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Sports Psychology – Are we missing a key component in delivering high performance?

Sports Psychology – Are we missing a key component in delivering high performance?

Spencer Fearn
October 01, 2021

There is no internationally accepted definition of ‘sports psychology’. However, it is documented that the practice should focus on the psychological foundations, processes and regulation of activities related to sport and that Sports Psychology is the study of behaviour in sport. Specialists in this field can influence players’ conduct to increase the performance levels and help avoid behaviours that can lead to addiction, isolation, and depressive episodes. There is, though, still a level of scepticism relating to sports psychology, and difficulty can be experienced in implementing the practice in football, thus making the provision of sports psychology less well received and ingrained within the football industry. The following narrative explores a variety of possible problems faced by players and the interventions that can be made by a SP to support the individual.

Players are subject to a variety of adverse conditions that are attributed to performing in a high-performance environment. It has been noted that injury, mental health, dealing with failure in a public domain, stress linked to the organisational construct and uncertainty of the medium to long term future, can affect players. Many professional contracts are no more than two years in length and the average career is eight years which can have a significant impact on players’ well-being. Numerous players have suffered from mental health issues after long term injuries, with the troubles suffered by Clarke Carlisle, Aaron Lennon and Steven Caulker being the higher profile cases over the past six years. It was also reported ‘one in six people in the UK will experience a mental health problem’.

Despite the increased awareness of the issues faced by players in terms of their mental health, research suggest that there appears to be a very limited amount of psychological support provided by football clubs within the first team environment.  A study conducted by Gervis and colleagues explored the support provided for players who had suffered injuries from qualitative research with 65 football club medical departments participating. It was noted that only 23% of clubs had access to a part-time SP, a total of 62.3% reported that they either occasionally or never screened injured players for possible psychological problems, such as anxiety and depression. A total of 55% of the subjects reported that the current staff did not have the required level of expertise to support players as part of their injury rehabilitation programme. It was detailed that some psychological issues were a result of the reactions of players to long-term injury, with the most depressive episodes suffered by players arising after they had been absent from playing for over one month.  Access to a SP from first team level is far less than recorded for Academies, where 90% of the Academies that contributed stated that they had access to a qualified SP, which is a requirement of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP).

An investment in psychological support has been shown to improve the process of rehabilitation from injury and the mental health of players. This has a positive effect on players’ well–being, which increases their contribution to the high-performance environment and can also have a positive financial impact for clubs in terms of having members of their playing squad available, reducing further medical costs, and preventing the need to bring more players into the squad at further cost, giving a robust financial measurable indicator. The role of the SP is not only to support the players with possible mental health issues or to recover from injury but look at different strategies that they can use to help players improve their output and contribute more to the development of a high-performance culture. The narrative below explores some practices that are regularly used within sports psychology.

Sports psychology techniques

Self-talk has been defined as the person sending the message, also being the recipient of the message. The subject can display positive self-talk, which are statements of a ‘can do’ nature, whereas negative self–talk is of a ‘cannot do’ nature. It has been claimed that positive self–talk can give a positive benefit in terms of delivering high performance, although negative self–talk in terms of player performance was deemed as insignificant. It has been argued that support staff should encourage positive self–talk with their players, even when the context is proving problematic, to assist in having positive effects on self–efficacy. The combination of both self–talk and visualisation has been argued to lead to further increases in performance as psychological factors can improve.  It was suggested that training on positive self–talk strategies can lead to a reduction of anxiety within players. However, it was noted that positive self–talk did not improve the performance of ski racer techniques in their routines. Therefore, this approach should be treated with caution and monitored individually to determine efficacy.

Visualisation, which is also known as ‘imagery’, is the control of pictures that are developed through the imagination. It is not a new phenomenon and research indicates that the strategy dates back over 2,000 years. It has been suggested that it was used for the first time in a sporting context in the 1984 Olympic games, when Russian researchers studied the preparation methods used by players. Visualisation has been argued to lead to an increase in confidence and reduction of anxiety to enhance performance across different sporting contexts. The process for visualisation is three-fold and the routine develops goals of a physical nature, which are a) developing a pattern in the brain, b) consistency and c) rhythm. However, it has been documented that there are potential barriers to completing visualisation effectively, such as time constraints and disruptive environments. Equally, there are numerous research papers available to suggest this is a worthwhile practice for players. Many improvements are noted across sports such as increased putting accuracy in Golf, free throw enhancements in basketball and MMA fighter Conor McGregor cited visualisation and positive self-talk as a key component in his preparation for combat.

