Sports Performance

Mind Over Matter: Sports Psychology in Motion

Dr. Allison Brager
Dr. Allison Brager
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This subject is of huge importance within the NASM Performance Enhancement Specialization

It's near impossible to ignore the importance of sports psychology during an Olympic year. For the most recent Summer Olympics in Tokyo and the recent Winter Olympics in China, sports psychologists have been widely recognized for their roles in helping iconic athletes along their journeys to gold.The field of sports psychology at least in the United States was indeed the "man behind the curtain" until the curtain became the iron curtain during the Cold War; sports psychology was first pioneered in the 1920s by Dr. Coleman Griffith of the University of Illinois.

His efforts helped the then dominating Chicago Cubs. Dr. Griffith was one of a kind and sports psychology was largely underutilized until the Cold War Olympic eras of the 1980s where sports psychology was more or less "militarized" to aid United States Olympic teams towards beating Russia's Olympic teams in several sports beyond just hockey.

After the Cold War, the United States military continued to leverage sports psychology for "forming and storming" elite military units during training and combat and at this present moment, the United States military is one of the world's largest employers of sports psychologists.

The intent of this blog post, however, is not to deliver a history lesson on sports psychology but rather to discuss the tenants of sports psychology to showcase how these tenants can separately and collectively be leveraged to optimize health and wellness. It must be noted that I am not a sports psychologist myself. However, I am a part of one of the pillars of sports psychology as a leader in the field of sleep and performance and have worked with several sports psychologists assigned to collegiate and professional sports teams.

What is Sports Psychology?

The elevator pitch definition of sports psychology is integrating evidence-based principles of physiology and behavior into practice using enhancing athletic performance and overall sense of self-worth. The field uses tools that provide both subjective (e.g., surveys) and objective (e.g., wearables) feedback as well as coaching and in some cases, clinical strategies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy. These tools and techniques are geared towards improving and optimizing one of many tenants of the field:

Personality - For a team sport athlete (and sports fan) like myself we understand the makeup of team personalities can win championships or force a team to get first dibs for next season's draft. There's a reason why some teams such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have gone from bad to good to greatness in recent years by adding a few positively infectious personalities like Gronk and Brady to their roster.

Finding ways for personalities to create a winning culture is more than just for team athletes though. Sport psychologists are trained in finding ways for not just athletes but also clients to increase and sustain motivation through building a sense of purpose, self-efficacy (confidence to succeed), and even a routine that aligns with competing commitments such as work and family.

Athletic Performance - Improving and optimizing athletic performance is the most obvious benefit of leveraging a sports psychologist. I have worked with several over the years within the military but also to improve and optimize rest, recovery, nighttime sleep, and next-day performance in professional hockey players, baseball players, and collegiate football players.

Typically, sports psychologists spend a great deal of time monitoring athletic performance and comparing these objective criteria with self-reported subjective criteria as far as how the client feels their performances are. Once points for improvements are recognized, the client uses biofeedback and follow-up self-reports to gauge the level of improvement.

Coaching - Even coaches have sports psychologists. As a coach myself, coaching is not easy even if you are a lifelong high-level athlete. Coaching requires a great deal of self-awareness, astute observation, and measurable results to truly create an impact on a client. Because of this, sports psychologists can help coaches be more situationally aware of how their coaching style, mannerisms, and direct feedback from the client impact the client's overall performance.

When to Use Sports Psychology

Given the emerging growth of the field of sports psychology and a commitment to better health and wellness in recent years - especially since the COVID-19 pandemic - finding a sports psychologist is easier than ever. Many have a multi-faceted skill set and can be used for numerous reasons including:

1. Loss of Motivation - Finding a way to increase motivation for the client externally through holding the client accountable for their actions as well as leveraging many tools and techniques to increase internal motivation.

2. Improve Self-Worth - Finding a way to find pleasure and joy while improving performance through building confidence, morale, and purpose.

3. Improve Quality of Life - Finding a way to create balance as well as maximize quality in training, rest/recovery, and competing life commitments to maximize overall health and happiness.

4. Being in a Performance or Coaching "Rut" - Finding a way to monitor performance and coaching holes to identify solutions leading to improvement.

5. As Part of a Long-Term Health and Wellness Plan - Finding a way to optimize health and wellness in the long-term through building a solid foundational relationship focused on cultivating motivation, self-efficacy, and performance.

To conclude, sports psychology ought to never have any stigma attached. It is a means to help each one of us live our best lives to our fullest every day.

The Author

Dr. Allison Brager

Dr. Allison Brager

Dr. Brager is a subject matter expert in behavioral genetics, sleep, and biological rhythms research. She is passionate about discovering new factors that promote resiliency in extreme environments. She also serves on the NCAA task force for mental health and sleep, contributing to the first edition of the NCAA student-athlete mental health handbook. She is author of Meathead: Unraveling the Athletic Brain, which debunks the myth of the 'dumb jock' and serves as a performance manual for functional athletes. Outside of the laboratory, Allison was a two-time CrossFit Games (team) athlete, a two-time CrossFit Regionals (individual) athlete, and a four-year varsity NCAA Division I athlete in track and field. Dr. Brager has an Sc.B. in Psychology from Brown University and a Ph.D. in Physiology from Kent State University.