This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 14 table of contents.

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?

What is "choking" in the athletic context?

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 professional tennis player in a match against professional tennis player Tracy Austin:

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)

Sport psychologists commonly deal with choking by training an athlete to relax, to concentrate, to handle distractions, and to manage self-talk.

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