As sport psychology consultants, we are always faced with answering the question, “What is it exactly that you do for athletes?” The simple response is, “We train the brain to refine our athletes’ mental skills,” HOWEVER, the complexity of the psychology behind performance is where we play a unique, and highly specialized, role. First and foremost, we are trained to understand the science behind the mind; psychology is concerned with the internal processes involved in making sense of the environment, and deciding what action might be appropriate. More commonly, these processes are known as attention, perception, learning, memory, language, problem solving, reasoning, and thinking. These mental processes that directly influence behavior are, without question, involved in sport. Take, for example, problem solving, reasoning, and thinking; in an athletic environment, the athletes that can problem solve, reason, and make decisions the quickest are typically those who are the most successful in their performance. Often times, as sport psychology consultants, we observe these various cognitive processes in athletes, and use them to assess performance. Where are the athletes’ strengths? Where are their limitations? It becomes our job to identify the source of distraction that is preventing the athlete from efficiently problem solving, reasoning, and thinking, and plan our mental skills training program accordingly.
Now, let’s make this a little bit more relatable to sport. A specific example that comes to mind is the cognition of a center midfielder when playing in a soccer game. The central midfielder controls the tempo of the soccer game by deciding which passes will most effectively set their team up for the attack; this influences the direction of the team’s movement, and the pace with which they carry the ball forward towards their opponents. However, since the central midfielder is also in the center of their team’s play, they have a plethora of options that they can choose from. This plethora of options complicates the athlete’s ability to make a confident decision, especially because the game moves at such a dynamic pace. As additional stimuli continue to permeate the midfielder’s environment-like opponents, fans, and coaches-, the pressure compounds, and performance is at risk of declining. If the athlete has the ability to more fluidly and efficiently make decisions by simply reducing their focus to concentrating on a single task, then they will experience greater success in their performance…BAM! That is sport psychology.