What Psychological Strategies Can Improve Your Sporting Performance the Most?

I’ve played a lot of sport in my lifetime. My first basketball game was on the Diamond Valley mini-courts in Victoria, Australia when I was six years old. My most recent game was this week at Wan Smol Bag in Port Vila, Vanuatu. That means I’ve been playing organised sport for over 27 years now.

Both of my parents were Physical Education teachers and excellent sports coaches, and they consistently encouraged my two siblings and me to play sports and be active. I’m not sure if my siblings felt this too, but there was a sense that we should take sport seriously, and it was essential to try your best and be an unselfish team player and a fair opponent.

For example, this Larry Bird Converse poster hung on the wall in our house when I was younger:

It makes me sick when I see a guy just watching it go out of bounds.” – Larry Bird

I was a super competitive kid, with the majority of my childhood consisting of competing against whoever I could find, but especially my brother and friends. I also tried to compete in anything I could, including board games, computer games, card games and multiple sports.

I’ve managed to have some success in several sports. I finished in the top 10 in the state in swimming in Primary (Elementary) School, the top 20 in discus throwing, and the top 30 in alpine skiing. In High School I made the State team in volleyball for three years in a row and the Victorian Institute of Sport and the Australian Youth Squad for volleyball. I then moved to the USA at 16 to play Varsity volleyball, basketball and tennis in California and Virginia. Later on, I won a State Championship in the top division in the Victorian Volleyball League at 25 and won a championship playing Semi-professional basketball when I was 27 in Australia.

Despite this modicum of success, I don’t think that I reached my potential.

I was a bit like Allen Iverson in his famous “practice” speech:

 

I loved to play, but I hated to practice. I was not overly goal-focused outside of turning up on game day, giving my all, and doing whatever I could to help my team win. When I was younger, I also had what is known as a ‘fixed mindset’, and thought that I could not change my athletic capabilities with deliberate effort.

It wasn’t until I started to learn psychology at university that I began to realise that I could mentally change how I approached the games that I played. I began to apply the psychological skills that I had learnt and developed a growth mindset rather than a fixed one. I became less afraid of losing, more able to learn from setbacks and mistakes, and more able to step up when the game was on the line. I also discovered how to bounce back after making a few mistakes, keep pushing and trying when we were losing, and perform at my best on a much more consistent basis.

I wish I could have had these skills earlier in my life, and I would like to be able to share them with you so that you can hopefully take your game to the next level too.

action adult american american football

How Strong is the Mental Side of Your Game?

The Athletic Coping Skills Inventory (ACSI) looks at seven sub-scales related to how you mentally approach sport and helps to highlight areas in which you might struggle:

Sub-scale #1: Coping with adversity – assesses if you remain positive and enthusiastic even when things are going badly. Also determines if you stay calm and controlled, and can quickly bounce back from mistakes and setbacks. 

  • Do you remain positive and enthusiastic during a competition, no matter how bad things are going?
  • When things are going badly, do you tell yourself to keep calm and does this work for you?
  • When you feel yourself getting too tense, can you quickly relax your body and calm yourself?
  • Can you maintain emotional control regardless of how things are going for you?

How often do you do these things – rarely, sometimes, often or almost always?

If you have said rarely or sometimes to most or all of these items, you currently are not coping as well as you could with adversity.

man wearing black tank top and brown shorts climbing rock

TO IMPROVE HOW YOU COPE WITH ADVERSITY

  • If things are going bad during a competition, try cognitive restructuring. Tune in to what thoughts are going through your mind. Then ask yourself if they are realistic thoughts and if they are helpful thoughts to be having right now? If you are thinking about anything that is not what you are meant to be doing in the present, they are probably not helpful. If it’s the mistake you just made, let it go and move on. If it is worrying that you might keep making mistakes and lose, let it go and move on. Tell yourself “this isn’t helpful!” or ask yourself “what is a more helpful way to be thinking right now?” It might be “keep calm”, or it could be another mantra that you find helpful. Then stop focusing on your thoughts and focus on whatever is in your control in the present that will help you to get back on track. Then do it. 
  • If you are feeling overwhelmed or out of control during a competition, try deep breathing.  Tune into your breathing. Chances are, your breath is probably rapid and shallow if you feel overwhelmed, tense or out of control. Then, exhale and breathe out all of the air in your lungs. Slowly breathe deeply into your stomach, pause for a second or two, and then exhale all of the air out again. Keep breathing slowly and deeply and exhaling all your air until you feel a bit calmer and more in control. Then stop focusing on your breath and put your focus back to the main objective that you have that is in your power in the present.
  • If you feel too physically tense during a competition, try progressive muscle relaxation. Tune in to where you feel most tense, then pick one area to target first. Squeeze it as hard as possible, take a deep breath in, pause, breathe out and relax. Then repeat if needed or move onto another tense muscle area. If you can’t tense it because of the sport you are doing, try to breathe in and around the tight area and then see if you can relax it with the out-breath. Repeat as often as needed. Once you feel less tense, stop focusing on your body tenseness and put your focus back to whatever is in your control in the present that will help you to achieve your objectives.

