Updated: Apr 10, 2020
Times are changing with tennis players on tour now having as part of their entourage, a coach that works on their mindsets. One might hear the words mindset coaching, mental coaching, sport psychology but with many having little understanding as to what the role entails. Often practitioner approaches will vary depending on their working philosophy. However, there is a perception that mental coaching is synonymous with sport psychology when this is not necessarily the case. I was drawn into conversation with a friend’s husband on grounds at Wimbledon about a mindset coach working with some players on tour. The individual insisted that the mindset coach was delivering sport psychology. After exploring what was meant by this, it was suggested the individual was doing life coaching, motivation coaching and focus skills for performance.
I often find myself grimacing internally when hearing this, since many psychologists have gone to great lengths to understand the nuances and paradigms of psychological delivery within the sport context in order to support players on their athletic journeys. Practitioners in sport psychology may in fact draw upon sport science principles, performance psychology, psychopathology, educational psychology, human psychology, social and cultural psychology, organisational psychology, developmental psychology, counselling psychology, vocational psychology, positive psychology and even in specific contexts of harassment, forensic psychology.
In other words, a sport psychology practitioner must assess a scenario systemically drawing on knowledge and approaches that are not simply based on mental skills and coaching principles for performance enhancement. Indeed, the end goal may be to help a player to perform at their best, but this must always be with their wellbeing in mind. As a consulting psychologist it is important that I understand that the person in front of me is someone who is exposed to all the usual complexities of our lives in the public, with the added intricacies of navigating life within a global dynamic elite sport environment.
I have had few athletes present to me with anxiety ahead of Wimbledon. Often their anxiety is unrelated to specifics of their tennis form or on court concerns, and it would be remiss of me to think that by simply giving them some mental skills training, they will be able to manage their anxiety and perform. I had a player one year dealing with transition concerns struggling to cope with attachment of family members. This struggle was driving the player’s anxiety to a point where tournament performance and practice sessions were being affected, where the last place the player wanted to be, was on court at Wimbledon. My role was not simply to provide some skills to help the player focus and manage emotions before and during being on court, but was much more in line with helping the player to address their needs in the family dynamic.
In a small study on athlete mental health and wellbeing literacy, athletes at the Australian Institute of Sport shared that some psychologists only wanted to talk about performance aspects without being able to talk to other concerns in their life that they needed to share and discuss (Gulliver, Griffiths and Christensen, 2012). This suggests that athletes themselves have a need for applied psychologists who assess the players situation holistically, which often requires a systemic approach. That is a psychologist may need to work with the organisation, the parents and family, the coaches and other staff members to ensure the player who is central to their support, is receiving best practice in psychological delivery.
Sport psychology delivery must consider the contextual landscape and nuances of a situation, before rushing in with mental skills responses and motivation speaking. This approach takes years of training and practice, the wisdom of past practice to understand nuances and complexities, as well as continuous learning, drawing on many fields in psychology. Best approach and delivery must also be on a needs basis. Mental skills and motivation speaking have their use as techniques employed, but they certainly do not equate to holistic best practice in sport psychology.
Gulliver A., Griffiths, K.M. and Christensen, H. (2012): Barriers and facilitators to mental health help-seeking for young elite athletes: a qualitative study. BMC Psychiatry, 12(157).