Psychological Skills Training Programme

Psychology is the scientific study of cognitive thoughts, feelings and behaviours. The aim of sports psychology is to understand the contribution that psychological components have on exercise performance, but also the effects that participation in physical exercise has on psychological development. Sports psychologists often talk about the significance of being in the “zone” and of creating an intimidating presence for your opponent on the field of play, but waiting until you are in competition to apply the principles of sports psychology, without previous training will not allow for an enhanced performance. So, before this you need to apply a winning attitude and the ability to apply it to your training, which is one of the most vital and difficult areas to apply it. Psychological skills training (PST) refers to the systematic and consistent practice of mental or psychological skills for enhanced performance. It helps give an edge the athlete’s performance, especially between athletes that are closely matched in physical and technical ability; this usually results in the overall winner being the athlete with the better prepared mental skills. PST can often be neglected by athletes or coaches because they have a lack of knowledge in the subject area or misunderstandings of how to use it. It can also be ignored because of a lack of allocated time throughout the training process; this is more often than not a consequence of higher priorities during training. PST must be tailored to each individual athlete and varies for every sport, so must be conducted by the coach or a sports psychologist. It should be practiced over a period of time, similarly to the physical or technical nature of most sports, and should use a combination of different techniques.

Sport psychology helps provide coaches with the information they need to help their athletes build mental strength and achieve enhanced performance in sport, as well as in life. As a coach, to gain a complete mental perspective of an athlete, you have to analyse how the athlete acts and feels when competing within a sport. Through the use of psychological training programmes and mental tools, which will be discussed later in more detail, athletes can build and develop their mental strength for competitive situations. For coaches, the application of this type of training programme is beneficial for optimising the complete performance of an athlete. These can be beneficial for building team cohesion, effective communication, teaching sports skills, as well as motivating and preparing athletes for competition. Although, there are a number of reasons why athletes or sports coaches do not include PST in training for their sport. It may stem from lack of sport knowledge, where either coach or athlete has an insufficient grasp on the mental skills needed to perform at the highest level in that sport, or it may simply be that their coaching methods have become outdated and are in need of further qualified education. Other common problems that come in implementing a PST programme are that of time, conviction and follow up. Some athletes simply do not have the time to spend on the required techniques used to improve the psychological skills. This is usually because of their hard working and time consuming physical training programme. Funding also plays a part in most athletes missing out on psychological assistance, as it can be relatively expensive for individual athletes to hire a sport psychologist, especially when compared to that of a professional football player, as many elite clubs now employ their own sports psychologists.

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Psychological Skills

In this training programme the support work which will be described is for use involving a junior golfer named James. It is primarily to help deal with his low confidence and anxieties throughout the game. James is 14 years old, a promising county level golfer with a handicap of 5, and plays for South Ayrshire Junior Golf Club. I have got to know James by playing recreationally at the same club, and he happened to mention certain aspects of his game he was struggling with, so I offered my support. James told me his reason for asking for help was that he felt he was not as confident as he should be on the field and he wanted to start enjoying his game again. Secondly, he explained that he has had trouble with feeling very anxious before each shot in a competition environment, opposed to practice where he felt more comfortable. This study represents my work with James over a six week period in which we covered most of the psychological aspects of the game of golf, concentrating on overcoming the main problems James was having. In the game of golf, concentration, anxiety, confidence and motivation are key variables in effective golfing performance (Finn, 2008). According to Arther (2006) Jack Nickulaus once said that “The game of golf is 90% mental and 10% swing”. This implies that the psychological skills involved in golf are more important to playing the game than the physiological demands. The physical demands of golf comprise of; aerobic endurance, local muscular endurance, power and motor skills. These days almost all of the top professionals in golf use psychological tools to enhance their performance. For example Tiger Woods, one of the world’s elite golfers, started using sport psychology techniques at a very young age and continues to use them to this day. He used a number of psychological techniques for relaxation, visualization and concentration (Sietz, 2000).