Sub-scale #2: Coachability – assesses if you learn from coaches instructions and are open to accepting constructive criticism or advice without taking it personally or becoming upset:

  • Do you manage not to take it personally or feel upset when a coach tells you how to correct a mistake you’ve made?
  • When a coach criticises you, do you feel helped rather than upset?
  • If a coach criticises or yells at you, do you correct the mistake without getting upset about it?
  • Do you improve your skills by listening carefully to feedback and instructions from your coaches?

How often do you do these things – rarely, sometimes, often or almost always?

If you have said rarely or sometimes to most or all of these items, you currently are not very coachable. My dad said that I was uncoachable growing up, but it did improve by applying a few strategies.

athlete athletic baseball boy

TO IMPROVE HOW YOU COACHABLE YOU ARE

  • When a coach criticises or yells at you, try not to take it personally. If it is a competition, the coach is likely to be on an emotional rollercoaster, just like you. They may care just as much or even more than you about winning, but they cannot control your behaviour on the field. They can merely make suggestions or sub you out, which may make them feel even more stressed or anxious than if they were out there performing. See if there is any merit in what they are saying to you regardless of how they have said it. If it is useful advice, take it on board. If it is not helpful, try to tune it out and re-focus on whatever it is that is within your control that will help you to achieve your objectives.
  • Develop a growth mindset and let go of your ego. When you make a mistake in practice, try to listen to feedback from coaches about what led to the error and how you can improve it. If they don’t give you any feedback, ask for it when it is appropriate. It is generally a lot easier for someone else to see what you are doing wrong and how you can improve it than it will be for you to view it. Asking someone in your coaching staff to film what you are doing can also help because then you can view what they see and can have a discussion with them about how to improve it. 
  • Listen carefully to the advice and instructions that your coaches have, especially during practice and before and after a game. The coach’s job is to help you perform at your best, so try to take on board what they suggest and give it a go before rejecting it as not helpful. Having a growth mindset sees mistakes and losses and failures as opportunities to reflect on what went wrong and how you can improve it. A coach can help with this, especially after a game and in practice. Asking questions to clarify what they said if you don’t understand can also help to ensure you are following or trying what they suggest. During a game, don’t overthink things too much, and get back to your game plan that you and your coach have established before the event.

Sub-scale #3: Concentration – reflects whether you become easily distracted and whether you can focus on the task at hand in both practice and game situations, even when adverse or unexpected conditions occur:

  • When you are playing sports, can you focus your attention and block out distractions?
  • Is it easy to keep distracting thoughts from interfering with something you are watching or listening?
  • Do you handle unexpected situations in your sport very well?
  • Is it easy to direct your attention and focus on a single object or person?

How often do you do these things – rarely, sometimes, often or almost always?

If you have said rarely or sometimes to most or all of these items, your ability to concentrate is not as good as it could be.

