Mastery over the mind gets ailing athletes back on track

Training is more of a marathon than a sprint, but sport psychologists tell Kate Hilpern theirs is the perfect job
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The Independent Online

You'd think that the Olympics being on home soil was a godsend for top athletes.

Research shows clear advantages of the crowd influence of home games in sports such as football and there are the added benefits of minimal travel and the opportunity to become really familiar with the surroundings. However, sport psychologist Pete Lindsay says it is, in fact, a mixed blessing, with potential disadvantages including higher expectations from the press, friends and family continually asking for tickets and athletes familiarising themselves with venues only to walk in on the big day to find the layout completely changed, which can leave them psychologically thrown before they've even started competing.

"The simplest way to think about it is to remember that lots of people work from home and, in every case, there are benefits but also downsides," he says. "It depends on the sport too. In subjectively scored sports such as gymnastics and diving, there's a well-evidenced home advantage, whereas stats don't show any advantage in some other sports."

Such matters are the bread and butter of today's sport psychologists. Their aim is to help athletes deal with the psychological demands of both competition and training – whether that is helping them overcome pre-game anxiety or guarding against potential distractions of a home Olympics. While most practitioners are based in university departments, some work in the applied arena for national governing bodies, the Home Country Sports Institutes, or are directly employed by professional sports teams and individuals.

Lindsay works for the English Institute of Sport. Focusing on boxing and gymnastics, he works not only with individual athletes but the teams that supports them, notably coaches. "Often, the best way to get results is through working with the coach because they're the person, not me, who is stood in the corner with the boxer or down on the floor in the gym in that all-critical moment. That 'helicopter' role is key for sports psychologists as the last thing we'd want to do is breed a culture of dependency."

Like many in his profession, John Marchant, senior sport psychologist at the Sportscotland Institute of Sport, is a keen sportsman himself. "Looking back, probably the only reason I attended school was to compete in organised sport," he laughs.

Although he has now worked across more than 20 sports, snooker was his passion at the time. "I'd practise for about 20 hours a week. After leaving school at 16, I started an engineering apprenticeship, but I missed snooker so much that I decided to try to go professional. Eventually, however, I concluded I wasn't good enough."

Unsure what to do for a career, at the age of 20 he visited a careers adviser. "He suggested sport psychology and, although I had to do an access course so that I could get on a university course, followed by a Masters, I found I did well. I think it's because I'd finally found something I really cared about."

The psychological aspects of sports performance that Marchant focuses on include improving the coach-athlete relationship, raising awareness of the athlete's behaviour in a group and working on any psychological sticking points. "A player might find they get very nervous prior to the game, for example. I work with them to understand and recognise their thoughts and emotions that are causing the anxiety and I then investigate them to come up with an intervention package to find their optimum starting intensity," he explains.

Particularly typical in holding athletes back is negative thinking; going over and over in their minds why they made a wrong move. "In a combat sport like judo, athletes often get distracted in this way during gaps between fights. It can really hold them back, but through things such as performance analysis, retrospective interviews and video playback, I help them see it's a bad thing and how to think more positively," he says.

Marchant calls sport psychology "the perfect job." He says:"Every day is different because every client brings their own specific issues. It's both challenging and rewarding too. I love seeing athletes have a lightbulb moment and move past a performance block and I particularly love watching them perform, using the techniques we've worked on."

It is not a nine-to-five job, however. "I had just 13 free weekends last year. You spend a lot of time travelling and working very long and unsociable hours. Be warned it's not glamorous, though, despite the stereotype," he admits.

Other sport psychologists, such as Dave Shaw, programme director for MSc sport and exercise psychology at the University of Central Lancashire, do not have a sports background. He says: "I was studying for a chemistry degree, which I found thoroughly boring, and my director of studies suggested I swap to psychology, which I loved. Having taught the subject for around 15 years, my boss said he wanted to create some more applied routes through our degree programme. 'You like sport,' he said. 'Why don't you look into sports psychology?' I've never looked back. Exploring athletes' confidence, concentration, emotional control and motivation is absolutely fascinating and always full of surprises. You may think, for example, that a footballer who is paid £50,000 a week is very motivated but, in fact, research shows that athletes who are paid the least tend to be the most motivated."

Imagery has become a favourite concept of Shaw's, one that he has researched among international basketball players. "It's sometimes called 'sofa training' because it involves an athlete using mental imagery to imagine that they're performing. You might think why bother when physical practice is obviously better, but it's something athletes can do anywhere, even on a bus and when they're injured, or simply to vary their training methods," he says.

Jennie Killilea, sport psychologist to the British Equestrian Federation World Class Development Squads, is among the sport psychologists who take the lessons learned from such research and apply them. "Many riders rehearse their test or round in their heads before competing. The sport psychologist, like me, would check that the technique being used is the most useful and technically correct to maximise the skill and make a performance difference. Ways to improve imagery skills and how to use imagery for other aspects of training and competing are discussed, and the rider is given an action plan to work on their skills regularly," she explains.

Many people assume sport psychology is common sense, says Shaw. "But you only have to look at different coaching methods to see that there are many ideas about how, for example, to motivate. Football manager Alex Ferguson is known for his 'hairdryer technique,' where he gets in your face and screams at you – a far cry from Sven Goran Eriksson's calmer method."

Also at the the University of Central Lancashire, Dave Collins, professor at the Institute of Coaching and Performance, is working on the psychology of resilience. "I study people in sport, as well as other physically challenging settings like the military, to try to work out what makes people resilient," he says. "I work in an interdisciplinary way, combining things such as biochemistry and biomechanics to find the answers, then apply the results to help athletes perform better. It's a wonderful job because I get to find out answers and create new knowledge, all for the good of helping someone perform better."

Costas Karageorghis, sport psychologist at Brunel University and author of Inside Sport Psychology, testifies to the way the lessons learned by sport psychologists are increasingly spilling over into the general public. "My research has shown that listening to music can reduce the perception of effort involved in exercise – how hard you feel you're working – by up to 10 per cent in low to moderate intensity activity," says Karageorghis, who founded the Run to the Beat half-marathon, which provides carefully selected music at 16 points along the event's 13-mile route.

The ideal way to kick-off a career in sport psychology is to do either a British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (Bases) endorsed sport science degree or a British Psychological Society (BPS) approved psychology degree, although there are opportunities to convert if you've studied something else at undergraduate level. Next, you will need at least an MSc in sport science, with a major psychological component, although some universities will employ only those with a completed PhD. Because you will need to be accredited by Bases or chartered by the BPS to call yourself a sport psychologist, you will also need either three years' supervision by a Bases practitioner or two years' supervision by a BPS supervisor.

"You have to be hugely dedicated," confirms Misha Botting, sport psychologist at the Sportscotland Institute of Sport who, like many sport psychologists, had a change of career in his thirties. "But then again, you're working with some of the most dedicated people you'll ever meet."

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