Self confidence

In sport, self-confidence is a well-known factor that may enhance or improve an athletes’ skills performance. It has been found that a psychological component like self-confidence is one that athletes and coaches consider as relevant for optimum performance. As golfers are constantly measuring their own performance, it becomes very easy for them to lose confidence in their ability to perform specific golf skills such as putting or hitting fairway irons onto the green. An individual’s judgement on their ability to successfully perform specific skills is termed self-efficacy (Bandura, 1986). Self efficacy is our trust in our ability to succeed within specific situations. Your sense of self efficacy can play a key role in how you approach challenges, tasks and goals. Motivational mastery self-talk can help with focus and self-confidence. Golf-specific examples of motivational mastery self-talk might be “come on concentrate, there are only three holes to play” with help for focusing, or “you can do this, you have made this shot before” for self-confidence. Thoughts precede moods so if you think unhappy thoughts you will feel unhappy. Self talk is the thoughts you have in response to a certain situation. If you tell yourself you can succeed then you have a much improved chance of succeeding. According to psychologist Bandura (1977), an athlete’s confidence, or self efficacy, is based on four primary sources of information, shown in (Appendix 1). These primary sources include past performance accomplishments, vicarious performance, verbal persuasion and emotional arousal. Past performance accomplishments give the athlete confidence through achievements made in competitions or goals reached during training, they can also create expectation for the athlete in a good or bad way. Vicarious performance allows the athlete to see the actions that they should be performing through a model performer; this is usually taken from an athlete in the same field/competition or of a previously successful athlete. Verbal persuasion can be given to the athlete via the coach, parents or supporters; it gives the athlete a sense of encouragement to perform. Emotional arousal is when the athlete is in the right mood to perform, it is also known as when they are “up for it” and at their peak. If this level is too high or too low then the performance of the athlete can suffer, as shown in (Appendix 2). Developing self confidence will be discussed in more detail further in the programme.

Anxiety and arousal

Anxiety is a natural reaction within the body that responds to threats in the environment; it is part of the preparation for the ‘fight or flight’ response. Lazarus (2000a) defines anxiety as facing an uncertain, existential threat. Performance anxiety develops when there is too much perceived stress, specifically this state of mind is created and moulded by your thoughts and feelings. The way you think about an event or competition is the source of the stress, not the actual event itself. One way to begin to tackle performance anxiety is to try to understand what your fears about the competition are, in James’s case it was the fear of not performing to his expected level. When the demands of competition or training exceed an athlete’s apparent capability, anxiety is the unavoidable outcome (Valiante and Stachura, 2005). As well as providing incentive and challenge, sport also provides substantial uncertainty. While this kind of stress might motivate some athletes, it can encourage anxiety in others. There are distinct factors that can amplify athletes’ anxiety levels. For example, important competitions can give an athlete greater stress, therefore they are likely to be prone to anxiety. Spectators can also play a huge part in how an athlete feels. Participants in individual sports, such as golf, have been known in general to suffer more from anxiety before, during and after games than participants in team sports because they don’t receive the same support throughout the game from team mates. Another factor that can cause anxiety is the expectation of success, in James’s case, his supporters expect him to be winning most tournaments in his category, so he is exposed to a lot more pressure than most players at his young age. Another notion to acknowledge is that the level of mental arousal can influence an athlete’s performance. When arousal levels are too high it can lead to an increase in muscle tension, also poor decision making, reduced concentration levels and a disruption in co ordination. Identifying and controlling arousal level is important to maximize athletic accomplishment. Some of the skills useful to control arousal levels up or down are; visualization, centring, progressive muscular relaxation, and positive self talk. In addition to using these skills for regulating arousal, these skills have a number of other benefits for confidence and concentration. Preparing athletes for competition involves more than firing them up, it involves finding the optimum level of arousal for each athlete (Cox, 2002).