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TO IMPROVE YOUR CONCENTRATION LEVELS

  • Meditate regularly. It doesn’t matter which type of meditation you do, but practice it for at least 10 minutes a day. Developing a daily meditation routine will help you to improve your concentration levels on a game day more than anything else. I prefer mindfulness meditation the most, and the apps I would recommend the most to download if you want to have a guided meditation session daily are:
    • Smiling Mind
    • Insight Timer
    • Headspace
    • Calm
    • Waking Up
    • Ten Percent Happier
    • Buddhify
    • Balance
  • Avoid multitasking. Whatever you are doing throughout the day, try to focus on one thing at a time rather than attempting to do two or three things at once. It will be less tiring for you, and will also train your concentration. Just ask yourself, no matter what you are doing “What is most important right now?” and try to put all of your attention and focus on that one task. If your mind tries to distract you or get you to do something else, thank your mind and bring your attention back to whatever is most important at that moment.
  • Practice informal mindfulness. Formal mindfulness involves sitting down and doing mindfulness meditation for a set period. You can also approach any other task that you are doing mindfully, which is called informal mindfulness. To do this, no matter what you are doing, try to see if you can approach the task as if you have never done it before in an open, accepting, non-judgmental way without wishing for it to be any other way. Jon Kabat-Zinn calls these the attitudes of mindfulness, and when applied to sports, you are likely to have a sense of relaxed concentration that is the key to getting into the zone or a state of flow more regularly.

Sub-scale #4: Confidence and Achievement Motivation – measures whether you are confident and positively motivated. Also assesses if you consistently give 100% during practices and games, and work hard to improve your skills:

  • Do you get the most out of your talent and expertise?
  • Do you feel confident that you will play well?
  • Do you give 100% during practices and competition, and don’t have to be pushed to practice or play hard?
  • Do you try even harder when you fail to reach your goals?

How often do you do these things – rarely, sometimes, often or almost always?

If you have said rarely or sometimes to most or all of these items, you do not have high levels of confidence and achievement motivation.

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TO IMPROVE YOUR CONFIDENCE AND MOTIVATION FOR ACHIEVEMENT

  • Know your personality: Take the IPIP-NEO personality assessment to get a good sense of your personality and what is likely to motivate you. If you are an extrovert, you probably need to train with other people and need excitement and fun. You may not need as much rest, either. If you are an introvert, you may need some individual sessions to remain focused and motivated and plenty of time to reflect and recover between practices and competitions. If you are agreeable, you will enjoy co-operating with the plans of your coaches or other athletes and helping out others. If you are disagreeable, you will probably need to do things your way a bit more to stay motivated and confident.  If you are highly conscientious, you could have a consistent training schedule and pre-game routine, and you will be able to follow it and benefit from it. If you are low on conscientiousness, you will need a bit more flexibility and variety in your training and preparation and goals to stay on track. If you are highly neurotic, you will have more times that you feel down, anxious, angry, self-conscious, but developing skills to assist you with these emotions will help. If you are low on neuroticism, you are unlikely to be bothered by intense emotions or self-doubt and won’t need additional strategies. Lastly, if you are very open to experiences, you are likely to remain confident and motivated even if things don’t go according to plan and accept whatever is happening and make room for whatever feelings arise. If you are low on openness, you will probably need more contingency plans so that you will know what to do and feel less overwhelmed when things don’t go according to plan. 
  • Clarify your essential values: The values exercise that I have previously written about is a great way to identify and remember why you are playing sport and what you are hoping to get out of it — knowing our why can help us to be much more motivated to push through pain and challenges when things get hard. By figuring out which values are essential, quite important and not relevant to you, you can see if you have been living in line with your fundamental values or applying them in your sport. If you haven’t, setting some goals that are consistent with these values will increase your motivation and hopefully improve your confidence too.
  • Apply your character strengths to your sport: The VIA character strengths survey is a similar principle to values clarification, with the VIA standing for values in action. Take the survey, identify your top 5 key strengths and apply them more to your practice and competition. It could help your confidence and motivation a lot.

Sub-scale #5: Goal setting and mental preparation – assesses whether you set and work toward specific performance goals. It also determines if you plan and mentally prepare for competition, and if you have a “game plan” for performing well:

  • Do you set concrete goals to guide what you do in your sport on a daily or weekly basis?
  • Do you tend to do a lot of planning about how you will reach your goals?
  • Do you set your own performance goals for each practice?
  • Do you have your game plan worked out in your head long before the game begins?

How often do you do these things – rarely, sometimes, often or almost always?

