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Myths About Sports Psychology

32 Misconceptions About The Mental Game Of Sports Explained


Bill Cole, MS, MA
The Mental Game Coach™
Silicon Valley, California


History shows that in 1920 the world's first sport psychology laboratory was founded in Berlin Germany. Soon after that another laboratory began in Russia, and in 1925 America's first sport psychologist Coleman Griffith founded the first sport psychology laboratory in North America at the University of Illinois. He wrote the first sport psychology book published, The Psychology of Coaching, in 1926.

From the first days of sports psychology in the 1920's there have been controversies, misunderstandings and myths surrounding this fascinating field. Sports psychology, while more accepted than ever, and utilized at the highest levels of sport, still carries a stigma in the eyes of some athletes and coaches.

This article examines the many myths about sports psychology that still exist, separates fact from fiction, and attempts to dispel many of them. It answers some of these critical questions about the field:

  1. How does sports psychology work?
  2. Who can benefit from working with a sports psychologist?
  3. What are the approaches and techniques of sports psychology?
  4. What misinformation about sports psychology exists?

It is hoped that this article will lead to broader and more robust discussions around the values, ethics, processes and future of sports psychology.

32 Myths About Sports Psychology

1.   MYTH:   All Sports Have The Same Type And Degree Of Psychological Demands.

  FACT:   Different sports have differing degrees and types of mental requirements for success. Perhaps every competitor would say that their sport is very mentally demanding, and it is true that each sport has its own specific mental requirements. Athletes who are mentally strong in one sport perhaps often could not imagine themselves handling the mental challenges in another.

A sport like weight lifting, for example, is clearly less mental than a complicated sport like competitive tennis. Tennis incorporates complex strategies and tactics, is played over a longer time frame, has deception, and is a high-technique sport, requiring many hours of learning and grooving strokes.

Which sports are "more mental" than others? And how would one measure this? One somewhat objective measure of which sports seem to be the most mentally demanding could be based on the volume of literature on the psychological aspects of the sport. This may demonstrate the degree of difficulty in learning and mastering the mental demands of the sport. Two sports stand out in this respect. Golf has, by far, the most books and articles written about the "mental side" of the game, with tennis a close second. It seems reasonable to say that individual sports create the most mental hazards and internal pressures on a performer, far more than team sports. There is no place to hide, and the winning and losing belongs only to the individual. These sports are also usually more technique-laden and hence subject to mental interference issues.

2.   MYTH:   Sports Are At Least "90% Mental" At Higher Skill Levels.

  FACT:   Yogi Berra, the legendary baseball great, was known to once say, "Baseball is 90% mental -- the other half is physical." So much for mathematical science. It is true that in the upper levels of a sport, the mental game becomes more critical. After all, beginners in a sport are simply struggling to achieve a basic competence in physical skills. Thinking about complex game strategies and competitive psychological issues are the least of their concerns.

Another common statistic (spoken with such conviction as to sound downright scientific) thrown around is that humans use only 10% of their brain power. How can anyone possibly measure or prove a statement like this? Because these percentage-based statements are impossible to verify, they add little credible discourse to sport psychology.

Here, though, is one never-ending oddity. If at least 90% of all athletes and coaches state that the mental arena is vital, and absolutely critical at the higher reaches of a sport, then why do they also admit that they rarely practice mental skills? Perhaps they don't know how to practice these skills, or are not psychologically minded enough to seek assistance in this area. There still remains, in many sports, a stigma associated with an athlete who is "too mental". That's unfortunate.

3.   MYTH:   The Mental Game Always Makes The Difference Between Two Otherwise Equal Athletes In A Competition.

  FACT:   It has been said that if two athletes are equal in physical skill and physical conditioning, and in experience, then the factor that makes the difference between winning and losing is mental. Indeed, it is said, at the higher levels of a sport, the mental game is often the deciding factor, because most athletes are equal in their technical and physical abilities. Experienced coaches, players and commentators make this statement all the time. This is not particularly insightful, but rather, a tautology, an error of logic. Clearly, the mental game makes the difference when all other factors are equal.

