14 Sports Psychology Techniques & Tips for Coaching Athletes

Sports Psychology TechniquesWhen Sir Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile in 1954, it was considered the limit of human performance.

At present, more than 20 U.S. runners break that same barrier every year (Stulberg & Magness, 2017). Performance gains have been found in both physical and mental training.

Whether competing with elite athletes or as an amateur, hanging in and being calm under pressure, remaining focused, and maintaining self-belief are all vital aspects needed to push personal limits (Sheard, 2013).

This article explores sports psychologists’ techniques and tips that can help improve athletes’ game, overcome the obstacles they face, and deliver consistently high performances.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Goal Achievement Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients create actionable goals and master techniques to create lasting behavior change.

14 Skills of Effective Sports Psychologists & Coaches

Typically, sports psychologists’ activities fall into three major categories, each with its specific skills (Moran, 2012):

  1. Applied consultancy work, such as coaching, in which the sports psychologist engages with professional and amateur athletes (and coaches and parents) to help them:
    • Enhance sporting performance
    • Cope with the pressure of competition
    • Recover from injuries
    • Maintain exercise programs
  1. Education, involving teaching athletes, coaches, students, and even businesspeople about the principles and methods behind sports psychology.

  2. Research, finding evidence-led answers to the obstacles and challenges found within sporting success.

The following coaching skills are crucial to be effective in an applied role, coaching individuals or teams of athletes:

  1. Counseling skills, such as active listening
  2. Ability to be nonjudgmental
  3. Detailed knowledge of psychology theory and techniques
  4. Ability to understand people’s responses
  5. Understanding and sensitivity
  6. Excellent verbal communication and interpersonal skills
  7. Patience, understanding, and the ability to motivate others
  8. Ability to work under pressure and cope with stressful situations
  9. Active interest in sports
  10. Flexibility to work with different clients across multiple settings
  11. Problem-solving and decision-making skills
  12. Commitment to ongoing professional development
  13. Methodological approach to work
  14. Good IT skills

 

4 Sports Psychology Techniques to Apply

Tennis psychologyWhen supported by sports psychologists, athletes, coaches, and even parents will benefit most when underlying theory informs their practice (Kremer, Moran, & Kearney, 2019).

While there is still much within the field of sports psychology to explore, there are many established practices that sports psychologists can adopt with confidence that will benefit their clients, including (Kremer et al., 2019; Strycharczyk & Clough, 2015):

 

Reflection

Honesty is crucial to reflection. The sportsperson needs to identify and capture strengths and weaknesses to control their performance (Kremer et al., 2019).

Through creating a list and scoring (out of 10) where an athlete is now (see ‘Now’ in the table below) and where they want to get to (See ‘Future’ in the table below), it is possible to focus mental energy and direct training, development, and growth.

For example, a marathon runner may have identified the following areas for improvement:

Area Now Future Action needed
Nutrition 3 8 Work with a nutritionist to create a dietary plan
Endurance 7 9 Include more long-distance running
Ability to cope with pressure 2 9 Begin visualizing the race
Ability to fit training in around family 3 8 Create a plan with the coach and involve key family members

 

Understanding what has to be improved makes it possible to increase the perception of control and start creating motivating, action-focused goals.

 

2 Relaxation techniques

If an athlete is nervous about a competition, it is not necessarily a negative. It shows that the competition or event matters to them (Kremer et al., 2019).

However, when nerves take over and damage performance, it can be a problem for the competitor. The challenge is to maintain calm and remain relaxed, enjoy the challenge, and perform at their best.

First, it is important to distinguish between two approaches to coping:

  • Problem focused
    Used when preparing to face pressure within the athlete’s control, such as a race or a match. It is possible to form a plan of action to reduce the impact.

  • Emotion focused
    When the athlete changes how they interpret or react to a high-pressure situation.

Both problem-focused and emotion-focused approaches can be valuable in reducing stress and promoting relaxation. Here are two examples:

Meditation and mindfulness

Meditation and mindfulness are highly effective emotion-focused techniques that help the athlete restructure the pressure in their mind.

The Body Scan Meditation or entering a mindful state by exploring the Five Senses can be incredibly valuable and convenient forms of self-directed relaxation that can integrate into training and competition.

Pre-performance routines

Pre-performance routines are highly effective problem-focused techniques for reducing stress and promoting a calm state, ready for competition.

The athlete should create a script of actions they need to perform when getting ready for a game or a match.

“Routines are valuable because they take you from thinking about doing something to doing it” (Kremer et al., 2019).

