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Psychological Skills Training


Darren Brookfield reviews psychological skills training and the factors that can influence such a program's benefits for an athlete.

Psychological Skills Training (PST) is an individually designed combination of methods selected to attain psychological skill needs (Gill, 2000). There is no single idyllic PST package; each program is individualised based on the individual's psychological state and the sport. It is important to distinguish between PST skills and PST methods to assemble a successful PST program. PST skills are the psychological qualities or attributes that need to be developed (i.e. confidence, concentration). The PST method is used to help improve the PST skill (Calmels et al., 2003). Much of the early research utilizing prescriptive PST programs used single PST methods and examined their performance effectiveness (Martin, Moritz & Hall, 1999; Garza & Feltz, 1998). Thelwell and Greenlees (2001) argue that when implementing a PST program, it is improbable that a sports psychologist will employ a single method Thelwell and Greenlees (2001) highlight that it is more effective to use a combination of mental skills that relate to the specific sport.


Men's artistic gymnastics is a competition on which the athlete must perform on a total of six pieces of apparatus; these include vault, high bar, parallel bars, rings, pommel horse and floor. During major competitions such as the commonwealth games, the athlete must perform three pieces on two consecutive days. The athletes are given a score out of 10 for their performance on each piece. Athletes score more marks for more difficult sequences and less for easier routines. For each apparatus, the athlete is scored based on the difficulty of the routine, composure, timing, the combination of movements and execution of movements.

To compete at the Commonwealth Games 2006, the athlete must have attained scores higher than the lowest qualifying scores from the commonwealth games apparatus finals in 2002 (See Table 1). These scores need to be achieved during recognised gymnastics competitions such as Northern European, Scottish, and Welsh Open and British.

Table 1. Lowest qualifying scores from the commonwealth games 2002

Apparatus Grade Apparatus Grade
Floor 8.80 Vault 9.125
Pommel Horse 8.90 P Bar 8.70
Rings 8.80 High Bar 8.65

Adapted from Gibson (2006)

Thelwell and Greenlees (2001) noted that the effectiveness of PST packages is positive within sports of all natures. Fournier, Cakmels, Duran-Bush and Saimela (20005) reported a 10% improvement in the bars, beam, and floor compared to the control group. The PST program used by Fournier et al. (2005) consisted of a five-step intervention using relaxation, self-talk, goal setting, focusing and visualisation. Fournier et al. (2005) also reported that imagery and relaxation were the most effective methods utilised.

The study aims to develop a PST program for an elite male gymnast. The PST program is implemented to optimise performance for the forthcoming Commonwealth Games in Australia, considering emotions and self-confidence.

Review of Literature

Self Confidence

Self-confidence may be the most critical self-perception in sports psychology (Gill, 2002). Self-confidence is defined as a global and stable characteristic that has little use within the sports domain (Gill, 2002). The athlete must be confident they can perform well when placed in their competitive environment, i.e. Tiger Woods would be optimistic of making the final putt on the 18th green at Augusta in the Golf Masters. However, he may not feel too confident taking the final penalty kick in the World Cup final. Self-efficacy is a situation form of self-confidence or the belief that one is confident and can perform within a specific situation (Gill, 2002). Gill (2002) suggests that the most consistent difference between elite and less successful performance is that elite athletes possess higher self-efficacy levels.

Self Confidence/Self-Efficacy

Theories Bandura (1977) stipulates that self-efficacy is directly related to athletic performance. Increases in self-efficacy are mirrored by improvements in performance (Silva & Stevens, 2002). Subsequently, decreases in a performance limit both performance and training (Silva & Stevens, 2002). Prior experiences affect efficacy expectations. The probability of performing to a high standard is much greater if you believe in your abilities. Therefore efficacy has tremendous explanatory power when comparing fluctuations in performance (Silva & Stevens, 2002).

Picture 1

Self-efficacy is very important in a sport like gymnastics. The performer must believe they can perform well at the required time (Gill, 2002). Efficacy can fluctuate between apparatus, and therefore within gymnastics, it is important to increase self-efficacy for each piece of apparatus. Initially, low levels of self-efficacy may transfer from piece to piece and negatively influence the whole performance. Therefore, initially, high levels of efficacy will improve performance and should be maintained throughout the competition. As with many psychological components, rarely does a single component work in isolation. Decreases in self-efficacy could alter important performance variables such as arousal, stress, and anxiety, snowballing performance.


