CSCS Study Guide Chapter 8: Psychology of Athletic Preparation and Performance

Chapter 8 of the Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning covers the mental side of sport and performance. The more an athlete is able to utilize sport psychology, the more consistent she will perform to her maximum potential.

This chapter is about the mental side of preparation and performance in training. These skills can be useful in a sport or business setting and need to be practiced in order for their full intended benefits to be realized.

Key Items:

  • Figure 8.2
  • Figure 8.3
  • The goal setting process.

Psychology of Athletic Preparation and Performance

  • Regardless of physical preparation, athletes can only achieve their actually peak physical performance in competition if they are psychologically ready to do so. Sports psychology is designed to help athletes do that more consistently and reliably.
  • Ideal Performance State - a narrowly focused mental state where an athlete is trusting in their skills and letting performance happen smoothly without interference.
  • Physiological Efficiency - using only the energy needed to perform a sport skill or task.

Role of Sports Psychology

  • Sport Psychology - a multifaceted science that draws knowledge from many related fields including exercise science and psychology. It looks to understand the relationship between behavioral process and cognition on movement.
  • Many athletes already posses mental skills but, they can be more effective when they are understood, practiced and applied purposefully.

Ideal Performance State

There are several characteristics of being "in the zone" that sports psychology attempts to promote. They include:

  • Absence of fear.
  • No thinking about analyzing performance, automatic.
  • Focused attention on the activity.
  • A feeling of effortlessness.
  • A sense of personal control.
  • A slowed distorted sense of time.

These things all rely upon a sound physical training program and a history of success.

Energy Management: Arousal, Anxiety, and Stress

  • Athletes who spend energy worrying and stressing have less energy to devote to the performance itself.
  • Emotions - temporary feeling states. They can be interpreted positively or negatively.
  • Arousal - the degree to which someone is motivated at a given time. This can range from deeply asleep to highly excited.
  • Anxiety - a subcategory of arousal. A negatively perceived emotional state characterized by nervousness, worry, tension or fear.
  • Cognitive Anxiety - the mental signs of anxiety.
  • Somatic Anxiety - the physical signs of anxiety like faster heart rate and upset stomach.
  • State Anxiety - a subjective experience apprehension and uncertainty that is also accompanied by increased autonomic and voluntary neural outflow as well as increased endocrine activity.
  • Trait Anxiety - a mentality that one will see an environment as threatening. A primer for state anxiety.
  • Psychological Efficiency - being able to maintain the mental level of arousal needed for a performance.
  • Stress - a large imbalance between demand and response capability where there is an important consequence to failure.
  • Stressor - the environment or thing that causes stress.
  • Distress - a negative interpretation of the state of stress. This can lead to anxiety.
  • Eustress - a positive state of interpretation of stress. This leads to positive mental energy and physiological arousal.

Influence of Arousal and Anxiety on Performance

  • There are concepts and theories that attempt to explain why some athletes respond differently to the same levels of arousal.
  • Drive Theory - the most simplistic construct, a linear progression. As a person's arousal increases so does their level of performance. This is likely not true as it is possible to be too "pumped up" for a performance.
  • The better an athlete's skill level, the better they can perform at higher levels of arousal. A skilled athlete can even perform better at suboptimal levels of arousal.
  • Task complexity is the second factor that influences the right level of arousal that an athlete needs to be at. Complexity is referring to how much conscious energy that someone has to devote to a task.
  • Inverted-U Theory - one of the most important tenets of the relationship between arousal and performance. Arousal helps performance up to a point where it moves from optimal to over aroused and detrimental.
  • Individual Zones of Optimal Functioning - the theory that different people, in different types of performances, perform best with different levels of arousal. This is different from the Inverted-U theory in that ideal performance does not always occur at the midpoint of the arousal continuum and there is a range where optimal performance can occur instead of a fixed point. There can also importantly be positive and negative emotions that help performance.
  • Catastrophe Theory - this theory holds that an athlete's performance may suffer an immediate severe drop off rather than a gradual one.
  • Reversal Theory - this theory assumes that the way in which arousal and anxiety affects an athlete's performance depends on the interpretation of that arousal by the individual. The interpretation can be reversed by the athlete. Ex nervousness seen as excitement or a lack of confidence.

