While there are loads of sport psychologists out there helping and supporting athletes, it is also important for coaches to have a basic understanding of this area. This allows you to support your athletes as best as you can – so, what do you need to know?
Why should coaches focus more on sport psychology?
The emphasis on sport psychology has grown over the last decade, however it still doesn’t get the recognition that it should. It is just as (if not more, in some cases) important as the physical side of sport. It doesn’t matter if your athlete can score a goal, tackle a player, or execute the skill if they can’t control their nerves on the competition floor, or perform it when it really counts. Then, they won’t be successful regardless of physical abilities.
Often, coaches find the topic daunting, or perhaps have not had the support they need to better understand what techniques they can use. So what sort of things might you be able to incorporate into your coaching practices?
What skills should coaches know about and incorporate into sessions?
Develop a great coach-athlete relationship
Lots of research has shown the importance of a positive coach-athlete relationship, suggesting that neither the athlete or coach can "do it alone" – they both need each other to be successful. This research also suggests that how the coach thinks, feels and behaves influences the athlete. Therefore, it is important for coaches to understand and use sport psychology in order to influence their athletes to use it.
The coach-athlete relationship can impact factors such as motivation and efficacy, and some research from the Beijing Olympics found that a strong coach-athlete relationship was the most significant contributor to a medal winning performance or personal best.
Building better relationships involves investing time and resources, as well as having conversations, observing and learning about each other. The best coaches know their athletes at a deeper level, understanding their behavioural patterns and personalities to create an effective environment for the athlete to thrive in.
This is a key skill that can help athletes become more successful. It refers to rehearsing the skill or routine perfectly in your mind. It aids performance because by vividly practicing the skill in your mind, your brain primes your muscles to complete the physical action in a competition scenario. So, by training your mind, you prepare your body as well.
Visualisation also allows athletes to become confident and focused by regulating any nerves, and can be a source of motivation by giving a vision of what the athlete wants to achieve.
Coaches can help their athletes develop it by teaching athletes what it is and how to do it, as well as incorporating it into training sessions.
Our top tips for visualisation are to…
- Make it a physical process whereby the athlete imagines the relevant physical characteristics.
- Try and carry out visualisation in an environment that is as similar as possible to the situation you will be in.
- Make the imagery specific to your abilities and level of performance.
- Do it in real time. Meaning, imagine the timing of the action you are visualising as well.
- Athletes should continuously review and adapt their visualisations as they make improvements and develop.
- Try and visualise the positive emotions you will experience when competing, and make sure to not let any negative emotions creep in.
- Keep perspective, whether this is visualising in the first person (through your own eyes) or in the third person (as if you are watching yourself on the TV). This is a personal preference, and it can sometimes be beneficial to do both types.
Do goal setting effectively
This is a relatively simple concept on the surface, but there are actually a number of things coaches need to be aware of when helping their athletes set effective goals. We have a blog that gives 11 ways to improve your goal setting. The most important things to remember are:
- Goals should be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-framed.
- Both long-term goals and short-term goals are important for motivation and focus.
- At InnerDrive we follow the rule of making goals challenging but realistic, in order to make them attainable but not so easy that athletes don’t work hard enough or lose motivation.
- Obstacles occur all the time in sport – being flexible is vital. This is when you should sit down with your athlete and plan what do moving forwards.
- When working with athletes, we encourage process goals, which focus on developing skills, not just the end outcome. It is however, important to have an overarching goal to reach for.
- Athletes will work harder on a goal if they trust the person who has set it. This is another reason to work hard on your athlete-coach relationship.
Provide great feedback
Feedback is a major contributor to learning, especially in sport. If it is given badly, it can lead to negative effects for the athlete and their performance. In our 10 ways to give better feedback blog, we suggest these tips to give better feedback:
- Don’t delay feedback too much
- Focus on their effort
- Be specific
- Avoid lavish praise
- Discuss the strategy they used
- Limit giving public feedback
- Use both open and closed statements
- Maintain high expectations
- Avoid comparisons
- Suggest clear action points to move forward
At InnerDrive, we also focus on the idea of "feeding forward", which means putting an emphasis on what to do next and on how to get better, not just what happened. It offers suggestions on what to do next time, allowing the athlete to focus on moving forward.
Encourage positive self-talk
Negative self-talk leads to a poor emotional state, which in turn hurts athletic performance. Coaches should help teach athletes to replace this with positive self-talk, such as “I’ve succeeded at this before, I know I can now”. These types of thoughts will help regulate athletes' emotions, as well as increase their confidence, improve their coordination and help them focus and ultimately perform better.
As many as 76% of elite level figure skaters utilise this technique to cope with the stress of competition. Research has also found it can improve performance by 11%. For more tips on how athletes should talk to themselves, check out our blog on improving self-talk here.
Which other areas of sport psychology should coaches be aware of?
Cognitive Load Theory
Cognitive Load Theory highlights how working memory has a limited capacity. Working memory is where we hold and process new information – for learning to take place, this information has to be transferred to the long-term memory.
However, there is a bottleneck between the two, meaning that information that doesn’t get transferred across is ultimately lost and forgotten. Cognitive Load Theory is all about acknowledging this and presenting information to athletes in a way that aids and accelerates that transfer to long-term memory. Learn more on using Cognitive Load Theory as a coach here…
Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction
Rosenshine's Principles of Instruction have the potential to revolutionise coaching. They're based on teaching guidelines underpinned by cognitive science, and we think they can be useful for coaches as well.
These principles can help anyone learn anything much more effectively, especially in sport. They include things such as reviewing learning at the start, asking lots of questions and using models. Check out our coach's guide to Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction to find out more.
The final thing coaches should be aware of is the prevalence of pseudo-scientific ideas and neuromyths in sport psychology.
In the world of sports and coaching, there are many ideas surrounding learning and the brain that are thrown around. For example, you might have heard the notion that everyone has a preferred learning style. Many of these are pseudoscientific, meaning they are falsely claimed as being based on scientific method, when in fact they have no evidence to back them up.
Coaches should be aware of these and ensure they have done their research and know what they are teaching and using is definitely beneficial to learning.
Being aware of these skills and ideas and teaching them to your athletes will lead to significant benefits on their performance. Whilst we are not saying that everyone should be experts in these techniques, having some level of understanding may be helpful!
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