Psychological skills training (PST) involves training athletes and exercisers to learn psychological skills (e.g., relaxation skills) that help these performers regulate their psychological state (e.g., their feelings of confidence). PST is of interest within sport and exercise psychology (SEP) because psychological states can affect sport and exercise performance; if performers can regulate their psychological states via learned psychological skills, 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, PST programs are described next, and evidence demonstrating PST improves sport and exercise performance is presented last.
Within current theory, performers’ psychological states (e.g., feelings of motivation) are considered to affect their performance on sport and exercise-related tasks. Certain psychological states are considered more facilitative to performance than others, depending on the individual performer, the task, and the wider task environment. For example, the psychological state conducive to lifting weights during training might be different from the state conducive to taking a penalty kick during a soccer game; and the state required for each of these tasks may differ across individuals (e.g., introverts vs. extraverts). Thus, a challenge for performers is to attain a psychological state that facilitates performance. The ability to attain such a state is thought to depend, in part, on the use of advanced and basic psychological skills. Advanced psychological skills include being able to regulate one’s self-confidence, motivation, anxiety, and attention. A soccer player who misses a penalty kick during a game but refocuses quickly would be considered as having the advanced psychological skill of being able to regulate her attention. Basic psychological skills, which include goal setting, imagery, relaxation, and self-talk, 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 soccer player saying to herself, “Focus on now” when she finds herself thinking about the missed shot during the remainder of the game.
One way psychological skills are learned is by training. Training programs can vary widely, but some typical program characteristics, as well as “best practice” principles for program design, are as follows. Programs can be implemented by the athlete or exerciser but are more likely to be beneficial when delivered by knowledgeable instructors (e.g., sport psychology [SP] consultants). Programs often have three phases: an education phase, in which the potential benefits of psychological skills are explained; an acquisition phase, in which specific skills (e.g., imagery) are introduced; and a practice phase, in which performers practice applying the skills. Programs are more effective when: tailored to performers (e.g., junior elite level) and their sport (e.g., rugby) and situation (e.g., recovering from injury); needs-led, so that the program is based on an assessment of facets of the performer’s mental game requiring improvement (e.g., anxiety control); and performer-led, so that the performer has as much of a role in identifying their psychological needs as the instructor. Finally, programs will benefit when there is ongoing evaluation of their effectiveness.
While further research is required to better establish the effects of PST on performance, the research to date has provided evidence that such training can improve performance. This evidence has been provided by what we term experimental studies and education studies. The emphasis within experimental studies is on identifying the effect of the use of a particular psychological skill on the performance of given task. The typical training provided is limited: It involves a single contact with the participant, lasts minutes, and includes simple instructions directing the participant to apply the skill while completing a given task. In a study of self-talk, Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis and his colleagues assigned tennis players to an experimental or control group. The groups completed five tennis practice sessions. In the first session, forehand drives were practiced. In the next three sessions, participants practiced backhand drives. The experimental group was asked to execute each backhand in these three sessions while saying various words (e.g., low or strong) to themselves; the control group did not use these words. The fifth session, like the first session, involved forehand drives for both groups. In this session, the experimental group chose one self-talk word from the previous three sessions to use as they executed each forehand; again, the control group did not use these words. Forehand drive performance was assessed in the first and fifth sessions for both groups. Performance improved for the experimental group but not the control group.
The aim within education studies has been to identify the effect of a program of PST on an athlete’s or team’s overall performance in their sport. The typical training provided involves multiple contacts with the participant(s) over days or weeks, includes education about using various psychological skills in various situations on and off the “field,” and is at least partly classroom-based. Richard Thelwell and his colleagues studied the effects of a midfielder-specific training program in relaxation, imagery, and self-talk skills on the performance of five soccer midfielders. A trained sport psychologist consultant taught a different skill each day over 3 days and assigned “homework” involving workbook exercises. Training also involved practicing the skills: For example, players practiced using relaxation skills to recover from “bad” first touches on the ball. Players were rated on three midfielder-specific aspects of play performance over nine real soccer games. PST effects on performance were assessed using a multiple baseline research design, which involved players receiving PST individually and at different times within the nine-game period: Player 1 received the training after the third game, Player 2 after the fourth game, and so on. Following PST, all players experienced at least small improvements in each aspect of play performance and four of five players experienced more pronounced improvements in these aspects.
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 psychological skills. PST involves attempts to teach performers psychological skills so that they might obtain these performance benefits. Experimental and education studies indicate PST enhances performance in sport and exercise settings, although further research on this topic is required.
- Hardy, L., Jones, G., & Gould, D. (1996). Understanding psychological preparation for sport: Theory and practice of elite performers. Chichester, UK: Wiley.
- Hatzigeorgiadis, A, Zourbanos, N., Mpoumpaki, S., & Theodorakis, Y. (2009). Mechanisms underlying the self-talk-performance relationship: The effects of motivational self-talk on self-confidence and anxiety. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 10, 186–192.
- Thelwell, R. C., Greenlees, I. A., & Weston, N. J. V. (2006). Using psychological skills training to develop soccer performance. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 18, 254–270.