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What influence will sports psychology have on the rehabilitation of injuries and the improvement of the performance of sports skills?

Dr Larry W. McDaniel, Ed.D, Adrienna Rasche, Dr Laura Gaudet PhD. and Allen Jackson, MS.D will explain how integrating sports-related psychology into an athlete's everyday activities may be helpful to them.

Introduction to Sports Psychology

Psychological skills may boost sports-related injury rehabilitation. It is important to realize that there is not one specific psychological skill that assists in rehabilitation. Each psychological skill obtained must be individualized based on the psychological state of the individual and the sport that the individual is a participant in. A few examples of psychological skills include mental imagery, goal setting, and positive self-talk. These psychological skills may be used during sports injury rehabilitation to motivate athletes to adhere to rehabilitation (Appaneal et al. 2008)[2].

Knowledge and skills that contribute to the successful rehabilitation of injured athletes include maintaining a positive attitude and a willingness to listen. Most importantly, for psychological skills to be effective, an athlete must be motivated and willing to learn about techniques used in rehabilitation procedures. An essential part of the healing process is the communication skills of athletic trainers and physical therapists. An important consideration for the trainers or therapists is to keep the injured athlete involved with the team members and coaches. Trainers and therapists have an important role in setting realistic goals for the athlete to return to competition (Levy et al. 2008)[14].

Student-athletes who take academic classes that focus on psychological skills to improve game performance tend to experience more and achieve more in their sport of choice. These athletes demonstrate higher levels of leadership, play with more confidence, peak under pressure, and adjusting to adversity (Levy et al. 2008)[14].

Sports Psychology is a study of athletes and their behaviours

Sports psychology is the scientific study of people and their behaviours in sports contexts and the practical application of that knowledge. Sports psychologists identify principles and guidelines that professionals can use to help children and adults participate in and benefit from sport and exercise activities in both team and individual environments. Sports psychologists have two objectives in mind when it comes to sports psychology. First, to understand how psychological factors affect an individual's physical performance and secondly, to understand how participation in sport and exercise affect a person's psychological development, health, and well-being. Sports psychology deals with the increase of performance by the management of emotions and the minimization of psychological effects of injury and poor performance. Some of the most important skills taught are goal setting, relaxation, visualization, self-talk, awareness and control, concentration, confidence, using rituals, attribution training, and periodization. It is important to learn and understand individual skills in sports psychology (Hanson-Utley et al. 2008)[8].

Improves Skill Performance

A study conducted for the article "The Effects of centring on the Free-Throw Shooting Performance of Young Athletes" investigated the effectiveness of centring breathing on the free throw shooting percentage of young athletes age ten to eleven years. The study was conducted in Sydney, Australia on two female athletes and three male athletes. It was found that through the use of visual inspection, the centring breath was shown to be a useful tool for improving an athlete's performance. Findings from this study indicated that centring on the task at hand, breathing, and other psychological skills are beneficial in a variety of sports skills ((Haddad et al. 2009)[7]

Reduces Anxiety and Negative Stressors

Anxiety and negative stressors are the most common psychological issues that accompany an athletic injury. An athlete's response to injury, also known as cognitive appraisal, is influenced by both situational and personal factors. Also, behavioural and emotional responses affect the mental and physical recovery from injury. Coping skills in sports psychology are very important in aiding an athlete to a full and healthy recovery. Mental imagery, relaxation, positive self-talk, and goal setting are examples of coping skills that may influence positive behavioural and emotional outcomes such as anxiety reduction and a positive outlook (Mesago et al. 2008)[16].

Competitive anxiety is the most frequently investigated research area in Sports Psychology. To understand how to relieve competitive anxiety, it is important to examine the relationship between basic psychological skills usage and the intensity and directional dimensions of competitive anxiety. Psychological skills may be used individually or in a combined fashion (Hanton et al. 2008)[9].

