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Psychology in Sport and the Myth of Mental Toughness

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James Smith

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It is critical to discuss the mistake of expanding upon the volume of specialists in an organization if there is no unification between them.  In the absence of an individual who, like a general contractor, possesses the applied understanding of all specialty domains and is, thus, qualified to orchestrate them, no amount of specialists is likely to make the organization any better.

In theory…

We may discuss the supposed understanding that the Manager, Head Coach, Assistant Coaches, Physiotherapists, Player Development, Psychiatrist, Psychologist…are supposed to have. This is only in theory, however.

If…we grant that each one of them is actually operating at the forefront of their respective specialties, and that is a massive assumption, we must still determine how well each one integrates with the other, such that the whole of the organization is, in fact, greater than the sum of its parts. 

As it regards the any efforts to expand upon the organization’s performance through the lens of psychology, as soon as we distinguish between what the organization requires from the standpoint of brain and behavior, we must then recognize that no amount of psychological understanding directed towards sport is better than the degree to which this individual, or individuals, work seamlessly in the organization, and NOT only amongst themselves, but with the rest of the organization’s staff, coaches, and players. 

The psychologist who possesses a PhD or PsyD, is a Doctor of Philosophy (in Psychology) or Doctor of Psychology, respectively. PhD curricula in psychology are more research and experimental based; whereas the training of PsyD’s are more based in clinical/professional practice. Psychologists are NOT medical doctors and, unlike Psychiatrists, focus on the psychological, vs the biological, reference frames related to cognitive, emotional, social, behavioral research and/or clinical psychotherapeutic interventions to assist in the mental well-being of someone in terms of reconciling past traumas and diagnosing and resolving any number of psychological conditions such as anxiety and depression. Unlike Psychiatrists, however, psychologists are not licensed to prescribe medication. 

The sport psychologist, who also possesses a PhD or PsyD is a psychologist who directs their study and practice towards dealing with the brain and behavior in the context of sport preparation and competition. Not all sport psychologists possess a PhD or PsyD (which is an important distinction because anyone with an undergraduate degree can go through a 12month on-line course and get a masters in sport psychology. Meanwhile, any psychologist has gone through an undergrad then a doctoral program to earn a PhD or PsyD. To conflate a sport psychology credential with a PhD or PsyD, who focuses on the sport application, is to conflate a CPR certification with a MD). 

What is critical to understand for the organization is how the sophisticated understanding of psychological preparation interfaces with tactical execution and this is something that psychologists, and even sport psychologists, are not necessarily trained for.

What the organization requires is that every coach integrate the requisite knowledge of psychology into tactical/technical preparation, because any psychological limitations from the players or coaches will never be as adequately addressed in the office of the psychologist as it will when its addressed during coaching and practice.

While there is no such thing as toughness or mental toughness, there is:
•    Purposefulness
•    Discipline
•    Initiative and self-sufficiency
•    Self-control
•    Confidence
•    Resolve 
•    Perseverance
•    Courage
•    Decisiveness
•    Competitiveness
•    Concentration/focus
•    Anxiety control
•    Composure
•    Self-awareness
•    Positive thinking
•    Team cohesion
•    Thought control
•    Self-regulation
•    Aggression
And more…

Each of which mandates, not only the explanatory knowledge of its significance but, how to integrate its development into coaching and player tactical execution.

Particularly as it regards players, the psychological preparation must be synthesized into off-season sport practices, training camps, and seasonal practices. 

After consulting with each coach and player and identifying the specific type of psychological skills each individual is lacking, there will be specific practice drill variations suggested that will distinguish both the tactical/technical AND specific psychological skill from another psychological skill. 

We cannot use ‘tough’ in thinking or speaking because it’s as ambiguous as scrapping all tactical schemes/concepts, and all their complexity, and replacing all of them with the single word- tactical.

Imagine replacing all American Football, Rugby League, Basketball, Football, Ice Hockey, Wrestling, MMA…tactical terminologies, and all derivations, with the single word “tactical”. 

To reduce tactical complexity, which varies between team and combat sports, with one single instruction “tactical” would be laughable to any modern-day tactical coach. In this same way, mental toughness must be as laughable to any person because of how differentiated the previously mentioned components of psychological skills are from one another. 

As laughable and nondescript as it would be for the American Football or Rugby or Basketball Coach to blame themselves or their athletes for not being tactical enough, somehow, these same coaches operate under the misconception that their teams or athletes aren’t tough enough…

Too often, teams and athletes undergo physically grueling training, sometimes with military units, in an effort to become more ‘tough’. Little do the coaches of these athletes realize is the nuance and distinction of the many psychological skills they misconceive as toughness. 

Some athletes are strong with resolve, perseverance, and aggression yet lack self-regulation; while others are strong in self-regulation yet lack in resolve, perseverance, and aggression. Due to the lack of sufficient psychological knowledge in coaching we then see, year after year, entire teams being subjected to the same grueling activity in pre-season training that, say, demands perseverance. The coaches and athletes think that toughness is being developed, meanwhile this is the functional equivalent of suggesting chemotherapy for anyone who doesn’t feel well. Meanwhile medical doctors are up in arms trying to explain the myriad of conditions that result in a person not feeling well and how chemotherapy is only appropriate for one of them, and if you use chemotherapy for any other reason you are subjecting the person to a remarkable level of misery and physiological trauma that is utterly misdirected and unnecessary. 

Coaches with sufficient psychological knowledge recognize the subtleties surrounding psychological skill development and how this process must be highly individualized for each athlete whilst closely satisfying tactical/technical developments, and not diverting from them with the sports analog of chemotherapy. 

Thus, any organization that requires, or benefits from, a licensed psychologist on staff must fill an even more important role. The organization requires an individual to integrate psychological understanding directly into sport practice. This will not be achieved by a psychologist or sport psychologist. It can only come from an individual who has as deep and wide and understanding of sport structure as they do the requisite domains of cultural establishment, talent ID and selection, leadership, the tactics and techniques of the sport in question, psychology, the theory of knowledge, learning science, language, communication, motion, energy, medical science and rehabilitation, and critical problem solving, that directly implicate winning more competitions. 

What this describes is the analog of a general contractor for sport. One who has an applied understanding of every contractor. This is the theoretical/strategic role that I describe in my explanation of a Competition Strategist, and the jargon of global load manager in my book “The Governing Dynamics of Coaching” and it is this sort of professional who is required to ultimately unite the differences between managers, coaches, doctors, scientists, analysts, researchers, and trainers so that the entire collective of them works seamlessly together in order that no untapped potential exists in the organization, and more competitions are won this year and beyond.  

Email James@globalsportconcepts.net for information on psychological preparation from a top down perspective of tactical/technical development

 

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