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Psychological Problems and Solutions in Sport

How can an athlete tell when a problem is psychological? Robert Nideffer (1992), a professor at San Diego State University and Presi­dent of Enhanced Performance Systems, offered a simple guideline.

If an athlete is satisfied with his or her performance on good days but unable to reach that level of excel­lence during competition, there might be a psycho­logical problem. If the athlete is not satisfied with his or her performance on good days, then the problem is one of skill or train­ing, not psychology.

How are psychological problems distinguished from skill problems?

One of the most serious problems an athlete can face is choking–an extreme stress reaction which results in an inability to perform. Nideffer (1992) gives an example of such an experience, reported by a tennis player in a match against professional tennis player Tracy Austin:

What is "choking" in the athletic context?

It started in the second game of the first set.... I had an easy "high sitter" that I should have put away. I rushed it badly, hitting it into the bottom of the net. it was all downhill from there.

...I couldn't concentrate. My mind kept jumping from one thought to another. I felt confused and overloaded; I kept trying to figure things out and just couldn't. She never gave me enough time. I would get back to return serve and the ball would be there before I was ready. I was late on everything, spraying balls all over the place.

At one point I was feeling so much tension in my body that I was afraid I wouldn't even be able to swing my racquet on serve. I didn't know if I would get the ball in play.

In fact, there was one point where I double-faulted and the ball didn't even get to the net. You can ask me what happened, but I can't really remember too much.

I don't have a clue as to what she was doing. I don't think I even saw her side of the court. I hope I never have another day like that! (Nideffer, 1992, p.47)

What is Hanin's theory of "zones of optimal functioning"?

How can an athlete deal with nerves and choking? That depends on the individual and his or her response to stress. Russian sport psychologist Yuri Hanin (1986) suggested that different athletes had different levels of pressure at which optimum perform­ance occurs. He called these zones of optimal functioning.

Some respond well to high tension and pressure; others do not. An athlete needs to learn what zone is best for himself or herself.

Some need to create pressure by think­ing about how important a game will be or how much they dislike the opposing team. Others, with lower levels of optimum anxiety, need to use relaxation techniques to get into an optimum zone.

Self-consciousness about performance problems can also make them worse. Sometimes the problem builds on itself and starts affecting other areas of an athlete's game.

Former Washington Redskins tight end Chris Cooley believed this happened with Robert Griffin III, a promising NFL quarterback who started "missing basic reads, not seeing wide-open receivers, misreading the defenses, and failing to run the team's offense." (Gaines, 2014)

It got so bad, Cooley said, the coaching staff eventually had to switch to "Day-One offense," the absolute basics. Eventually Griffin was benched. Cooley's analysis: Griffin got the yips.

"He's short-arming the ball," Cooley said. "He has bad technique, he's not setting his feet right.... He has the yips. He does have the yips, where the ball's just not coming out of your hand right, so now you've aborted all technique, because you don't have a feel for the ball coming out of your hand, and you're getting this shot-put throw action. You're aiming. he has the yips. He does. He just does."

The "yips" happen when an athlete suddenly loses a basic skill. Sometimes athletes never recover. Gaines (2014) gave an example:

What are the yips?

The most famous case came during the 2000 MLB playoffs when the St. Louis Cardinals' young star pitcher Rick Ankiel suddenly lost the ability to aim his pitches. Ankiel never recov­ered and eventually reinvented himself as an outfielder.

Sport psychologists commonly deal with anxiety or choking by training an athlete to relax, to concentrate, to handle dis­tractions, and to manage self-talk. However, a severe setback can have career consequences, producing effects similar to depression.

Hap Davis, a sport psychologist with the Canadian national swim team, counseled athletes who did not make the team. When they were shown videos of their losing races, "the grief they felt was so acute that their brain images resembled those of people suffering from major depression," Davis said in an interview. (Vedantam, 2006).

Davis used cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) to help athletes avoid wallowing in their emo­tional response to the loss. The swimmers were asked to re-appraise the videos of their losses.

This is the CBT technique called cogni­tive re-structuring used for stress-reduction. Athletes were encouraged to watch the videos again, this time approaching the videos as learning opportunities, identifying mis­takes so they could adjust their techniques.

Davis said most athletes understandably want to remem­ber the performances that went well, not the ones that went badly. But after the experiment, which led to several swimmers setting Canadian records, the psychologist said the procedure was "very instructive."

"Most of the time athletes will seek to not think about the failed performance, but on the successful performances, because they won't want to feel depressed," he said. But if a skater wanted to improve, "it is counterintuitive: Don't look at the perfect performance; look at the fall." (Vedantam, 2006)

This is indeed classic CBT as promoted by therapists like Ellis, Beck, and Lazarus. Rather than "awfulizing" (wallowing in how terrible the situation is) or "catas­trophizing" (thinking about disastrous implications for the future) a client is encouraged to be realistic.

Arnold Lazarus recommended a two-pronged approach to stressful situaions.

  1. Change the objective facts of a situation (for example, in the case of an athlete, adjust technique), and
  2. Change one's appraisal (for example, treat an opportunity to view a bad performance as a learning opportunity).

The combination of addressing the outer world and the inner world is a powerful problem solving approach. It reduces stress by putting mental energy where it can do some good.

Sometimes a small adjustment in technique is all it takes to eliminate a problem. Modern technology can help pinpoint the problem. An example involved a college tennis player helped by sport psychologist Melissa Hunfalvay.

Hunfalvay believes that one of the reasons athletes under stress do not perform at their peak is that they have stopped taking in enough information or are focused on the wrong things. Using an infrared camera that picked up eye movements, Hunfalvay found that a college tennis player who was phenomenal at returning serves in practice but dreadful in competition was focused–in the heat of competition–on the back fence, the trees and the net post.

By learning to look at particular aspects of the opposing player's stance and racquet motion as he went through his usual footwork routine, Hunfalvay said, the player quickly turned into a star in competition. (Vedantam, 2006).

How did a sport psychologist use techniques of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT)?

Sina Bellock and Thomas Carr of Michigan State University conducted research to see if practice strategies could affect "choking under pressure."

The research involved three groups of novice golfers. All were taught to putt the golf ball "at a high level of skill." The first group trained under normal conditions.

The second group learned to putt while listening to lists of words from a tape recorder. They also had to say the word "cognition" every time it occurred (to simulate putting under conditions of distraction).

The third group learned to putt with a video camera set up in front of them, after being told that professional golfers would evaluate the videotape. This was to make the novice golfers feel self-con­scious and increase attention to their own performance while they felt under scrutiny.

When tested later under low pressure conditions, all three groups putted equally well. But when they were told their performance could earn money for themselves and a partner, literally raising the stakes, the training-while-self-conscious group did best.

What type of training is best for eliminating choking under pressure?

Study co-author Bellock suggested this was due to an "immunization" effect while training. The players had adapted to an environment of performance pressure. (Smith, 2002)


Gaines, C. (2014, November 26) Former teammate has a theory on why RG3 has been so bad, and it could end his career. BusinessInsider. Retrieved from:

Hanin, Y. L. (1986). State-trait anxiety research on sports in the USSR. In C. D. Spielberger, & R. Diaz-Guerrero (Eds.), Cross cultural anxiety, 3, 45-64. Washington: Hemisphere.

Nideffer, R. M. (1992). Psyched to Win. Champaign, IL: Leisure Press

Smith, D. (2002, February 2) What happens when athletes buckle under pressure? Monitor on Psychology, 33. Retrieved from:

Vedantam, S. (2006, June 26) Washington Post, p.A02.

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