James Claffey's Introduction to Sports Psychology


The Sports Psych Coach / The Sport Psych Corner / The Mental Fitness Coach Introduction Hi everybody and welcome to my series of articles in relation to the wonderful world of sport psychology and mental fitness training. My name is James J Claffey (JJ) and I have worked in the sport, exercise and performance industry for over 12 years. I have also been lecturing in that arena for over 10 years. In terms of practical experience, I have worked with numerous people/athletes across a multitude of sports, both team and individuals ranging from novice/ beginner athletes to elite sports athletes. My main motivation in writing these articles is to dispel the myth that sport psychology is only for elite athletes or academics. It doesn’t belong to anyone but can be useful to everyone. What is sport psychology? Anyone can google the words sport psychology and find something along the lines of “the study of human behaviour in sports settings” etc but I would like to give you a more organic and authentic insight into what is really underneath the surface of sport psychology. In this introduction article the main focus will be on the power of competition. At the heart of sport psychology is the concept of competition. An American by the name of Norman Triplett, in 1898, performed the first social psychology experiment in relation to this concept, except he referred to it as social facilitation. His research was testing the times of cyclist versus the clock (timed activity) for a set distance versus cyclist’s times of the same distance but versus a competitor. He found that when the cyclists who were competing against another competitor as opposed to the timed activity, the results found the competitor versus competitor scenario had a higher performance outcome. This concept of social facilitation is defined as the relative improvement in performance produced by the presence of another; this is what we define as “competition”. Recently Pep Guardiola spoke about Manchester city high points total achieved last season in the EPL and stated it was “because they (Liverpool) both pushed each other all the way in the title race” , in essence because of competition. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have had a 10 year battle for world domination in the Ballon d'Or with both players on 5 wins each. Again, at different points despite the rivalry between them, both have acknowledged the role the other guy has played in their success, pushing them to new records each season. Only last Sunday the world watched on as Rodger Federer and Novak Djokovic played out one of the greatest Wimbledon tennis finals of all time. The match was the longest ever final timed at 4 hours and 57 minutes- even surpassing the amazing final of 2008 between Federer and Rafael Nadal by nine minutes. The game went to 5 sets and 12 games each in the final set, meaning that the contest would be decided by a tie-break which Djokovic won. It may possibly be the greatest final of all time but could only happen because both kept pushing the other athlete to places within their psyche they may never have gone before. One can only suggest after almost 5 hours of tennis, your arms become heavy, sprints feel like pulling a bag of cement, returning serves clocked at over 100mph must start to pulsate through your wrists. This is where the mind must make the body complete tasks it may feel are unattainable. Again this is competition at its purest. One issue for sports psychology interventions is the misconceptions that it will result in creating “snow-flake” athletes. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact the research shows that competition for athletes is necessary for growth. It is important for children and youth sports competitors to fail, come back, and fail again but keep coming back. This will build resilience in the athlete but more importantly in the person, providing them with coping mechanisms for some of life’s trials and tribulations. Make no mistake about it the primary goal for most is to aid the athlete in increasing performance which will ultimately lead to outcome orientated success (winning) and this applies to athletes of all ages and playing ability. What I do believe is that if sport psychology or mental skills training is to succeed here in Ireland and grow like the strength and conditioning industry has done in the previous 5 years, we will most likely need a combination of things to happen. From my experience of working with some coaches and players who have not studied sport psychology, formally or otherwise, is that they have this perception that sport psychology is like magic. Thinking that a sport psych will come to wave a magic wand and just like that the team will begin to win every game every week. Like any other skill, mental skills needed work, they need care, they need practice, they need deliberate practice and they need authentic sources or educators delivering them. Another problem is that people think a sport psychologist is judged off the results of the team. Of course an element of attribution bias is needed to help gather momentum in relation to the use of sports psychology. Here in Ireland, for example, Caroline Currid who worked with the hurling All Ireland winners Limerick last year might open the door for other counties to use sport psychologists. If people start to attach winning with sports psychology they might be more susceptible to using it to aid performance. In the coming weeks I will be interviewing players, coaches and professionals in relation to the psychological side of the game, investigating the mental side of the game and how has it impacted on them as people both on and off field. I will also be writing some articles with easy to use tips for teams and individuals to get started on the sport psychology ladder. Remember competition is healthy. Competition can be with a direct opponent or against the clock but the most important competition is the one with yourself every day. “ No competition ……………no progress”