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Sport Psychology and Coaching

Updated on October 21, 2020
Colleen Swan profile image

Colleen is a psychotherapist retired from private practice, specializing in human relationships.

Winners Clear Hurdles


The Athlete And Artist

Over-all, arts such as painting, writing or acting are seen as being at opposite ends of the achievement spectrum from the sports of baseball, basketball, boxing and soccer. Still, these are akin in that both demand expertise honed by almost relentless self-discipline.

The apex of success has its counterpart in the anguish of failure. While the public creates and grovels before its idols, in time, there can also be a backwash of an envy-fuelled joy in these gods’ devastation.

The zeal needed to succeed was voiced by violinist Paganini in stating that decades before deemed a genius, he had been a drudge. Similarly, writer Rudyard Kipling said that writing is like cooking with gas, but the reader must never inhale its aroma.

Evolution of Sport

The Olympics, now a global event, taking place every four years, is based on the sports events conducted in Greece, believed to have been started in the city of Olympia in 776 B.C., it encompassed a large range of sports events.

One of these, the throwing of the discus as far as the competitor’s strength would allow, has generated our word “discuss”, and, in all likelihood, the word “disk”, in that the discus is a circular object.

From our vantage point, sports such as Roman gladiatorial combats, and later in England, Elizabethan bear baiting and cock-fighting seem too brutish to be conducted today.

Still, lest we allow ourselves to become unduly smug and complacent, we must bear in mind that we, as a society, continue to reward athletes for their skills in such contact sports as polo, hockey and boxing, each of which contains the potential to cause debilitating or even deadly harm.

Even legal definitions are suspended in order to allow these sports to continue. The definition of battery, “intentional, non-consensual, harmful or offensive contact to another”, is lifted during these types of sports. Each party to the match is understood to have consented to physical contact which would otherwise be far beyond the outermost legal parameters.


The Urge To Win Within Boundaries

Winning is the goal of all games, ranging from toddlers in a play group to octogenarians at a bingo game. Dangers can arise when the urge to win slides from the natural quest for praise and success, to a menacing absorption in winning. Perhaps the boundary can be found when overstepping ethics, and risking pain or death to one’s self or an opponent become irrelevant.


Ensnared By Success

This foolhardiness tends to begin when the Adrenalin rush of competition, followed by its endorphin boost of success and victory, overwhelms all other ethics or values. The point at which this seismic shift starts to grow hazardous remains impossible to define.

In any sphere, once we have enjoyed the pleasure of being admired /acclaimed, the craving for more can become like any other form of addiction. Once the amount of the drug of adulation is lessened or lost, we tend to do whatever seems likely to expedite its renewal and onrush.

The Death of Hank Gathers

The death of Basketball star player 23-year-old Hank Gathers reflects the efforts an athlete will make to succeed, even when his young, potential-rich life is jeopardized by so-doing. Born in 1967, Eric Hank Gathers died on March 4th 1990 while a student at the American university of Loyola Marymount, during a basketball match.

In order to excel in sport, the athlete must be self-disciplined, diligent, and capable of coping with a good deal of rejection. Still, those who succeed find their rewards worth the anguish.

— Ben Travis

A Life And Death Dilemma

During one interview, Hank said that for him, his concern was never about how many points he could score, but rather upon his sense of having played the game from his heart, for himself, his team mates, and in essence, the grace and triumph gained for the sport when an athlete gives it his utmost. Sadly, it was Gathers’ heart, in its physical sense, which was to bring about his destruction.

The deadly flaw in his heart first became symptomatic in December 1989 when he collapsed at a game. Transported to a nearby hospital, he was diagnosed with ventricular tachycardia, (TA) which could be induced and exacerbated by exercise. He was prescribed "Inderal", a beta blocker.

However, he believed the medication slowed his reflexes and he cut back on the dosage and did not attend medical appointments to monitor his condition. Those closest to him began to believe that he did not take his medication during game days.

“I Don't Want to Lay Down”

In any case, 4 months later Hank collapsed once again, this time fatally, during the early part of a game against the Portland Pilots. When coaches and friends restrained him from rising to his feet and continuing to participate in the game, gathers said, “I don't want to lay down.”

Still, given his physical depletion, he had no choice but to do so. This time, minutes before reaching the hospital, Hank Gathers stopped breathing. Thus, the hospital recorded him as being dead on arrival.

Hank's House

One of the most prized eulogies offered at his funeral service was that of Father David Hagan, a long-time family friend. He articulated the feelings of many of those who had grown up with, or later came to know Gathers as a person, rather than the demigod portrayed by the press.

In his statement, Father Hagan said Hank had loved them all, adding that, in the most genuine sense, North Philly (Philadelphia) had always been Hank’s house, a home where his loyalties remained, regardless of his growing prestige.

Father Hagan’s point gained credence in that, even on an afternoon where the heat was almost beyond human endurance, countless north Philadelphians stayed throughout this memorial service, fanning themselves with newspapers passed through the crowd for that purpose.