Four Basic Psychological Skills

There are four basic psychological skills generally exposed in Sports Psychology. Mental imagery, the first psychological skill, consists of five main categories; cognitive-specific, cognitive-general, motivational-specific, motivational-general mastery, and motivational-general arousal. Each skill can serve one or numerous functions, such as motivation or learning a new skill (Hanton et al. 2008)[9]. Relaxation is the second psychological skill in sports psychology. Relaxation can include unstructured or more structured techniques. These techniques can be grouped into two categories; muscle-to-mind and mind-to-muscle. Muscle-to-mind is better known as progressive muscular relaxation, and mind-to-muscle is better known as transcendental meditation. Relaxation is considered to be relevant in regulating activation and arousal levels (Wadey et al. 2008)[21]. The third psychological skill is self-talk. Self-talk is considered a verbalization phenomenon within many athletes where they are addressing themselves. Self-talk has been shown to have both cognitive and motivational functions. The last psychological skill is goal-setting. Outcome, performance, and process are three different types of goals that can influence athletic performance by extracting changes in athletes' levels of focus, attention spans, self-confidence, effort, and motivation (Hatziggeogoadis et al. 2008)[10].

Sports Psychology Benefits

Returning athletes to competition after a sports injury is a key role of athletic trainers and physical therapists. Negative psychological responses to injury often result in a lack of rehabilitation adherence or prolonged recovery rates prompting those who work with injured athletes to look for additional strategies to improve the overall rehabilitation process. Psychological skills can be used during sports injury rehabilitation to motivate athletes to adhere to rehabilitation, to increase the speed of recovery, to control anxiety levels, and to enhance self-confidence. Also, athletic trainers and physical therapists are in the best position to educate athletes on the use of psychological interventions to enhance the recovery process. However, those who hold negative attitudes toward certain psychological skills are less likely to implement them during rehabilitation. Therefore, receiving formal training probably would increase positive attitudes toward the use of psychological skills and would strengthen the likelihood that they are used during rehabilitation. Overall, athletic trainers and physical therapists hold positive attitudes on the effectiveness of psychological skills to enhance the rehabilitation process.

Among the various research areas in Sports Psychology, the most frequently investigated topic is the construct of competitive anxiety. Competitive anxiety may have potentially devastating effects on an athlete in performance environments. While examining the relationship between the use of basic psychological skills and the intensity and directional dimensions of competitive anxiety, findings revealed that the participants maintained the intensity of their anxiety response before a competition and could deploy goal-setting, imagery, or self-talk to enable facilitative interpretations of anxiety-related symptoms to performance. Higher levels of self-confidence and an optimistic outlook toward forthcoming competition were also expressed. Psychological skills, including goal-setting, imagery, self-talk, and relaxation allegedly helped to control the anxiety response.

Four causal networks exist, including; goal-setting, imagery, self-talk, and relaxation. Athletes use various types of goals during practice and competition to improve performance during competition. Participants found that goal setting did not lower the intensity of anxiety-related symptoms; goal setting only enabled them to control their symptoms. Somatic symptoms reminded participants to focus on the race process goals and their realistic performance and process goals. These goals resulted in heightened levels of effort and motivation. It was found that the increase in perceived control over anxiety responses enabled facultative interpretations, sustained positive outlook toward the upcoming competition, and elevated feelings of self-confidence (Hanton et al. 2008)[9]. The second causal network, mental imagery, is divided into two categories; cognitive-specific and cognitive-general. Cognitive-specific is better known as imagining the performance of specific skills. Cognitive-general is imagining the execution of performance plans overall. As with goal-setting, mental imagery did not remove or lower competitive anxiety-related symptoms. Instead, it enhanced perceived control over the reactions. Self-doubts and worries about strength, examples of cognitive symptoms, and triggered images of perfect performances led to feelings of familiarity with the experienced symptoms (Hanton et al. 2008)[9].