 

Focusing

While telling yourself (or receiving a shout from a coach) to concentrate may encourage you to try even harder, it doesn’t inform how to do it or what to focus on (Kremer et al., 2019).

Focusing must be specific to what you are doing and where you are and involves ignoring distractions. It helps to have a clear goal that you can break down into a set of actionable steps.

You can think of attention as a spotlight; its focus can attend to one of the following (Strycharczyk & Clough, 2015):

  • Narrow (one aspect of the gameplay) versus broad (the entire game)
  • Internal (attending to your performance) versus external (considering the environment)

Because the human capacity for focus is limited, we are almost always in one of the following combined states at any given time:

Narrow/Internal focus Broad/Internal focus
Narrow/External focus Broad/External focus

 

Each type of focus has its time. For example:

  • A broad/external focus is required to read play late in a team game.
  • A narrow/internal focus is necessary when digging in during the ultimate stages of a marathon.

Consider your particular sport. What focus applies and when? Imagine the situation and consider how you will direct and maintain that focus.

 

Motivation in Sports Psychology: 4 Interventions & Techniques

Life is not orderly, and neither is our motivation (Kremer et al., 2019). We prioritize different motives depending on the time, situation, and our personal life choices.

However, countless studies have confirmed that intrinsic motivation (doing something for the sake of accomplishing a task) is more powerful at sustaining commitment than extrinsic motivation (for the sake of the ego or the rewards gained; Ryan & Deci, 2018).

Several approaches can help motivate athletes.

 

Goal setting

Goals focus attention, mobilize effort, enhance persistence, and encourage strategy development (Kremer et al., 2019).

 

Self-talk

Motivational self-talk improves endurance performance, increasing both power output and time to exhaustion (Meijen, 2019).

Athletes talking (out loud or internally) to themselves, saying things like “I can keep going” and “There is more in the tank,” boosts motivation.

Such verbal persuasion appears to influence the evaluation of a stressful situation, the experience of emotions, and the degree of self-belief.

 

Change the environment

Listening to great music in training and competition can be a quick way to boost your mood.

Create a list of tracks of varying intensities that will suit your mood at different points. For example, you may want something high energy before a game or a little slower after spending two hours on a long run (Afremow, 2014).

 

Growing intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation is not a given. The coach and athlete must find new (or change existing) environments to align with basic psychological needs. Fostering a sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness can maintain and sustain motivation and allow the sportsperson to flourish (Ryan & Deci, 2018).

 

Top 6 Worksheets & Exercises

Sports Psychology TipsThe following exercises provide support for increasing mental toughness, fostering intrinsic motivation, and handling anxiety in training and competition.

 

Goal setting

“Goal setting is widely recognized as an effective means to motivate individuals to achieve some valuable or important purpose,” say mental toughness experts Doug Strycharczyk and Peter Clough (2015).

Not only does goal setting provide meaning and direction, but it also fuels and energizes working toward objectives.

At times, the enormity of goals can be overwhelming. Instead, break them down into specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound (SMART) goals.

Use the SMART goal-setting template to help athletes set and navigate goals that enable them to focus on the right thing at the right time.

 

Fostering mental toughness

Mental toughness is a valuable concept in determining wellbeing, behavior, and individual and team performance (Strycharczyk & Clough, 2015).

While there may be a degree of innateness, mental toughness can be developed for those wishing to do so.

Three factors that can help enhance mental toughness (Crust & Clough, 2011):

  • Providing a supportive yet challenging environment
  • Having an appropriate support network
  • Encouraging reflection and experiential learning

While there are several mental toughness interventions, including positive thinking, visualization, and goal setting, mental toughness is often more effectively learned rather than taught. Therefore, learning mental toughness is particularly suited to coaching.

According to Strycharczyk and Clough (2015), a coach can facilitate the growth of mental toughness through helping an athlete to:

  • Recognize what needs to be improved to develop performance
  • Overcome barriers that impede performance improvement
  • Sustain long-term positive changes
  • Develop strategies to maintain potential

The GROW Coaching Model (Goal, Reality, Options, Way forward) offers a useful and structured approach to implement process improvements.

 

Improving performance

Focus on what you want to happen

“Focus on what you want to happen, not what you are afraid might happen,” says Jim Afremow (2014). If you take a shot and focus on what you are trying to avoid, you are not likely to hit your target.

Similarly, don’t try to perform without (or avoiding) fear; instead, try to perform with confidence, telling yourself “Stay on target” rather than “Don’t blow it” (Afremow, 2014).

Reframing

The legendary tennis player Billie Jean King saw pressure as a privilege rather than a sign something was wrong. It is vital to reframe events as opportunities to do well, rather than catastrophes.

