So what is sport and exercise psychology?
Although sport is played with the body, it is won in the mind. As Novak Djokovic, the world number one tennis player, revealed, “the difference between the top players is the mental ability to cope with pressure … and stay calm."
Clearly, the ability to focus effectively in the heat of competition – when taking a penalty kick or golf putt – is vital for success in sport. And the good news is that this mental skill can be developed through appropriate training and practice.
That’s why many athletes, whether as individuals or in teams, and coaches are turning increasingly to sport psychologists for advice on gaining a winning edge over their rivals. But what exactly is sport psychology? Who uses it? And what do we know about its efficacy?
Sport psychology involves the application of psychological theories and methods (e.g. ‘mental practice’ or ‘seeing’ and ‘feeling’ a skill in your mind’s eye before actually executing it) to assist people to improve their performance in sport. Put simply, it helps people to do their best when it matters most.
Although it’s not a new phenomenon – Brazil used a team psychologist en route to World Cup success in 1958 – its appeal is growing among elite athletes because these performers know that their biggest challenge lies in their heads.
Does it work? Well, as far as we know from available research evidence, people who use concentration techniques like ‘pre-performance routines’ (or preferred thought and action sequences before they execute their skills) tend to perform more consistently, and closer to their true potential, than people who leave things to chance.
To summarise, mental training can mean the difference between success and failure at all levels of sport.