4.   MYTH:   Sports Psychology Is Only For Athletes Who Are Mentally Weak.

  FACT:   The term "mentally weak" implies there is an inherently defective or temporarily fragile mental quality in an athlete. This is not a helpful or accurate statement, as many elite athletes who are quite mentally strong still seek the services of sport psychologists on a regular basis. This is one of the most pervasive and damaging of the many myths about sport psychology. Think for a moment. Why does Tiger Woods continuously have a golf coach on his staff? His game is not "weak or broken". He works with a coach so he can continue to improve, and to minimize any backsliding. The same is true with athletes who seek the services of sport psychologists. They want to improve their mental skills.

5.   MYTH:   Sports Psychology Works With Athletes Who Are Mentally Ill.

  FACT:   The definition of mental illness implies there is a serious psychological disorder present. Sports psychology is, in part, focused on the performance deficits of a person's sport experience. There certainly are athletes with mental illness who need the care of a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist and who continue to participate in sport, but mainstream sport psychology does not focus on or work with individuals who are mentally ill. These individuals are referred to a proper mental health professional. Athletes who are mentally healthy are the focus of sport psychologists. An athlete who needs help improving mental skills undertakes sport psychology training from an educational perspective, not a mental health one.

6.   MYTH:   Sports Psychology Can't Make A Loser Into A Winner.

  FACT:   Labeling people as losers is not a helpful endeavor. However, countless individuals and teams with a record of predominating losses have started winning with the help of sports psychology.

7.   MYTH:   Sports Psychology Can't Change The Innate Mental Abilities Of An Athlete.

  FACT:   Sports psychology can help athletes achieve results far beyond what they ever thought possible. It can elevate people to levels of performance about which they never would have dreamed. What is considered innately limited and intractable can, indeed, be surpassed.

8.   MYTH:   Sports Psychology Is A Quick Fix.

  FACT:   While sports psychology often can work quickly after a single session, for more powerful, more consistent and longer-term benefits to accrue, extended and dedicated study and application of the content and tools of this field are needed.

9.   MYTH:   Sports Psychology Is Only For Elite Performers.

  FACT:   Any level, age, gender and sport can benefit from the discipline of sports psychology. Parents, coaches and officials also can benefit. Sports psychology covers the entire range of sport and movement behavior and offers assistance to anyone desiring high quality experiences in these realms.

10.   MYTH:   Sports Psychology Can Work By Simply Reading About It.

  FACT:   Having a cognitive, conceptual understanding of sport psychology is important, but this alone is not sufficient to help an athlete consistently perform under pressure. The principles of sports psychology need to be practiced, used in actual game conditions and mastered before they can be called upon in a reliable manner day to day under competitive conditions.

11.   MYTH:   Sports Psychology Can Guarantee A Top Performance Will Happen On Command.

  FACT:   No one discipline, technique or method can guarantee that an athlete can perform on command or win on command. There are too many intangibles and factors other than psychological with which to contend.

12.   MYTH:   Sports Psychology Is Simply About "Hypnotizing" The Athlete.

  FACT:   Even though hypnotism and self-hypnotic approaches are important tools employed by some sports psychologists, these methods are not the main crux of the field's interventions.

13.   MYTH:   Sports Psychology Takes Control Away From The Athlete And Places It Into The Hands Of The Sport Psychologist.

  FACT:   It is a common misconception that someone "hypnotizes" the athlete and makes him or her act contrary to natural desires or values. No one should control the athlete. Rather, the sports psychologist teaches the athlete to have more self-awareness, self-esteem and self-control. The athlete's self-control should increase, not decrease.

14.   MYTH:   Sports Psychology Requires Religious Belief To Be Effective.

  FACT:   Sports psychology does not embrace any religion or require any religious belief to be effective.

15.   MYTH:   Sports Psychology Is Based On Far Eastern Mystical Philosophies, And The Athlete Must Become An Adherent Of These To Gain Any Benefit.

