Road Header
Culture
Encyclingpedia

Use Sport Psychology They Say…

By: Susan Sotir, PhD  April 20, 2020

Addressing the mental side of sport shouldn’t be a last resort – it can be an intentional step towards improvement. Susan Sotir, Ph.D, discusses the ins and outs of Sports Psychology

“Get your head in the race!”

“Focus!”

“What are you worrying about? It’s what you do every day.”

How many times have you heard this, or something similar? Chances are every athlete has. Typically, sport psychology isn’t suggested until someone is frustrated and “stuck”, but what if we approached it more proactively? Addressing the mental side of sport shouldn’t be a last resort – it can be an intentional step towards improvement. In what follows, we’ll consider what sport psychology is, who it’s for, and how you can start to effectively add some of the tools the field of sport psychology offers to your arsenal.

What is sport psychology?

According to the American Psychological Association: “Sport psychology is a proficiency that uses psychological knowledge and skills to address optimal performance and well-being of athletes, developmental and social aspects of sports participation, and systemic issues associated with sports settings and organizations.” Put simply, it’s the strategic use of mental skills to improve performance. As an athlete, the two components of sport psychology that are particularly relevant are (1) well-being and (2) performance.

Who can benefit from sport psychology?

You, to support your overall well-being

Mental health impacts everyone – we all fall somewhere on the mental health spectrum – somewhere between healthy and unwell, oftentimes shifting depending on what is currently happening in our lives. If your thoughts, feeling, and emotions interfere with your ability to engage enthusiastically in your daily life, your mental health might need a check in. Clinical sport psychologists have the skill and experience to work with you to strengthen your mental health. Don’t give me the, “I’m not crazy, I don’t need a shrink” foolishness. If your stomach hurt for months on end, you would see a doctor who specializes in restoring your stomach to full, healthy functioning. Treat your brain the same way. It’s an organ too, and one responsible for a whole lot more than your stomach. Having it functioning efficiently is a very good thing.

You, when you care about your performance

There are a multitude of skills that address the performance side of sport. Maybe you lack motivation sometimes, or experience sport-related anxiety, or find yourself focusing on the less helpful part of the training/racing picture. There are performance-related tools that offer strategies to manage your efforts before, during, and after your sport practices and races.

When can you apply sport psychology skills to your cycling?

Daily. The answer is daily. Every single day. The mental skills associated with excelling as an athlete are not just for race day. They are useful when you are learning and practicing your skills, when you are building fitness, and when you’re racing. Let’s look at some things that help and where they can fit. (This isn’t a complete, be all, end all list. This is a quick glimpse, so you can see when certain skills might help you as an athlete).

Skill Learning

Developing any skill benefits from a calm, receptive mental presence. When we don’t know how to do something, lack of knowledge and high levels of mental processing make it hard to do. When we are somewhat good at something, awareness of the process and honest self-reflection help our trajectory of improvement. When we are expert level, remaining confident, in the moment, and devoting the least amount of resources necessary for execution leads to more refined actions. Wherever you are on this developmental range, better processing leads to more effective, more efficient process. Better process, better practice.

Practice

Let’s face it, training is where we live our sport. How you show up, how you engage, and what you build in practice is what you get back on race day. Self-regulation, stress management, time management, attentional focus, attribution, effort, and self-reflection are all mental skills. Integrating these skills into your daily practice will mean that you get better at each one, and those gains will be there for you on race day. More gains = more gains.

Performance

Performance is often thought of as your race, but it is a lot more than just starting and finishing. You have the change in training before the race, packing, traveling, finding things in a new place, the people, the course, your own emotions, your own expectations, the expectations of others, and then you still have to race the course and compete on the day. Performance at any event requires managing a multitude of factors, and no one does it perfectly. It might be hard to believe this when looking at professional athletes. They make it look easy. But, it isn’t. Managing racing, and everything that comes with it, will always have challenges. The skills you build in your day to day practice support you when it’s time to race.

How can you start today?

One concrete thing you can do, day in and day out, is to work through the same 5 steps every time you do your sport: breathe, process, engage, reflect, breathe.

Let’s look at each one and how you can use it, daily.

1. Breathe

Use your breath as an action to separate your practice from your everyday life stresses, giving you a distinct time to work on being your best athlete self. How? Before you start, take 3 deep, slow breaths in order to quiet your mind and body. My personal count for the breaths is to breathe in for a count of 5, hold for a count of 3, breathe out for a count of 7. This will trigger a body response and a brain response that slows things down a touch, helping you not feel quite so frenzied, and giving you the mental space to set a personal process goal.

2. Process

Once you’re a little quieter, set a personal goal for the practice, beyond the defined workout. What part of the process needs your attention today? Don’t give me “work hard”. That’s not specific to you. What is something specific that limits you and how can you change it? If the negative voice in your head creates doubts, make your goal to catch the negative voice early and shift it using a word or phrase that shifts you to somewhere more in line with what you need to practice. For example, if your thoughts are “I can’t ride that barrier, I stink at barriers” shift it to “I can’t ride that barrier yet, I know barriers like that need ____, I’m going to work on that today at every barrier”. You won’t execute it perfectly, but you will have a focus of attention on what action will lead to success and every attempt will give you an opportunity to get one step closer to achieving it.

3. Engage

Be at your practice. Don’t be on your phone, or thinking about what happened this morning, or chit chatting to distract yourself from being “bored”. Be present. Do what it is you are doing. In order to engage in your training, you need the skills of present minded awareness and of being able to shift focus points, as fluidly as possible. This can be a place where others may be able to help you learn more, but you can certainly start on your own. Catch yourself when you are drifting away and reel yourself back to the moment. You’ll never be perfect at this, but you will get better at shifting more quickly.

4. Reflect

At the end of your practice or training, reflect on three things that went well for you, one specific thing that could have gone better, and make a plan for exactly how you are going to do that thing differently next time. The shorthand to remember this reflection process? Good, Better, How.


5. Breathe

Repeat the 3 deep breaths from the beginning, to signal the end of this work. You learned, you gained, you finished, now move on to what is next, gains made.

Getting your head in the race isn’t a quick fix or a one stop shop and 5 steps will never be a complete mental skills arsenal. Like your bike handling skills and race fitness, mental skills require time to develop. Sport psychology is a place to look for growth throughout your development as an athlete, and there is enough here to keep you growing for a long, varied, exciting career of racing bikes and chasing dreams.

About the Contributor:

Susan Sotir holds a Ph.D. in PE-Sport and Exercise Psychology from Springfield College, where she served as an Assistant Professor for Research and Statistics in the Exercise Science & Sport Studies Department, until leaving to coach full time with Breakthrough Performance Coaching. In addition to one on one coaching for endurance athletes, Sue serves as a consultant for elite athletes and coaches interested in developing and integrating mental skills into sport practice and performance. She has served on the coaching staff for USA Triathlon at Junior Elite, Specialty, and Select camps, in addition to coaching athletes from beginners to world championship qualifiers. With over 30 years of experience in sport, coaching, and education, Sue favors a data-informed coaching approach, incorporating the athlete’s daily subjective experience with testing and technology to develop an individualized program for each of her athletes. Contact her at susan@breakthroughperformancecoaching.com.