Myths About Sports Psychology
32 Misconceptions About The Mental Game
Of Sports Explained
Bill Cole, MS, MA
History shows that in 1920 the world's first
sport psychology laboratory was founded in Berlin Germany.
Soon after that another laboratory began in Russia, and in
1925 America's first sport psychologist Coleman Griffith founded
the first sport psychology laboratory in North America at
the University of Illinois. He wrote the first sport psychology
book published, The Psychology of Coaching, in 1926.
From the first days of sports psychology in the 1920's there
have been controversies, misunderstandings and myths surrounding
this fascinating field. Sports psychology, while more accepted
than ever, and utilized at the highest levels of sport, still
carries a stigma in the eyes of some athletes and coaches.
This article examines the many myths about sports psychology
that still exist, separates fact from fiction, and attempts
to dispel many of them. It answers some of these critical
questions about the field:
- How does sports psychology work?
- Who can benefit from working with a sports psychologist?
- What are the approaches and techniques of sports psychology?
- What misinformation about sports psychology exists?
It is hoped that this article will lead
to broader and more robust discussions around the values,
ethics, processes and future of sports psychology.
32 Myths About Sports Psychology
||All Sports Have The Same Type And Degree Of Psychological
||Different sports have differing degrees and types of
mental requirements for success. Perhaps every competitor
would say that their sport is very mentally demanding,
and it is true that each sport has its own specific mental
requirements. Athletes who are mentally strong in one
sport perhaps often could not imagine themselves handling
the mental challenges in another.
A sport like weight lifting, for example, is clearly less
mental than a complicated sport like competitive tennis.
Tennis incorporates complex strategies and tactics, is
played over a longer time frame, has deception, and is
a high-technique sport, requiring many hours of learning
and grooving strokes.
Which sports are "more mental" than others? And how would
one measure this? One somewhat objective measure of which
sports seem to be the most mentally demanding could be
based on the volume of literature on the psychological
aspects of the sport. This may demonstrate the degree
of difficulty in learning and mastering the mental demands
of the sport. Two sports stand out in this respect. Golf
has, by far, the most books and articles written about
the "mental side" of the game, with tennis a close second.
It seems reasonable to say that individual sports create
the most mental hazards and internal pressures on a performer,
far more than team sports. There is no place to hide,
and the winning and losing belongs only to the individual.
These sports are also usually more technique-laden and
hence subject to mental interference issues.
||Sports Are At Least "90% Mental" At Higher Skill Levels.
||Yogi Berra, the legendary baseball great, was known
to once say, "Baseball is 90% mental -- the other half
is physical." So much for mathematical science. It is
true that in the upper levels of a sport, the mental game
becomes more critical. After all, beginners in a sport
are simply struggling to achieve a basic competence in
physical skills. Thinking about complex game strategies
and competitive psychological issues are the least of
Another common statistic (spoken with such conviction
as to sound downright scientific) thrown around is that
humans use only 10% of their brain power. How can anyone
possibly measure or prove a statement like this? Because
these percentage-based statements are impossible to verify,
they add little credible discourse to sport psychology.
Here, though, is one never-ending oddity. If at least
90% of all athletes and coaches state that the mental
arena is vital, and absolutely critical at the higher
reaches of a sport, then why do they also admit that they
rarely practice mental skills? Perhaps they don't know
how to practice these skills, or are not psychologically
minded enough to seek assistance in this area. There still
remains, in many sports, a stigma associated with an athlete
who is "too mental". That's unfortunate.
||The Mental Game Always Makes The Difference Between
Two Otherwise Equal Athletes In A Competition.
||It has been said that if two athletes are equal in physical
skill and physical conditioning, and in experience, then
the factor that makes the difference between winning and
losing is mental. Indeed, it is said, at the higher levels
of a sport, the mental game is often the deciding factor,
because most athletes are equal in their technical and
physical abilities. Experienced coaches, players and commentators
make this statement all the time. This is not particularly
insightful, but rather, a tautology, an error of logic.
