‘Mens sana in corpore sano’

The Benefits of Sports Psychology

01/30/2020 · By Iñigo Esteban
psicología deportiva openning

Technique, tactics and physical condition are the main aspects sportsmen and women work on. However, until very recently, the mind, one among the pillars for elite athletes, had been largely forgotten, as experts in sports psychology and fact themselves confirm.

It is common to read in the main sports media that, when a new coach arrives at a club, he surrounds himself with a team made up of an assistant, a physical trainer and a nutritionist, among others. While the figure of a psychologist may surprise readers, clubs are increasingly hiring experts in sports coaching to help players manage a fundamental muscle both on and off the playing field — the mind.

Psychology as balance

Patricia Ramírez (Zaragoza, 1971) is a leading figure in sports psychology in Spain.  A lecturer and a writer, she holds a PhD in Psychology and has worked for elite football clubs such as Real Betis and RCD Mallorca, as well as with athletes from different sports. Ramírez has been one of the first voices to highlight the relevance of this discipline in high performance sports: “It’s a fundamental part. Anyone playing sports will tell you that 70 to 80 percent of success and failure depends on their mindset.” Niko Shera, the world’s top-ranked judoka, supports this idea. “In order to succeed in sports, I’d say a proper mindset and being a complete athlete are most important. Being psychologically strong, as in any other sport, is key. No matter how physically strong you are, if you are not well at a psychological level, it may affect you at the time of the competition, taking you away from your goal,” says the young judoka, who will fight for an Olympic medal in Tokyo 2020.

However, according to the expert, it still lacks the attention, the time and the training it deserves. “When you ask athletes how much time they spend training every day, they will tell you four to five hours, which is the same time they dedicate to resting or to physiotherapy. However, when you ask them how much time they dedicate to training their mindset, many will tell you nothing at all,” Ramirez laments.

"Any athlete would tell you that 70 to 80 percent of their success or failure depends on their mindset"

Adrián Quevedo, a sports psychologist working with young sport talents, is of the same opinion. “Psychology had been largely ignored in sports, but it’s now coming to the forefront because it allows athletes to be consistent throughout.” And he adds: "Not working the psychological side, with all the data available to us, would mean giving 60 percent rather than 100 percent.”

Before applying psychology to elite sports, that role, and more, was played by the coach. “Until fifteen or twenty years ago, which is when sports psychology started to gain recognition —it first appeared in the United States in the 1960s— coaches took care of everything. They were physical trainers, nutritionists, and psychologists, too much work for a single figure,” says Quevedo. This is why experts like Adrián and Patricia agree on the importance of separating roles. “If by psychology we understand motivation, then a coach is indeed a psychologist, but sports psychologists manage many more variables, such as communication, team cohesiveness, emotions and thoughts, failure, the attribution of luck, expectations…,” Ramírez explains.


How to manage success and failure?

Failure is precisely one of the most common challenges facing elite sportsmen and women. Patricia has her own formula to overcome it emotionally: “Faced with failure, less blaming and more solutions. We fail many times in life, and we have to learn to find solutions. We hardly tolerate failure, nor are we flexible with it,” she says.

This frustration, which is the result of excessive self-demand, is usually more intense during adolescence. Adrián Quevedo, who is used to working with budding elite athletes, says it is one of the main obstacles facing young and promising sports figures. For Quevedo, failure can be helpful as long as the appropriate conclusions are drawn. “Failure has negative connotations and is considered detrimental, but if we eliminate that connotation, it becomes part of one’s learning," he says.

As strange as it may seem, learning to manage success, seeing triumphs as isolated events in one’s career, is also essential. “Let’s not forget sports are a fluctuating affair — sometimes you’re at the top and sometimes you’re at the bottom,” says Quevedo. Patricia Ramírez also has a tip to assimilate victory: “When it comes to success, one has to be humble. Acknowledging the work of everyone who has made it possible for you to be there and knowing to what extent you’re the star of that victory is essential,” she says resolutely.

“If we eliminate the negative connotations of failure, it becomes part of one’s learning”

Fighting the ego, retirement and injuries

Dealing with the oversized ego of young people enjoying early success is routine in the world of sports psychology. “There are 16-year-olds who make about 10,000 euros a month. Leading that kind of life, it doesn’t come as a surprise they see themselves above everyone else. When a sports figure is enjoying a moment of great success, I try to work on values, which serve as a guide for behaving, thinking and feeling,” Adrián explains.

Because of their profession and their ability to treat athletes from a personal point of view, they have to explore and confront other emotional problems. According to Patricia, another significant obstacle facing high-performance athletes is “the management of feelings and thoughts in the face of one last chance or of insecurity.” Adrián goes even further: “I’ve worked with several athletes about to retire, which is the mourning phase in a life devoted to sports, but also a beautiful process. Then there’s the recovering from injuries, which is very important for them because you have to experience sports and suffer the consequences and complexity of an injury to know what you’re dealing with,” he concludes. The Romans already said it — mens sana in corpore sano. Or what is the same: little can a body do without a balanced mind.