A Mental Game: Sports Psychology is the Future (and Always Will Be?)

Brain skull

Why, after several failed attempts at European glory, has Landon Donovan with Everton finally performed at a level appropriate to one of the top leagues in the world (barring the occasional ‘horror miss’)?  Is he a different player physically from his depressing stints with Bayer Leverkusen in 2000 and 2005?  Maybe a little bit—but probably not much.  If anything he was likely a bit more spry back in 2000 and 2005.  The most dramatic difference is his confidence, composure, and attitude.  Donovan is not a very different physical player, but he seems very different psychologically.

Even on a game by game basis, what makes the difference for a player between brilliance and uselessness?  What, to continue the hypothetical example, was the difference between Donovan against Manchester United and Donovan against Sporting Lisbon?  If you ask quality players, and make them choose between the percentage of difference that is down to the physical side and the percentage that is down to the psychological side many will tell you the difference is mostly psychological.  As Yogi Berra proclaimed in one of his fabled sports malapropisms “Ninety percent of this game is half-mental.”

But if you ask those same players the percentage of their training time that they spend preparing physically and the percentage of time they spend preparing psychologically, it is usually somewhere in the 90% physical range.  That logical inconsistency has been the basis of many claims that in modern sports and with elite teams players need sports psychology.  Claims that, despite their seeming sensibility, have gone largely unheeded.  As far as I can tell, clubs such as Everton often have sports psychology as part of diverse programs for performance enhancement but they rarely have individual sports psychologists in prominent roles with the first team.

Yet for several decades smart people have maintained that sports psychology is the future, that any good team, club, or program will eventually employ full time sports psychologists.  But with a few exceptions (perhaps most notably, British sports psychologist Bill Beswick who has had prominent roles with the likes of Manchester United and the English National Team) sports psychology still operates at the margins of the modern game.  Most top level teams (including MLS teams and American college athletic departments) now have full-time fitness trainers or strength and conditioning coaches, but if the psychological side is given any attention at all it is usually on an ad-hoc basis.

So why hasn’t sport psychology really taken off?  My suspicion is that it has to do with an intriguing combination of broader social attitudes towards psychology as a discipline and the culture of modern sports.  And that suspicion is biased by personal experience—years ago, when I finished my liberal arts bachelor’s in psychology (an intellectually great but practically useless degree), I thought I’d give sports psychology a try.  I did a Master’s Degree in ‘Sport Studies’ in combination with some playing, coaching, and teaching, and found myself surprisingly disaffected with the performance enhancement side of sports psychology.  I liked it in concept, never quite bought it practice, and continue to be fascinated by what it can and can’t do.

Sports psychology may also be on my mind at the moment because it received a fair bit of hype around the Vancouver Winter Olympics—garnering some of the credit for various medal counts.  But the prominence of the Olympic examples has also prompted noteworthy push-back: as a Christian Science Monitor article reported, in Scandinavia the fact that the Norwegian team brought four full-time sports psychologists to Vancouver prompted ridicule from columnists: “There are only losers who use sports psychologists. My God, when athletes start to scream for psychologists is when we know that they have already lost.”

And then there was the ongoing satire by Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert who, in exchange for helping fundraise for the US Speed Skating team, was named as an “Assistant Sports Psychologist” for the Olympics.  He proceeded to put together a number of typically amusing segments lampooning sports psychology—complete with references to “Freud rage,” Rorschach ink-blot tests, pointless repetitive questions of “how does that make you feel,” and inane advice about the need for speed skaters to get around the rink faster than their opponents—maybe with the benefit of imagining that their skate suit had been stuffed with meat and they are being chased by ravenous dogs.

One of the “real” sports psychologists working with the US Olympic team claimed the satire was legitimating: “It is an indication that the field has made it when Stephen Colbert is able to mock it.”  But I’m not so sure.  Certainly much of Colbert’s mockery comes with a degree of respect, but as any good psychologist will tell you it is also true that most jokes are funny because they convey a degree of truth.

Reactions to the aforementioned Bill Beswick’s work with the English National Team may be illustrative here.  Originally a basketball coach, Beswick began working with Steve McClaren at Derby, moved along to Manchester United, Middlesbrough, and eventually became McClaren’s assistant with England.  But as he himself noted “The players recoiled in horror at the idea of working with a shrink” (though, in fairness, he also noted that they quickly warmed to the endeavor, and that the continental players were always more interested than the Brits at taking “every possible advantage to get the most out of their game”).

