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Sport psychology is a subdiscipline of psychology applied to a competitive sport as a specific context of organized physical (motor) activity. Competitive sport is focused on high achievement and consistent excellence, in contrast to other settings in which exercise is used for physical education, leisure, or rehabilitation. The major emphasis in sport psychology is on the study and application of psychological factors enhancing athletic performance and on the impact of sport participation on a person’s (or team’s) development.
- Defining Sport Psychology
- Major Focus and Trends in Sport Psychology
- How Sport Psychologists Work
- Competitive Sport as a High Achievement Setting
- Sport and Competition
- Individual and Team Excellence
- High-Quality Practice
- Performance Enhancement
- Performance Related Experiences and Athletic Excellence
- Resources as Performance Enhancement Strategies
- Barriers to Athletic Excellence
- Athletic Excellence from a Developmental Perspective
- Athletic Career Demands, Coping Resources, and Barriers
- Athletes’ Successful Transitions and Crisis Transitions
- From Athletic to Personal Excellence
- Future Directions
Defining Sport Psychology
What is sport psychology? How is it different from other subdisciplines of psychology? How is it related to sport sciences? Although many definitions of sport psychology have been suggested, there has been no comprehensive and internationally accepted definition of sport psychology. In its Position Stand # 1 (1995), the European Federation of Sport Psychology (FEPSAC) proposed that ‘‘sport psychology is concerned with the psychological foundations, processes, and consequences of the psychological regulation of sport-related activities of one or several persons acting as the subject(s) of the activity’’ (p. 4). This definition indicates that sport psychology attempts to improve athletic performance and help athletes to concentrate better, deal effectively with competitive stress, and to practice more efficiently. Moreover, sport psychology also attempts to understand the impact of long-term sport participation on development of personal resources of athletes in the setting of organized competitive sport. The term ‘‘sport’’ is used as an umbrella term that includes different kinds of sport, exercise, and other physically active pursuits. These types of physical activity are also used in other settings such as organized physical education, leisure, and rehabilitation (healing). Another important feature of sport psychology is its double nature. On the one hand, it is a part of psychology; on the other hand, its knowledge base is related to sport sciences focused on understanding human activity in this particular context. Thus, in applications, these two sources of knowledge help to better understand a person, the environment, and the key aspects of the sporting activity.
The major focus of this research paper is the context of competitive (high-achievement) sport. From this perspective, sport psychology examines mainly the short- and long-term impact of psychological factors on athletic performance and the potential effects of systematic participation (involvement) in sport. Applied sport psychology attempts to solve specific practical problems by improving athletic performance and thus helping athletes to develop their potential in the sport setting.
This research paper briefly reviews selected aspects of applied sport psychology within the framework of three basic constructs: athletic excellence, performance-related subjective experiences, and individual resources (psychological strengths). The key aspects of athletic performance are examined from the short-term (readiness for competition and performance excellence) and long-term (consistent excellence, career development) perspectives.
Major Focus and Trends in Sport Psychology
What are the major focuses in sport psychology research? What are the main trends in applied psychological work with athletes, teams, and coaches? Noteworthy are two major focuses in sport psychology research, with two corresponding trends in applied work. The first is understanding the psychological factors that affect athletic performance and how athletes realize their potential in sport. Applied aspects here include high-quality practices, optimal performance, and adequate recovery at the level of an individual athlete and team. The second important objective of sport psychology is to understand how athletes develop in sport and what are the ‘‘benefits’’ and ‘‘costs’’ of their multiyear sport participation. Applied aspects here include the need to help athletes cope successfully with career transitions and find a balance between sport and other spheres of life. In team sports, this also involves dealing with team-building issues and helping individual athletes find a balance between individual and team interests and values.
In competitive sport, applied psychologists deal with healthy, motivated, and high achievement-oriented people striving for consistent excellence, performance up to their potential, and continuous self-development. Thus, the focus on enhancement of athletic performance and empowering approach reflect a positive, proactive, and constructive nature of applied sport psychology. Interestingly, Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) called upon applied psychologists to move beyond studying psychological disorders and problems and spend greater efforts studying positive psychology that can be used to facilitate and enhance human functioning. This emphasis on positive psychology, or psychology of human resources and strengths, is not new, but has been occurring for the last 25 years. However, there is still an urgent need to attend to current concerns of athletes and coaches and examine more closely their successful experiences by bridging the gap between group-oriented and individualized approaches. Therefore, it is argued that sport psychology is the psychology of personal and athletic excellence and as such, from the very beginning was oriented to identifying a person’s resources (strengths) to facilitate consistently successful performance up to the person’s potential.
How Sport Psychologists Work
Who are applied sport psychologists? What do they do, and how and why do they work with athletes, teams, and coaches? These questions are important for an understanding of what sport psychologists can and cannot do in the field of competitive sport.
First, sport psychologists as a professional group are experts with different backgrounds. They may be clinically oriented consultants, educationally oriented consultants, mental trainers, applied researchers specializing in performance enhancement, or social or personality psychologists. However, whatever their specialization, applied sport psychologists are usually required to be well versed not only in psychology but also in sport and sport sciences. This helps them to establish and develop working relationships with individual athletes, teams, coaches, parents, managers, etc.
Second, it is well known that the science of coaching focuses on the use of general principles. Per Weinberg and Gould (1999), ‘‘the art of coaching is recognizing when and how to individualize these general principles’’ ( p. 15). As with coaching, the practice of applied sport psychology is both a science and an art. As a science, it is based on various theoretical models and results of empirical studies describing what is typical for athletes in particular sport situations. As an art, sport psychology is grounded in the personality as well as personal and professional experiences of the consultant, and it is expressed in his or her ability to understand the particular athlete within a psychological context and to choose the most effective applied approach or intervention. That is why different consultants may work differently with the same athlete yet be equally successful.
Art and science aspects are sport psychologists’ tools to help athletes and coaches, who often focus mainly on the symptoms or consequences of psychological problems, deal with real causes of the problems (challenges, task demands).