Scruples in Sport

During my years as a Counselor, I have coached, in a psychological sense, a number of those involved in major sports competitions. One often-voiced concern is the overall misconception of athletes as “jocks”, brainless robots who can do nothing more than perform a series of muscular movements, placing them only one rung above trained chimpanzees on the intelligence ladder.

Opportunites Never End


Mental Acuity Is Vital

In truth, it is mental ability, combined with finely honed physical skills, which creates a true athlete. Ultimately, a high degree of mental acuity is as vital on a sports field as on a battlefield in terms of split-second decisions. Still, the saying “All’s fair in love and war” does not apply in a sporting event.

In ethical terms, the description of a transaction in any area of life as “not being cricket” evolved from those standards developed from rules of acceptable conduct during British cricket matches.

Apply this ethos to your training "quality is more important than quantity" a perfectly executed exercise is worth a hundred mediocre passes.

— Buzz Norman

The Ethical Ethos

In any sport, injuring a competitor outside the game in order to impair or prevent his/her victory transgresses the rules of sportsmanship to the point of absolute evil.

Thus, it is not surprising that the 1994 Olympics were tainted and overshadowed by the knowledge that figure-skater Tonya Harding’s, ex-husband and accomplices had attempted to break the leg of fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan by clubbing her leg with a police baton.

Fortunately Nancy was only bruised and was able to enter the Olympic Games and earned a silver medal.

The Grim Aspect of Glory

As we have seen by the tainting of the 1994 Olympics, the joy of athleticism is often undermined by a ruthless urge which overcomes conscience, and strips the entire process of grace.

One of my sports psychology clients, a boxer on a professional level, exemplified this fact. Although only twenty-four, he voiced his fear that his heart and blood pressure might be affected, by the Adrenalin which was bringing about heart palpitations.

My first suggestion, as counsellor, was for him to try a breathing exercise geared to send him the needed endorphins. To some degree, the concentration of keeping a rhythm, combined with the counting of every breath in and out, can relieve the panic by providing enough distraction to prevent its overpowering rational thought.

Unfortunately, via his fights, his nose has been broken twice, and although surgically repaired, his breathing passages have been compromised on a permanent basis.


The Need To Match Image With Success

In social terms, this boxer felt the need for his partner to be more attractive than nearly all girls and women. Having chosen a partner based on her looks, he believes she exploits his financial success in order to acquire upscale clothes and jewellery, although she herself earns a worthwhile weekly income.

Over-all, their relationship seems more a trade-off of an elaborate lifestyle in exchange for his being seen to have obtained a girlfriend of surpassing attractiveness. He admitted that, from her point of view, the knowledge of her being his partner isolates her from day-to-day interactions.

Nearly all men avoid even friendly chat, for fear of antagonizing this boxer. As a result, she becomes riled at her purdah, a sense of being veiled by his prize- fighter’s status.

My Psycho-Therapeutic Perspective

In my office, seeing this young man barely passed boyhood, with every muscle honed to the edge of readiness, /eagerness to enter into combat, I understood why few men would risk volcanizing that menace.

Our sessions ended much as they had begun. In the end, I was left with a sadness that we, as a society, pays such salaries as to make it worthwhile for a young man to have sustained irreversible injuries, with the likelihood of further harm to come before he relinquishes his career due to age.

In a psychological sphere, he deems it crucial, in terms of public credibility, to remain in a relationship which seems to bring him little more than superficial contentment. In his summing up of their bond, he said, “Well, at least she’s gorgeous.”


The Need For Coaching And Encouragement

Ideally, every athlete could be bolstered by the guidance of two separate coaches: one to spur his physical strength, while the other helps confront the psychological anxiety inherent in competitions of any kind.

Perhaps, with the athlete’s permission, both coaches could join together to work out an optimal program. Still, like most beginners in any career, during their early years, few athletes can afford this two-dimensional degree of support.

The finest coaches, however, have an instinct and understanding as to the mental and emotional aspects of motivation. Such coaches are aware of the needed balance between self-confidence and arrogance. While confidence is essential, if it leads towards a dangerous level of smugness, it must be curtailed.


A Nugget of Wisdom: The Race

The reason myths and fables remain throughout millennia is the core of truth they contain. Such an example "Aesop's Fables" lies in the tale of the tortoise and the hare-in modern terms a rabbit and turtle.

Engaging in a race, the hare feels so convinced of his victory as to laze and lounge about, while the tortoise keeps inching forward. While the hare smirks at the tortoise’s slowness, the tortoise slogs onward.

Suddenly, the hare sees his rival approaching the finish line. Leaping to his four agile feet, the hare strives to outrun the tortoise, far smaller, and carrying the weight of his shell. Still, his efforts, begun too late, end in failure. This fable encapsulates the idea that day-to-day drudgery, dull as it might be, often wins out over grandiosity.


Further Methods of Motivation

One way to engender the nub of knowledge contained in this tale is to remind the athlete of the achievements of his competitors.