If you have said rarely or sometimes to most or all of these items, you are currently not setting enough goals for yourself in your sport or preparing yourself mentally as much as you could be.

man holding clipboard inside room

TO IMPROVE YOUR GOAL SETTING AND MENTAL PREPARATION SKILLS

  • Get on the same page as your coach (and teammates if you have them) about your objectives in your sport and the steps that you will all need to take to achieve these objectives. By doing this, including having contingency plans for if things are not going well, your coach should be to help you stick to your plan and encourage you to switch to a contingency plan if things are not working as well as you both hoped. You can apply this for your training sessions, your weeks in the lead up to competition, before a game, during competition, and afterwards. If your coach changes the rules and goes off course, it is vital to be able to raise this and remind them of your overall objectives so that you can remain on track and make progress towards your long-term goals. 
  • Make sure the goals that you set are SMART goals. SMART means that your goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-framed. You will then know if you have achieved them or not in the time that you have set and can make adjustments as needed.
  • Have a consistent pre-game ritual to mentally and physically prepare yourself for the game. Maybe eat the same meal the night before a competition (carbo-loading), do things to wind down and switch off to ensure you don’t get to bed too late and obtain a good quality sleep. Wake up at a similar time in the morning if possible, and have the breakfast that your nutritionist has suggested is most helpful. Stay well hydrated. Have a game plan figured out with your coach well in advance before the competition and keep that fresh in your mind on game day. Get to the event place early enough to not have any unnecessary stress. Choose the location that allows you to get into the state you want to be when competition starts. If you can’t choose the room, bring noise-cancelling headphones or other things that can still help you to feel settled wherever you are. Then listen to music or motivational material as needed, warm up your body as required, visualise doing well or think back to times you have performed well in the past, and centre yourself before competition. Then go out there and enjoy it.

Sub-scale #6: Peaking under pressure – measures whether you are challenged rather than threatened by pressure situations and if you perform well under pressure — if you are a clutch performer:

  • Do you tend to play better under pressure because you think more clearly?
  • Do you enjoy the game more when there is more pressure during it?
  • Are pressure situations challenges that you welcome?
  • Do you make fewer mistakes when the pressure is on because you concentrate better?

How often do you do these things – rarely, sometimes, often or almost always?

If you have said rarely or sometimes to most or all of these items, you are currently not peaking under pressure or getting into the zone as much as you potentially could.

man on red watercraft

TO PEAK UNDER A PRESSURE ON A MORE REGULAR BASIS

  • Try the seven steps of centering:
    1. Select a comfortable focal point in the distance that is below eye level.
    2. Form a clear intention in your mind of what you aim to do.
    3. Breathe slowly and deeply in a mindful way and breathe all the air out with each breath.
    4. Release your muscle tension by observing where you are most tense in your body, then release this tightness by first tensing it further and then letting go, or just trying to release it with each out-breath.
    5. Find your centre of gravity or “chi” and use that to help ground you where you are and with what you are doing.
    6. Repeat your process cue, or imagine what it sounds, feels and looks like to achieve what you are aiming to do in step 2. If there is a word that describes this, you can use it as your cue. Golfer Sam Snead would use the word “oily” to describe the smooth and effortless swing that he wanted.
    7. Channel your remaining energy into a dynamic and inspired performance. Trust that all the hard work that you have put in during training will pay off and help you to achieve your aim, and see if you can enjoy the competition and the peak performances that can come with this.
  • Develop your inner game. Timothy Gallwey wrote one of the best sports psychology books of all time with ‘The Inner Game of Tennis.’ The first step of the inner game is to observe what is happening in a non-judgmental way. The second step is to picture the desired outcome. The third step is to trust your body to be able to reach your desired outcome and don’t try to overthink it. The last step is to nonjudgmentally observe the change in your performance and results by doing this.
  • Get into a flow state. To increase your chances of getting into a flow state, you first need to try to remove or zone out from all potential distractions. It is also important that the task that you are aiming for strikes a good balance between your current skill level and the challenge you are facing. If the challenge is slightly greater than you perceive your current skills to be, flow is most likely to happen. If it is not challenging enough, you are likely to be bored. If it is too challenging you are likely to be anxious. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says that there are eight main characteristics of flow:
    1. you need to put all of your concentration on the task at hand.
    2. you need to be clear about your goals and be able to get immediate feedback about if you are on the right track.
    3. flow transforms time, and things feel like they are either speeding up or slowing down in a flow state.
    4. the experience must be intrinsically rewarding, or enjoyable in and of itself and not just a means to another end.
    5. your performance should feel effortless and easy in a flow state.
    6. there needs to be a good balance between challenge and skills, ideally the thing you are doing is both challenging and requires a lot of skill.
    7. your actions and awareness are merged, and you are no longer in your head thinking about what you are doing or worrying about your performance.
    8. you feel fully in control of what you are attempting to do in pursuit of your objectives.

