I am fascinated by Psychology. I have been for a long time. That formally started with Sports Psychology.
That’s a little strange considering my past. Historically, I haven’t been an athlete. But I’m becoming more of an athlete all the time.
Part (and just part) of what’s making me more of an athlete is the application of Sports Psychology. In this series, I want to go over the pillars of Sports Psychology and how I’m applying them. Hopefully, you’ll start applying them, too.
For me to do you, the reader, justice, I can’t just talk about sports psychology. I have to talk about it through the lens we have in THE MOVEMENT. That lens is Biofeedback, or how sensation affects action.
Sensation and action are coupled. Physiologically, they are coupled in the sensorimotor loop. Anatomically, they’re coupled in the neurovascular bundle. It sounds complicated…but it’s not.
Let’s say you have the sensation of hunger. That sensation is telling you to eat. Once you eat (especially the right thing), that sensation goes away.
When we overlay sensation and action over Sports Psychology, we get some clarity. We get clarity as to why Sports Psychology works and how it works. Most importantly, we understand why Sports Psychology doesn’t work…and how to make it work better.
The first pillar of Sports Psychology is Goal Setting. For our purposes, we’ll define goal setting as an explicit intent to improve. Let’s look at it through our lens.
Would goal setting be more of sensation or action? The act, of course, of goal setting is an action but the desire itself to improve falls more under the category of sensation. What does this tell us about the efficacy of goal setting?
If goal setting, or a focus on the sensation, doesn’t directly lead to improved performance, we don’t have to necessarily focus the motor side of the equation, but we do have to look at the other pillars of sports psychology. Some are more sensory focused while others are more motor focused. Perhaps one will have the answer.
The second pillar of Sports Psychology is Mental Rehearsal. You may have heard it referred to as Visualization. That’s too narrow a description.
We don’t just rehearse visually, we may hear things…even feel things. And there are multiple points of view to rehearse from. How do we “look” at visualization through the lens of BioFeedback?
The act of visualization is more of an action. And that action, like all actions, provoke a sensation. But we’ll save that line of thought for the conclusion.
The third pillar of Sports Psychology is self talk. This is typically used when an athlete is engaged in negative self talk. “You’re not good enough. This always happens. You’re never going to make it.”
Sports Psychologists try to help their athletes to take action. They teach them to self talk in a more supportive way to themselves. It is meant to bolster confidence, esteem even.
Psychologists wouldn’t describe self talk as “BioFeedback,” but the mechanisms can be described as such. Self talk is the action, confidence is the “sensation.” Self Talk works because an action can be taken that resolves a negative sensation.
The Fourth Pillar of Sports Psychology is perhaps on the most important. What makes it important is how effective it is. If one fails at anything, it is because one didn’t prepare specifically enough. Simulation is all about specificity.
Simulation is about simulating the competitive elements within training. “Make training more like competition and competition more like training.” When training is sufficiently specific to competition, how we train will be how we compete.
When we simulate competition, we have to make sure the sensations an athlete takes in will be simulated in training. We may need a similar level of lights and sound. And the most difficult thing to simulate is the internal state of athlete. Can we simulate what levels of arousal and emotion they’ll be feeling? And, of course, the game actions need to be simulated in training.
The last pillar of Sports Psychology used to be referred to as “Relaxation.” This was appropriate for athletes with performance anxiety. They would essentially “psych” themselves out.
But there are many ways in which an athlete’s psychology can negatively impact performance. One way is being too tense. Another is not being “tense” enough.
When I compete, I sometimes feel like I want to fall asleep before a match. I don’t need to be more relaxed, I’m too relaxed. I need to be “activated.”
Sports Psychology has expanded to incorporate both relaxation and activation, manipulating SNS tone, called Arousal Regulation. This usually requires some action. Relaxation usually prompts a change in breathing. Activation usually entails a change in full body motion. Both are actions meant to bring about a change in how one feels, or sensation.
The pillars of Sports Psychology are Goal Setting, Mental Rehearsal, Simulation, Self Talk, and Arousal Regulation. All of them are actions that Sports Psychologists get their athletes to take when their sports performance suffers. But they can be made better when viewed through the lens of BioFeedback.
Our sensations and actions are both anatomically and physiologically coupled. How we feel affects what we do…and vice versa. And this effect is instant.
But many psychologists, sports psychologists included, ignore this relationship. I recommend you don’t. When a Sports Psychologist “prescribes” a particular practice, that professional should be looking for an immediate positive response. If no such response occurs, it’s no fault of the athlete, it’s the wrong tool for the job.
And when we’re looking for the right tool from sports psychology, we have to tune in to our responses, as well. If we don’t get the response we want, it’s time to move on to the next tool, even if that tool is outside the realm of sports psychology. Sports Psychology can be somewhat of a superficial approach.
Non-mechanical performance declines in sport (or life) is often related to something deeper. But no matter how deep it is, one thing remains the same: the relationship between sensation and action. This is the root of every issue and informs every approach.
Every (nonorganic) issue stems from an incorrect action being taken in response to a sensation. That usually starts with how a parent or caregiver responds to a child’s emotions. And when we’re no longer children, we have to learn how to better respond to our emotions, and all other sensations.
Sports is a microcosm of life. When (I sense that) my opponent does this, I do that. Sensation -> Action.
If we want the highest performance in sports and life, we have to use this approach on ourselves. Each correct action we take leads to a correction within us. The correction is in the question: I feel this -> can I do this (that helps me feel better)?