Third, there are certain organizational working models, assessment technologies, and interventions based on specific ethical norms that characterize how sport psychologists work. For instance, sport psychology research and effective delivery of psychological services to elite athletes and coaches usually focuses on two closely related aspects: (1) performance enhancement in practices and competitions, and (2) optimization of interpersonal and intragroup communication, creating optimal team climate and effective management. Sport psychologists use several guidelines or principles to enhance their work, including action and growth- orientation; an emphasis on developing individualized strengths rather than on repairs of deficiencies; empowering athletes, coaches, and teams rather than developing over-dependency on outside experts; and enhancing active participation, partnership, and cooperation between sport psychologists, athletes, and coaches.
In brief, working with an elite athlete or coach usually includes several action-oriented steps: (1) listening to the coach and athlete’s account of the current situation and past performance history to identify their concerns that need to be addressed; (2) providing a general summary of how similar situations are usually handled in sport and suggesting a tentative plan of joint work on the problem at hand; (3) collecting the data and providing a detailed feedback with the interpretation of results using context-related language clear to the athlete and coach; (4) preparing an action plan for further analysis, change, and monitoring of the key parameters involved; (5) evaluating the effectiveness of the initial steps and developing an individualized intervention program with clear criteria to assess the athlete’s progress on a daily, weekly, monthly, or seasonal basis; and (6) contacting (by phone, e-mail, or fax) the athlete and coach systematically, which is an important part of their work during the entire season. A wrap-up, ‘‘lessons learned’’ session is also a good way to summarize experiences of all participants by the end of the season. It is important to realize that this approach is different from the traditional role of an outside expert telling the client what to do or not to do. Sport psychologists’ main task is to empower athletes and coaches via an individualized approach focusing on their strengths and successful experiences rather than on deficiencies and limitations.
Competitive Sport as a High Achievement Setting
Sport and Competition
What is an athletic competition? Why is it so important in sport? These questions relate to the psychological characteristics of sport and to social psychological contexts of competitions. Sport as a part of the world and national cultures is also a human activity in which people find, realize, and further develop their individual potentials. Organized competitive sport is characterized by a clear focus on high achievement, exceptional level of skills, enhanced working capacity supplemented by health, well-being concerns, and prevention of injuries. However, the key aspect in understanding the psychology of high achievement sport is competition as a social comparison process.
The essence of sport competition is an evaluation and a social comparison of athletes according to the specially developed and approved rules of that sport. Observable competitive performance is a process of delivering sport results by athletes or teams. Usually, judges measure results in competitions, and on the basis of the comparison between the participants, rank each athlete. In addition, athletes often use self-referenced (process- and/or outcome-oriented) criteria to interpret their results in terms of personal success or failure. To demonstrate athletic excellence in competitions, athletes have to practice regularly and continuously develop their resources. Both practices and competitions contribute to the development of athletes’ physical and mental competencies and skills required in their chosen sport event. However, only participation in competitions allows the athlete to demonstrate her excellence in public and thus to win social recognition and prestige.
Rules of competition in different sports create three distinct psychological contexts for competing athletes: (1) ‘‘one-by-one’’ performances (with no physical or psychological contact between opponents during performance); (2) ‘‘one-near-one’’ performances (with only psychological contact between opponents); and (3) ‘‘face-to-face’’ performances (with both physical and psychological contacts between the opponents during performance). Each of these contexts creates specific challenges for athletes and requires specific resources to cope with task demands. Moreover, a competitor can be either an individual athlete or a team. A sport team has specific structural and dynamic features, such as values, cohesion, communication, and leadership. Group processes can either expand or drain the individual resources of team members, thus affecting the quality of practices and achievement level in competition.
Since the beginning of the modern Olympic movement in 1896, sport has been developing immensely. Contemporary sport has become an international phenomenon and also a part of the world business. Increased mass media involvement has turned international competitions into prestigious social events where athletes often feel extremely high pressure from the social environment. The intensity of competition in high achievement and professional sports has increased dramatically, and in many sports the current level of results is close to the natural limits of human abilities. All this explains the increased role of psychological factors in contemporary sport, creating a challenge for applied sport psychologists to develop effective approaches in helping sport participants.
Individual and Team Excellence
What is athletic excellence? How is it related to the individual athlete and to the team? Is team excellence simply the sum of individual excellences? How do athletes in team sports find a balance between individual and team goals?
Athletic excellence is defined as an athlete’s exceptionally good performance compared with the previously achieved standards. The standards of performance can be self-referenced, i.e., based on a particular athlete’s record of achievements and performance history. In contrast, normative standards reflect performance levels of other top performers in a particular sport event. In both cases, the indicators of athletic excellence are results (outcomes) achieved and the quality of performance process (task execution). Athletic excellence is an indicator of athletes’ ability to perform consistently up to their potential by recruiting and using effectively the available resources matching the task demands. On the other hand, the notion of personal excellence reflects a high level of ability to function effectively as a human being in different settings, including sport.
Depending on the type of sport activity, athletic excellence can be divided into individual excellence (demonstrated by an athlete) or team (or collective) excellence (achieved by a team). Although team excellence depends on individual contributions, it is often not equal to the sum of the individual performances. Therefore, a team composed of ‘‘star’’ athletes does not always demonstrate team excellence, whereas average players working for the team and sharing team values and high work morale can achieve outstanding team excellence. Research shows that team excellence requires not only individually outstanding performances but also adequate interpersonal and intragroup communication. These communication processes reflected in the team’s values, norms, and leadership processes can provide substantial support for the unique resources of team members and compensate for the lack of other resources.