  FACT:   Sports psychology does not embrace or represent any philosophical tradition or theories of any individual guru. Some of the approaches and philosophies in sports psychology do originate from historical eastern traditions such as Zen Buddhism, but there is no requirement for any belief or any faith-based declarations by any athlete. Modern sports psychology is based on sound, researched science, and proven by studies and field work with thousands of athletes at all levels of sport.



16.   MYTH:   Sports Psychology Is Incompatible With An Athlete's Religious Beliefs.

  FACT:   Sport psychology is not affiliated with, or based on, any religion. Meditation, visualization, relaxation training and other sport psychology modalities have nothing to do with any belief system or religion and they can be used by anyone.

17.   MYTH:   Sports Psychology Requires Long Hours Of Training To See Any Positive Effects.

  FACT:   Some benefits can be realized immediately in sports psychology. Other techniques need more time. A good formula to consider is this: If a mental problem has been long standing, it probably won't be corrected overnight. Furthermore, the higher the degree of performance outcome desired, the more rigorous is the work needed in the mental arena.

18.   MYTH:   Sports Psychology Only Works With Athletes With Special Mental Powers.

  FACT:   A good sports psychologist takes athletes from whatever psychological capabilities they possess and develops their mental games beyond that level. There is no requirement that an athlete already have a strong mental game, or any particular psychological prowess to benefit from mental training.

19   MYTH:   Sports Psychology Works Best With Highly Skilled Athletes.

  FACT:   All levels of athletes, in all sports, can benefit from sport psychology. Elite athletes probably get the most press and publicity as users of sports psychology. Truly, they can benefit more from psychological training than pure novices because beginners must first learn the basics of technique, strategy and tactics, and how to play their sport before they can benefit from a high degree of mental training.

20.   MYTH:   Sports Psychology Training Takes The Place Of Physical Conditioning And Sports Skills.

  FACT:   No amount of psychological training can overcome poor sports technique and inadequate physical conditioning. As Vic Braden, famed tennis coach says, "If you have lousy strokes, and a positive attitude, you'll still just be a happy loser." Sport psychology is an adjunct to other sports training, not a replacement for it. No amount of mental training can ever take the place of hard work and dedication to learning the physical skills and strategic mastery of the sport.

21.   MYTH:   All Sports Psychology Techniques Work Equally Well For All Athletes, And All Performance Issues.

  FACT:   Not all sports psychology methodologies are recommended for all problems, sports, teams or individual athletes. For example, the public considers visualization to be one of the most commonly utilized techniques in sports psychology, yet it has been estimated that fewer than 60% of athletes can benefit from it. Some athletes are unable to generate imagery at all, even after extensive training.

22.   MYTH:   There Is A Single Methodology Or System In Sports Psychology That Works Well For All Athletes.

  FACT:   There is no single technique or modality that works equally well across the board in sports psychology, for all athletes, for all issues. Just as the field of medicine has various specialties and modalities to address the multitudinous issues that patients present, sports psychology has an array of interventions that can be customized to adapt to the wide variety of psychological issues athletes face.

23.   MYTH:   Sports Psychology Uses The Same Approach And Methods As Psychotherapy.

  FACT:   Although sports psychology uses many of the same methods and approaches as psychotherapy, the aims, purposes and outcomes are quite different. Sports psychology at its core is essentially an educational approach, while psychotherapy is a therapeutic one.

24.   MYTH:   Sports Psychology Seeks To Change The Athlete's Personality To Improve Performance.

  FACT:   It is a stretch to say that intensive psychotherapy itself, much less sports psychology, will change anyone's basic personality and temperament. Sports psychology does not aim to alter a person's personality, but one of its goals is to take the performance aspects of the athlete's mind and body and maximize their natural talents.

25.   MYTH:   Sports Psychology Seeks To Change The Athlete's Personality To Make It Match The Ideal Profile Of A Specific Sport.

  FACT:   There are a variety of personality and temperament profiles of champions and high performers in every sport. Top achievers have ranged from introverts to extroverts, organized to disorganized, intelligent to average intelligence, socializers to loners, etc. This range of personalities and mental capabilities in successful athletes leads to the conclusion that there is no one ideal character type, personality type or temperament profile in any sport, or sports.