Emotion in sport is much more than a reactive expression of victory or defeat. Sports scientists have argued that pre-competitive and competitive emotional states can influence the athlete's performance ability (Hackford, 1991). Emotion is not a single construct, and it can be sub-divided into emotional components (Horn, 2002). Researchers have demonstrated that a wide range of emotions is associated with changes in performance (Jones, 2001). Many athletes report that heightening arousal levels facilitates their performance (Gould, Eklund and Jackson, 1992). It is said to increase anaerobic power (Jones, 2001). However, emotions can harm some motor skills by increasing muscular tension, which affects coordination (Jones, 2001), detrimental to a sport like gymnastics.


Arousal is a unitary construct that embraces psychological and physiological energetic systems (Horn, 2002). Landers and Boutcher (1998) define arousal as an energizing function responsible for harnessing the body's intense and vigorous activity resources. Arousal is perceived to vary along a continuum that runs from 'deep sleep' to extreme excitement. Arousal can be measured using self-report questionnaires such as the Thayer (1967) Activation-Deactivation Check-list (Horn, 2002). Arousal can also be measured using simple physiological tests; heart rate, blood pressure, respiration rate and biochemical indicants such as; epinephrine or adrenaline.


Martens (1977) in Horn (2002) advocate anxiety levels result from an objective demand interpreted as threatening by an individual. Horn (2002) highlights that anxiety is viewed as nervousness and tension, which is linearly associated with arousal levels. Anxiety can be further sub-divided into somatic and cognitive anxieties. Somatic anxiety refers to autonomic reactivity's bodily symptoms; butterflies, sweating, increased heart rate and shaking. Cognitive anxiety refers to negative concerns about performance, lack of concentration and poor attention (Horn, 2002). Levels of Anxiety can affect athletes individually. There is no optimal level of anxiety; the effects of anxiety on performance are mainly attributable to whether the athlete perceives anxiety as facilitating or debilitating (Gill, 2000).


Stress can be described as both an environmental variable and an emotional response to a specific situation (Horn, 2002). Much like anxiety, the effects of stress on performance is down to how the athlete perceives this stress. Selye (1974) in Horn (2002) highlighted that not all stress is negative, eustress (good stress) and distress (bad stress). Environmental stresses often deemed as distresses are somewhat unavoidable unpredictable. Therefore the sports psychologist has very little control over their effects on performance. However, emotional stresses can be improved. The athlete can consider how to better 'cope' with stresses where they may perceive an imbalance between the demands of the situation and their response capabilities (Horn, 2002).

The Psychological Skill Training Program

The PST program will focus on optimising performance by improving self-efficacy and emotional control. To improve these psychological skills, the athlete will complete sessions using goal setting, imagery and relaxation. TAs Gill (2000) and Horn (2002) advised, the program will follow an educational approach. The program consists of three main phases: Educational Phase - developing the understanding and importance of PST and its effect on performance. Acquisition Phase - Athletes learn how to use PST methods and how best to implement them. Practice Phase - devote time and effort to PST and complete training in both competition and practice (Horn, 2002). Fournier et al. (2005) reported that four gymnasts out of nine improved on the vault by 10%, and seven out of nine on the asymmetrical bars improved by 10%. These findings support the use of PST programs to optimise performance within gymnastics.

Goal Setting Sessions

The first mental skill to be used within the program is goal setting. To fully educate the athlete on how goals should be implemented, short- and long-term goals will be discussed (Horn, 2002). The athlete will be informed of the benefits of setting 'smarter' goals and will be educated on the use of outcome, process and performance goals (Kingston & Hardy, 1997), and a mixture of these will be used to improve performance best. The coach will be fully involved in the goal-setting process, especially when process goals are used. The coach will provide the relevant technical information and needs analysis for each piece of apparatus. The athlete will be setting goals to; perfect each piece of equipment (process goal), win minor practice competitions (an outcome goal) and achieve a point boundary for competitions (performance goals). (See figure 2).

