Psychological Factors That Affect Performance


There are more than 20 tests out there than can asses one’s motivation. When you talk to an athlete and ask why they want to continue playing a sport and their answer is that they feel pressure to compete from their parents, I doubt that they own internal motives can affect their performance, rather, fear of failure.  It is important for SPPs to understand which test is appropriate to use in certain situations and need to be able to comprehend the results accordingly.

If you have a player who doesn’t want to play soccer anymore, and then you discuss with the coach what goals he has set for the season, and it turns out there are none, there is a lack of extrinsic motivation for the player to work for. In the scheme of things, it is not just the psychological well-being of any human that affects their performance, but it is how their well-being interacts with those around them.


This is one variable that can constantly change on a day to day basis. Depending on a recent competition or even after a grueling day at school, one’s confidence levels can shift according to other factors in athletes lives. Confidence has a lot to do with two very similar measures called self-efficacy and self-esteem. Having a good level of self-efficacy means that one believes they are capable of achieving something. A lot of the time, self-efficacy can go down when a player is injured or their coach practices inappropriate and ineffective communication skills (see more about this in Communication and Sport: Surveying the Field by Billings, Butterworth, & Turnman pgs. 198 &203).

There is some supported evidence that suggests recalling good events of success is easier than being able to remember bad events that consisted of failure. When we think of these positive events, the success is typically attributed to ones own efforts and talents. On the other side, when we recall those failures, athletes attribute it to bad luck (Compte & Postlewaite, 2001). I find these facts quite interesting because we focus so much as a society about building people up and making sure we are talking positively about one another on the field. While I think that is true, I believe that we rely too much on others to boost confidence of players when really they have a tremendous amount of control over their confidence.

On the other side of confidence we have self-esteem. Like above, ones own feelings about themselves is critical in performance. Rather than feelings of capability, self-esteem has to do with feelings of worth as well as ability. When someone has high self-esteem, their performance increases due to their ability to positively think about themselves. Although this sounds bad, when we think positively about ourselves, we are able to feel that same way about others, or in this case, our teammates. This ability to feel confident on one’s self translates to being confident in one’s team. This enhances performance as well as team cohesion when accompanied with positive self and team-talk


Intensity is the commitment, the will, and the enthusiasm to play with a purpose. Getting the most out of a practice is the first way to start developing this trait. If you practice how you want to play or compete in a game, the determination will make you a better player and thus more successful. When an athletes goes through the motions, and doesn’t have the positivity to think they can achieve a goal, their performance will suffer. Unfortunately, it is players like this that have a detrimental affect on the teams chemistry. You can be the most talented individual in your sport but if your lack of motivation, confidence and intensity overpower your athletic ability, you cannot reach your full potential.

Intensity can be different in every individual, which is fine, but it is important for SPPs to note that when working with the team and being able to communicate that. From personal experience, my lacrosse team has a very eclectic group of girls in the best way possible. Having a leadership role on this team was difficult though. Being able to cater to each teammates needs is merely impossible. Something I learned is that making a team aware that they all thrive differently is key. Once each individual understands how they show their enthusiasm and having them learn their teammates styles was when our season turned around.

Having a common goal and mutual understanding about how to reach that goal was something that intensity had a whole lot to do with. In order to achieve certain tasks, there must be a commonality regarding intensity level not necessarily how the intensity in shown/perceived.

Having sports available to play as well as watch is in integral part of society today. Teach our young athletes how to be happy, confident, and motivated towards success will not only help them as players but human beings. A lot of life lessons are taught through sport and with the field of sport psychology, we are able to meet the needs of those who need it the most. Whether you’re 5 years old playing little league or playing in the world cup, it’s never to late to work on mental health and strive towards becoming the best athlete you can be.


Applying Sport Psychology: Four Perspectives by Jim Taylor and Gregory Wilson

Compte, O., & Postlewaite, A. (2001). Confidence-enhanced performance. Penn Institute for Economic Research, 1-34.


Substance Abuse Amongst Professional Athletes

According to Reardon and Creado (2014), drug abuse can be present in all sports and at most competition levels. Drugs might become part of an athlete’s life for multiple reasons such as enhancing performance, to self-treat and untreated mental illness, to cope with stress that stems from pressure from the sport, injuries, pain, or retirement from sports.

Here are some numbers posted regarding the substance use rates within the different cohorts of athletes reported from various research studies:

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Although these numbers are from various studies, they show that drug use is something that should not be overlooked. There are many dangers that are presented when athletes begin to self-medicate.

