Psychological skills comprise the deliberate use of pre-prepared and structured sequences of specific thoughts and behaviors by athletes and exercisers to regulate their psychological state (e.g., feelings of confidence). Psychological skills are of interest within sport and exercise psychology (SEP) because psychological states are thought to affect performance in sport and exercise settings and, thus, if performers are able to regulate their psychological states, they may be able to enhance their performance. In this entry, the theory underlying the role of psychological skills in sport and exercise performance is presented first. Next, four psychological skills that have received attention from researchers are described. The entry ends with a discussion of research indicating that increased psychological skill use is associated with enhanced performance.
Within current theory, it is proposed that a performer’s psychological state (e.g., self-confidence, motivation, anxiety, and attention) is considered to affect his or her performance on tasks of interest such as throwing the javelin or completing an exhausting workout. Certain psychological states are considered more facilitative to performance than others. The nature of the relationship between a performer’s psychological state and his or her performance depends on three factors: the individual performer, the specific task at hand, and the wider task environment. Regarding the individual performer, Anna might feel her tackling performance in soccer is better when she feels aggressive, but Beth might feel her performance on this task is better when she is calm. Regarding the task, while Anna feels her tackles are better when she feels aggressive, she might feel her corner kicks require calmness. Regarding the wider task environment, Anna might find it easier to feel the anger she requires for tackles during a high-stakes competition than a “friendly” scrimmage.
Thus, a challenge for an individual performer is to attain and maintain a psychological state that facilitates performance, given his or her personality, the specific task, and the wider task environment. The ability to attain such a state is thought to depend, in part, on the use of psychological skills. Such skills are thought to be learnable and learned via instruction (e.g., from coaches) and natural learning experiences such as competitions. The skills take two forms, termed advanced and basic psychological skills. Advanced psychological skills include being able to regulate one’s self-confidence, motivation, anxiety, and attention. A gymnast who makes an error during a routine but is able to refocus quickly on the routine, instead of dwelling on the error, would be considered as having the advanced psychological skill of being able to regulate his attention. Basic psychological skills are considered to serve advanced psychological skills. An example of the use of self-talk (a basic psychological skill) to regulate attention (an advanced psychological skill) is the aforementioned gymnast saying to himself to stop and refocus after making the error to refocus on the routine and avoid dwelling on the error.
Most research has involved four basic psychological skills: goal setting, mental imagery, relaxation and activation, and self-talk skills. Goal setting involves deliberately establishing, refining, and evaluating progress toward a goal. For example, a weight room exerciser might set a goal to improve her squat technique. Mental imagery describes mental activity that resembles a real experience but occurs in the absence of such an experience. For example, on rest days, a kicker in football might mentally image taking field goals to prepare to do this for real during upcoming games. Relaxation skills involve thoughts (e.g., “relax”) and actions (e.g., breaths) that alter levels or interpretations of anxiety symptoms such as worries and butterflies. For example, a rock climber might take a few slow, controlled breaths in an attempt to feel more in control of her body before making a difficult move on a steep cliff. Self-talk involves talking to oneself in one’s mind or externally, as in the previously given example of the gymnast’s use of the skill.
While more research is required on psychological skills to better establish their effects on performance, to date, two kinds of research have indicated that increased psychological skill use is associated with enhanced performance. First, survey based research has indicated that (a) increased use of advanced and basic psychological skills is associated with more, versus less, successful competitive performances and (b) athletes competing at higher, versus lower, competitive levels (e.g., international vs. regional) report more frequent use of these skills during practice and competition. For example, the ability to effectively focus attention on one’s performance in the presence of distractions (an advanced psychological skill) is associated with more successful competitive performances. In addition, when compared to non-elite athletes, elite athletes have been shown to spend more time in a typical training week engaged in the basic psychological skill of relaxation, perceive relaxation skills as more relevant to performance, and report greater use of relaxation skills to cope with anxiety during competition.
Second, controlled experiments indicate that psychological skill use benefits performance. For example, reviews of studies of mental imagery show that the use of imagery to mentally practice a motor skill such as a tennis serve, when compared to no practice (mental or actual) of the skill, enhances learning and performance. Also, a recent review of the use of self-talk indicates that positive self-talk that is motivational (I can do this!) or instructional (e.g., keep my weight over my feet) in nature has beneficial effects on performance.
In conclusion, athletes and exercisers are thought to be able to enhance performance on tasks in their domains by regulating their psychological state through the use of learned psychological skills. These skills include advanced psychological skills, such as the ability to regulate anxiety, and basic psychological skills, such as self-talk, which underpin advanced psychological skills. Survey-based research indicates that the use of these skills is associated with better competitive performances, and controlled experiments indicate that performers who use these skills learn faster and perform better. Athletes and exercisers who learn and practice using psychological skills can expect to capitalize on their positive effects on performance.
- Hardy, L., Jones, G., & Gould, D. (1996). Understanding psychological preparation for sport: Theory and practice of elite performers. Chichester, UK: Wiley.
- Kudlackova, K., Eccles, D. W., & Dieffenbach, K. (2013). Use of relaxation skills by differentially skilled athletes. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 14(4), 468–475.
- Tod, D., Hardy, J., & Oliver, E. J. (2011). Effects of self talk: A systematic review. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 33, 666–687.