overselling it a bit? For starters, I’m assuming you have to read the book.

Second, it’s not just about fixing “problems” or working on “weaknesses.” One of the things that stops people from working with sport psychologists is the idea that if you’re seeing a psychologist, then you must have some sort of problem. Well that’s horseshit. How much of your sport is mental? 50%? 40%? 10%?

Ok, so even if you only think 10% of your performance is down to mental factors. That 10% can make a difference. Are you pretty good at, for example, staying focused and on-task under pressure? Yeah? Ok, out of 100, how good are you at staying focused under pressure? 95? Wow, that’s pretty good! What would it take to make it 96 or 97? Do you fancy working on that?

Sport psychologists don’t just work with athletes who feel they have “problems” (the very notion of “problems” could do with a whole blog post of its own,but that’s another day). What happens when you stop working on things that you’re already good at? You stop being good at them. What happens when you work on things you’re already good at? You become great.

2. We’re not magical beings from another dimension…. mostly.

There’s still a bit of a belief that sport psychologists are practicing some sort of mind magic on athletes. I feel like I’ve just made up that phrase, but I’ll bet someone has used it before in relation to sport psychology. Again, one of the things that can put people off is the idea that we’re gonna delve into their deepest, darkest secrets, lie them down on a couch and ask them to tell us about their childhood, mess with their minds.

I have to take issue with the media’s portrayal of sport psychology here. The amount of coverage given to the importance of the mind in producing top performances is encouraging. But I distinctly remember the BBC running a whole segment on sport psychology at a recent Olympics (brilliant!), where they referred to it as a “dark art” (D’oh!).

Typical first session with a Sport Psychologist.
Typical first session with a Sport Psychologist.

That’s not to say the image of sport psych isn’t getting better, or that sport psychology isn’t becoming more and more a part of performance excellence in a wider range of sports and disciplines. In fact, the England football team considering using a sport psychologist has sparked off conversations across the country about sport psychology, and that’s great.

But no, it’s not a dark art, we’re not Mind Meddlers or Mood Magicians or Thought Wizards. We are Sport Psychologists and have gone through years of studying and training under supervision to become qualified to work alongside performers of various kinds… on second thoughts, I actually kinda like Thought Wizards. Yeah I’m totally using that.

Anyway, this post’s gone on too long. There’s more to say, but I’ve written two blogs in a week now after not writing anything for a while so I’m off to lie down for a month. Leave a comment if you like.

Oh and as well as developing mental skills, actually practicing ‘pelanties’ might be advisable.

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