Sponsored Feature We sometimes think of professional athletes as almost superhuman, able to easily overcome physical challenges that would challenge ordinary men and women.
It is certainly true that today’s athletes are faster, stronger and more agile than previous generations. But where tremendous strides have been made in understanding and extending the physical limits of teams and individuals, the same has not historically been true when it comes to the mental aspect of performance.
This gap is rapidly being bridged, with professional sports associations around the world realizing the value of psychology in helping athletes achieve the best possible results and guard against the risk of poor mental health that can undermine individual and collective success. .
Lee Richardson is a performance and sports psychology consultant for Liverpool Football Club and founder of AIM-FOR, a provider of performance development and mental health resources. His own football career began in 1987 and saw him play for teams including Blackburn Rovers, Huddersfield Town, Oldham Athletic and Aberdeen FC.
“There was a time when the psychological process and functions of players, teams and coaches were not valued at all,” he recalls. “Perhaps even worse was the discussion about psychology. It tended to be negative, and so often players and coaches actively avoided talking about it.”
Richardson recently gave a presentation on the topic at a football coaches summit hosted by Hudl, a developer of sports performance analysis tools. In it he spoke of his own football experiences, including the pressures and challenges of a professional career, and the psychological impact on teammates and competitors on and off the pitch:
“There has been a movement of acceptance around mental health support and recovery, thanks in part to some of the biggest names in sport coming forward about their own battles with mental health,” says- he. “Simone Biles, Michael Phelps, Naomi Osaka, Dak Prescott and others used their position as a platform to discuss this issue.”
The importance of emotional resilience
Mental health has been thrust into the spotlight like never before with the advent of the internet and social media that put gamers under intense scrutiny.
Dr. Lennie Waite is Assistant Professor of Psychology, as well as Director of the Applied Sport and Performance Psychology Program at the University of St Thomas in Houston, Texas. A former world-class track athlete herself, most notably at the Rio 2016 Olympics, Dr. Waite now creates performance plans for leaders in various sports to help them achieve optimal results.
“The sporting landscape has changed tremendously, even since I was competing in 2016,” she says. “Athletes are much more exposed than they used to be, visible in the palms of our hands and open to scrutiny on all social media. We have more access to what’s happening behind the scenes than ever before.”
With all of this, the emotional demands of being an athlete have increased dramatically. They need to be physically fit, but also emotionally resilient to help deal with criticism on Twitter or Instagram and unfavorable media headlines. “These channels have inflated their revenue potential, but put them at greater risk,” Waite added.
Having a good understanding of sports psychology, she points out, is not only a matter of well-being, it can also be crucial in providing a competitive advantage when the margins between first and second place can be infinitesimal: “ Transferring performance from the training ground to the high pressure environment of real competition is something I focus on,” says Dr Waite. “I work with all types of sports, from football to motocross racing to basketball.”
The status of sports psychology seems to be on the rise. Dr. Waite’s department has done recent research with USA Track & Field in preparation for the upcoming Olympic Games, in Paris in 2024:
“We asked how athletes perceived the importance of sports psychology, and 90 out of 92 we spoke to expressed the great importance of having access to sports psychology services,” she notes. “I think we will continue to see sports psychologists become more integrated into sports.”
Measures that matter
Naturally, any initiative to improve sports performance, whether focused on the physical or the mental, will rely on the collection of statistics and metrics and the ability to analyze them in detail.
On the physical side of the sport, this means measuring characteristics such as power, flexibility and endurance. How fast can a player run 100 meters? How high can they jump? How accurately can they kick a soccer ball?
Coaches are now learning to assess and measure mental characteristics as well, such as focus, emotional management, mental imagery and interpersonal communication. Methods are being developed to map information in areas such as cognitive reaction time and a player’s ability to process information.
Coaching professionals are becoming more scientific about motivating individuals and developing the athlete both as an individual and as a member of a team. Team sports psychology has the added dimension of delving into the interactions of multiple players with each other.
State-of-the-art technology becomes central to all this activity. Where once athletic trainers would have relied on their own intuition and experience to make their judgment, perhaps relying on manually collected data, they now rely on sophisticated algorithms, artificial intelligence (AI) and new analytical techniques to reduce the element of human fallibility. .
Few, if any, coaches would be able to recall all of the critical events of a match without the aid of technology.
Any unsubstantiated human analysis is subject to emotional biases, inaccuracies, and misinterpretations due to natural shortcomings in human perception and cognitive ability. High-level sport has more commercial value than ever, so it is increasingly essential to have more precise means to measure and therefore improve performance.
Data analysis in the foreground
Data manipulation and analysis begins of necessity with data collection.
Wearable technology and sensors can provide millions of data points on the physical aspect of sport, and increasingly on the mental aspects as well.
The use of electroencephalography (EEG) in sports psychology is in its infancy, but is already showing results. This non-invasive procedure takes an electrogram of electrical activity on the scalp to provide information about brain activity below the surface. The resulting datasets can help address a range of challenges from diagnosing brain damage to mapping and improving player mental health.
The next step in collecting data is understanding it, and that too is growing rapidly. Deep learning (DL) detects patterns using artificial neural networks modeled on the human brain. It can go much deeper into the meaning of data than is possible with basic artificial intelligence and machine learning.
On the mental side of sports performance, a combination of high-quality EEG data coupled with GPU-accelerated computing and deep learning is already taking our understanding of the brain and psychology of gamers to a new level.
Science of this type can potentially be synchronized with the goals of a particular sports organization. This can play a role, for example, in developing a footballer’s ability to read the game before those around him. The insights generated by this type of technology can translate into improvements in player performance and well-being, and therefore into a winning culture.
VR and eye tracking
There are other technologies that a sports psychologist can add to their arsenal. Virtual reality (VR) offers a simulation of the real world or an imaginary world, and thus can provide an interactive experience between the athlete and the environment on the sports field. A footballer can use virtual reality to find out where other players are on a virtual pitch to fine-tune appropriate reactions.
Sports psychology professionals also use eye tracking to monitor a player’s gaze positions when viewing 2D and 3D stimuli. Success in a ball game, such as soccer or tennis, depends on anticipating an opponent’s action relative to the position of the ball. High performers use superior perceptual-cognitive skills to recognize patterns in opponents’ actions, allowing for faster response. Technologies such as visual occlusion and 3D multi-object tracking can be part of identifying and developing these skills.
None of this is science fiction. Examples abound of sports organizations that have already deployed technology to increase performance and improve results, as well as improve well-being.
In the UK, the Football Association (FA) has used cloud-based computing power to enable its coaching staff to manipulate and share terabytes of data and collaborate more easily. Danish football is another pioneer, using computing power to facilitate the efficient transmission of feedback and improve a player’s knowledge of the game and decision-making.
Elsewhere, rugby club Leicester Tigers are using an innovative system to manage data on players’ sporting progress, looking at suitability, performance assessment, preventing unknowns and optimizing tactics. And in the United States, the National Basketball Association is using technology to help assess the mental well-being of star players suffering from anxiety and depression.
“Technology is a powerful tool for the sports psychologist,” says Dr Waite. “Obviously you can’t bring technology into the competition environment with you, but technology is important, especially in helping to popularize sports psychology by making it more appealing to users. Athletes love to see all measurements and readings that show their brain waves changing.”
The standards of professional sport are constantly being raised. But it also puts more pressure on clubs, coaches and players to develop more effective training structures, improve athlete development processes and better understand the factors that determine success at major tournaments. The role of psychology and the technology that complements it in dealing with this pressure is sure to grow.
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