Picture 2

Imagery Sessions

The imagery sessions will incorporate internal (imagination) and external (video demonstration) of performances. All sessions will focus solely on optimal performances. The participant will be encouraged to use the imagery in real-time and in slow motion. Slow motion imagery will be encouraged, especially when there is a certain technique that the athlete is performing incorrectly. This will allow them to imagine performing the skill correctly, employing all the teaching points. The athlete will be encouraged to develop a competition-specific session. This session will be practiced intensely before and during the competition (Horn, 2002).

Relaxation Sessions

The third mental skill to be employed throughout the PST program is relaxation. This will be delivered via a three-stage approach (Thelwell & Greenlees, 2001). The first stage, which will focus on Progressive Muscular Relaxation (PMR), allows the athlete to feel what it is like to be completely relaxed and free from the aforementioned muscular tension (Gill, 2000). The athlete will be asked to practice the Centring technique, which helps control breathing. This will be performed while the athlete is warming up for training sessions to become habitual when they warm up for a major competition (Thelwell & Greenlees, 2001). Once these skills have been perfected, participants will be asked to monitor their tension levels pre and post relaxation sessions by responding to verbal descriptors. The athlete must scale their feeling from 0 (very tense) to 10 (very relaxed). Such a strategy will allow the athlete to be aware of their tension levels (self-reliant) and subsequently employ PMR or centring on reducing high levels of anxiety (Thelwell & Greenlees, 2001).

The Rationale for Goal Setting

According to Bandura (1977), 'performance accomplishment' is the most effective method for improving self-efficacy (See figure 1). The most commonly used tool used by sports psychologists is goal setting. Setting goals provides this focus and directed attention by agreeing on a timed endpoint to their action (Locke, 1991). Researchers and practitioners in both sports and organizational literature have argued that a combination of both short-term and long-term goals is most effective for improving performance and changing behaviour, short-term goals should be enforced to directly reach the long-term goal of the client/performer (Weinberg, Butt, Knight & Perritt, 2001).

Miller and McAuley (1987) tested free-throw self-efficacy in 18 undergraduate students. The goal-training condition reported higher free throw efficacy when compared to the no-goal state. Kingston and Hardy (1997) suggest that in highly complex sports (gymnastics), process goals should provide the framework for improving technical aspects of complex skills. The support for the use of process goals is also evident in Kingston and Hardy (1997). It is suggested that process goals are more beneficial for increasing self-efficacy as they are more controllable and flexible. This allows the coach/psychologist to mould goals so that the athlete constantly achieves their goals. This constant achievement will improve self-efficacy via increasing performance accomplishments (Horn, 2002). Pierce and Burton (1998) found that goal setting improved performance, state self-confidence and perceived satisfaction within 25 female junior high school gymnasts.

Rationale for Imagery

According to Bandura (1977), 'vicarious experiences' is the second most powerful technique to improve self-efficacy (See figure 1). The tools utilised by sports psychologists to promote these vicarious experiences are imagery and observation. Horn (2002) suggests that motivational general-mastery (MG-M), a form of imagery that focuses on effective coping and mastery of challenging situations, is most effective for improving self-efficacy. Callow, Hardy and Hall (1998) found that MG-M imagery significantly improved sports confidence in two out of three elite badminton players, and it stabilised the other player's confidence. Callow and Hardy (1997) used seventy-six subjects to whether external imagery (observation) would improve gymnastic performance to a greater extent than a combination of internal visual imagery and kinaesthetic imagery. The performance was significantly higher within the external imagery group than the internal visual groups (Callow & Hardy, 1997). Therefore, for the imagery sessions within the PST program, a mixture of internal and external imagery will be used as proposed by Callow and Hardy (1997).

Imagery techniques have been used within clinical psychology to induce relaxation (Horn, 2002). In a study investigating the use of imagery in elite athletes, it was noted that imagery not only 'psyched-up the athlete but also helped maintain composure during the competition (Jones, 2001). Martin, Moritz and Hall (1999) suggested that imagery that focuses on feelings such as relaxation, stress, arousal and Anxiety could be an effective tool to control emotions. In addition to using imagery to regulate Anxiety, athletes can also use imagery within the practice to pre-plan and rehearse their emotional responses before a competition (Horn, 2002).