To achieve a collective excellence, it is important to find an adequate balance between the athletes’ individual goals and the team goals. These goals usually overlap, but they often do not perfectly match. However, a coach should realize that the degree of this match or mismatch between individual and team goals can result in a balance or imbalance between cooperation and competition processes in the team. Specifically, higher overlap (a match) between individual and group goals leads to better cooperation between teammates, whereas a lower overlap (a mismatch) can result in competitive behavior among the players (e.g., competing for starting positions, playing time, etc.). To find an adequate balance between stimulating athletes to develop their individual excellences and encouraging them to contribute maximally to the team is one of the key issues for coaches.
Another important factor in developing a collective excellence is to identify individual resources and strengths of the players in order to give the players clearly formulated and interrelated roles as the components of specific tasks. Each task may be perceived as a challenge, a routine, or a risk, depending on the perceived relationships between the demands of the task and the available resources (individual and team). When resources and task demands match each other, the team has a set of challenges. Successful coping with challenges results in the development of available resources. However, if available resources exceed the task demands, the task may be perceived as too easy or routine, not requiring recruitment and effective use of resources. This may lead to boredom and low task involvement. Finally, if the task demands exceed available resources, then the task is perceived as a threat and a risk (of failure).
The distinction between challenges, routines, and risks is important for understanding the players’ (and team’s) development. Per Hendry and Kloep (2002), the lifespan model of developmental challenge states that development occurs when the ‘‘pool’’ of potential resources is added to and resources are strengthened. By contrast, stagnation describes a condition in which no new resources are added to the pool, or they are not strengthened. Finally, a developmental decay in an individual or a team performance is expected if the task demands exceed the potential (available) resources and thus drain the pool ceaselessly. The task of the coach is then to create specific challenges for an athlete (or a team) that will stimulate the effective recruitment, use, and development of existing resources (strengths).
How much time do athletes have to spend in practice in order to achieve athletic excellence? What is the difference between high- and low-quality practice? The major focus in sport psychology since the late 1960s was on successful and poor performances in competitions. Although competitive stress is still a popular topic of research, it is clear that excellence in competitions depends on how much and how well athletes practice. Research shows that top performers typically engaged in 10,000 hours, or 10 years, of deliberate (effortful) and sometimes non-enjoyable preparation to become experts in their domain. Although becoming an expert does require a lot of work, practices must also be high-quality. Moreover, it is important to realize that there is a time limit of what is possible to achieve in quantity-oriented practice, whereas quality-oriented practice is limitless.
High-quality practices have several important features. First, they require an athlete to be very aware of his or her individual strengths and limitations, optimal emotional states, and bodily signals. An athlete should know how to recognize and monitor this working state during the entire practice and how to recover effectively. Moreover, each training session should have a special meaning for the athlete in relation to a long-term perspective of the season goals and specific tasks. One of the top Finnish alpine Skiers, Tanja Poutiainen, explained in a television interview the ‘‘secret’’ of her successful performances in the World Cup by emphasizing the role of high-quality practices. Specifically, she said, ‘‘Now I train differently. I focus thoroughly for each downhill race in practices. I know exactly what I want to achieve and I know what I am working on. It makes much more sense in what I’m doing now. Before I just did it, too often mechanically practicing different movement patterns.’’ This athlete created a mind-set for a task that matched her resources, and these challenges helped her develop as an athlete and a competitor. She was able to learn more about herself and how to use her resources (skills) under different conditions from every practice.
Another important feature of high-quality practices is a simulation of specific competition conditions (e.g., time, competition rhythm, organization, track profile). Learning to focus on one’s own game is another important characteristic of effective pre-competition simulations. If practices during the competitive season are more directly related to competition tasks, they serve as a more focused preparation for competitions. On the other hand, lessons learned in competitions provide useful ideas for more effective practices. Especially important are high-quality practices during a competitive season (training between and during several competitions). Basically, the focus of high quality practice is on recuperating, improving, and further developing one’s physical, technical, tactical, and psychological resources. Such an approach is especially relevant in professional sport. For example, NHL ice hockey players usually play over 80 games during the season. The players do not have time for much practice, and it is not uncommon that the skills of these talented performers begin to deteriorate. Thus, consistent athletic excellence requires the conservation of available resources (physical, technical, tactical, and psychological strengths) through their recruitment, use, recuperation, and ongoing development.
Performance Related Experiences and Athletic Excellence
What is the difference between peak, optimal, and sub-standard performance? What are the optimal and dysfunctional experiences accompanying athletic performance? How do athletes develop competitive experiences?
As mentioned previously, athletic excellence is an extended period of exceptionally good performance by an athlete or a team that exceeds previously established or situationally acceptable self-referenced standards. The usual level of performance provides the frame of reference for defining individually successful (optimal, peak), less than successful (sub-standard, below average, plateaus), and poor (choking, slumps) performances. Peak performance describes an ideal (outstanding, desired) performance. In contrast, optimal performance is the greatest degree attained (or attainable) under implied or specified conditions (e.g., skill level, health status, opponents, weather conditions, competition site). Optimal performance is evaluated using the individualized (self-referenced) criteria based on an athlete’s past performance history and present performance status. From this perspective, any athlete can attain an optimal performance, whatever her skill level.
Athletes’ behaviors and subjective experiences accompany successful and less than successful performances. Pre-event emotional experiences affect performance, whereas ongoing performance affects the dynamics of mid- and post-event emotional experiences. There are three interdependent levels of human experiences related to and induced by athletic performance: (1) situational transitory emotional experiences (psychobiosocial states) such as anxiety, anger, joy, or excitement, (2) relatively stable patterns of experience (traits, dispositions), and (3) meta-experiences (experiences about experiences). For instance, an athlete can experience a high level of anxiety prior to a competition. This situational state manifests itself in negative thoughts and expectations, such as feeling nervous, worried, and apprehensive. This experience is very individual (idiosyncratic), and for different athletes it can be harmful, can be helpful, or may not affect athletic performance in a particular competition. If anxiety is experienced repeatedly, a consistent pattern of experiences or a typical response disposition (trait anxiety) is formed. However, the athlete often reflects on significant emotional experiences in particular situations and their effects upon athletic performance. As a result, meta-experiences are formed, and this self-knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes can strongly affect the athlete’s interpretations of different performance situations and the choice of adequate (or inadequate) coping strategy.
