Sports and Exercise Psychology | Sunday Observer

Sports and Exercise Psychology

There are various branches of Psychology dedicated to reason with various aspects of the human mind. One particular area is Sport and Exercise Psychology that predominantly deals with a selected group of persons: athletes. Thirsha de Silva, a Lecturer of Psychology briefly clarifies elements related to the field.

Q : What exactly is Sport Psychology?

Sport and Exercise Psychology is an applied branch of Psychology which deals with an array of psychological factors which t affect performances associated with sport and physical activity. Basically, it looks into factors which for example, can lead to a win or a loss in a competitive sport and in terms of exercise, it looks at for example, what prevents people from adhering to an exercise routine.

Q: How is it different to other types of Psychology?

Well, all fields of Psychology such as clinical, health, organisational and others are different from one another. Each of the fields concerns a particular setting such as an organisational setting in organisational/industrial Psychology. Sport and Exercise Psychology is dissimilar and similar in it that it applies general psychological constructs such as motivation in a sport or exercise setting.

Q : Why is it important?

Every field in Psychology is important as each deals with a unique set of phenomena. Just as it is important to focus on the physical aspects of sport, as sport does include a large amount of physicality, it is equally important to look at the mental demands of it. If we have strength and conditioning for the body, why should we not engage in strengthening our mental muscles? Many of the countries in the West already employ the services of Sports Psychologists in the support network of athletes and Exercise Psychologists advise on government guidelines and programs to increase health and wellbeing of the general population through physical activity programs.

Q : How could a Sports Psychologist help athletes?

There is a plethora of ways a Sports and Exercise Psychologist could help an athlete. Many athletes approach Sports Psychologists to work on the development of mental skills, stress management, performance enhancement and to increase focus and concentration. Sports and Exercise psychologists do also step in during injury rehabilitation or assist in managing work-life balance.

Q : If an athlete had a recurring mental issue (not performance related) should it be treated separately?

I’m not sure what exactly is meant by a mental issue here - whether it is something to do with a relationship or whether it is something like a mental health issue… However, Sports and Exercise Psychology in many countries are still debating the issue whether Sports and Exercise psychologists should be equipped to deal with mental health issues for example like depression. At the moment, as a field, the conversation is around themes such as motivation and performance. If it is an issue connected to stress or anxiety a Sports Psychologist could help. If an athlete is debilitated because of something such as suicidal ideation, it is best to see a Clinical Psychologist. However, most of us can’t pinpoint what exactly is wrong with us so as an individual you may want to go see a counselling psychologist or Sports and Exercise Psychologist and they could refer you on if you have anything that needs clinical attention.

Q : What is your personal opinion about the status of mental health in Sri Lanka?

I’m glad that there is a conversation around mental health now. When I graduated from university, there were a limited number of programs and opportunities in terms of Psychology but the field has truly experienced a growth in the last decade. People are becoming more aware of the need to take care of their mental health and people, especially young people, are now willing to reach out for some kind of help. However, I think we have to work harder to make people recognise that mental health is a priority. I think more and more of us, including me need to play a more active role in the dialogue and work together to ensure we include as many people as we can in the dialogue of mental health.

Q : At what point should an athlete start working with a Sports Psychologist?

An athlete can work with a Sport Psychologist at any point in their career whether it is a junior athlete dealing with national level competitions or an Olympian. Some athletes prefer to work with a Sport Psychologist simply to enhance the mental skills that they already possess. The key here is that the athlete should be willing to put in the work that is needed. Just like an athlete would train physically, it is important to put in some work to achieve mental prowess.

Q : Is there any particular advice you would give to high performing athletes?

The simplest advice I can give and I am sure athletes hear this all the time is to focus on the present. Concentrate on the current moment. This is not to say that you’re not to be focused on your goals but during a game or a race, stay focused on the ‘now’, try not to jump ahead and think of the ifs and whats, it never helps. And it wouldn’t hurt for you to become more self-aware. Always reflect on how your mind and body responded to the different challenges you faced during your competition. You might recognise a pattern here.

Q : What about family members of an athlete, is there any advice you can pass to them?

Family members form such an integral part of an athlete’s support network so all I would say to them is to support the athlete in whichever way possible. Have strong communication with them. Ask what they need. Identify that sometimes athletes ,especially, if they are young adults, need some free time to unwind. Sometimes, supporting the athlete means that maybe they don’t want to talk about a loss just after it has happened or that they want you to display positive body language during their competition.

Q ; Is there anything else we should be aware of?

Well… a misconception many people have with Psychology is that they think that by the end of the first session, they are done and need to see results immediately at the next competition. Unfortunately, this is not the case. If you’d like to address any issues you may have, try not to do it just before a competition.

Don’t add extra pressure on yourself to practice new mental skills such as visualisation just before a competition. Plan ahead and start working on solving your problems or working on your skills a month or two before so that you have ample time for it.