The ultimate quest for sport psychologists is to establish what psychological factors produce the winning formula or to try to establish a profile of the successful athlete. Within the psychological framework attempts, to determine the “ideal athletic personality” have only been marginally successful (Morgan 1980, in White, 1993). One of the categories observed in order to understand and move towards the ‘ideal athletic personality’ is that of Psychological Skills Training (PST), “It is contended that mental skills training is a significant part of sport psychology and is of particular importance to athletes and coaches” (Rushall, 1995, p0.3).
Programs have been developed to help athletes develop their psychological skills. Many researchers within this field have concluded that Psychological Skills Training programs were effective in improving athletic performance. These PST programs combine various skills (e.g. imagery, relaxation, goal setting) with physical training in order to improve athletic performance. Researchers have evaluated PST programs to assess their effectiveness in relation to the performance enhancement process. These research studies (Daw & Burton, 1994; Kendall, Hrycaiko, Martin & Kendall, 1990; Lerner, Ostrow, Yura & Estrel, 1996) concluded that sport performance significantly improved as a consequence of PST.
This essay will examine Thomas’s (1990) model for performance enhancement with the contention that performance enhancement processes are different for different sports and between elite and non-elite athletes. This view argues consultants must take into account these considerations when implementing a program. Thomas’s (1990) seven-phase, closed loop model “reflects the general approach emphasised by most of those writing in sport psychology” (Hardy, Jones, Gould, 2000) and therefore provides a good framework for the analysis of this statement.
Phase one of the model ‘Orientation’, focuses on the purpose, objectives and level of commitment of the athlete. An example would be whether the athlete desires help and to what extent. Differences in the enhancement process will be minimal between sport groups in this phase. Elite athletes, non-elite athletes and beginners will be likely to differ in commitment to the cause, “These Canadian Olympians who achieved peak performance demonstrated a total commitment to pursuing excellence, one not evidenced by their less successful counterparts” (Orlick & Partington, 1988; in Weinberg & Gould, 1999).
Phase two ‘Sport Analysis’ involves an in depth examination of the sport for example the psychological, biomechanical and physiological demands of the activity. Mahoney et al (1987; in White, 1993) conducted research into the environments in which athletes perform and processes used. Individual sport athletes that competed in closed sport environments scored highly on the anxiety subscale but low on the concentration and confidence subscales. However, participants in closed sports also scored high on motivation and used mental preparation strategies more extensively than those who participated in open environments.
White (1993) underlines the importance of the environment and the different processes needed for development in different environments “these differences would need to be accounted for in the athletes training and development”. Research from Driskell, Copper & Moran (1994) suggested that previous experience might influence the effectiveness of mental practice but only when the task was taken into consideration. Experienced subjects benefited regardless of the type of task. However, novices benefited greatest when visualizing cognitive tasks as opposed to physical tasks.
Phase three ‘Individual/Team Assessment’ obtains and assesses the athlete’s current psychological state and limitations as well as perceived problems. The test that is used should be the one that the athlete and consultant are most comfortable with. Mahoney et al (1987, in White, 1993) when comparing elite to pre-elite athletes, found that elite athletes had fewer problems with anxiety, had better concentration skills, were highly self confident, and relied more on internally referenced kinaesthetic mental preparation. They were also more focused on their individual performances than that of their team and were in general highly motivated to do well in sport.
Coaches and Sport Psychologists would therefore want to provide the pre-elite athletes the knowledge and exposure to these psychological skills so that the latter would exhibit a more elite profile and increase their chances of success. (Mahoney et al 1987 in White, 1993). Waldron and McCann state that elite athletes have the following characteristics: “mentally relaxed, physically relaxed, confident, focused on the present, highly energized, extraordinary awareness, in control and in the cocoon”. Beginners should aspire and aim to gain these characteristics through mental skills training.
Phase four ‘Conceptualization’ is where the consultant interprets the results from phase three and considers it relative to phase five, “the consultant must determine which skills and attributes are most needed based on the information provided and what the best techniques are to further develop those skills and attributes” (Hardy et al, 2000).
Phase five ‘Psychological Skills Training’, closely linked with the work of Vealey (1988), illustrates the skills and attributes that the athlete or teams might want to improve. A division is made within this phase between skills/attributes (e.g. self awareness, arousal control, leadership) and the techniques required to achieve them (e.g. Imagery, physical relaxation, goal setting). Once a skill has been identified to improve a technique must be matched to carry out the process. Elite athletes have greater benefits with regards to performance enhancement during this phase from previous experience and a greater knowledge base. Barr & Hall researched into how experience can affect imagery use and found that more experienced athletes are likely to have more successful images due to having “a greater pool of knowledge to withdraw more realistic images from.”(1992). Further research on imagery by Pie et al (1996) found that elite athletes benefit more from the use of imagery than non-elite athletes.