For instance, Michael Johnson is often quoted as saying that ‘‘he was really nervous when he was not nervous prior to an important race.’’ From previous experiences, he knew that high situational anxiety was an optimal experience for his performance. Specific meta-experiences usually trigger corresponding self-empowering or self-defeating thoughts and self-statements and thus determine the beneficial or detrimental impact of emotional state upon performance. Therefore, there is a special need for psychological help for athletes who are unaware of their optimal experiences or whose meta-experiences are less than effective (self-defeating).
There is ample research examining situational emotional states accompanying individually optimal (successful) and less than successful (poor) performances in different athletes across different and similar sports. For instance, the individual zones of optimal functioning (IZOF) model as an individual- and action-oriented framework developed in high achievement setting focuses on optimal and dysfunctional situational experiences accompanying both successful and poor performances. This individualized approach to description, prediction, and explanation of emotion–performance relationships employs a multidimensional conceptualization of emotion as a component of psychobiosocial state. The model predicts interindividual variability of emotion content and intensity and their effects on individual athletic performance based on the ‘‘in/out of the zone’’ principle. It is argued that different forms of psychobiosocial state (cognitive, affective, motivational, bodily, motor-behavioral, operational, and communicative) reflect availability of (or a lack of) resources, their recruitment and utilization, and a need for recovery (recuperation).
Briefly described, these findings indicate that (1) negative situational emotional experiences (such as anxiety or anger) are not always harmful for individual performance; (2) positive emotional experiences are not always helpful or optimal for performance; (3) optimal and dysfunctional emotional experiences are highly individual (idiosyncratic). An optimal emotional performance state is the one most favorable for a particular individual (or a team) under specified conditions, and usually results in an individually successful performance that is equal to or better than realistically expected.
Research also shows that, in contrast to an ideal performance state (flow state) triggered by outstanding performance, optimal emotional states can be positive and negative prior to, during, and after performance. Positive optimal states are experienced when an athlete’s resources match well with current task demands; positive dysfunctional states reflect a routine performance situation in which resources are available but are neither recruited nor used properly. The task is perceived as too easy, which results in excessive (demotivational) satisfaction (leading to complacency and less involvement in the task) and even boredom. Negative optimal states (anger, anxiety) reflect a threat (or a risk) situation (task demands exceeding available resources) in which an athlete attempts to actively cope with this imbalance. Finally, negative dysfunctional states reflect a situation when an athlete is unable to cope, with task demands exceeding currently available resources. Repeated experiences related to unsuccessful performance (slumps) and a failure to recuperate existing resources could result in chronic staleness, overtraining, and burnout.
Sport psychology describes different aspects of performance-related situational experiences that actually characterize a state of readiness for competition. These include self-confidence (state and trait), attention and concentration, experiential and behavioral manifestations of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation at the situational and dispositional levels, and individually optimal levels of anxiety. This research indicates that the intensity of anxiety (as well as other emotions) associated with optimal sport performance varies considerably across athletes, even for those competing in the same event. It also indicates that a substantial percentage of athletes actually benefits from elevated anxiety; in these cases, interventions aimed at reducing anxiety may be counterproductive. These findings illustrate the notion that optimal anxiety reflects attempts to situationally compensate for an apparent lack of resources as related to task demands as a person-specific coping strategy. The effect is further enhanced by an optimal self-empowering metaexperience, i.e., the athlete knowing that such a level of anxiety is useful and helpful for him. The previously cited example of Michael Johnson illustrates this point.
On the other hand, athletic excellence requires an optimal and sustained effort, and the athlete’s body must be appropriately energized, with physiological and psychological resources prepared for the stresses and physical demands of competition. Arousal as a component of the psychobiosocial state manifests itself in physiological reactivity and physical energy. It is also paired with varying levels of concomitant cognitive, affective-volitional, and motivational activity, and behavioral display.
Typically, the physiological component of arousal is measured through muscle tension, cortical activity, electro-dermal activity, respiration, and biochemical markers such as epinephrine and cortisol. However, in recent years, there have been numerous attempts to identify idiosyncratic markers of perceived subjective bodily response to competitive stress both in best and worst competitions. This line of research has a great potential for the practice of sport psychology by providing a tool to enhance an athlete’s bodily awareness.
Resources as Performance Enhancement Strategies
What are the internal and external resources that can enhance athletic performance? How can athletes and teams use their resources more effectively?
The construct of internal and external resources proposed here is not entirely new. For example, it is used in the conservation of resources (COR) model proposed by Hobfoll to define and explain psychological stress. Examples of broadly defined resources include not only personal characteristics (self-esteem, mastery, well-being) but also interpersonal, material, and work-related resources. The basic tenet of the COR model is that people strive to retain, protect, and build resources because the potential or actual loss of these resources is a threat and a source of psychological stress. Then psychological stress is defined as a reaction to the environment in which there is (1) the threat of a net loss of resources, 2) the net loss of resources, or (3) a lack of resource gain following the investment of resources.
Hendry and Kloep proposed the lifespan model of developmental challenge, which employs the constructs of resources and challenges to explain the processes of human growth. Examples of potential resources include biological dispositions (health, personality, talents, intelligence, body shape, attractiveness); social resources (trust, attachment, size and quality of network); skills (basic, learning, social, psycho-motor, etc.); self-efficiency (self-efficacy appraisals, experience with success, assurance from others, locus of control); and structural resources (country, race, class, family, income, gender).
In competitive sport, resources are defined as psychobiosocial assets that determine athletes’ ability to consistently perform up to their potential. Here the emphasis is on how available resources are identified and then systematically and effectively recruited, used, recuperated, and further developed. There are four closely related approaches to the enhancement of athletic performance: situational and individually optimal states, relatively stable experience patterns (dispositions, personality traits, and sport-specific qualities), psychological skills, and group dynamics factors. The strategies used in each of these four approaches to performance enhancement are actually different groups of internal and external resources. There is considerable overlap between these four groups of resources, and they also concur well with the COR model and the lifespan model of developmental challenge.
