MIND GAMES: An Introduction to Sports Psychology | Shruti Nair

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Sports psychology is a very complex and diverse field. Let’s first discuss the basic concepts that define and construct this field of psychology. “Play” as a concept is something that we have been exposed to since birth. It is an integral and seamless part of our childhood. Think of an instance when you see an infant curiously reaching out their hand to touch the rattle being shown to them; this is one of our earliest forms of exposure to play.

This “play” gradually evolves into modes of toys, lego, puzzles, walking, running etc.  At every point, play advances our cognitive, physical and socio-cultural development even when we are not fully aware of it. It improves our motor coordination, hand-eye coordination, flexibility and social skills.

Often, our choice of mode of play determines our future decision to continue in a sport. A child who prefers playing with a ball over other toys is more likely to pick football, basketball, rugby etc. as a sport that he/she/them will continue in. Sports shapes our personality and enhances our traits, setting a foundation for our future with the world. It therefore, becomes important to trace a history of play to understand its evolution to what we term as “sports” today.

Sports has become increasingly competitive in the last decade. There is a very high increase in participation of basketball, football, badminton, shooting, boxing, archery, kabaddi etc. due to the advent of professional leagues and International Associations interests’ and outreach programmes beginning from the grassroots level. There is cutthroat competition with everyone wanting to be the “best” (partially propagated by overzealous parents). In order to achieve this, the emphasis is placed on maintaining optimal physical fitness. The concept of mind-body connect has duly been forgotten.

“Your body can stand almost anything, it’s your mind that you have to convince.”

It is a holistic system that cannot work one without the other. Our mind is what drives the play and our curiosity towards a game as we watch, see and process it until it becomes a kinesthetic (automatic) movement. Our experiences as we grow older also shape how we think and view the world which later, affects the way we function in sport. Enter, Sports Psychology or “Mental Skills Training” as it is popularly known as.

Sports psychology - sports psychologist - shruti nair
Picture Credits – Breaking Muscle

What is Sport Psychology Training or Mental Skills Training?

Mental Skills Training involves the development and application of cognitive techniques and skills that encourage performance and well-being. It includes the principles of sports such as bouncing back from adversity, adaptability, effective emotion management maintaining team cohesion etc. and enhancing them for better performance. A number of sports officials and coaches have realized the importance of mental skills training in the realm of sports to produce and prepare Olympic-winning caliber athletes.

Sports psychologists / mental fitness trainers work with athletes in varying degrees of competence primarily, to improve their performance and learning. To elaborate:

  • Help athletes cope with performance fears, insecurities etc.
  • Help athletes mentally prepare for competition
  • Help athlete enhance their mental skills such as focus, confidence, effective emotion management etc.
  • Post – injury rehabilitation
  • Help athletes develop pre-performance routines

Furthermore, they also work with non-athletes and individuals in recreational fitness to help them sustain a healthy and active lifestyle. Sports psychology can help us all.

Applications of Sports psychology to different fields:

Sports psychology is not limited to just the sports field and in has a wider reach into many different spheres such as exercise/fitness, corporate, the military sector, dance/cultural entertainment troupes etc. and more recently, to a post-pandemic world.

How does this work?

Sports essentially demands intense training, goal-directed behaviour, high-pressure games and expectations to deliver flawless performance. Now think about the corporate, military or the entertainment sector and you realize that the demands are the exact same. Sports psychologists help to cope with these high psychological needs and demands placed on the individual to ensure smooth operations.

Sport & Performance Psychology in times of Covid – 19

Presently, there is a new emerging society that individuals are struggling to adapt to. Lines between home and work/education have been blurred with the WFH philosophy. An active lifestyle of hectic work schedules, gym, etc. has suddenly been brought to a halt. Humans are creatures of habit and therefore, this new situation has taken a huge toll on our psychological and emotional needs. In this context, the principles of sports psychology become useful in helping us cope by applying mental skills training and helping us to become more resilient and perform better.

Sports psychology is a very complex and diverse field. To conclude, we need to recognize the tremendous impact this field has and its contribution to creating a stronger and healthier environment.

About Ms. Shruti Nair

Ms. Shruti Nair is a Sports Psychologist based out of Mumbai. She has been supporting sports enthusiasts with their mental wellbeing and psychological development. As a Sports Psychologist, she provides various therapeutic interventions such as CBT, REBT for issues such as self-esteem or stress management.

Want to know more about how important play is in a child’s life? Click here.

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