Reduced confidence will ultimately impact on a performer’s motivation levels, their willingness to take risks and their ability to develop. There are two kinds of motivation that allows athletes to achieve a particular goal or task. The first type is extrinsic motivation, which in sport comes from external influences or people. People are extrinsically motivated to earn rewards, social recognition, or benefits. The second kind is intrinsic motivation, and it is someone’s inner drive to accomplish a goal or objective. Intrinsically motivated people focus on a task for their own sake. They have a sense of self-determination, and look at themselves as being able to meet the demands of a particular task. Research shows in Vallerand and Losier (1999) that athletes who participate in sport for intrinsic reasons experience a more positive and less negative outcome; they have greater determination, and show higher levels of sportsmanship. As golf is mostly an individual sport, motivating yourself to practice and to keep going when your confidence is low can be difficult. Setting goals in practice and competition is an effective way to enhance motivation. When using goal setting, you should make them specific and measurable. Identify the areas you will need to work on in order to achieve your set goals as well as making them realistic. You should record the progress you are making towards goals and set a time limit on specific goals to evaluate progress. Golfers can set long term and short term goals. Long-term goals generally focus on the ultimate outcome such as winning a tournament or reducing your handicap. Short-term goals act as the stepping stones to achieving your long-term goals. Setting short-term goals also allows reflection on current performance and can help in assessing the viability of long-term goals. This area is also covered later in the programme with reference to self confidence.


Focus is crucial in order to concentrate, by learning to focus on the right things at the right time. Concentration is the ability to hold focus for a required time, and use the appropriate mental effort so not to focus on any distractions. By concentrating your thoughts on the competition, it can help you to plan how you will play the course and allow you to contemplate the possible situations that may arise. In a study by McCaffrey and Orlick (1989), they used a series of open questions to discover psychological and situational factors linked to excellence in golf. They found considerable differences between touring golf professionals and local club professionals. The highly skilled tour players were entirely dedicated to golf, particularly during periods of optimum performance. They set clear goals, and they were more organized in planning practice sessions and tournament strategies, as well as in self evaluation after each game. Both groups developed plans for focusing attention during a round, but the touring professionals were more successful in keeping focus over an extended period of time resulting in greater concentration levels. Both groups acknowledged the effect of distractions on the course, but the touring professionals were better able to cope with these distractions and regain a task focus. On the golf course, distractions come in varying forms and can divert your focus. External focus can be thrown by; the target, your equipment, the wind, an opponent’s shot or score. Internal focus can be side tracked by things like; how you feel, where you want the ball to go, how hard you want to hit the ball, how the club feels in your hands and your practice swings. These are just some of the distractions involved in the game of golf. McCaffrey and Orlick (1989) concluded that maintaining commitment, focusing, and refocusing were the skills most needed for achieving excellence in golf. As a coach you need to get athletes to think during activity, not just use their behaviours and actions, as there is constant problem solving within the sport. If you know what’s going to happen you can plan and control it.

After learning all these psychological skills, the challenge is to implement them into your game. A pre-competition mental routine, developed between the coach and athlete, helps the athletes get their mind in the proper place to perform well. Concentration, anxiety, confidence and motivation are key variables in effective golfing performance (Finn, 2008).

Psychological Skills Training

The psychological priorities of golf incorporate a lot of self confidence and the need to control anxiety and arousal throughout the whole game. In a feature written by Fields (1995), he talks of a meeting between Dr Rob Rotella and Nick Price; whose form had been lagging after some recent wins and was looking for some answers. Price went to see sports psychologist Rotella to see if he could help him with his game, after two days, Rotella explained to Price how to simplify and direct his thinking toward a specific target, by consciously playing only one shot at a time. With this narrow internal way of thinking; Price was able to concentrate solely on the task in front of him without any distractions. This is how I intend to develop my athletes focus and confidence, as well as decreasing his anxiety during game play.