Earlier discussion of individually optimal situational states and relatively stable experience patterns indicates that an athlete’s awareness of her optimal states and adequate meta-experiences can be a very effective internal resource. Furthermore, personality characteristics and sports-specific qualities (e.g., winner’s profiles, a wheel of excellence) are also important potential resources for achieving athletic excellence. Although personality characteristics do not directly predict situational performance, they could be instrumental in predicting long-term effects of sport participation, for example the mental health model proposed by Morgan (1985). However, it is important to realize that athletes can achieve success even if they lack certain personality traits and qualities. The implication for a consultant working with an athlete (or a team) is clear: he or she should focus on developing available individual strengths rather than repair apparent deficiencies.
Psychological skills as a set of techniques and coping strategies aiming to produce an optimal state of readiness are valuable resources that successful athletes learn and use systematically to achieve consistent excellence. These resources are usually targeted at some specific modality. Therefore, the classifications of psychological skills usually include implicit or explicit reference to some form of human functioning (e.g., cognitive, affective, motivational, bodily, motorbehavioral, operational, communicative). At the same time, these different forms of functioning as components of psychobiosocial state can also be employed to describe different task demands. Group dynamics and environmental factors are also important personal and team resources. These potential resources include cohesion, psychological climate in the team, patterns of interpersonal communication among the teammates and between the coach and the players, leadership style, and group norms and values reflecting sport subculture. For instance, high work morale and honesty as accepted values and group norms in a sport team could promote fair play behaviors and considerably minimize cheating in sport.
From social psychological and environmental perspectives, it is important to realize that competitive sport is a part of the society at large. Therefore, equitable or non-equitable conduct found in society is generally reproduced in sport settings. When sport traverses racial, ethnic, social, national, and gender boundaries, it has the power to bring diverse people together while de-emphasizing social or cultural differences. In other words, fair treatment in sport, in contrast to other settings, can provide conditions that significantly extend existing personal (or team’s) resources. As an external resource, while sport offers the opportunity to traverse cultural identities and unite different peoples, it also can have the opposite effect. Thus, unfair treatment or even discrimination in sport can overtax the athletes’ and teams’ resources and considerably slow down their situational success and long-term development. In some cases, however, this negative treatment can be a strong motivator for athletic and personal excellence.
As Krane argues, fair treatment in sport occurs only when there are equitable resources and opportunities for all participants, regardless of social group membership (e.g., gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, and social class). In reality, that is not always the case. In some cases, differential treatment occurs, in which minority social group members are treated unfairly. In other situations, sport is an avenue for educating people and increasing awareness about a wide range of social issues, fighting social injustice, and providing humanitarian assistance. Therefore, applied sport psychologists may employ a variety of strategies to promote fair and equitable sport.
Barriers to Athletic Excellence
What are the barriers to optimal athletic performance? How can athletes (and teams) minimize or cope with them? The threat of a net loss of resources, the net loss of resources, or a lack of resource gain following the investment of resources can be strong barriers to successful performance.
Four groups of internal and external resources (situational states, personality traits, psychological skills, and group dynamics factors) proposed earlier can provide a framework for describing potential barriers to athletic excellence. Specifically, the notion of resources and their role in enhancing athletic performance is dialectic. A lack of resources or a failure to identify, recruit, and use them effectively could become a potential serious barrier to consistent athletic excellence. Examples of such barriers are dysfunctional emotional states, an overemphasis on apparent deficiencies, and a lack of performance-related skills. Finally, environmental barriers include inadequate motivational climate in the team, selfish behaviors of teammates, media pressures, and conflicts between a coach and an athlete. The typical consequences of the impact of barriers include performance slumps, overtraining, burnout, and injuries.
To minimize detrimental effects of internal and external barriers, it is recommended that an athlete’s awareness of available resources and the strategies of their ongoing development is enhanced. Such awareness should be extended to a better understanding of causes of sub-standard performance and learning better risk management by maintaining self-efficacy, emotional control, and individually effective coping skills. Although the emphasis here is on situationally effective coping strategies, their role should also be understood from a wider (career development) perspective.
Athletic Excellence from a Developmental Perspective
Athletic Career Demands, Coping Resources, and Barriers
What do athletes have to go through in order to achieve athletic excellence? Can any athlete reach it? What factors help athletes to reach excellence, and what might act as barriers along the way? These questions relate to the athletes’ development during their athletic career and the demands they have to cope with by using specific resources.
A rapidly growing body of research in sport psychology focuses on ‘‘athletic careers’’ in an attempt to better understand how different athletes in different sports become expert performers and how they reach and maintain consistent excellence. Metaphorically, the athletic career (from initiation of sport participation to the retirement from sport) can be described as a miniature lifespan course involving a number of important transitions between the predicted stages. Understanding the mechanisms of these transitions and stages is important for coaches, athletes, parents, and sport psychologists.
It is very common for an athlete taking the first steps in his sport to dream of reaching athletic excellence, turning professional, and winning the world championship or Olympic games. However, it usually takes a long time to make this dream true. A so-called ‘‘athletic pyramid’’ shows metaphorically that only a few athletes achieve athletic excellence and have successful (elite, recognized, professional) athletic careers. For instance, a pyramid with one professional soccer player at the top contains 6000 soccer players at bottom; a pyramid with one professional basketball player at the top has 14,000 players at the bottom. According to Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson (1986), ‘‘in highly competitive domains, such as music, math, or sports, the way down is always much broader than the way up. Year by year, it becomes more difficult to catch up, and dropping out becomes increasingly easy’’ (p. 275).
