Psychology and high performance sport

Psychology support has become a common, and important, element of the high-performance sport environment. Psychologists essentially perform two critical roles. First, they help athletes and teams develop strategies and skills to perform as close to their full potential when it matters most. Second, they help people within the sport environment (often, but not exclusively, athletes) navigate the range of mental health challenges that we all experience from time to time. The proportion of these dual roles of ‘high performance’ and ‘well-being’ is different in all sports and often from person to person. What is consistent though is that psychologists start with the whole person in mind and then go wherever needed to help that person achieve their sporting goals.

Putting a little more structure around this, psychologists will commonly work within a sporting ‘system’ at three levels:

We can’t make you faster, stronger or more skilled, but we can help you use all of what you have when you need it most

Level 1 – Work with individual athletes

Psychologists work 1:1 with athletes on a wide-range of issues such as coping with performance anxiety, the mental challenges of making weight, injury recovery, retirement (planned and unplanned), non-selection, rebounding from failure, relationship issues and performance routines. This work may take place in a consulting room, or in the training or competition environment.

Level 2 – Work on the team

This work often includes the development of shared values, team identity, culture and standards. It includes work with leadership groups and coaches on their role in the team and may include leadership development work. All this is about how the psychologist can help the individuals in the team perform together as a cohesive whole and to sustain this performance over time.

Level 3 – Work on the system

This work includes providing advice on strategies for athlete development and transition into, through and out of the sport. Psychologists provide advice on appropriate success measures based on the goals of a particular sport and can help identify where the processes and frameworks in place may be contributing to, or hindering, performance success.

The work of psychologists is never done in isolation. We work closely with others, and in particular, sports doctors, dietitians, strength & conditioning coaches and physios. It is a passionate community that strives to help ensure athletes and teams are ready to perform at their best. We can’t make you faster, stronger or more skilled, but we can help you use all of what you have when you need it most.

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