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What can positive psychology bring to sports psychology?

Updated: Jun 25, 2023

Winning in sport has - and is - one of the most important things. Whether we like it or not this is the perception that is portrayed by the media, pundits, and the general public and this filters down from elite level professional sport all the way to school sports days!

Mental skills and mental fitness

But this emphasis on winning, by being first past the post, can - and does - come at a cost to some athletes and that cost includes damaging their mental health, burnout and poorer long-term wellbeing. So, how might positive psychology help alleviate some of these potential negative aspects of wanting, or needing, to WIN? And could a merging of positive psychology and sports psychology make for a better approach to mental skills training and mental fitness?

What is sports psychology?

The Lexico online dictionary defines sports psychology as "a branch of psychology applied to aspects of participation in sport, especially with the aim of enhancing performance in competitive sports". And while other definitions include the wellbeing of athletes, and social aspects of sports participation the overriding goal is to maximise performance so that athletes can perform at their best. Given what we have seen amongst sports personalities in recent times it would seem that this primary focus on 'peak performance' - and by extension winning - can result in the problems highlighted in the introduction of this article for some athletes.

What is positive psychology?

Positive psychology is the scientific study and application of what makes life worth living for individuals, institutions and society with the aim of improving the quality of life. This 'quality of life' includes psychological wellbeing and meaning while mitigating against mental illness that can occur when life becomes bleak. Being a positive psychology practitioner means helping people use interventions that encourage these aims to be realised. And sports participation (which often coincides with being outside in nature) provides the perfect opportunity for enhancing people's quality of life and overall wellbeing.

What happens when they collide?

While the word 'collide' suggests something of a crashing together, I use this word deliberately because I believe that in order to change sports psychology for the better that is what is required. Sports psychology has a responsibility to put athlete wellbeing (and quality of life) front and centre. In other words it should be its primary aim. And this is why achieving flow state (which comes under the umbrella of positive psychology) alongside optimal performance is so important because being in flow has so many benefits not least that the performer enjoys what they are doing both during and after performance. This, of course, is easier said than done but using a mental training program that incorporates positive psychology interventions goes a long way to achieving this aim.

And it is for this reason that I decided to write the book - Six Steps for Training the Mind: For optimal performance & flow in sport & life. My career in sport, sports coaching and my more recent Masters Degree in positive psychology led to this view that there can be a better approach to mental training for athletes. An approach that leads to a world where mental skills training facilitates flow and optimal performance in sport, and where sport is a vehicle to enabling greater fulfilment and wellbeing in life.

To learn more about this six step program and its 20 practical activities visit my author page.

The book is currently available on Amazon Kindle and will be available in other formats in the autumn.

Each step in the program is vital if this balance of achieving optimal performance, enjoyment, and long term athlete wellbeing is to be achieved.

PS. As I write this blog Novak Djokovic has just won his seventh Wimbledon title. And while there is no doubt that he is one of the greatest tennis players of all time and an amazing example of professional, dedicated training in all aspects of performance (including mental skills) the reality is that not everyone can, or will, achieve such incredible feats. Of course that does not mean that you should not strive for these big goals but the important thing is how you go about it. Sport, unfortunately, is littered with those who have put 'winning' ahead of enjoyment to the detriment of their mental health and as coaches it is our responsibility to redress this balance so that we focus on developing a winning mindset rather than winning at all costs! The epilogue in my book is titled 'A winning mindset' and expands on what this really means.

About the Author

Derek Tate is an author, coach and teacher and runs Derek Tate Coaching. His mission is to help others to flourish and get more out of life through better mental, emotional, and physical health. He offers mental skills coaching, alpine ski coaching, online courses and workshops and writes self help/psychology books.

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