Psychological Skills Training

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.

References:

  1. Hardy, L., Jones, G., & Gould, D. (1996). Understanding psychological preparation for sport: Theory and practice of elite performers. Chichester, UK: Wiley.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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