Serving up a psychological edge – Why sports psychology can make a difference?

28/01/2016  -  3.11

Andy Lane Professor of Sports Psychology, Tracey Devonport Reader in Sport & Exercise Psychology

Three British players in a Grand Slam tennis semi-final. The Murray brothers and Johanna Konta.

One question pointed at Johanna is why has there been such a sudden improvement in her game?

As a sport psychologist, reading the reasons she offers for her progress and how it has happened is a joy. She focuses on the process, expects to experience a mixture of excitement and anxiety, and is staying in the "here and now” and not dreaming of the outcome.

Leading up to the semi-finals, this appears to have helped her play each point with the same intensity so that key points are less likely to come with terrifying anxiety and fear of losing.

Playing any sport or doing any activity with this intensity and focused concentration is likely to lead to you performing close to your best, and if you have necessary skills and physical fitness, then winning performances, championships, or medals should be the outcome.

The fact she uses a sport psychologist is a positive step for the profession. It shows that mental skills and processes can be developed; just like weight training will make you physically stronger, mental skills can have the same effect psychologically.

Her experiences show the value of mental skills and the importance of practicing these systematically rather than assume psychological skills come with training.

This latter point is the norm; we normally get coached to improve our serve, or trained to get fitter, but few people get help to think and behave differently. And so investing in support to help mental processes could be money well spent.

We argue this strongly and encourage students and athletes we work with to look at the transferability of mental skills to other areas of goal attainment whether it be sport or taking an examination.

The benefits are huge, potentially life changing as people can perform at their best in situations where they matter, and importantly, enjoy the process more.

The sudden rise in Johanna shows just how close the top performers are in terms of skill and fitness. 

And so in conclusion, when an athlete recognises that the mental game can be improved, then a sport psychologist can help, and as a practitioner, it helps endorse the profession when top athletes indicate that the psychologist helped.