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  • Writer's pictureJeff Ruser

“I have no need for sport psychology.” Not so fast!

Updated: Jul 25, 2018




Let me ask you this one question: What percent of the success in your sport is mental vs. what percent is physical or skill based? Write the numbers down or remember them.

“I have no need for sport psychology, right? I’m not like those other crazy athletes. I don’t lose my temper. I’m a good player.” Have you ever thought this or believed it to be somewhat true? Yes? Great, you’re in the right place. No? Perfect, keep reading.


I’ve heard athletes say that on many occasions when they are asked about sport psychology. This perception is understandable. For one, the word “psychology” is often attached to “illness”, “disorder”, and the notion that something is wrong and needs fixing. I’ll go further into “psychology” another time. For now, know that your opinions and preconceptions are pretty common!


Dr. Michael Gervais, is one of the top performance consultants in the world. He works with the Seattle Seahawks, University of Southern California (USC) athletic teams, and Red Bull extreme sport athletes (snowboarders, BASE jumpers, skydivers, skiers, skateboarders, etc.) just to name a few clients. Dr. Gervais commonly states that there are three domains in sports and performance that you can train. Yes – only three.


1) The first domain is training your skills or “craft.” If you are a basketball player, you have trained and worked on your shooting mechanics. If you are a golfer, you have surely made changes to your swing and taken thousands of practice shots. If you’re a track athlete, you train to perfect your running form, reaction time, and hand-offs for relays. We all know that there is an endless number of skills that must be trained for every sport. You train these skills as often as you can to become a better athlete and to progress in your sport. To accomplish and learn new skills, you likely practice with a team or coach. Other times you might practice skills that you learned from your teammates or even from YouTube tutorials. These skills and resources are all fantastic and necessary for growth.


2) The second domain you can train is your physical condition. Examples might include distance runners who include weight lifting, stretching, and high intensity circuits in their distance workouts. Football players spend a lot of time in weight rooms gaining strength by lifting heavy weights and growing muscle so that they can shed blocks, make tackles, or outrun their opponent. Basketball players lift weights, train explosive movements like jumping and lunging, and maintain conditioning by running fast for shorter intervals of time. Again, you do these things to transform yourself into the best athlete possible and to be physically prepared to dominate and win. With me so far? Does this all sound familiar? Good!


3) The third and equally important domain that Dr. Gervais lists is training the mental side of performance. Think of mental skills training like the weight lifting and shot mechanics of your brain. This is where sport psychology comes in. Simply put, sport psychology is the study of athlete behaviors, emotions, and thoughts. Emotions and thoughts work together to tell your body how to behave. Applied sport psychology or “mental skills training” takes this knowledge of the brain, behavior, emotion, and thoughts and uses it to help athletes leverage their (#1) skills and (#2) physical conditioning to their fullest potential. Let’s put this into context.


Who has ever had a performance when they felt nervous before or during and didn’t perform well because of the nerves? Who has forgotten their job on the field, having a brain freeze, and been in the wrong spot? Who has felt unmotivated to train and cut their workout short, or skipped it all-together, as a result? In these situations, coaches, parents, and our own thoughts often say:


“Just focus.”

“Calm down. Relax.”

“Be clutch.”

“Stop thinking about the last play. Move on.”

“Practice more.”

“If you truly love the game, you’ll want to play every single day.”


If you have played a sport might be able to hear their coach saying these exact phrases in their head, right now! But, has anyone ever wondered, “How do I focus/be clutch/stop thinking/stay motivated? My coach is telling me these things, and I want to do them, but how!?” I know I often ask myself many of these questions on a regular basis! Mental skills training and sport psychology answers these questions, prepares you to perform at your best when you need to the most, and addresses how athletes mentally process the game. Topics that are commonly covered include: performance anxiety/nerves, self-confidence, focus, over-thinking, motivation, performance under pressure, best ways to practice, burnout, and mental toughness. Just like your skills and physical condition, mental skills must be learned and trained so that they become habits that lead to peak performance. Reading a book, listening to a podcast, or even just reading this blog post likely won’t make you a better athlete. Putting in time and effort to learn about the mental side of the game and then training it will lead to improved performance. Science backs that. Professional sports teams agree. Stephen Curry, Anthony Rizzo, Russell Wilson, Jordan Spieth, and every US Olympian thinks so. And our own personal experiences confirm it.


My last point: Remember those percentages that you wrote down for physical skills vs. mental skills? Whatever your answers were – ask yourself, “Do I spend that same ratio of my training time on physical skills vs. mental skills?”

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