The athletic career of each individual athlete is unique, and there are still debates in sport psychology about factors contributing to individual differences in sport achievements. It is becoming increasingly clear that interplay of several groups of factors can help or hinder an athlete’s development and achievement of athletic excellence. These factors include an athlete’s innate talent/potential, environmental factors (competent coaches, family support, adequate conditions for practice, etc.), and an athlete’s ability to develop, recruit, and use effectively all resources necessary to cope with the increasing demands of the athletic career.
An athletic career usually starts at the age of 7 to 10 years, sometimes even earlier depending on the sport event (e.g., in swimming, artistic gymnastics, figure skating, and ice-hockey). First, children perceive sport as merely ‘‘playing a game,’’ however, later their attitudes change and sport becomes as ‘‘a sphere of education’’. Much later for those who reach the top it becomes a job or professional activity. It takes usually about 10 years of deliberate practice to reach an expert performance level in sports, and once there, the period before retirement usually lasts between 5 and 15 years. At the most general level, an athletic career typically consists of several stages: initiation, development, mastery/perfection/ culmination, maintenance, and discontinuation.
Athletes striving for athletic excellence and staying at the top have to cope with increasingly complicated demands related to their practice, competitions, communication, and life outside of the sport. There are specific demands at the beginning (transitional) part of each athletic career stage. Research findings summarized in the 1997 FEPSAC Position Stand # 3 indicate that the beginning of sport specialization requires adjustments to the demands of the sport event, coach, sport group, and a new schedule of everyday life. Young athletes must ensure the right choice of sport, show ability in learning sport skills, and test themselves in their first competitions. When the athlete and coach decide to work for results, they enter the transition to the development stage or intensive training in the chosen sport, characterized by more intense and specialized practice and participation in higher level competitions. This transition requires that athletes adjust to higher physical and psychological loads, improve their technical and tactical skills, achieve relatively stable results in competition, and balance the time and energy taken by their sport with other activities (studies, leisure, etc.).
The first significant success brings the athlete to top-level sport with its tough competitions, and that indicates a transition to high-achievement and ‘‘adult’’ sport, or to the mastery/perfection/culmination stage of athletic career. Further progress requires that athletes revise their lifestyle so that it works for their sport goals. They should also find their individual paths in sport, the ways to cope with pressures of selection to important competitions, and to gain respect of the team, opponents, and judges. In short, this stage is where an athlete earns her reputation, which later will work for her. Transition from amateur to professional sport is marked by adaptation to specific requirements and pressures of professional sports, competitions with very strong opponents, more independent training, and striving not only for the victory but also for fans’ sympathies. The transition from the culmination to the maintenance stage of an athletic career is characterized by the necessity to search for additional resources in order to maintain a high level of achievements and to plan athletic retirement. The termination of athletic career is marked by leaving sports and transitioning to some other professional career, with adjustments to a new status, lifestyle, and social network.
The career demands briefly described above characterize so-called normative transitions. However, each athlete also experiences a number of non-normative (idiosyncratic) transitions related to his or her particular situation or environment. Transition demands create developmental conflict between ‘‘what the athlete is’’ and ‘‘what he or she wants or ought to be,’’ which stimulates the athlete to find additional coping resources. The effectiveness of coping depends on the dynamic balance between transition resources and barriers. Transition resources includes all internal and external factors that facilitate the coping process (e.g., the athlete’s self-knowledge, skills, personality traits, motivation, availability of social and/or financial support). Transition barriers include all internal and external factors that interfere with effective coping (e.g., a lack of necessary knowledge or skills, interpersonal conflicts, difficulties in combining sport and studies or work). Interestingly, the same experience may be either a resource or a barrier depending on the situation. For example, athletic identity, which according to Brewer et al. (1993) is ‘‘the degree to which the individual identifies herself with the athletic role’’ (p. 237), is usually an important resource for an athlete, especially when she is at the peak of her career. However, it can turn into a serious barrier in the process of adaptation to post-athletic career life.
Typically, at the beginning of their athletic career, athletes experience a lack of internal resources (sport-specific knowledge and skills), which are compensated for by social support from a coach, the family, and peers. At the culmination of their athletic career, athletes are usually at their most resourceful and their career demands are the highest. Elite athletes often rely very much on their relatively stable experience patterns and meta-experiences. At the maintenance stage of their athletic career, athletes often lack social support; their health deteriorates; they are bothered by the consequences of injuries, a lack of energy, and pressures in other spheres of life. However, all these concerns can be compensated for by the individualization of all aspects of the athletes’ preparation. For example, veteran athletes typically train less than their younger counterparts, but they use their individual strengths more effectively. This allows them to maintain results at a high level until the very end of their athletic career.
Athletes’ Successful Transitions and Crisis Transitions
What happen in a career transition when the athlete is either able or fails to cope with transition demands? Do athletes need any psychological help while in such a transition? If yes, what kind of help would be useful? These questions relate to the coping process, the outcomes, and consequences of career transitions.
The coping process is central in a transition and includes all strategies the athlete uses in order to adjust to particular transition demands. An adequate match between the perceived demands and available resources creates a state of readiness to the career transition and a higher probability of successful transition. Successful transition is associated with effective coping when the athletes are able to recruit, use, or rapidly develop necessary resources and avoid (or overcome) potential transition barriers. One of the principles in effective coping is relying on athletes’ strengths, which can compensate for potential and existing weaknesses or barriers.
An alternative outcome is a crisis transition, when an athlete is unable to cope effectively on his own with the demands of the transitional situation. Research identified a set of symptoms or markers describing typical reactions of athletes in crisis transition, including a decrease in self-esteem (as a first reaction to ineffective coping) and chronic emotional discomfort. Athletes also report new fears, increased sensitivity to failures, poor decision-making, and inadequate behaviors. Attempts to change the situation are usually ineffective, and instead of improvement new mistakes (and failures) are committed. Therefore, athletes in a crisis transition often describe feeling like they are in a blind alley or a dead end. For instance, as reported by Stambulova and Lindwall in 2002, one elite athlete who dropped out of sport after becoming caught up in doping described her feelings in the crisis as follows: ‘‘I totally panicked and did a terrible error . . . I took . . . forbidden substances as a final effort to get away from the feeling of being useless. My head was in chaos and there were no open roads left to take’’ (Svensk Idrottspsykol., 2, 2–5).