Comments on a post about Beswick’s role with England, however, highlight the challenges to integrating sports psychology with the game.  One noted “England players have been performing as though they have a shrink on their backs.  Duh – They HAVE!  Doesn’t seem to work, just like it didn’t work at Boro.  Not really rocket science is it?  Dump the shrink and let the players be free to play!”  Another dismissed the need for a specialist: “The best Sports Psychologist that ever was involved in Football was Bill Shankly.”

In the meantime, after McClaren’s ouster as manager of England, Beswick continues to be a sought-after consultant—even making a visit to FC Dallas last year that drew similar reactions in the MLS blogosphere: one commenter noted “One thing comes to mind; the scene in ‘The Natural’ where the psychologist is talking to the team and Redford rolls his eyes and leaves. This is what losers do.”  Another claimed “Sports psychologists are in general a bunch of shysters. And isn’t part of being a head coach getting the players to be mentally tough?  This is so Mickey Mouse.”

Of course these comments are not entirely representative—Beswick has been successful because he offers something worthwhile, and many players value sports psychology (FC Dallas and sometimes US forward Jeff Cunningham responded to Beswick’s visit by repeating the claim that “Sports are 10 percent physical and 90 percent mental”).  But the criticisms do seem to me to offer a few reasons why sports psychology may not quite fit with the culture of the game:

The primary techniques of sports psychology are not magic: The types of things sports psychologists actually do with players are fairly commonsensical: goal setting, visualization, relaxation, self-talk, etc..  Some of these techniques work better than others, and it is worth being guided through systematic practices that have been validated by research.  But sometimes it just seems like common sense.  On one team I was associated with, for example, one of the best players had a serious problem with anger management—he’d get distracted by the referees, by opponents, by his teammates.  So after talking with the team’s sports psychology consultant, they devised a system where the player would wear a rubber band on his wrist and snap it whenever he found himself losing his temper as a reminder to focus on what mattered.  It helped.  But, as the commenter above noted: “Not really rocket science is it?”

Players vary dramatically in their attitudes towards sports psychology: For sports psychology to do any good the players have to buy in.  Some do.  But many don’t.  Unlike fitness training—which not everyone likes, but most everyone agrees is necessary—mental training is easy to write off as “mumbo jumbo.”  And, as the above comments suggest, it is also easy to write off as a sign of weakness—antithetical to the toughness required of elite athletes.

Sports psychology may not make sense as its own specialty: Idealizing an individualized “toughness” in sports also means that players often feel unable to admit they might need help with the types of psychological challenges many of us face at various points in our lives—an issue tragically illustrated by the recent suicide of Robert Enke.  Soccer players have no special immunity to psychological distress.  So while there is a special (and fairly rigorous) process for becoming a ‘certified sports psychologist’ (along with some uncertified hucksters willing to promise miracles), some psychological issues are probably best dealt with by general mental health clinicians (clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, etc.).  But these services are very different from the types of performance enhancement work that would be most analogous to fitness training.

Some of the best intuitive sports psychologists are coaches: Any good coach knows well that a significant part of their work is down to creating the right psychological environment for their players to thrive.  Managers win and lose their jobs based on what they get out of the talent given to them—with an emphasis on the fact that at the highest levels of the game the talent is already there.  A David Moyes or a Bruce Arena doesn’t change much about Landon Donovan’s physical abilities, but each manager does contribute much to creating an atmosphere where Donovan’s abilities work.

The idea that great managers have an intuitive grasp of sports psychology was reinforced for me by a recent analysis of Fabio Capello’s relative success with England.  Written by a “leading sports psychologist” the article argues that Capello has focused on “four key areas of mental toughness,” and while the specifics are a bit axiomatic (“Belonging,” “Feeling in control,” “Feeling valued,” and “Safety”) they also offer a decent analytic breakdown of what matters to high level performance.  In my reading, the article suggests that the value of sports psychology is not in its application with individual players but in its usefulness for framing how the game works.

As such, for me the best uses for sports psychology are in contexts such as coach training programs—where bodies of accumulated knowledge can provide coaches the chance to think through what matters for performance in a sophisticated and systematic way.  Where, ultimately, you can take it or leave it.  And so that is what I’ve tried to do with my own training in the field; to use sports psychology primarily as a tool kit that is available when needed (and which may also lead me to write some future posts about the ‘mental game’ with an emphasis on interpreting specific phenomena that psychology as a social science can help explain).

So could a sports psychologist have made a difference for Donovan during his earlier European forays?  Could a sports psychologist make a difference for the next young prodigy that comes on the scene?  Maybe.  But I suspect we’ll never really know.

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