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  • Motivation - the intensity and direction of effort.
  • Intrinsic Motivation - the desire to be competent and self-determining. A focus on the fun and positives of an experience.
  • Extrinsic Motivation - motivation that comes from an external source.
  • No one person is entirely intrinsic or extrinsic.
  • Achievement Motivation - a person's efforts to master a task, reach excellence, overcome obstacles and engage in competition or social comparison.
  • Motive to Achieve Success (MAS) - a desire to challenge yourself and evaluate your own abilities.
  • Motive to Avoid Failure (MAF) - a desire to protect your ego and self-esteem. More about avoiding the perception of failure than failure itself.
  • Self-Controlled Practice - involves the athlete in the decision making process related to practice structure, what to practice, when to receive feedback and asking how they believe they are doing.
  • Positive Reinforcement - increasing the probability of the occurrence of a behavior by following it with a positive action, object or praise.
  • Operant - a target behavior
  • Negative Reinforcement - increasing the probability of the occurrence of a behavior by removing an act, object or event that is typically negative.
  • Positive Punishment - decreasing the probability of the occurrence of a behavior by presenting an act, object, or event following it.
  • Negative Punishment - decreasing the probability of a behavior by removing something valued.

Attention and Focus

  • Attention - processing both environmental and internal cues that come to awareness.
  • Selective Attention - limiting your awareness to some external and/or internal stimuli.
  • Routine - a ritual or mental checklist.
  • There are four quadrants of attentional focus; Broad, external, internal, and narrow.

Psychological Techniques for Improved Performance

  • Mental skills can help in all areas of life, not just in the sport setting. They must be practice on a regular basis but, can generate long-termed behavior changes.
  • Relaxation techniques are designed to increase task-relevant focus. This is really important in high pressure situations.
  • Diaphragmatic Breathing - a relaxation technique. Sometimes called belly breathing. Helps increase concentration, clearing the mind. Serves as a precursor for almost all other mental training techniques.
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation - a series of tensing and relaxing exercises that leads to increased awareness in physical tension. Hopefully leads to a relaxed mind.
  • Autogenic Training - a series of exercises designed to produce warmth and heaviness in the body.
  • Systematic Desensitization (SD) - a technique used to replace the fear response some athletes have learned to associate with a previous negative experience with a relaxation response.
  • Counter-Conditioning - replacing a negative response with a positive response.
  • Imagery - creating an event in your mind.
  • Enhancement - improvement.
  • Mental Imagery - imaging yourself within a sporting context, rehearsing a skill and having a successful experience. Should be limited to things within the realm of possibility.
  • Self-Confidence - belief in one's ability to successfully perform a desired behavior.
  • Self-Efficacy - the belief that you can successfully complete a task in a specific situation. Influences whether or not people choose to participate in certain activities, their level of effort in those activities and how hard they will persist in the face of a challenge.
  • Self-Talk - our inner dialogue that we have with ourselves.
  • Goal Setting - progressively challenging standards of performance with defined criteria.
  • Process Goals - focus on what the athlete can control.
  • Outcome Goals - focus on the outcome of an event or process. The athlete has little control over this.
  • Short-Term Goals - goals that can be achieved in a relatively short time frame. They are typically close to the athletes current skill levels.
  • Long-Term Goals - goals that link a series of short-term goals. The ultimate desired outcome.

Enhancing Motor Skill Acquisition and Learning

  • Whole Practice - practicing a skill in it's entirety from start to finish.
  • Part Practice - segmenting a skill into parts and then practicing the parts.
  • Segmentation-breaking down something into a series of subcomponents with clear breaks.
  • Fractionalization - breaking down tasks into subcomponents that occur simultaneously.
  • Simplification - breaking a skill down by adjusting the difficulty of the tasks.
  • Pure-Part Training - practicing each subcomponent of a skill independently several times and then practicing a skill in it's entirety.
  • Progressive-Part Training - Practicing the first two subcomponents of a skill independently and then together. The third skill is then practiced independently before practicing all three together.
  • Repetitive Part Training - practicing the first part of a skill before adding each subsequent part one by one to reintegrate the entire skill.
  • Random Practice - practicing multiple skills in a random order during a session.
  • Variable Practice - practicing variations of the same skill in a session.
  • Observational Practice - learning by observing. Can be done by watching video, live demonstration or a partner.
  • Explicit Instructions - giving the athlete the rules for successfully completing a task.
  • Guided Discovery - giving the athlete important cues and information for achieving a specific action without explicitly telling them how to complete the action.
  • Discovery - instructing the athlete on the overall goal of the task with little to no direction.
  • Intrinsic Feedback - feedback provided to the athlete by their own senses.
  • Augmented Feedback - feedback provided to the athlete by and external source such as a coach or video.
  • Knowledge of Results - information about how the task goal was completed. Ex. How fast you just ran.
  • Knowledge of Performance - information about an athletes movement patterns.
  • Timing and frequency of feedback can influence outcomes.

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Steven Mack is founder and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist at the private training studio, Simple Solutions Fitness. He consults for Stronger by Science, a leader in fitness research dissemination, and is a former Mizzou football walk-on. Steven dedicates his professional life to helping people through his writing, speaking, and role as a personal trainer.