Training under pressure and practicing visualization provide useful opportunities to try out reframing by simulating the stress response and providing assurance of coping ability (Afremow, 2014).

Trust your talent

Overthinking can be dangerous, leading to the perils of perfectionism and paralysis-by-analysis syndrome. When there is a risk of this happening, change internal focus to external focus (Afremow, 2014).

Trust your talent and accept that you are well prepared. Follow the train it–trust it process (Rotella & Cullen, 2004):

Step one – Train your talent in practice.
Step two – Trust your talent in competition.
Step three – Keep repeating steps one and two.

While there is a degree of tongue-in-cheek in step three, it is an essential point: trust is vital for peak performance.

 

Dealing with anxiety

Gaining control of breathing can be a highly effective way to manage and reduce both general anxiety and anxiety specific to a forthcoming competition.

Controlled breathing can help you “relieve anxiety, improve circulation, concentration, and digestion and increase energy” (Strycharczyk & Clough, 2015).

Try the following controlled breathing exercise or our detailed 3 Steps to Deep Breathing worksheet.

  1. Take a deep, slow breath.
  2. Gently exhale fully.
  3. Inhale again, this time counting 1 to 4.
  4. Hold your breath, counting 1 to 4.
  5. Exhale fully while counting from 1 to 8.
  6. Repeat step 3 to 5 four times.

 

Using Imagery and Visualization: 6 Tips

Visualization is closely linked to other positive thinking techniques and a surprisingly intuitive activity (Strycharczyk & Clough, 2015).

However, the challenge most of us face is that we typically imagine the negatives. For example, when we think of an exam or a presentation, we may begin by picturing what could go wrong.

Visualization is widely used and highly successful in sporting environments. The 100-meter sprinter imagines the race from gun to tape, and the tennis play pictures the perfect serve (Strycharczyk & Clough, 2015).

After all, inside our heads is one of the best (and safest) places to play through a difficult task or situation. The sportsperson can rehearse a tough set of movements to improve skills or a stressful situation to increase confidence all the way up to the podium.

Try it out:

  • See the environment: the pitch, track, and competitors.
  • Imagine yourself confident, relaxed, and in control.
  • See yourself prepared and ready.
  • Picture what it is like to make each movement successfully.
  • Imagine winning the race, match, or game.
  • Visualize how you look to your competitors: calm, confident, and committed.

 

3 Questionnaires & 128 Questions to Ask Clients

Sport Psychology ActivitiesSeveral questionnaires help sports psychologists form a more complete understanding of the sportsperson and their needs.

The following are three of the most popular. The answers to the coaching questions highlight an athlete’s needs based on their mental toughness, personality, and motivation.

 

Measurement of mental toughness

The MTQ48 scores individuals on their mental toughness according to the four Cs: control, commitment, challenge, and confidence (Crust & Clough, 2005).

While there are other measures of mental toughness, the MTQ48 offers valuable insights into the mindset of the individual through a series of 48 self-rating statements such as (Sutton, 2019):

  • I generally feel in control.
  • I often wish my life was more predictable.
  • I don’t usually give up under pressure.

The MTQ48 is available for purchase.

 

Personality

Personality affects performance and the ability to handle pressure in sports (Sutton, 2019).

The Big Five Personality Inventory is a practical approach to scoring an athlete’s personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (John & Srivastava, 1999).

Individuals rates themselves on whether they agree with a series of 44 statements such as:

I am someone who…

… is talkative.
… is reserved.
… is full of energy.

The Big Five personality inventory is available for download.

 

Motivation

Based on Deci and Ryan’s (1985) Self-Determination Theory, the General Causality Orientation Scale (GCOS) provides a well-validated tool for measuring intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation (Sutton, 2019).

Athletes rate themselves on a series of 36 statements based on a scene or situation, such as:

You have just received the results of a test you took, and you discovered that you did very poorly. Your initial reaction is likely to be:

  • “I can’t do anything right,” and I feel sad.
  • “I wonder how it is that I did so poorly,” and I feel disappointed.
  • “That stupid test doesn’t show anything,” and I feel angry.

The SDT GCOS is available for download.

 

Top 4 Videos on the Topic

Here are four of our favorite videos about sports psychology:

 

Sport psychology – inside the mind of champion athletes

Martin Hagger’s TEDx talk provides fantastic insights into the crucial role of sports psychology in helping athletes prepare for competition.

 

How to Keep Your Head in the Game: Sports Psychology Tips & More

How to Keep Your Head in the Game is a short but helpful introduction to the importance of focus and mental preparation to sporting performance.

