Psychological Skills

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.

psychological-skills-psychology-of-sportMost 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.


  1. Hardy, L., Jones, G., & Gould, D. (1996). Understanding psychological preparation for sport: Theory and practice of elite performers. Chichester, UK: Wiley.
  2. 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.
  3. Tod, D., Hardy, J., & Oliver, E. J. (2011). Effects of self talk: A systematic review. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 33, 666–687.

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