The Psychology of Sport

When your mind gets stage fright, things can go horribly wrong. Thankfully, sport psychologists are on hand to help as Naked Scientist Ben Valsler found out talking to Prof Dave...
31 July 2012

Interview with 

Professor Dave Collins, Central Lancaster University


The buzz and thrill of the sporting event can provide a real adrenaline rush when it's an athlete's time to perform.  But with thousands of eyes directly on them and many billions more on television screens around the world, performance becomes about mind as well as body.   And when your mind gets stage fright, things can go horridly wrong.  

Thankfully, sport psychologist are on hand to help as Naked Scientist Ben Valsler found out talking to Dave Collins from the University of Central Lancashire.

Dave -   To be honest, I think that the psychology is the absolute paramount issue.  It's the paramount issue because generally, when you get to the top level, most people are as fit as each other, most people are as committed to each other.  Once you get into the modern systems of institutes and academies around the world, they are well advised on nutrition, they're well serviced on technique, they've got similar equipment.  What now makes the difference is what's going on between their ears as they train so the time that they spend in preparation and of course then on the day of execution.  The other thing to recognise is that all those other disciplines have knock-ons into the mental side so that what sort of training I'm doing and whether I perceive it's the right sort of training or not will actually determine in no small part its effects.  And if I'm confident that if I'm eating the right things and doing the right things, then that's likely to have a psychological knock-on as well.

Ben -   So, we think of sport psychology as being about getting "in the zone", psyching yourself out, just before the race or whatever event it is that you're taking part in, but clearly, it actually starts a lot earlier than that.

Women 60 m final during Doha 2010 World Indoor ChampionshipsDave -   It's almost like if you're going to the competition and you're very, very confident in the level of your preparation, you're very, very confident that no stone has been left unturned then probably, getting yourself into the zone and psyching yourself up for the day, is something that you don't need to do.  You know, if all of a sudden things haven't gone as well then that's when you need to get there.

Ben -   So, you've mentioned confidence a couple of times there, what are the tricks?  What are the psychological states that we need to get athletes into?

Dave -   It's easier to quickly describe what might get in the way.  Let's say you're a tennis player.  You shouldn't need to think about how you execute a forehand top spin.  You shouldn't need to think about what sorts of things you're going to do.  You might need to plan your tactics and spot what's going on.  So, there's a level of consciousness and unconsciousness that needs to apply to your techniques.  Execute techniques unconsciously, think carefully about the skills and the tactics that you want to apply, and it's where that cut off line goes and therefore, how effective you are at deploying the tools that you developed which is a big factor.  Now the confidence comes in when all of a sudden little doubts creep in to your ability to be able to execute -  maybe under these circumstances, maybe against this particular player, maybe it's the last jump in your sequence of six and you've got to hit it to win the medal or not, and that's when the manipulations that you described earlier come in - the manipulations of trying to get someone to be in the zone, to think about being in the zone.

Ben -   And what sorts of changes do we see physiologically in response to this psychological difference because presumably, there must be changes in order to enable people to perform better?

Dave -   The mind is linked to the rest of the body and it's something that's often overlooked.  

So, when someone's executing well, just in a qualitative sense, if you watch their performance, we will use words like, they seem to have a lot of time or things seem to happen quite smoothly and quite easily for them.  There is an effortlessness to a peak performance that is about executing the exact muscles in the exact ways, and the exact sequence with exactly the level of force you need and no more.  Now if I would contrast that with most people learning how to do skills, for example a learner skier would be very, very stiff, very, very jerky, movements are very hard, furrowed brow of concentration as opposed to a top class skier which would be very smooth, very flowing, low effort, enjoyable.  Those are the sorts of technical differences that anybody can see that show that someone is executing to the plan because the conscious control is grosser, cruder and less finely tuned than the unconscious control.  So when you superimpose conscious control on a move that you can do quite well unconsciously, what tends to happen is that part of the movement is exaggerated, over done or the timing goes out and as a result, the whole suffers.

Ben -   And how can we actually start to evaluate this in a more quantitative way?  What are the tricks that we can use to gather evidence about the best approaches or is it always going to be a qualitative thing where one approach is best for one person and another approach for someone else?

Dave -   It is always going to be individual because what people are doing and how they are thinking and what sorts of things are happening to them is very individual.  For example, the received wisdom in target shooting is that most people will pull the trigger or release the arrow in what's called the interbeat interval, the pause between the bump, bump that you get from your heart, the reason being, there's less tremor in the body.  So, if you were to turn out with that sort of received wisdom, what you would do is to train people to become aware of whether heart beat was and say, what I want you to do is to squeeze the trigger, is to release the arrow in the interbeat interval.  Research we've done shows that five out of the six top pistol shots in the country actually squeeze the trigger on the beat.  So, all of a sudden, what received wisdom and then lots of science actually shows doesn't necessarily apply to an individual.  Therefore, you have to make sure it's individualised.

Ben -   We've heard a lot about the new technologies that people use, very high speed footage for example.  Are there any technologies that you can learn from all that you can use to help people learn a bit more about their psychological state?

David -   I think it's very useful to be able to quantify this mystical, "in the zone" type experience.  So, my own work with athletes, I've used electroencephalography, I've attached electrodes to people's skulls, measuring what's going on, and able to point to them that, "Okay, you're going to execute better in this sort of state."  What that feels like to you is a very focused but unaware of what's going on on the outside type of situation.  Now that would be very appropriate for a weightlifter, for a shot-putter, for someone who's executing what we call a closed skill, a skill where they're in complete control of what's happening.  They don't have to react to an opponent.  You might measure electromyography.  You might stick electrodes onto their muscles to see which muscles are firing in what sequence, in what way.  You certainly would use 3-dimensional analysis of their movement what's called kinematics to look at again the sort of the patterns of movement that they execute and also, to actually show them that when they're in the zone, this is what's happening and that actually, they're moving faster for possibly less muscular effort.  And that helps them to acquire the skill necessary to put themselves there and keep themselves there when the pressure is on.


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