Athletes in crises need psychological assistance to shift them from a ‘‘dead end’’ situation to a ‘‘cross-road’’ situation and to see several new coping alternatives. Moreover, psychological intervention influences the consequences of the transition. Effective intervention leads to successful but delayed transition. Alternatively, ineffective or no intervention situations are followed by negative consequences or so-called costs for failure to cope with the transition. Possible costs include decline in sport results, injuries, overtraining, neuroses, psychosomatic illnesses, prematurely quitting sports, and also different forms of rules violation and degradation of personality (e.g., alcohol and drug use, criminal behaviors). All these costs can be seen as negative effects of sport participation and also as barriers to coping with forthcoming career demands.
A developmental perspective provides a framework for a better understanding of career transitions. For instance, Vygotsky’s constructs of the zone of actual development (ZAD) and the zone of proximal development (ZPD) could be instrumental in prediction of transition consequences. The ZAD is a range of the tasks that a person can solve on her own; the ZPD is a range of the tasks that a person can solve only if assisted by others. If most of the athlete’s coping resources are in her ZAD, a successful transition can be predicted; in contrast, a crisis transition is expected if most of the athlete’s resources are in her ZPD. Therefore, a psychological intervention should focus on helping an athlete to develop new resources and overcome potential transition barriers, especially if transition demands exceed available resources.
The lifespan model of developmental challenge earlier applied to athletic performance (from a short-term perspective) can also be used for the interpretation of career transitions. Typically, transition demands require a long-term coping process and many resources. Successful coping means adding new resources and an outcome in the form of development. If no new demands are made and the athlete simply repeats everyday routines, development eventually turns into positive stagnation. Crisis transition can be seen as negative stagnation, which might turn into development (under condition of qualified psychological assistance to the athlete) or into decay (i.e., negative consequences of not coping with the transition).
Developmental psychology interpretations demonstrate the dialectic nature of career transitions and their role in achieving athletic excellence. Each career transition with its accompanying demands is a step to athletic excellence. There is a risk of not meeting the demands, resulting in negative stagnation or decay. But there is also a chance to develop further and to experience positive stagnation on a higher level.
Three types of psychological interventions can be useful for helping athletes in career transitions: (1) a crisis prevention, (2) psychological crisis coping, and (3) psychotherapeutic (clinical) interventions. Crisis prevention involves career planning and goal setting, mental skills training, and organization of a social support system. This intervention aims to prepare athletes for a transition in advance by developing their resources for effective coping. This approach actually enhances their readiness for the transition either on their own or by using an expert assistance. Psychological crisis coping is an intervention for athletes already in crisis transition; it includes mainly individual counseling and psychocorrection programs. The focus here is on helping the athlete to analyze her situation, to find the best option for coping, and to develop and realize the action plan. These interventions usually deal with negative stagnation and help the athlete to turn it into a development situation. Psychotherapeutic or clinical interventions are applied when the athlete has already experienced one or several of the above-mentioned negative consequences of not coping with a crisis transition. In other words, these interventions deal with a decay situation, trying to stabilize and then to improve the athlete’s situation.
From Athletic to Personal Excellence
What are the benefits and costs of many years of participation in sport? How can sport psychologists help athletes to maximize the benefits of an athletic career and to minimize its costs? How can a successful athletic career contribute to the athlete’s life outside sport?
An athletic career can be evaluated not only as a stage-like developmental process, but also as a developmental event contributing to the lifespan development in and outside sport. From this perspective, several parameters characterize an athlete’s development during his or her athletic career. These include duration of sport participation from start to peak and finish, the sport event(s) practiced, the degree of specialization, and achieved sport titles/records/results. Subjective indicators include perceived benefits of sport participation and its costs (in terms of time, energy, health, money, etc.) as well as career satisfaction (one’s self-esteem in regard to the athletic career) and career successfulness (social recognition of one’s athletic career).
Successful (or elite) careers are usually associated with athletic excellence, whereas satisfactory careers are associated with achieving individual peaks corresponding to the individual resources and environment. Satisfaction is based on a set of self-referenced criteria, but most often it consists of perceived potential in relation to level of achievements and athletic career costs. Interestingly, some athletes are often satisfied with non-elite careers, if they value the developmental effects (benefits) of sport participation (e.g., self-knowledge, physical fitness, good health, skills, qualities, social contacts that can be used in other spheres of life). In contrast, other athletes may be dissatisfied with their elite careers, especially if they perceive the costs as too high (e.g., deteriorated heath, deficits in education, a lack of close personal contacts or any interests outside sports).
To achieve athletic excellence, athletes have to start and specialize in a particular sport event quite early. This can facilitate young athletes’ progress in a chosen sport, but it also can result in several negative consequences such as high pressures, fears, and one-sided development. To avoid this, coach effectiveness training encourages coaches working with children and youth to focus more on optimal development of young athletes than on ‘‘winning at all costs.’’ Positive developmental effects related to athletes’ self-esteem, skills level, and satisfaction with various aspects of sport participation should be provided for all young athletes, and then allowing the most talented of them to move further to the athletic excellence level.
In a broader sense, sport psychology aims to help all athletes, including top performers facing tough transitions and pressures of their careers, to achieve optimal development and their individual peaks in sport. Therefore, career/developmental perspective in applied work with athletes includes several aspects: (1) ‘‘whole career’’ approach, which spans the athletic career—from initiation to termination—as well as the post-athletic career; (2) ‘‘whole person’’ approach (taking into account not only athletic but also nonathletic developments of athletes); (3) developmental approach (links between past, present, and future); (4) activity-specific approach (taking into account general and sport event-specific factors); (5) individual approach (taking into account typical and individual patterns); and (6) transferable skills approach. For instance, the latter refers to a series of sport-based life skills programs that aim to teach physical and mental skills (e.g., emotion self-regulation, effective communication, goal setting, coping with success and failure), which can be generalized to various spheres of the participants’ life outside sport. This approach can be useful at each stage of athletic career, especially for retired athletes, to help them adapt their skills and experiences acquired during sport participation to their post-athletic career life.