Clearly, the mental game makes the difference when all
other factors are equal.
||Sports Psychology Is Only For Athletes Who Are Mentally
||The term "mentally weak" implies there is an inherently
defective or temporarily fragile mental quality in an
athlete. This is not a helpful or accurate statement,
as many elite athletes who are quite mentally strong still
seek the services of sport psychologists on a regular
basis. This is one of the most pervasive and damaging
of the many myths about sport psychology. Think for a
moment. Why does Tiger Woods continuously have a golf
coach on his staff? His game is not "weak or broken".
He works with a coach so he can continue to improve, and
to minimize any backsliding. The same is true with athletes
who seek the services of sport psychologists. They want
to improve their mental skills.
||Sports Psychology Works With Athletes Who Are Mentally
||The definition of mental illness implies there is a
serious psychological disorder present. Sports psychology
is, in part, focused on the performance deficits of a
person's sport experience. There certainly are athletes
with mental illness who need the care of a clinical psychologist
or psychiatrist and who continue to participate in sport,
but mainstream sport psychology does not focus on or work
with individuals who are mentally ill. These individuals
are referred to a proper mental health professional. Athletes
who are mentally healthy are the focus of sport psychologists.
An athlete who needs help improving mental skills undertakes
sport psychology training from an educational perspective,
not a mental health one.
||Sports Psychology Can't Make A Loser Into A Winner.
||Labeling people as losers is not a helpful endeavor.
However, countless individuals and teams with a record
of predominating losses have started winning with the
help of sports psychology.
||Sports Psychology Can't Change The Innate Mental Abilities
Of An Athlete.
||Sports psychology can help athletes achieve results
far beyond what they ever thought possible. It can elevate
people to levels of performance about which they never
would have dreamed. What is considered innately limited
and intractable can, indeed, be surpassed.
||Sports Psychology Is A Quick Fix.
||While sports psychology often can work quickly after
a single session, for more powerful, more consistent and
longer-term benefits to accrue, extended and dedicated
study and application of the content and tools of this
field are needed.
||Sports Psychology Is Only For Elite Performers.
||Any level, age, gender and sport can benefit from the
discipline of sports psychology. Parents, coaches and
officials also can benefit. Sports psychology covers the
entire range of sport and movement behavior and offers
assistance to anyone desiring high quality experiences
in these realms.
||Sports Psychology Can Work By Simply Reading About It.
||Having a cognitive, conceptual understanding of sport
psychology is important, but this alone is not sufficient
to help an athlete consistently perform under pressure.
The principles of sports psychology need to be practiced,
used in actual game conditions and mastered before they
can be called upon in a reliable manner day to day under
||Sports Psychology Can Guarantee A Top Performance Will
Happen On Command.
||No one discipline, technique or method can guarantee
that an athlete can perform on command or win on command.
There are too many intangibles and factors other than
psychological with which to contend.
||Sports Psychology Is Simply About "Hypnotizing" The
||Even though hypnotism and self-hypnotic approaches are
important tools employed by some sports psychologists,
these methods are not the main crux of the field's interventions.
||Sports Psychology Takes Control Away From The Athlete
And Places It Into The Hands Of The Sport Psychologist.
||It is a common misconception that someone "hypnotizes"
the athlete and makes him or her act contrary to natural
desires or values. No one should control the athlete.
Rather, the sports psychologist teaches the athlete to
have more self-awareness, self-esteem and self-control.
The athlete's self-control should increase, not decrease.
||Sports Psychology Requires Religious Belief To Be Effective.
||Sports psychology does not embrace any religion or require
any religious belief to be effective.
||Sports Psychology Is Based On Far Eastern Mystical Philosophies,
And The Athlete Must Become An Adherent Of These To Gain
||Sports psychology does not embrace or represent any
philosophical tradition or theories of any individual
guru. Some of the approaches and philosophies in sports
psychology do originate from historical eastern traditions
such as Zen Buddhism, but there is no requirement for
any belief or any faith-based declarations by any athlete.
