Sport Psychology for Achieving Optimum Development

(The information in this article was taken or adapted from the High Performance Coaching Program Study Guide.)

In addition to providing performance enhancement and coping strategies for on-court challenges, another benefit of sport psychology is that it promotes optimum mental and emotional development. Knowledge and techniques from this field can improve decision making and problem solving, lead to more refined strategies, and enhance thinking. Sport psychology also deals with how psychological/emotional development and well being occur as consequences of participation in sport. Here are some suggestions for how you can play an important role in ensuring that players grow in this area.

Start With Leadership

The foundation for good leadership is providing a challenging yet encouraging environment in which individuals are rewarded for good behavior.  Good leaders empower their players to become more personally responsible for setting and achieving goals.

The following are some characteristics of effective leaders (Murray, 1997):

Love of knowledge – Convinced that learning never ends and tries to continually upgrade players’ understanding
Empathic - Genuinely focused on the perspectives and needs of the players
Awareness of self – Frequently examines own strengths and weaknesses
Determined – Competitive and persistent
Energetic – Energized for success
Responsible – Assumes responsibility for coaching performance
Self-confident – Strongly believes in own abilities
Highly flexible – Adapts to many situations quickly and effectively Internally controlled – Strong sense of inner strength, purpose, and self-control
Persuasive – Communicates well both verbally and nonverbally

Enhance Mental Development

As a leader, the quality of the message you convey to players is essential in promoting healthy development.  Mental development can be enhanced in many ways, and these methods have benefits off the tennis court, too.  Here are some keys to mental development.

Adapt to the player’s learning style. Be aware of how individual players learn most effectively.  Some players learn most effectively by hearing, while others learn better by doing or seeing. Ask your players how they like to receive information, and adapt your communication style accordingly.  Sport psychologists frequently assess a player’s learning style to gain clues as to how to best assist him or her. 

Encourage curiosity.  Another way to enhance mental development is to reward curiosity, or a healthy quest for knowledge. Promote the truth that there is no sudden endpoint to learning. Learning is as much a constant process for the number one tennis player in the world as it is for the struggling college or junior player. By encouraging curiosity, you can ensure that your players are continually seeking better answers to problems.

Encourage modesty.  As players’ knowledge and skills progress, their capacity for even more advanced learning increases. However, once a player believes that he or she has “arrived,” mentally or physically, his or her performance may decline. In a competitive world, players need to stay modest so they continue their mental development.           

Encourage openness to change. Newer and better mental and physical strategies are always being developed.  Coaches, parents, and players should be open to change rather than rigidly focusing on traditional methods out of habit.

Promote logical and positive thinking.  Even the best players and coaches become irrational or negative at times, and this impairs both learning and performance. An ongoing challenge in sport psychology is to help athletes who think irrationally to evaluate situations in a slightly differently way to gain an advantage. Table 4.1 shows examples of irrational beliefs and ways to overcome them.  

Table 4.1    Sample Irrational Beliefs and Counteracting Actions (Murray, 1998b)

Encourage excellence, not perfectionism. Many athletes are driven to perfectionism, basing their self-worth on how well they perform on the court. They usually believe that if they fail to achieve they will face shame, disgrace, or disaster. This unhealthy attitude is associated with many forms of physical and mental illness, depletes energy, and robs players of the opportunity to develop mentally.

Foster an attitude of excellence rather than perfectionism.  Respect each player as a person, independent of his or her tennis performance.  Focus on the enjoyable aspects of sport and long-term improvement rather than immediate success or failure.

Perfectionism is harmful to performance in the long run and undermines athletic satisfaction.  If you want your players to develop mentally, you will need to discourage them from falling victim to this compulsion.    

Enhance Emotional Development

In addition to enhancing players’ mental development through learning and thinking strategies, be aware of the overall impact that sport has on players emotionally. 

Encourage emotional control.  Players differ widely on how well they can handle the pressures of competition.  Some players internalize emotions and remain calm under a variety of situations, whereas others are much more explosive.  Anger, fear, and boredom are some of the emotions that players experience in tennis at one time or another.  How well they manage these feelings often determines how far they progress competitively.  Temporary mood states and emotions often destroy performance by disrupting focus, physical control, and confidence.  Players need to productively channel such states and emotions to enhance performance. 

When anger distracts a player or results in poor sportsmanship, you should take a very strong stand against this behavior. Many techniques are available to promote greater emotional control. Professional advice is often a good resource for individual cases.  By encouraging players to exercise even greater control when faced with severe adversity, you help players develop themselves emotionally and learn to cope with adverse situations off the court, too.

Reduce excuse making.  Another aspect of emotional development is taking full responsibility for performance without making excuses for poor outcomes.  Players often deflect the social disapproval and negative feelings surrounding poor outcomes by creating excuses or justifications. By shifting some of the blame to extenuating circumstances, players may reduce their uneasiness, but they do not promote performance or growth.

One problem is that, by reducing responsibility for negative outcomes, athletes perceive less control over events. With no perceived control, they often set lower goals and decrease their efforts.  As the downward slide continues, they take on less responsibility for their actions, practices lose meaning, and confidence wanes.

After a difficult loss, encourage your players to remain quiet, congratulate the opponent, and refrain from offering too many explanations for the loss. By being more fully responsible for unfavorable outcomes and eliminating excuses, players develop emotional strength. This is the narrow path from which improvement and real growth emerge.