Sub-scale # 7: Freedom from worry – assesses whether you put pressure on yourself by worrying about performing poorly or making mistakes. It also determines if you worry about what others will think if you perform poorly:

  • Do you worry quite a bit about what others think of your performance?
  • Do you put a lot of pressure on yourself by worrying about how you will perform?
  • While competing, do you worry about making mistakes or failing to come through?
  • Do you think about and imagine what will happen if you fail or screw up?

How often do you do these things – rarely, sometimes, often or almost always?

If you have said rarely or sometimes to most or all of these items, your worries are probably impairing your performance.

man in gray sleeveless shirt carrying white and brown spalding basketball

TO FEEL MORE FREE FROM YOUR WORRIES WHILE COMPETING

  • Try constructive worry. I don’t recommend this strategy during competition, but it is excellent to do before or after a game or when you are training for an upcoming event and are feeling worried. Create a table with three columns, and say what is worrying you in column one, what you can do to address the worry in column two, and when you can solve it in column three. It shouldn’t take much more than 5 minutes, and might look like this:

Worries/Concerns

What Can I do to address this?

When can I address this?

What if I lose?

Train hard, prepare well, try my best

Now and at the competition

What if I make mistakes or fail?

Mistakes help me to learn and improve. Remember the Michael Jordan quote about failure leading to success

Anytime I have a setback, try to have a growth rather than a fixed mindset and see what I can learn from it to get better

What if others judge me?

Try to care less about this and focus on what is in my control, which is training hard, preparing well and trying my best. Also, don’t forget to have fun. If others judge me for trying my best, that is more about them than it is about me

Now. I can put my energy into things that are within my control, which is my intention and my actions, and let go of everything else

  • Practice grounding yourself in the present. Ask yourself: “What are five things I can see right now?” “What are four things I can touch or feel right now?” “What are three things I can hear right now?” “What are two things I can smell right now?” “What is one thing I can taste right now?“. These questions help you to become fully grounded in the present, instead of worrying about things going wrong in the future or ruminating about a mistake you made in the past. Finally, ask yourself: “Am I safe?“. If there is no imminent physical danger, you do not need to be in ‘fight-or-flight’ mode, and your brain can relax while you take a few deep breaths and re-focus on what you need to do next to achieve your objective.
  • Defuse from unhelpful thoughts. Sometimes it is helpful to challenge our worries if we know they are unhelpful. If you instead think of something more useful to believe, it might eliminate your fears. If it does not, try to defuse from your worry instead and aim not to get too caught up in it. Thinking “I’m going to miss this shot” won’t help, so if it crosses your mind, imagine putting this worry on a leaf on a river and let it float downstream, or put it on a cloud and watch it float away, or put it in a box on a conveyor belt and let it speed away into the distance. There are many different defusion strategies to help you let go of worrying thoughts. Look them up, try them out when you are not competing, see which ones are most effective for you, and then apply the most effective ones during your next competition. The less you worry, and the more you focus on what you can do that is in your control, the better your performance is likely to be.

To answer the title question, the best psychological strategies to improve your sporting performance are the ones that work best for you. See which sub-scales you score the lowest on, try some of these strategies that I have recommended, and then let me know what worked and how much your performance improved. I look forward to hearing about your improvement and growth!

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Published by Dr Damon Ashworth

I am a Clinical Psychologist. I completed a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Monash University and a Bachelor of Behavioural Sciences and a Bachelor of Psychological Sciences with Honours at La Trobe University. I am passionate about the field of Psychology, and apply the latest empirical findings to best help individuals meet their psychological and emotional needs.

2 thoughts on “What Psychological Strategies Can Improve Your Sporting Performance the Most?

  1. Love the coping with adversity portion of this article. Sometimes we allow one thought to go unchecked during times of adversity and we can tailspin out of control from there. The mind is truly powerful when it comes to tough times. If you can overcome and stay positive in the process. You’re unstoppable. Amazing article!

    Liked by 1 person

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