Self Confidence Training

Developing self confidence through self talk is an effective technique to control thoughts and to influence feelings. Thoughts and feelings can influence self confidence as well as performance. The coach or athlete must carefully select the actual words or phrase used during self talk so that they provide maximum effectiveness. Self talk can be in the form of words actually spoken out loud, or in the form of thoughts that come into the athletes mind; these thoughts can be either negative or positive. As a psychological method for enhancing and improving self confidence in athletes, self talk must be positive and lead to constructive feelings about an athlete’s ability. Self talk is a strategy used by athletes at all levels and in almost all sports. According to Rotella (2004), a top psychologist, the true meaning of confidence in sport is achieved by “playing with your eyes”. Confident athletes can focus completely on the objective allowing the body and brain to react instinctively. In other words, the athlete should turn his focus to what is in front of him and not what he already knows. For example, a golf swing for a professional golfer is already calibrated into his mind, so worrying about his swing on the course only serves to distract him from the ultimate goal of making the shot, the swing should be automatic so he can concentrate solely on the shot.

Goal setting is a powerful motivational strategy. Research has shown that goal setting enhances performance across a variety of situations. Goal setting gives the coach a sense of control over what the athlete does in training and allows us to move beyond beliefs or fears that may be preventing us from realizing our peak performance. The process of setting goals helps the athlete and the coach choose what you want to aim for. By knowing exactly what you want to accomplish, you know where to focus your efforts. You will also be able to quickly spot distractions that could otherwise tempt you from your course. On top of this, properly set goals can be extremely motivating, and as you get into a habit of setting and achieving your goals, you find that self confidence builds faster. By setting sharp, clearly defined goals, you can measure and take pride in these goals. You can see forward progress in what might previously have seemed a long pointless grind. By setting goals, you will raise your self confidence, as you recognise your ability and competence in achieving the goals that you have set. There distinct advantages to setting goals, some of these benefits for sport include; clarified expectations, improved performance, enhanced quality of practice, pride, higher intrinsic motivation, satisfaction, decreased anxiety, increased self confidence, improved concentration and time management. It has been established that successful athletes display higher self-confidence than unsuccessful athletes (Treasure et al. 1996). This study noted that athletes who have higher self confidence during competitions are more likely to be successful.

With imagery, you replace actual experience with scenes from your within your imagination. The body reacts to these images almost as if they were real, so as to relive the experience. This is a technique used very commonly used by elite athletes, they learn good performance habits by repetitively rehearsing performances in their imagination. You can use mental imagery to; visualise success, motivate yourself, familiarise yourself or perfect skills. Many golfers see themselves achieving their goals their goals on a regular basis, seeing desired performance outcomes and performing skills at a high level. It can remind you objective and increase focus during practice and rounds. Many of the best golfers in the world see and feel themselves performing perfect shots, skills and routines before they actually do so. A good explanation of how imagery works is given by Grezes and Decety (2001) showing that when we make a movement, such as hitting a golf ball, specific areas of our brain are activated. Research evidence suggests that when we imagine making a movement, very similar areas of our brain are also activated as when we actually make a movement.

Retired professional golfer, Jack Nicklaus, one of the first sportsman to promote mental imagery once wrote that, “I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head. First I see the ball where I want it to finish, nice and white and sitting up high on the bright green grass. Then the scene quickly changes, and I see the ball going there: its path, trajectory, and shape, even its behaviour on landing. Then there is a sort of fade-out, and the next scene shows me making the kind of swing that will turn the previous images into reality.” (Frontera, 2007).

Some studies found that many people and athletes use imagery to increase exercise and physical fitness as the imagery helps the success of their exercise (Hall 2001). An athlete’s enactment of performance imagery is the normal procedure in training programs. This method is used more heavily by elite athletes with higher self-confidence than non-athletes. Studies suggest that imagery may help athletes to build more self-confidence in relation to performance. Kendall et al (1990) demonstrated that imagery, in combination with relaxation and self talk, increases the utilization of specific defensive skills. Mahoney (1979) reported the effect of mental imagery practice based on high jumper Dick Fosbury and skier Jean-Claude, who have both used mental practice in competition and went on to receive gold medals in those competitions. This study provides evidence that imagery practice can successfully influence athletic performance. Motivational videos help inspire, motivate, and pump you up. Athletes use them to focus their motivation in a particular direction or toward a set goal of achievement. As well as videos, athletes can also use mental pictures for motivation, such as them lift a cup or receiving a medal.

