Castles by Ants – Episode 1: PSYCHOLOGY AND SPORT
An ongoing series about psychology in the world of sport.
The perception of psychology in sport is constantly changing. People have divergent opinions and change their minds rapidly about its usefulness and effectiveness. Its dynamics are closely related to transformations in athletic performance. At a time when it was easier to ascend the ranks with improved physical training or a novel technique, the human mind was not as relevant. This doesn’t mean that athletes didn’t think at those times! Mental fortitude always mattered, but it was often less important than improved conditioning. Then there were times when tactics were paramount — especially in team sports — when a well-executed, novel strategy alone could result in victory. Athletes could even make mistakes during its execution, but even then, the innovative approach tipped the scales so much that the opponents could find no remedy. The mental aspect was never ignored, and although it did not always take centre stage, it became increasingly important over the past few decades. This build-up triggered a new movement in thinking — we might even call it an avalanche — in which mental preparation became indispensable!
When did this start, exactly? It varies greatly based on the location. Psychologists have long been employed in sport, the degree depended on the openness, research background, and expectations of the given nation. It is not possible to determine the exact starting date, as the best professionals stayed in the background and to this day, they mostly perform their outstanding work in near silence. They consider themselves a factor in an athlete’s excellent performance, but the athlete is the one who actually achieves the result, so true professionals do not push themselves into the spotlight to receive praise, let alone demand it. Certainly, well-respected professionals have been working in this field for decades, and their knowledge has been used by athletes to improve performance. It is also certain that the initial “madness” period when psychology was considered as a new kind of doping, a panacea, is over. All over the world, the mystique has disappeared, and psychology has been put in its proper place. Unfortunately, it is also true that where psychologists over-promised and under-delivered, psychology is lying worthlessly in the corner. Yet where it has produced results, faith is obviously driving the process, and the users certainly value this weapon! Very rarely are this knowledge and its impact on success handled realistically. This is also the reason why sports experts already employ sports psychology solutions. Great care is taken to separate the useful from the useless. Experts are also more open to innovative solutions, especially if they are embedded in a coherent system! If one were to summarise the current relationship between sport and psychology, we could say that every sports professional knows about the need to develop mental fortitude, but there are different opinions whether this should be completed by a psychologist, or by a coach using a psychological system. What’s more is that athletes are not enthusiastic about the presence of “shrinks”, to put it mildly. In team sports, players generally find the organised sessions with psychologists to be wastes of time, and in individual sports, they approach the issue with some fear, often thinking “I’m not sick, I don’t have any problems”. Of course, this is also a matter of personality type, because, as we demonstrate later in this book, all opinions and decisions are, in fact, based on the personality traits of the individual.
Then why is there an unprecedented openness to psychological methodologies? It is no exaggeration to say that physical training and professional knowledge have reached a height from which it is difficult to ascend much further. Many experts believe that only performance-enhancing drugs will be able to propel physical performance any further because the training methods and physical development techniques have been refined to such a high degree. Additionally, the development of professional knowledge has approached a peak, which can be observed mainly in team sports. It is still possible to surprise the world with a new strategy or line-up, but with the advancement of training and globalisation of sports professionals, it is exceedingly difficult to gain an advantage when so many people are fighting tooth and nail to reach the top. The low-hanging fruit has already been plucked; the only remaining option is psychology.