Timing is everything in sports psychology

‘If you do not know where you are going, do not be surprised if you arrive somewhere else’ (Lewis Carroll).

Mental skills training and psychological support can enhance performance. One issue that has come to the fore over the past decade is the timing of those interventions. While practitioners strive to tailor their interventions to individual athletes, awareness of the concept of ‘periodisation’ is key.
Periodisation describes the challenge of planning and managing physical training over time. Volume (the amount of work athletes perform) and intensity (the quality of work performed) are the two most important variables that are systematically varied in physical training programmes.

Psychological skills training is now embedded in the elite performance model of training, but the integration of the planning and periodisation of mental and psychological skills has rarely been tested or assessed. But the risks of getting the timing of psychological skills training wrong are worth considering.

For instance, the introduction of particular techniques, whether effective or not, may alter athletes self-concept and reduce their confidence. A novel method may work in the long term, but in the short term athletes are being encouraged to employ a technique that may not even have been aware of.

And, while the periodisation of psychological inputs makes logical sense, it doesn’t necessary parallel that of physical training. As athletes approach the Olympic and Paralympics Games, psychological support is perceived to be in high demand the closer the Games approach.

For first time Olympians and Paralympians, the one-off quick fix certainly occurs, but the benefit is debatable. Athletes have requested more self-confidence and affirmation sessions in short bouts close to the competition, as the event can be their once in a lifetime experience.

Planning and the routine building within the sportand between athlete, coach and sport psychologist is normally the best way. This is best achieved with time at practice, competition events and social gatherings within the sport.

What will inevitably occur will be other interpersonal and intra-staff psychological issues that occur under the pressure of the Games. This only happens at big events and hence periodisation and timing has to be simulated at previous competitive environments. If these are dealt with without personal conflict being involved, the event will run itself. 

But there are still many theoretical questions over its application and a lack of adequate guidelines on the optimal approach to implementing an effective programme. This is because there are many variables, such as demanding competitive and practice schedules, delivery issues such as consultant knowledge, access to athlete and coach and coach /athlete reluctance.

Despite these potential difficulties, developing the periodisation framework can only bring greater insight and refinement into the delivery of psychology in sport.