Anxiety and Arousal Training

Worrying about how you are going to perform leads to anxiety about performance. Anxiety manifests in both physical and mental ways. According to Vanthuyne (1999) we don’t worry just in our heads, our entire body worries resulting in a body reaction as well as a mental reaction, this fact is critical regarding athletic performance. Due to its objective nature, golf can often be a frustrating and stressful sport. Golfers may therefore experience increased levels of anxiety, which can ultimately lead to a decline in golfing performance (Hardy, 1996). In order to combat increased anxiety levels, golfers can practice mental skills and strategies to help them relax on and off the field. Using relaxation strategies can help control anxiety and is important in enhancing golfing performance. Centring is a relaxation technique used by rugby player Jonny Wilkinson in his kicking routine (Wilkinson, 2006), he also admits to listening to a mental rehearsal CD before each game he plays to help him relax and focus. Similarly, you can use relaxation techniques in your pre shot routine to help you relax in golf. Centring is a skill which allows the athlete to release unwanted muscular tension, control anxiety and become more body aware. To practice the process of centring, athletes focus on slowing down their breathing, and inhale air in through the nose. Use the diaphragm and not the chest to expand your lungs. As you breathe out through the mouth, let your body relax. Repeat this technique several times until the required state of relaxation is achieved. Imagery and self-talk can also be used to facilitate relaxation on the golf course. By using self-talk such as ‘loose’ and ‘relax’ you can imagine tension in the neck and shoulder muscles disappearing. Centring is one example in an abundance of relaxation techniques which can be employed by golfers. When choosing how to deal with increased levels of anxiety, it is important to match anxiety symptoms with an appropriate relaxation technique. Motivational arousal self-talk can be used to control arousal levels. To reduce arousal levels, golfers may use self-talk such as “it is ok, just breath nice and easily and relax your shoulders”. An example of self-talk to increase arousal levels might be “come on, you need to get yourself up for this”.

Visualization is a technique used where the athlete imagines themselves performing a task. It deals not only with how the athlete sees the task but also how they feel when performing it. For example, a sprinter might experience and imagine an efficient, smooth stride while running round a track. A golfer might rehearse a sequence of steps, in his mind, that are required for a good long drive. The imagery experience should be viewed by the athlete in first person perspective, not what they would see watching from a spectator standpoint. Positive self talk is the practice of eliminating negative thoughts and promoting constructive thoughts. Instead of focusing on the negatives of a bad situation, the athlete focuses on positives. For example, “I can’t play well against them”, is replaced by, “I have trained hard and I am prepared. I can do this”. Progressive muscular relaxation is a technique that involves alternatively relaxing and contracting various muscle groups. It is best performed lying down, and going through the muscles groups in a sequence of agonist and antagonist, quads and hamstrings for example. By doing this, the mind is focused on each specific body part and the athlete comes into a relaxation state with increased “feeling” of the body.

Needs analysis

The needs analysis is a crucial part of developing a psychological training programme as it allows the athlete and coach to work together and discover the needs of that particular athlete. The needs analysis should consist of an evaluation of the individual, the sport, and the movements within that sport. The evaluation of the sport is used to determine the physiological components most needed to perform in that sport. An evaluation of the movements within that sport is need to recognise the physiological and psychological processes used during the sport. As individual psychological needs for each sport and athlete differ, the coach must evaluate the athlete’s strengths and weaknesses to provide a suitable program, as well as allowing the athlete to set short term goals. The individuals needs then dictate which psychological skills are needed and which to prioritize in the training program. In this case for James, a young golfer, we discovered that through the use of a survey of athletic experiences (Appendix 3), he was severely lacking in self confidence. I also discovered, through the use of an anxiety questionnaire (Appendix 4), that James’s performance suffered dramatically when under increasing pressure, for example when in a tournament situation.