The third technique researched is goal setting, which has been defined as the level that an player aspires to reach. It is suggested that individuals who implement goal setting strategies and control the process have a greater likelihood of success. It was claimed that goal setting increases motivation and high performance, and that the technique can contribute positively to an player’s rehabilitation, giving players greater self-belief that they can return to competition successfully from injury. Players within a professional football club environment experienced issues when setting goals, which was due to the lack of required knowledge in this area. However, when supported by knowledgeable practitioners in this field, it has been suggested that comprehensive goal setting can lead to an increase in high performance, with 90% of studies detailing a positive effect on the behaviour of the players. The practice of goal setting has been recorded as one of the most stable discoveries in psychology, although it has been argued that setting a goal will not guarantee attainment as there are many factors that should be appraised with SMART goal setting, to give a greater prospect of achieving intended outcomes.

In addition to the three techniques noted above there are other programmes that a SP can deliver that are argued to be of benefit. The mental fortitude programme, which has been suggested to develop resilience, focuses on three main areas around individual qualities, environment, and developing the ability to deal with pressure by working on mindset. The Personal Disclosure Mutual Sharing (PDMS) programme is used frequently by the Buffalo Bills NFL team and argued to be of benefit for players. The PDMS includes sharing of personal stories with team-mates about childhood, inspirations and other parts of life and has allowed players to understand themselves and their colleagues, leading to greater cohesion, enhanced group dynamics and higher team performance levels.

Research advocates that developing strategies regarding visualisation, self–talk, goal setting and creating an encouraging culture, can help increase the performance of the player. The role of the SP in this process should initially focus on spending time listening to the player and helping them develop a greater sense of self-understanding. The approach documented by Frankl detailed that one of the most important tasks that an individual can complete is to identify their values and meaning in life, as this can help them negotiate any problems that they face. It has further expanded upon this, stating that the existential approach to psychology is to help people reach fulfilment. It is also argued that the practice needs to focus on the player understanding themselves and working on the needs of the player in the long term. Therefore, the approach of the SP must be individual to the players’ particular context, for example the transition from the youth team to the first team. It has been suggested that the transition from youth level to the senior team can be difficult, with 90% of players failing to make the progression. Only 17% of young players make the progression to elite sport and require a network of social and emotional support to help them master some of the challenges

Relevance and Specification of a Sports Psychologist

It is suggested that the recruitment of a SP would enhance the high-performance culture by supporting players and management within a football club. Although, caution must be displayed in recruiting the potential candidate and care must be taken to ensure the applicant is registered with the appropriate Sports Psychology bodies, possesses industry qualifications, and understands the nuances of the football industry. The salary range is considerable from a junior SP starting at £27,000 and more experienced practitioners commanding between £75,000 – £100,000; day rates can vary between £152 and £480 dependant on qualification level. The impact of a SP can be measured more in qualitative terms via communication with players as their approach is humanistic.

Conclusion

Football is a challenging industry and support is required to help management and players navigate the many difficulties that they face when participating in the sport. There appear to be many benefits in employing a SP, for instance helping players with the stress and anxiety suffered, addressing mental health issues, developing coping strategies for long term injuries, return from injury, assisting players in developing a greater understanding of self and helping values and meaning to be determined. Furthermore, some of the techniques noted, such as self-talk, goal setting and visualisation, can help increase player levels of high performance within a football club, whilst also giving a focused one-to-one support to all staff. Based on the discoveries of this research, it is argued that a Sports Psychologist is position that football clubs should consider, to contribute to a high-performance environment.

Spencer Fearn is the Head of Academy for NEFA, an education and football programme based in Rotherham, South Yorkshire. www.nefa.co.uk.

 

For those of you that would like to see the full version with academic references, please drop spencer@nefa.co.ukan e-mail and he will be happy to send to you.

 

People NEFA follow regarding Sports Psychology.

Michael Caulfield

Dan Abrahams

Tom Bates

Geir Jordet

Jagdish Basra

 

Other NEFA blogs can be accessed here:

 

https://nefa.co.uk/see-the-pictures/ by Spencer Fearn

 

https://nefa.co.uk/developing-the-predator/ by Ben Nicholson

 

https://nefa.co.uk/practice-play-not-practice-drills/ by Ben Nicholson