Modern sports psychology is based on sound, researched
science, and proven by studies and field work with thousands
of athletes at all levels of sport.
||Sports Psychology Is Incompatible With An Athlete's
||Sport psychology is not affiliated with, or based on,
any religion. Meditation, visualization, relaxation training
and other sport psychology modalities have nothing to
do with any belief system or religion and they can be
used by anyone.
||Sports Psychology Requires Long Hours Of Training To
See Any Positive Effects.
||Some benefits can be realized immediately in sports
psychology. Other techniques need more time. A good formula
to consider is this: If a mental problem has been long
standing, it probably won't be corrected overnight. Furthermore,
the higher the degree of performance outcome desired,
the more rigorous is the work needed in the mental arena.
||Sports Psychology Only Works With Athletes With Special
||A good sports psychologist takes athletes from whatever
psychological capabilities they possess and develops their
mental games beyond that level. There is no requirement
that an athlete already have a strong mental game, or
any particular psychological prowess to benefit from mental
||Sports Psychology Works Best With Highly Skilled Athletes.
||All levels of athletes, in all sports, can benefit from
sport psychology. Elite athletes probably get the most
press and publicity as users of sports psychology. Truly,
they can benefit more from psychological training than
pure novices because beginners must first learn the basics
of technique, strategy and tactics, and how to play their
sport before they can benefit from a high degree of mental
||Sports Psychology Training Takes The Place Of Physical
Conditioning And Sports Skills.
||No amount of psychological training can overcome poor
sports technique and inadequate physical conditioning.
As Vic Braden, famed tennis coach says, "If you have lousy
strokes, and a positive attitude, you'll still just be
a happy loser." Sport psychology is an adjunct to other
sports training, not a replacement for it. No amount of
mental training can ever take the place of hard work and
dedication to learning the physical skills and strategic
mastery of the sport.
||All Sports Psychology Techniques Work Equally Well For
All Athletes, And All Performance Issues.
||Not all sports psychology methodologies are recommended
for all problems, sports, teams or individual athletes.
For example, the public considers visualization to be
one of the most commonly utilized techniques in sports
psychology, yet it has been estimated that fewer than
60% of athletes can benefit from it. Some athletes are
unable to generate imagery at all, even after extensive
||There Is A Single Methodology Or System In Sports Psychology
That Works Well For All Athletes.
||There is no single technique or modality that works
equally well across the board in sports psychology, for
all athletes, for all issues. Just as the field of medicine
has various specialties and modalities to address the
multitudinous issues that patients present, sports psychology
has an array of interventions that can be customized to
adapt to the wide variety of psychological issues athletes
||Sports Psychology Uses The Same Approach And Methods
||Although sports psychology uses many of the same methods
and approaches as psychotherapy, the aims, purposes and
outcomes are quite different. Sports psychology at its
core is essentially an educational approach, while psychotherapy
is a therapeutic one.
||Sports Psychology Seeks To Change The Athlete's Personality
To Improve Performance.
||It is a stretch to say that intensive psychotherapy
itself, much less sports psychology, will change anyone's
basic personality and temperament. Sports psychology does
not aim to alter a person's personality, but one of its
goals is to take the performance aspects of the athlete's
mind and body and maximize their natural talents.
||Sports Psychology Seeks To Change The Athlete's Personality
To Make It Match The Ideal Profile Of A Specific Sport.
||There are a variety of personality and temperament profiles
of champions and high performers in every sport. Top achievers
have ranged from introverts to extroverts, organized to
disorganized, intelligent to average intelligence, socializers
to loners, etc. This range of personalities and mental
capabilities in successful athletes leads to the conclusion
that there is no one ideal character type, personality
type or temperament profile in any sport, or sports.
||Sports Psychology Has Its Own Methods And Does Not Use
Clinical, Counseling Or Psychotherapeutic Modalities And
||Every helping profession-- consulting, teaching, counseling,
psychotherapy, coaching and others-- uses techniques and
approaches from multiple disciplines. No single people-helping
profession can claim proprietary possession of any particular
technique that can enhance performance. Sports psychology
is no exception. Delivered correctly, it is an eclectic
blend of many disciplines and fields.
||The Core Of Sports Psychology Is Visualization And Positive
||Many people think these two approaches are the crux
of sports psychology, and perhaps these are among the
best known interventions, but they are only two of many
approaches to improving sport performance.
||Sports Psychology Can Cure Anyone's Mental Difficulties
And Make Them Perform Better.
||Quite often sports psychology can be the powerful tool
that helps people overcome their mental and emotional
blocks and rise to higher levels of performance. However,
sometimes a referral to a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist
is appropriate, if the problems a player presents are
outside the scope of the work of the sports psychologist.