It has been suggested that there are three key phases to implementing an effective mental skills programme (Weinberg and Gould, 2007). First, an education phase in which the athlete should be informed about the nature of mental skills and how these skills can enhance their performance. Second, an acquisition phase should focus on assisting the athlete to learn the appropriate mental techniques. Third, a practice phase with the aim of applying mental skills into competitive situations.

I used an athletic experience questionnaire (Appendix 3) to help discover which parts of James’s game was lacking psychologically, it enabled us to identify and analysis specific psychological skills and also which ones we could work on. It showed that James was low in self confidence because he was playing with so much expectation. It also told me that without the use of short term goals, his aims and targets were not clearly lined out for him. This may be due to a coaching error but could also be a reason for his low self confidence, as meeting short term goals gives the athlete a sense of achievement and shows gradual improvement.

I used an anxiety questionnaire (Appendix 4) to determine some of the stresses James was under and when he was experiencing them. This allowed me to see that his anxiety levels were greatest during competition, and that it was mostly down to the weight of expectation on him, although there were other contributing factors. This included; what others thought of his performances and when playing against more experienced players, also when using new equipment and various distractions from the crowds. To combat some of these stresses, I recommended that James learn some relaxation techniques that he could use on the training field but also during stressful competitions. Some of these relaxation techniques have been previously discussed in detail. For James, a wider knowledge of relaxation techniques and specifically set out goals will ultimately aid him in producing his optimum performances on the field, as well as helping him to positively enjoy the game even more.

Psychological skills are best developed in an athlete’s training environment and when incorporated with the technical and physical aspects of the game, this ensures that the athlete see’s the program as an essential part of their development. These psychological skills should also be trained, just as you would for any physical aspects, over an extended period of time with sufficient tests to show improvement. Some specific mental skills training can take place almost anywhere, from the playing field to sitting at home, as long as you completely involve yourself within the training. In most sports there is a specific season of play, so this might dictate when the psychological skills training may be applied and what specific skills are trained. As mentioned before mental skills training should be an integral part of the training process.

Performance profiling was also used to addresses the gap between current performance levels and the requirements necessary for where the athlete wants to be. It identifies the athlete’s strengths and weaknesses during play and in training. A performance profile was taken at the start of the program and at the end allowing the coach and athlete to see a steady improvement or decline in performance. Within the performance profiles, you should also obtain a comprehensive history of injury for the golfer. This will include all major previous injuries along with any current injury concerns; it can often be found that the golfer is currently playing with some kind of irritating injury problem which can have an effect on any physiological or psychological training programme.


Overall, this psychological skills training programme went extremely for James and myself. We both learned a lot of new psychological skills and the techniques needed to dramatically improve our thought processes. I especially enjoyed identifying the specific skills effecting James performances with the use of various psychological tests. Through the use of performance profiles, I was able to see the progression in James’s play from the start of the programme to the end; this showed the program does work if it is implemented properly with correct knowledge and understanding. My program did make a difference to James game, and this has been shown in his current performances, he is now a lot more confident in his ability to perform on a bigger stage as well as being more capable of controlling his anxieties on the field. You can now see how positive thinking has changed his game; he is making a conscious effort to think in a way that benefits his performance. It is not one hundred percent accurate to say that James’s performances have been better solely because of this program, they may be in fact some other contributing factors, but to the best of my knowledge he has undertaken any severe changes in training or supplementation. I am sure that there are ways in which this programme could have been changed to make it run more efficiently and with more effectiveness, but from the feedback received from James it was sufficient to meet his needs. From this I can take great confidence in my ability to prepare and enforce a good psychological training pro

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