The Importance of Sports Psychology

While some may deride sports psychology as mumbo jumbo, when properly practiced, mental training for sports supplies concrete benefits 1. Pre-practicing specific routines you'll use during a match or game can help trigger better motor responses and prevent fatigue, among other benefits.

Triggers Correct Motor Responses

Using pre-shot routines and including them in practice makes them part of your shot or swing. This helps your brain send the correct motor message to the muscles when you're on the course or court. For example, tapping your club on the ground twice before golf shots will help trigger the correct swing if you've tapped the club on the ground twice during driving range practice.

Lowers Heart Rate

If you are losing a big match or game, your heart rate may rise in response to the stress hormones your brain releases. Sport psychology includes breathing practice, visualization, imagery and music as tools to help calm players. Many tennis players use an iPod or other device to listen to the same songs during practice, before a match and during changeovers to help get them to a calm, controlled state. If you have no mental toughness training, you may not be able to respond properly to an increased heart rate, which can increase your fatigue and affect your motor skills.

Provides Structure

You will be more proactive than reactive during games if you follow a set pattern between points and plays. For example, top tennis players follow the same pattern between points. As soon as the point ends, they turn away from the net and put the racket in their non-hitting hand to relax. As they walk back to the baseline, they adjust their strings and evaluate the last point. They continue to walk to the back fence, planning for the next point, then walk back to the baseline to get ready for the next point. At the baseline, they perform their pre-shot routine, such as bouncing the ball three times before a serve or twirling the racket before returning a serve.

Reduces Stress

A common phenomenon in sports occurs when players lose to lesser opponents based on their own mistakes. Players "choke" when they miss easy shots they regularly make in practice. Choking occurs when players develop fear and begin hitting or playing conservatively, using different shots and strokes than when they are winning. Sport psychology helps players deal with fear by preparing them to deal with choking. These techniques may include breathing, pre-shot routines, music or other triggers. By using pre-planned patterns, such as a tennis player returning all wide serves deep crosscourt or hitting most short balls to the center of the baseline, the player focuses on the ball and her strategy, rather than the opponent or score. Sport psychology also includes eliminating negative self-talk, such as "You stink!" after a missed shot.