The third causal network, self-talk, may also be divided into two categories; overt and covert self-talk. Each of these categories is defined as positive self-talk, either externally, overt, or internally, covert. When experiencing somatic and specific cognitive anxiety-related symptoms, including doubts about performance and physical shaking, participants found that self-talk helped to control the anxiety responses. Self-talk helps to increase concentration on the task at hand. Increased levels of effort and motivation may be found by using constructive and adaptive statements regarding personal accomplishments and positive verbalizations about the training leading up to the competition (Hatzigeorgiadis et al. 2008)[10].

The final causal network, relaxation may be achieved by listening to calming music, stretching, taking deep breaths, or by arranging a more structured relaxation technique such as progressive muscular relaxation. Relaxation may lower the intensity of the anxiety response during potentially tragic situations. Relaxation may also heighten perceptions of control over anxiety-related symptoms. During specific sports, such as rugby or football relaxation may not be the causal network of choice because sports such as these require athletes to be psyched up and not necessarily relaxed (Bishop et al. 2009)[3].

An investigation of the effectiveness of centring breathing on the free throw shooting percentage of young athlete's ages 10-11 years found that it may be advantageous to explore the effectiveness of centring or other psychological skills in a variety of sports skills and for young athletes of different age groups (Haddad et al. 2009)[7].

"Choking under pressure" is a maladaptive response to performance pressure whereby choking models have been identified, yet, theory matched interventions have not been empirically tested (Dreaded C Word). Choking occurs when athletes pay too much conscious attention to well-rehearsed routines that play out better when the athlete is on autopilot. Choking is the opposite of panic, which may occur under sudden, fearful circumstances causing the shutdown of conscious thought and therefore causing athletes to relapse almost entirely to instinct. Unfortunately, choking is natural and may happen to any athlete at any level, even skilled athletes whose fine-tuned actions are nearly all instinct. Pre-performance routines, such as the four causal networks explained above, may reduce choking effects. However, the most effective way for athletes to fight and prevent choking is to put themselves in situations, specifically artificial choking situations during practice. Monitoring their reactions will help to control the athletes during actual choking situations throughout their athletic performance (Mesagno et al. 2008)[16].

Review and Conclusions

Sports Psychology is the scientific study of athletes and their behaviours in the context of sports. It also involves the practical application of Sports Psychology knowledge and the integrating of psycho-social approaches. Sports Psychology may assist in the rehabilitation of a variety of injuries that may occur during athletic competition, practice, or exercise. Sports Psychology has been shown to speed up the rehabilitation process and assist the injured athlete in the development of an improved attitude and approach to rehabilitation.

Sports Psychology may be an important variable in improving performance in an assortment of sports skills. Integrating psychology into daily life, including practices, competitions, and exercises may also assist the athletes in preventing "choking" susceptible situations. Every athlete at any level may experience a choking situation. Learning the psychological skills taught in sports psychology may help athletes to handle choking situations better or even prevent them from happening (Mesagno et al. 2008)[16].

Athletic trainers, physical therapists, coaches, parents, and athletes themselves are all responsible for learning and utilizing the fundamentals of sports psychology. Mental imagery, relaxation, self-talk, and goal setting are all examples of psychological skills in Sports Psychology. These four causal networks may assist and influence positive behavioural and emotional outcomes. Sports Psychology may help to control anxiety responses, lower the probability of an athlete being put in a choking situation, and most importantly, give an athlete a positive outlook, more self-confidence, effort, and motivation. Each of these assets assists an athlete in the process of experiencing success.


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About the Authors

Larry W. McDaniel Ed.D. is an Associate Professor of Exercise Science at Dakota State University Madison, SD. USA. Dr McDaniel was a First Team All-American football player (USA Football), a Hall of Fame Athlete, and Hall of Fame Wrestling Coach.

Allen Jackson, M. Ed. is an Assistant Professor of Physical Education and Health at Chadron State College in Chadron, Nebraska (USA) who is well known for his presentations and publications at international conferences focusing on Leadership, Curriculum, and Health.

Laura Gaudet, Ph.D. is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Counselling, Psychology and Social Work at Chadron State College, Chadron NE.

Adrienna Rasche, Dakota State University, is an outstanding student of Exercise Science.