26.   MYTH:   Sports Psychology Has Its Own Methods And Does Not Use Clinical, Counseling Or Psychotherapeutic Modalities And Techniques.

  FACT:   Every helping profession-- consulting, teaching, counseling, psychotherapy, coaching and others-- uses techniques and approaches from multiple disciplines. No single people-helping profession can claim proprietary possession of any particular technique that can enhance performance. Sports psychology is no exception. Delivered correctly, it is an eclectic blend of many disciplines and fields.

27.   MYTH:   The Core Of Sports Psychology Is Visualization And Positive Thinking.

  FACT:   Many people think these two approaches are the crux of sports psychology, and perhaps these are among the best known interventions, but they are only two of many approaches to improving sport performance.

28.   MYTH:   Sports Psychology Can Cure Anyone's Mental Difficulties And Make Them Perform Better.

  FACT:   Quite often sports psychology can be the powerful tool that helps people overcome their mental and emotional blocks and rise to higher levels of performance. However, sometimes a referral to a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist is appropriate, if the problems a player presents are outside the scope of the work of the sports psychologist. Sports psychology, while very effective, can not help everyone, or every situation.

29.   MYTH:   The Sports Psychologist Takes Charge When Working With A Team.

  FACT:   The Head Coach and coaching staff are in charge of the team. The sports psychologist works for the Head Coach, and in conjunction with the coaching staff. Ideally, the relationship is a collaborative one that serves the best interests of the team and coaches, individually and collectively.

30.   MYTH:   A Sports Psychologist Should Work With An Athlete When The Parents Ask, In Spite Of Objections From The Athlete.

  FACT:   This is a recipe for disaster. A relationship that begins on a coerced, negative or manipulative basis has little hope of being beneficial. Even if the parents have the best of intentions, the child should be allowed to enter into sports psychology coaching freely if any substantive progress is to be made.

31.   MYTH:   Sports Psychology Can Overcome Physical, Strategic, Nutritional, Work Ethic, And Other Factors To Make An Athlete Succeed.

  FACT:   Sports psychology is but only one approach to helping athletes succeed. It alone can't overcome deficiencies in the above areas.

32.   MYTH:   Sports Psychology Fosters An Athlete's Dependency On The Sport Psychologist.

  FACT:   The goal of any sports psychology consultant should be to minimize dependency as quickly as possible. That means the consultant's sports knowledge and mental skills should be transferred by teaching the client a self-coaching skill set. The client should become autonomous and able to function at a high level independently of the consultant.

Sports psychology is a field with huge potential, one that can provide untold benefits to people as they experience sports and physical activity. It can help people maximize their sport experiences and bring more meaning to their lives through higher quality experiences in sports, fitness, health, and movement.

Every discipline and field of human endeavor labors under numerous myths and misunderstandings. Sports psychology is no exception. This article's purpose is to examine the many myths in the field, deepen understandings, explain some of the misunderstandings present and generate healthy discussion. Hopefully this discussion will continue, and the author welcomes continued dialogue, inquiries and additions to this list of myths.

For additional information on this topic, see a list of Best Sports Psychology books, as recommended by Bill Cole on Amazon.com.

To learn about sports psychology coaching services offered by Bill Cole, MS, MA, the Mental Game Coach™, visit www.SportsPsychologyCoaching.com.

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Copyright © 2005-2008 Bill Cole, MS, MA. All rights reserved.


Bill Cole, MS, MA, a leading authority on sports psychology, peak performance, mental toughness and coaching, is founder and CEO of William B. Cole Consultants, a consulting firm that helps sports teams and individuals achieve more success. He is also the Founder and President of the International Mental Game Coaching Association, an organization dedicated to advancing the research, development, professionalism and growth of mental game coaching worldwide. He is a multiple Hall-Of-Fame honoree as an athlete, coach and school alumnus, an award-winning scholar-athlete, published author of books and articles, and has coached at the highest levels of major-league pro sports and big-time college athletics.


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Myths about Sports Psychology


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