This may be due to the elite athletes having a greater understanding of the demands and skills of the sport, therefore allowing them to better employ imagery into practice. However, the non-elite athletes performance did improve but was not as enhanced as that of the elite athletes. Performance enhancement during simulation is likely to be greatest for elite athletes as they have greater kinaesthetic knowledge of the movements to be performed. Relaxation techniques illustrate a difference between elite and non-elite athletes. Elite athletes have “the ability to control anxiety to manageable proportions, and even use it to their advantage” (Jones et al., 1994; Mahoney and Avener, 1977; Orlick and Partington, 1988; cited in Hardy, 2000, p12). One of the characteristics of peak performance is that of being relaxed (Hardy, 2000, p12). Research in Skiing, Trampolining, Hockey, Baseball, Volleyball (Orlick & Lee-Gartner, 1993; Jones & Hardy, 1990; Kukla, 1976; Lanning & Hisanga, 1983; cited in Hardy et al, 2000, p12-15) all testify to reduced state anxiety as a result of relaxation techniques with elite athletes better at performing these relaxation techniques.
Goal setting techniques also have performance enhancement benefits in a variety of sports: Basketball, Swimming, Athletics, Golf (Hardy et al, 2000, p23-25), although different types of goals are more effective in the performance enhancement process than others. This is also the case for elite performers and beginners, “elite performers should be encourage to set outcome, performance and process oriented goals”(Hardy et al, 2000, p280). Another effective mental skill is that of self-talk. Although not operationalised by sport psychologists, it may be successful for both elite athletes and beginners, in particular the elite, “elite athletes should be instructed in the use of positive self-talk and the cognitive restructuring techniques” (Hardy et al, 2000, p280). Hardy lists a number of factors that elite athletes require with regards to self confidence: “elite athletes must be physically trained and technically prepared… elite athletes need high general confidence…team cohesion is important to develop in elite sporting groups…must have strategies for reducing anxiety and enhancing confidence…past performance accomplishments are a major source of efficacy etc.” (2000, p280-281)
Phase six ‘implementation’ is where the consultant implements their intervention aimed at helping the athlete or team. Developing a pre-performance routine, using mental practice prior to performance, and monitoring progress to enhance self-efficacy are examples of this. Closed environment sports may attempt to replicate as far as possible the movements in which they will be performing in their sport. Open environment sports would attempt to replicate the same pre-performance routine, although it may not be similar to those experienced in the actual performance. Performance enhancement differences between elite and beginners are likely to be as a question of the amount of time dedicated to practicing these skills (e.g. elite performers are likely to spend more time on mental practice).
Phase seven is where ‘evaluation’ is the focus. This could be in the form of compliance or the monitoring of performance. Elite performers may be able to discuss their own results with the consultant due to their kinaesthetic and performance knowledge. The aid of a coach in the evaluation of a beginner may be required for the most accurate assessment. This final phase moves back into the sport analysis phase and should be directly related to the stated purpose and objectives.
In conclusion, many variables affect the performance enhancement process of a PST program. Thomas’s (1990) model provides an effective overall framework for the implementation of a PST program and successfully identifies the key issues that must be addressed. It does however only outline the variables that are required to be improved and different variables will need to be looked at for athletes of differing experience and standards as well as different sporting situations. This is outlined by Balague when outlining what a successful PST program requires “the need to combine psychological skills training with the specific needs of the athlete, taking into consideration age, gender, level of experience and individual variables, the demands of the sport, such as individual, team, skill requirements, psychological requirements, environment, and the phase and requirements of training, such as conditioning phase versus tapering.” White (1993) shares this view “Psychological skills training programs need to emphasise both the individual and the environment in understanding sport performance”.
The view that each sport requires different strategies for performance enhancement is shared by Duda: “It is probable that every sport has unique environmental demands that are reflected in the development of strategies unique to that sport. It will therefore be important to identify both the broad range of skills that can generalize across sports, as well as the specific approaches inherent to each sport” (1998, p206).
It must also be appreciated that at the elite level, performance enhancement is likely to develop at a greater level than that of beginners, “Different individuals will have different psychological skill abilities. However, everybody can improve their psychological skills with practise” (Dugdale & Hodge). Elite performers are able to draw from experience and perform the mental skills at a higher quality although “PST is not only for the elite. It is appropriate for all athletes, including the young, developing athletes and special populations such as the mentally retarded, physically challenged or hearing impaired” (Weinberg & Gould, 1999, p227).
Hardy et al (2000) shares another view on Thomas’s (1990) model “while the Thomas model provides an excellent overview of the early stages of the peak performance consultancy process, the overall consultancy process is much more complex and dynamic than the model depicts”. This emphasises the point that PST models can only contribute to certain levels of the performance enhancement process and do not represent the process for all athletes, sports and for unlimited duration.
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