Sports psychology, while very effective, can not help
everyone, or every situation.
||The Sports Psychologist Takes Charge When Working With
||The Head Coach and coaching staff are in charge of the
team. The sports psychologist works for the Head Coach,
and in conjunction with the coaching staff. Ideally, the
relationship is a collaborative one that serves the best
interests of the team and coaches, individually and collectively.
||A Sports Psychologist Should Work With An Athlete When
The Parents Ask, In Spite Of Objections From The Athlete.
||This is a recipe for disaster. A relationship that begins
on a coerced, negative or manipulative basis has little
hope of being beneficial. Even if the parents have the
best of intentions, the child should be allowed to enter
into sports psychology coaching freely if any substantive
progress is to be made.
||Sports Psychology Can Overcome Physical, Strategic,
Nutritional, Work Ethic, And Other Factors To Make An
||Sports psychology is but only one approach to helping
athletes succeed. It alone can't overcome deficiencies
in the above areas.
||Sports Psychology Fosters An Athlete's Dependency On
The Sport Psychologist.
||The goal of any sports psychology consultant should
be to minimize dependency as quickly as possible. That
means the consultant's sports knowledge and mental skills
should be transferred by teaching the client a self-coaching
skill set. The client should become autonomous and able
to function at a high level independently of the consultant.
Sports psychology is a field with huge potential,
one that can provide untold benefits to people as they experience
sports and physical activity. It can help people maximize
their sport experiences and bring more meaning to their lives
through higher quality experiences in sports, fitness, health,
Copyright © Bill Cole, MS, MA 2006
All rights reserved.
Every discipline and field of human endeavor labors under
numerous myths and misunderstandings. Sports psychology is
no exception. This article's purpose is to examine the many
myths in the field, deepen understandings, explain some of
the misunderstandings present and generate healthy discussion.
Hopefully this discussion will continue, and the author welcomes
continued dialogue, inquiries and additions to this list of
To learn more about how sport psychology coaching can help
you become a better, more confident athlete, visit Bill Cole,
MS, MA, the Mental Game Coach at www.mentalgamecoach.com/Services/SportPsychologyCoaching.html.
This article covers only one small part of the mental game.
A complete mental training program includes motivation and goal-setting,
pre-event mental preparation, post-event review and analysis,
mental strengthening, self-regulation training, breath control
training, motor skill training, mental rehearsal, concentration
training, pressure-proofing, communication training, confidence-building,
breaking through mental barriers, slump prevention, mental toughness
training, flow training, relaxation training, momentum training,
psych-out proofing and media training.
For a comprehensive overview of your mental abilities you need
an assessment instrument that identifies your complete mental
strengths and weaknesses. For a free, easy-to-take 65-item sport
psychology assessment tool you can score right on the spot,
This assessment gives you a quick snapshot of your strengths
and weaknesses in your mental game. You can use this as a guide
in creating your own mental training program, or as the basis
for a program you undertake with Bill Cole, MS, MA to improve
your mental game. This assessment would be an excellent first
step to help you get the big picture about your mental game.
Bill Cole, MS, MA, a leading authority on peak performance, mental toughness
and coaching, is founder and President of the International Mental Game Coaching
Bill is also founder and CEO of William B. Cole Consultants, a consulting firm that helps
organizations and professionals achieve more success in business, life and sports.
He is a multiple Hall of Fame honoree, an award-winning scholar-athlete, published
book author and articles author, and has coached at the highest levels of major-league
pro sports, big-time college athletics and corporate America. For a free, extensive
article archive, or for questions and comments visit him at www.MentalGameCoach.com.
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