Conversely, if an athlete seems to be succumbing to self-doubt to the point of defeatism, a coach might urge him to recall previous triumphs, perhaps showing film clips of his peaks of success.

A further means of encouragement might be to suggest the athlete place or vision himself in his ultimate area of complete peace. In physical terms, this might entail the comfort of a bath, with water as warm as can be endured. Basic Baths are a long-recognized means of bringing about muscular/mental serenity. Time spent in a sauna or Jacuzzi may prove even more useful.

Hypnotherapy: A Healing Tool

As part of my counselling work, I incorporate hypnotherapy when a client requests it, and I believe it to be beneficial. The first step is to ask the client to think of his most peaceful place.

While a sunny beach or a meadow is often chosen, others are a bit more unique. Among these has been a trip in a hot-air balloon, a grandparent’s summer home in Madrid, or sitting in one’s own flat, reading a book of absorbing interest.

In all of the above-mentioned relaxation techniques, the athlete can be urged to imagine himself achieving his upcoming goal and receiving the sought-after trophy, award, or over-all public accolades. Once this idea is implanted, it may increase hope, stamina and over-all incentive.

Martina Navratilova
Martina Navratilova | Source

Perspective On Endurance

Tennis player Martina Navratilova has said that anyone not prepared to continue a tennis match during a hurricane does not deserve to be on the professional courts. True, as with every other career or profession, an acceptance of struggle and pain is essential to the achievement of excellence. Still, viewed in a wider sense, there can be small, yet significant victories over hurricanes in individual lives.

My dad, a lifelong sports fan and participant during his youth, joined a senior citizens soft ball league in his late sixties. Living in southern California, this league could play all year round-and they did.

Even after his reflexes began to slow, resulting in his being inadvertently struck in the face by an oncoming ball, my dad went straight back to the field on the first day his doctor agreed he was safe in so-doing.

Other members lost spouses, or found their strength hampered by physical and mental manifestations of age. Still, nearly all of them persisted until forced to withdraw due to debilitation.

Perhaps this competitiveness, friendly but strong, extended their lives, or in any event, increased their zest in living. I feel sure Ms. Navratilova would agree that each of them played on that field throughout their own private hurricanes.


Mike Tyson: True Peace Can Only Spring From Inner Tranquility

In his book, "Undisputed Truth: My Autobiography by Mike Tyson", this eminent boxer recalls having spent his growing years in an area where violence was the reflexive means of resolving contentions.

Hence, it is not surprising when, old enough to make his own choices, Mike Tyson believed boxing to be the optimal and perhaps only means of transcending societal contempt for those trapped in a cycle of ceaseless poverty. In his often raw, honest autobiography, he credits his intensive trainer Cus D’Amato for him to stretch his potential to its outermost limits.

This training verged on sadism in that D’Amato required Tyson to take long baths in water as hot as human skin can endure, combined with Epsom salts. On every other level as well, especially boxing, he forced Tyson to strain himself to the absolute edge of his abilities, and sometimes, it seems, painful inches beyond.

Despite this gruelling training, in all likelihood, a form of abuse, Mike Tyson’s appreciation of this stamina-building rigor pervades his autobiography.

In time, Tyson’s boxing skills brought him a glory only achieved by demi-gods in his field. The wealth this brought him urged him to defy his impoverished roots to the point of glutting himself with every luxury to be found. In addition, his wealth gave him access to women he would never have dared to approach, prior to his growing roster of triumphs.

Still, he came to see a hollowness in his soul which material gains and eager women could not appease. His amours and marriages ended, not only in matrimonial strife, but a term of imprisonment based on an accusation of rape by an eighteen-year-old girl.

Tyson became aware of the genuine sources of joy only when he learned to find fulfilment in day-to-day life. Now, he admits, without shame, having to struggle to maintain financial balance via one pay check to the next, without any true sense of certainty.

Still, he finds this precarious lifestyle worthwhile, in that he has a wife and children who ask no more of him than enduring affection and loyalty, which they reciprocate in abundance.

The Sordid Side of Sports Scholarships

In her memoir, "Fast Girl: a Life Spent Running From Madness by Suzy Favor Hamilton", she recounts having been diagnosed as bipolar. She found her sole release from despair in becoming a phenomenal runner.

Despite abysmal high school grades she was admitted into a prestigious university on a sports scholarship. once there her abilities were greater than her fellow athletes.

Indeed, her speed increased to the point where her team mates complained to the coach she was running too fast, and embarrassing them. This blatant jealousy at her acceleration backfired in that it served to urge the coach to focus more fully on her talent. Still, the consequences of such adulation soon became detrimental.

Overwhelmed by the accolades she received; her nearly all-consuming running became reflected by her disastrous grades. When, during a conference with a dean, she explained her fear of being forced to leave the university, he assured her any such worries were needless, as things could be fixed to enable her to take “blow-off courses” where high grades were guaranteed with minimal effort.

A further Incentive for her to ignore her need to study was provided in the form of a tutor who was glad to take on most of her work, with no scruples as to her submitting his work to her professors as her own.

© 2014 Colleen Swan


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