By Jared M. Wood
Sport psychology has two main objectives, and I’m reminded of them often as I watch sporting events, tune into Sportscenter, read headlines, and talk to people about their experiences in sport. The two main objectives are: 1) To understand how psychological factors influence physical performance; 2) To understand how participation in sport affects psychological development. The application of this understanding to real life cases is the essence of sport psychology. Although many sport psychologists focus mostly on the first objective, at Wood and Associates, we pride ourselves on focusing on both objectives equally.
Why focus on both objectives?
Certainly, big time sports are fueled by bottom line performance. Who wins, how much money exchanges hands, and who is called a champion are important bottom line metrics that cannot, and should not, be ignored. In service of the bottom line, the first objective (i.e., to understand how psychological factors influence physical performance) is extremely important, especially in a relatively short-term interaction between sport psychology consultant and athlete.
Over time, however, the second objective (i.e., to understand how participation in sport affects psychological development) gains increasing importance. If athletes are to make lasting contributions to their sport and society (the former is the objective of the athlete, the latter is the objective of anyone in our society), it is necessary to be mentally and emotionally healthy. The headlines and police blotters are littered with athletes who have not learned how to take the beneficial lessons sports can provide and use them to their advantage as a person and an athlete. Certainly, some of the psychological factors learned through sport, such as aggression, may make them better athletes in the short term, but when unchecked or unbalanced by other lessons that can be learned through sport participation, certain factors too often lead to unwanted consequences for the athlete. Therefore, understanding how sport participation affects psychological development is essential to the long-term well-being of the athlete and their success as a citizen.
At this point, it is certainly necessary for me to answer a pivotal question in this line of reasoning: “What can be learned from sports?” Let’s start by providing a definition for learning. One of the most common definitions defines learning as a relatively lasting change in knowledge or behavior. Given this definition, is learning from sport participation possible. On the side of a lasting change in behavior, sports can certainly teach us how to improve our physical skills of the sport and our understanding of how the games are played. To illustrate this concept, think of a time when you watched 5 or 6 year olds learn to play baseball. They have very immature physical skills, often having great difficulty catching, throwing, or hitting the ball, and they also do not know how to play the game. Where to run and where to throw the ball are very confusing when first starting to play the game. Certainly, examples from other sports may come to your mind. Indeed, in all sports, developing athletes change skilled behavior and knowledge of game play as they progress in the sport. Therefore, sports are settings in which lasting changes in knowledge and behavior are learned.
Apart from learning new skills and how to play the game, can life lessons be learned from sports? Although there are naysayers on this topic, I contend that life lessons can be learned from sports, and I will use their own argument against them to state my case. Without fail, when I’ve heard someone argue that life lessons cannot be learned from sports, they point to an available example of an athlete who recently got in trouble with the law or committed some other ill-advised act that reflected poor judgment. This example is then used to state the case, “Athletes learn nothing from sports.” I think this is a faulty interpretation of the facts. It was not that the troubled athlete learned nothing from sports. More likely the athlete learned the wrong lessons from sports. Today’s headlines frequently publicize stories of athletes who learned that they are entitled to special treatment and that the laws and mores that apply to the rest of us do not apply to them. To be sure, learning has occurred. That is not in question. The content of the learning is the problem. A counter-argument could state, “Sports did not teach that lesson, life did.” This argument doesn’t hold water when the extent of sport as a factor in an athlete’s life is considered. Sport may not be all there is to life for most athletes, but sports are definitely a large part of life for most athletes. They are as much a part of an athlete’s life as is school, parenting, media, and peer relationships, and there is likely a high degree of crossover among those various components of life. Taken together, ample evidence suggests that athletes learn from sports. The question is, how do we teach the right lessons?
Teaching the Right Lessons
First off, I’ll define life lessons somewhat vaguely but in terms most people seem to understand intuitively. Life lessons are values or behaviors that reflect the norms and common sense or decency of society. The Golden Rule, a strong work ethic, and integrity are among the life lessons that come to mind readily. When I talk to coaches about this topic, most think they are teaching life lessons. All too often, when I dig deeper, they can’t explain how they explicitly teach those life lessons. They have in mind what certain activities should teach, and they assume their players are going to learn the intended lesson. Commonly I’ve heard this referred to as learning through osmosis, which is typically intended to mean that the lesson can be learned passively. Research in sport psychology suggests that this is not the case. The teaching of life lessons needs to be more active, more explicit. Coaches whom athletes identify as teachers of life lessons have very specific plans and ideas for the lessons they want to teach and the methods through which they are taught. The learning is not left to chance. It is actively emphasized and taught repeatedly. Too often, when I observe sports carefully, I don’t see this as occurring. This is not the fault of coaches. It really isn’t the fault of anyone. It’s not necessary to blame anyone. But moving forward, I see sport psychology consultants as key players in helping athletes learn life lessons and in helping coaches understand how to teach life lessons. I think sport psychology consultants’ adoption of this responsibility is essential to both objectives of our profession (i.e., To understand how psychological factors influence physical performance; To understand how participation in sport affects psychological development).
At Wood and Associates, I like to think that we set ourselves apart by placing an emphasis on both objectives of sport psychology. Even for adults, something can be learned from recreational participation in sports or adherence to an exercise plan. Often I’ve seen that when someone accomplishes a personal goal, the changes in confidence and motivation lead to breakthroughs in several areas of life. Certainly, this is important for adults seeking to improve their lives, but developmentally, it is even more important for student athletes. My 15 years as an educator have shaped my thinking on this topic in an essential way: Not only can we learn lessons from sport participation, if we participate in sports, we need to learn something from that participation. Almost everything I can teach as a sport psychology consultant can be translated and generalized to the life of a student athlete or an adult. Some examples: Anxiety management is good for athletic participation, and it can also be applied to giving a book report, sales presentation, or public speech. Goal setting knowledge is good for improving sport performance, and it is also good for academic and career development. Imagery can help an athlete become motivated or gain confidence, and it can help a student or a business executive plan and execute a project. These lessons and many more can be learned in a sport context. They are the essence of sport psychology as a discipline.