A challenge for sport psychologists helping athletes to reach athletic and personal excellence is to find the right balance between situational current problems and future career development issues. For example, what is more important for the athlete: to prepare well for a competition in the next week or to make sure she joins a national team in the next year? The other dilemma, for example, with a veteran athlete, is whether to focus on searching for additional resources to help him keep his sport results at a high level or to plan for retirement and post-athletic career life. The best answers to these and other similar questions can be provided by viewing applied sport psychology as both a science and an art. The science viewpoint tells us that it is important to keep in mind both the situation and career perspectives; whereas the art viewpoint, based on past experiences, skills, and intuition, can help answer the question of how to do this.
What has been achieved in applied sport psychology? What are the main concerns of the field right now? What is on its future agenda?
In order to enhance the effectiveness of scientific support in elite sport, several new future directions from a research-oriented and a practical (organizational) perspective can be identified. These include a new emphases on the role of elite coaches in psychological preparation of athletes and team, more focus on team-building, environmental, and organizational factors, and the development of closer international cooperation between scientists, practitioners, and sports organizers. Each of these aspects is briefly described in the sections that follow.
More psychological support for elite coaches
Initial focus of most sport psychology research and interventions on athletes and teams is well documented in the literature. However, the role of coaches in the psychological preparation of athletes and teams should be further emphasized. In practice, this means that the coach should be the central figure in preparation of the team, and sport psychologists should work more through the coach and with the coach-athlete team rather than only with the athlete. Enhancing the psychological competence of coaches can be a decisive factor in enhancing the quality of coaching.
In the past, sport psychology interventions and mental training programs usually focused on competing athletes who were coping with competition stressors. Less attention was paid to high-quality practices and prevention of overtraining, staleness, burnout, and injuries. Therefore, a most urgent and promising area of research and applications in sport psychology now and in the future should be the optimal performance of coaches and their coping skills for handling short-term and long-term chronic (e.g., burn-out) stresses. Qualitative research on careers of outstanding coaches to identify the factors of their consistent excellence would be a challenge for future researchers and practitioners. On the applied side, it would be helpful to summarize experiences of how ongoing individualized consultancy (personal coaching) for coaches has helped them anticipate the critical transition periods in their careers.
Team-building and effective management
In the past, social psychological research in sport psychology comprised 8–10%of all efforts, and the role of environmental and organizational factors in elite sport is still underestimated. Therefore, sport psychology should focus more on a holistic approach to the interpersonal and group processes that are determining performance and the life of a team in a wider social and cross-cultural context. Optimization of communication in the team is a very promising and productive area of research and applications. Practically, very little is known about the psychology of effective management in elite teams, sports federations, and clubs. Considering the quick development of elite sports, such areas as organizational development, change, and change management are potentially very important as new directions for research and applications. Experiences and practices of organizational psychology and management already available in non-sports high achievement settings could be beneficial for sport. On the other hand, the findings obtained in elite sports might be of interest to top management, business, army, and police.
Cross-cultural adaptation of athletes and coaches
Recent developments in Europe and worldwide indicate that more and more elite athletes and coaches are working abroad. These professionals need new skills for successful adaptation to a new environment and its constant changes. Quick adaptation to a new team, teammates, and coach, effective contacts with the media, and negotiation skills, for example, are much-needed resources for elite athletes and coaches. Moreover, with more migration and higher mobility rates among elite coaches, a critical factor is the assessment of a candidate’s potential for cross-cultural adaptation and individualized programs that could facilitate his or her entry to a host country. This is especially important in view of the fact that tradition and values vary by country, and, for instance, a well-meaning but authoritarian coach with a clear orientation on success can be less than effective when starting his work in an amateur-oriented environment of the host country. A follow up with the coach or athlete could be instrumental in helping them to quickly adapt and effectively function both professionally and personally in the new environment.
International cooperation of sport psychologists
There are indications that in the future, a better collaboration between applied sports psychologists from different countries could be useful not only for research but also in consulting. With recent developments in world-wide communication, joint consulting and psychological support for coaches and athletes across different countries seems like a reality in the near future. Developing such a network of sport psychologists could be an interesting initiative, especially in places where there is a lack of experts who could provide high-quality services (in research and applications) for elite athletes and coaches. One possible solution would be to use the expertise of internationally recognized applied researchers and practitioners in sport psychology who could deliver the necessary services for elite athletes, teams, and coaches and provide hands-on experiences for the local young aspiring sport psychologists interested in working with elite performers.
To conclude, now as never before, the application of what is already available in sport psychology is extremely important. Practical experience and expertise available in sport psychology are important not only in competitive and elite sport settings but also in such high-achievement settings as the performing arts and business. There are promising indications that the gap between theoretical knowledge and experience-based knowledge in sport psychology is gradually being bridged. Moreover, there is a clear shift in applied sport psychology from a predominantly negative, problem-oriented, and deficit-repairing approach initially borrowed from clinical psychology to amore positive psychology focusing on optimal performance and on an athlete’s and team’s strengths rather than limitations. Another promising trend in sport psychology is more emphasis on idiographic (individual-oriented) and experience-based approaches rather than on traditional nomothetic (group-oriented) comparisons of successful and less than successful athletes. Finally, early attempts to use personality tests to predict situational performance proved to be unsuccessful. A new and more promising approach is to conceptualize the situationally oriented applied work focused on enhancement of athletic performance within the framework of developmental perspective. This may provide an opportunity for sport psychology to become the psychology of athletic and personal excellence.
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