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The importance of psychological support for athletes

The main focus for athletes and their coaches is mainly competition day, hence the emphasis and holistic support that is generated particularly around such events. However, what many fail to realise is that athletes need ongoing and consistent psychological support.

It takes a huge amount of psychological strength for an athlete to pursue several hours of repetitive training daily, in preparation for a competition. Therefore, while the focus is generally on the physical ability, the mind plays an equally important role.

Furthermore, we know that emotions play a significant part in sport performance. Emotions can either hinder or spur an athlete, especially an elite one, where performance is pushed to the ultimate limits.

My dissertation and its findings submitted this year entitled “Using Psychological Tools to Improve Sport Performance,” sheds light on this matter.

The study determines whether performance is affected by the use of psychological tools.

It discussed the awareness of psychological intervention and the knowledge available on psychology and sports in Malta.

Awareness about the use of psychological tools during competition is already present, however much less present during training period.

This is a distorted outlook since it is during the training period that an athlete is shaped and built.

Training refers to the increase in strength and speed; refining of skills; hours of repetitive practice; consistently challenging the athlete to balance physical development to mental toughness.

In swimming (my sport) repetitions of 200m freestyle at a set pace and with set rest intervals does not only exert physical resilience but also challenges mental alertness both in attention and motivation.

How to successfully deal with this goes down to how one effectively uses psychological tools.

An increase and further research into this area is essential since Sport Psychology is not as present as one would hope for at a stage where athletes are raising both their personal as well as their club/family’s expectations.

Some individual initiatives currently exist, but knowledge of the psychological tools and their respective use are limited.

The purpose of my study was to raise awareness to the fact that all athletes need psychological tools to overcome emotional barriers. And these should be made available as part of the training regime even at the first stages of competitive sport.

Malta still lacks in this area but hopefully this can be improved upon at a par with the physical development. It is the ability of being in control of one’s emotions that eventually counts. Not all individuals react the same hence using the right tools can define whether a proper emotional balance can be achieved.

My question to established athletes delved into how psychology and its tools could influence outcomes and what they themselves feel the need for.

Psychological tools are used to help an individual master psychological functions such as memory, perception and attention. Athletes need these tools to perform at their best both in training and in competition. Amongst motivational tools one finds goal setting, imagery, pre-performance routines, self-talk, extrinsic rewards and motivational music. 

Anxiety

Most athletes have heard this word widely used before in the sports world. Anxiety is the result of athletes seeing the competition as a threat, and this threat can be the result of lack of self-confidence, fear of under-achieving, having to meet irrational goals, pressure from coaches and parents, or lack of proper preparation.

Limited rewards and a shambolic set-up, especially in training, add even further to an anxiety state especially of the younger promising athletes.

All the above came to the fore in my Data Analysis where the respondents highlighted the issues raised above through their personal experience. It was agreed that individual sport required a more extensive use of Psychological Tools. A study by Pulhar et al (2019) argues that individual athletes are more likely to do the sport for their own goal-oriented reasons whilst team games offer more enjoyment in the preparation and execution of the sport.

Since the respondents were accomplished athletes of the top local level, they expressed a good knowledge of Psychological Tools and admitted to using a variety of them in different scenarios.

However, all admitted that it would have been more beneficial had these tools been shown to them earlier in their career.

Dissertation – Using Psychological Tools to Improve Sport Performance submitted in May 2021 to the Institute of Community Services at the Malta College of Arts Science and Technology in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Sport, Exercise and Health.

Note: Thomas Wareing is a 21-year-old Malta national team swimmer since 2016 and has broken 21 national records. He has represented Malta in several competitions overseas including the Games of the Small States of Europe, Youth Commonwealth Games, the 2018 Junior European Championships and the 2021 European Championships

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