Hey, everyone! My name is Ben and I am a first-year student in the master’s program for Sport Psychology and Motor Behavior at the University of Tennessee. I have a long history in the sport of Olympic Weightlifting as both a coach and an athlete. I have previously competed in the National Collegiate weightlifting championships, and coached at both the Pan Am Masters and World Master’s weightlifting championships. The reason I am writing this blog for your gym is because I want to introduce you to the field of sport psychology and how it can work for you.
Researchers in the field of sport psychology explore how our psychology affects us in performance situations, and how we can mentally overcome potential challenges (Williams & Krane, 2015). As one of the directors of our program concisely states, “sport psychology gets your mind to work for you, and not against you”. At some point we have all faced challenges psychologically while performing in sport and it is important to have a strategic mental approach in order to accomplish your goals. Professional athletes, military personnel, musicians, doctors, and anyone else who is involved in having to perform under pressure have experienced the power of learning to harness the mind.
Why Use Sport Psychology?
Consider the results from the women’s 69 kg class and the men’s 85 kg class during weightlifting at the 2016 Rio Olympics:
Women’s 69 kg
Men’s 85 kg
As you know, when you are lifting that much weight, one kilogram can be the difference between winning and losing. Even if you are not competing for an Olympic gold medal, would you reject an opportunity to add 1/10th of a kilogram to your lift? Hopefully not! Any gains you can make in your performance should be fully explored if you are serious about making improvements. While there are many areas of sport psychology that can be discussed, we should first explore an aspect of performance we can probably all relate to.
Researchers in sport psychology have invested a significant amount of attention on the subject of confidence. Williams, Zinsser, and Bunker (2015) describe confidence as a “feeling of self-assurance” or “a belief in one’s abilities”. When we think of elite performers such as Rich Froning, Melanie Roach, and Dmitry Klokov, one common characteristic that helps fuel their success is confidence. Without this, it would be extremely hard if not impossible to compete at their level of sport.
It is important to remember that confidence is dynamic in nature due to the fact that our environment is always changing. We are always being tested in the world of sport, and every unique obstacle we face can challenge our confidence. When you think about the challenges of CrossFit or Olympic weightlifting, are they always the same? Have you responded to these challenges consistently? It is important to continue to develop awareness on this topic in order to continue strengthening this part of your game. One area that can help with this, is understanding self-efficacy -a situation-specific form of self-confidence – and how it can affect your performance.
Williams, Zinsser, and Bunker (2015) describe self-efficacy as being able to perform successfully in a distinct moment. An example of this could be an Olympic weightlifter having the confidence to stand tall during the clean and get full extension in the final stages of the pull. But why is it important to have strong self-efficacy during performance? Researchers Feltz, Short, and Sullivan (2008) report that athletes with strong levels of self-efficacy are usually more successful during performance than those who have lower levels of self-efficacy. Another study by Bandura (1997) suggests that self-efficacy can have an effect on one’s intensity of effort and on one’s resiliency in the face of opposition.
CrossFit and Olympic weightlifting movements are explosive, and can be completed in seconds. But anyone who performs these types of lifts knows that there are many stages within the movements, and near perfect precision is required to execute these lifts. For example, when performing a power snatch we know that there are several stages in the pull: pre-loading; lifting the weight below the knees; pushing the knees back as the weight continues ascension; generating increased force as the weight passes the knees; etc.
In my personal experience as both a coach and former lifter, I know how important it is to have strong self-efficacy during any phase of the movement. If a lifter keeps missing the weight in front of him/her, there is a good chance that s/he is shortening the pull. Conversely, if the athlete is missing the lift behind his or her body, then it’s possible there was a lack of self-efficacy in being able to catch the bar. Ultimately having strong self-efficacy in all stages of your performance can only help you. So what are some strategies than can help you strengthen your self-efficacy?
Anytime you are having some type of internal conversation, you are engaging in self-talk (self-talk can also be a vocal exercise). This is something that all of us do regardless of the environment we are in. But from a performance perspective, if we are engaging in self-talk then we should make sure it is a positive experience. Just like a physical skill needs practice, self-talk is a mental skill that also needs practice (Williams, Zinsser, & Bunker, 2015). If this is something that you are interested in incorporating into your routine, here are some suggestions on how to develop a simple self-talk program:
- Keep a personal diary that you can use to record details about positive performances. Try and reflect on performance characteristics that stand out to you, and think of simple words that concisely summarize your experience.
- Make sure that the statements are positive and that your self-talk routine is about what you want to happen…not what you don’t want to happen.
- Be consistent and systematic when using self-talk. Try and incorporate self-talk into your pre-lift routine and during the phases of your lifting that you think would benefit from this skill (Williams, Zinsser, & Bunker, 2015).
e.g. Right before I did any Olympic lift, I created a personal pre-lift routine where I would internally say to myself “strong grip, stand tall”. These trigger words reminded me about how I felt during strong performances. I made sure to do this every time before I started my lift, and I would give myself at least 30 seconds to go through this routine before starting the next rep.
Self-talk is one effective technique that anyone can use. There are many ways to use self-talk and simultaneously incorporate different mental skills during your routine. The benefits you get using this skill will ultimately depend on how much you use it. On the next blog, I will go into more detail about a new concept related to confidence. We will also explore a new mental skill that you can add to your routine. I hope you have enjoyed reading this blog, because this is just a fragment of the information available in sport psychology! If you have any questions or thoughts, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I would be happy to answer any of your questions.
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control, New York: W. H. Freeman and Company
Feltz, D. L., Short, S. E., & Sullivan, P. S. (2008). Self-efficacy in sport: Research and strategies for working with athletes, teams, and coaches, Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics
Williams, J. M., Zinsser, N., & Bunker, L. (2015). Cognitive Techniques for Building Confidence and Enhancing Performance. In J. Williams & V. Krane (Eds.), Applied Sport Psychology: Personal Growth to Peak Performance (pp. 274-296). 2 Penn Plaza, ney York, NY 10121: McGraw-Hill