Rationale for Relaxation

As previously mentioned, high somatic and cognitive anxiety levels are detrimental to performance (Horn, 2002). Within a sport such as gymnastics, excessive anxiety will undoubtedly hinder performance, where movements have to be executed with finesse and composure. Athletes in closed skill sports (such as gymnastics) report more concerns about anxiety management than other athletes (Grandjean & Taylor, 2002). Relaxation is often cited as the most important skill to learn (Fournier et al., 2005). The ability of an athlete to control anxiety can be the difference between good and poor performance. Within gymnastics it is vital that the athlete can overcome the debilitating effects of anxiety (Horn, 2002).

Relaxation not only improves emotional control within athletes. According to Bandura (1977), 'emotional control' directly affects the self-efficacy of the athlete. Although relaxation and energizing techniques are classified as the fourth most helpful tool for improving self-efficacy (See figure 1), relaxation techniques were incorporated within the PST program to affect anxiety control positively.

Monitoring PST Program

Assessing the athlete's progression during a PST program is essential (Pierce & Burton, 1998). The two primary psychological skills which will improve within this program are anxiety and self-confidence. Anxiety levels and self-confidence will be measured using the CSAI-2-R. To help understand the mood state of the athlete, the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS) will also form part of the assessment.

To assess the multidimensional aspects of anxiety, Martens et al. (1990) developed the Competitive State Anxiety Inventory-2 (CSAI-2). The 27-item measure was constructed with three subscales: cognitive anxiety, somatic anxiety and self-confidence (Craft, Maygar, Becker & Feltz, 2003). The CSAI-2 represents the best validated psychometric instrument to quantify competitive anxiety (Kremer & Scully, 1998). Cox, Martens and Russell (2003) found a significant psychometric weakness for the CSAI-2 and revised each subscale to improve the psychometric properties for cognitive anxiety, somatic anxiety and self-confidence. It was concluded that the CSAI-2-R should be administered in place of the CSAI-2. The administration time was not highlighted within the study completed by Cox et al. (2003); therefore the administration time will be used 31-59mins before competition as advised by Craft et al. (2003)

Time and Implementation

Throughout the Educational and Acquisition phases, the athlete will be required to spend increased time with the sports psychologist (Gill, 2000). When developing new psychological skills, their performer and psychologist must work together to ensure techniques such as goal setting and imagery can be fully effective in optimising performance (Calmels et al. 2003). Once in the Practice phase of the PST, the psychologist and athlete can reduce the time and frequency of sessions. Therefore, the Educational and Acquisition phases of the PST will be completed during the off-season/pre-season when physical training time and frequency is low. Sessions within the practice phase can be reduced to 15-30 minutes for 3-4 sessions per week in some instances (Gill, 2000).


Research suggests that mental practice is as important as physical practice when enhancing a skill (Barr, Hall & Rodgers, 1990). The present PST program will improve performance by optimising psychological variables related to performance. Self-confidence and Anxiety will be the main focus of the skills to be improved. A combination of goal setting, imagery and relaxation techniques will allow the athlete to optimise their performance during the 2006 commonwealth games. Problems when implementing this program may include:

  • The athlete not liking the inventories/paperwork
  • The athlete has poor imagery ability
  • Poor athlete - psychologist relationship
  • Lack of Time
  • Lack of sport knowledge
  • Lack of follow up

However, as Horn (2002) highlighted, PST program ineffectiveness is most commonly contributed to by the psychologist. A PTS program will be ineffective if the athlete cannot see the effects psychology will have on performance (Gill, 2000). The educational phase is the most critical phase to reduce such problems. Once the athlete understands the benefits of sports psychology, they will allow the time and dedication required to complete PST sessions.


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About the Author

As part of his BSc Sports Science degree, Darren Brookfield completed studies on Psychological Skills Training. This article, based on Darren's final paper, has been produced here with his kind permission.