 

The Psychology of a Winner: Documentary on peak performance and sports psychology

The Psychology of a Winner is an inspiring documentary on peak performance and sports psychology.

 

Win the Game of Life with Sports Psychology

Win the Game of Life is another hugely entertaining TEDx video that introduces in a fun way some techniques that have proven successful in sports psychology.

 

5 Helpful PositivePsychology.com Tools & Resources

We have many tools and resources that can encourage athletes to explore their mindset for training and competition.

  • Self-Directed Speech Worksheet
    This is a simple worksheet to create internal sentences that reassure you when things get tough.

  • Basic Needs Satisfaction in General Scale
    This scale helps you understand how basic needs satisfaction relates to your life.

  • Self-Esteem Journal for Adults
    Journaling is a positive and practical approach to enhancing self-esteem.

  • Leaving the Comfort Zone
    A growth mindset is valuable, but it must translate into action. Use this tool to help you leave the comfort zone.

  • Using Values to Build Resilience
    Understanding and living by your values will help you build more resilience in life.

  • 17 Motivation & Goal-Achievement Exercises
    If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others reach their goals, this collection contains 17 validated motivation & goals-achievement tools for practitioners. Use them to help others turn their dreams into reality by applying the latest science-based behavioral change techniques.

 

A Take-Home Message

Once you get to a certain level of competency in sports, “the mental skills become as important as the physical skills,” writes Gary Mack, sports psychology consultant to Olympic athletes (Mack & Casstevens, 2001).

Activity is more likely when humans feel intrinsically motivated and have a sense of control over their behavior (Ryan & Deci, 2018).

Mentally tough athletes have an advantage over their opponents; they can cope with the demands of training, competition, relationships, and lifestyle (Connaughton & Hanton, 2010).

Sports psychologists can support competitors at all levels in handling the pressures of sports. They can use coaching techniques such as visualization, goal setting, focus, and self-talk to help athletes regain a sense of control and perform at their best under pressure.

Importantly, these techniques are useful within the context of sports as well as outside it. Try out some techniques mentioned above; the lessons are valuable for anyone pushing their performance limits.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Goal Achievement Exercises for free.

  • Afremow, J. A. (2014). The champion’s mind: How great athletes think, train, and thrive. Rodale Books.
  • Connaughton, D., & Hanton, S. (2010). The development and maintenance of mental toughness in the world’s best performers. The Sports Psychologist, 24, 168–193.
  • Crust, L. & Clough, P. J. (2005). Relationship between mental toughness and physical endurance. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 100, 92–194.
  • Crust, L., & Clough, P. J. (2011). Developing mental toughness: From research to practice. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 2(1), 21–32.
  • Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). The general causality orientations scale: Self-determination in personality. Journal of Research in Personality, 19, 109–134.
  • John, O. P., & Srivastava, S. (1999). The Big-Five trait taxonomy: History, measurement, and theoretical perspectives. In L. A. Pervin & O. P. John (Eds.), Handbook of personality: Theory and research (vol. 2) (pp. 102–138). Guilford Press.
  • Kremer, J., Moran, A. P., & Kearney, C. J. (2019). Pure sport: Practical sport psychology. Routledge.
  • Mack, G., & Casstevens, D. (2001). Mind gym: An athlete’s guide to inner excellence. McGraw-Hill.
  • Meijen, C. (2019). Endurance performance in sport: Psychological theory and interventions. Routledge.
  • Moran, A. P. (2012). Sport and exercise psychology: A critical introduction. Psychology Press.
  • Rotella, R. J., & Cullen, R. (2004). Golf is not a game of perfect. Simon & Schuster.
  • Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2018). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Press.
  • Sheard, M. (2013). Mental toughness: The mindset behind sporting achievement. Routledge.
  • Strycharczyk, D. &, Clough, P. (2015). Developing mental toughness: Coaching strategies to improve performance, resilience and wellbeing. Kogan Page.
  • Stulberg, B., & Magness, S. (2017). Peak performance: Elevate your game, avoid burnout, and thrive with the new science of success. Rodale Books.
  • Sutton, J. (2019). Psychological and physiological factors that affect success in ultra-marathoners (Doctoral thesis, Ulster University). Retrieved from https://pure.ulster.ac.uk/en/studentTheses/psychological-and-physiological-factors-that-affect-success-in-ul

About the Author

Jeremy Sutton, Ph.D., is a writer and researcher studying the human capacity to push physical and mental limits. His work always remains true to the science beneath, his real-world background in technology, his role as a husband and parent, and his passion as an ultra-marathoner.

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