In a study done by Sanchez and Zabala (2013),  many athletes acknowledge that doping is cheating, unhealthy, and risky.  Although these beliefs are present, doping is also very widely recognized. Doping can be different depending on the sport considering a few factors: whether or not it is a team-based or individual sport and the motor skills needed. Coaches are seen to have the most influence on educating their athletes in comparison the doctors, which I believe to be because they are interacting every day with their players and they are seen more as a mentor and someone to look up to.

Many athletes use other substances other than steroid or performance enhancing drugs for a couple of reasons that were mentioned above.

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Most college athletes drink for social reasons (83.9%) in comparison to coping (3%) or wanting to feel good (12.9%). When athletes use alcohol, they are more prone to sickness and injury in relation to their non-drinking counterparts. Their sleep in interfered, they might become aggressive and exercise poor judgment leaving them more at risk for sanctions from the university. Although there is not causal evidence reporting that alcohol is a gateway drug to other more harmful drugs such and stimulants, the poor judgement aspect of drinking can influence the decisions athletes use. Unfortunately, many professional athletes suffer from substance abuse and SPPs can help recognize this issue and address it before it affects the athlete’s life.

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Because athletes are held to a certain standard by their fans and society, their drug usage can immensely affect their lives for the worse. Their personal life can struggle, such as Lamar Odom who recently was hospitalized for his drug use and had been suspended during his 2001 season after testing positive for marijuana. A lot of athletes engage in such behavior to cope with tragedy, stress, and the pressures they feel. I think it is important that young athletes seek treatment before it is too late.

After extensive drug use, the body and neurological feedback begins to change, which then leads to addiction. In college, student-athletes are presented with more opportunity and if not addressed, their habits might become detrimental for them like Odom.

Multiple drug interactions have taken the lives of many athletes. Many people find it difficult to have empathy for athletes who suffer from drug addiction and substance abuse because they fail to realize it is a disorder. Psychologically, the drug begins to take over the individual’s life and becomes more important than their sport.

Because of their impact on society and those who look up to them, a lot of professional athletes have taken initiative in speaking out against drug use in order to raise awareness for young players. After addiction sets in, the risk of losing all of their success takes the back seat to their drug of choice.

Fortunately, many athletes have the option to speak with psychologists in order to seek help. Michael Phelps, the first athlete to win eight gold medals in a single Olympics during the Beijing Games, was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to an 18 month probations, was fined 250$, and was required to speak against drunk driving.

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It is these kinds of stories that we hear that makes us concerned for our athletes and also for those who look up to them. It is quite profound the effects that professionals have on young children and when this is what they look up to, we begin to worry.

Having help for our student-athletes and informing our coaches about the problems presented with substance abuse can limit these types of incidences. By instilling certain values and standards, SPPs can help assist their clients in seeking help and can supply information where it is necessary.


Lamar Odom & Drugs: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

Sports Psychology in the NCAA

As sports psychology has made its way as a field of respect, the National Collegiate Athletic Association began implementing Sports Psychology Professional (SPP) services to gain insight into the lives of young athletes. This consisted of doing research and also having resources available to the players when they needed it. Now, many colleges are making sure they are having mental check-ups every quarter or semester to touch base with their athletes. Yes, many people might say that the colleges are doing this because they want their players to do well, but having healthy students is a priority for most institutions and I believe that this is a step in the right direction.

So many athletes who suffer from mental illness begin to slip into a funk after a season is over, or once they begin to feel as if their performance is lacking. For this very reason, the SPPs have so much to pay attention to when meeting with their athletes. At larger schools, they may have two or three SPPs but at smaller schools like Santa Clara University, there is one trained professional who is equipped to diagnose and help the student-athletes. This one job can take countless hours planning and meeting with their clients. Although this job is taxing and strenuous, having the ability to assist athletes during times of great need is a huge part of what the NCAA does for their students.

Many SPPs help athletes to enhance their performance by supplying them with mental tactics like techniques for relaxation, visualization, and positive self-talk. Although these things may seem intuitive when you read, science has proven that there is a specific way to do all of these things and it can be different for each individual. No two players are the same on both physical and mental levels.

SPPs can also help athletes cope with the pressure of being a Division level athlete, recover from injuries, keep up with exercise, and enjoy the sport that they are playing.

(recovering and coping from injuries is an extensive process that is an entire topic of it’s own. Here’s a cool article if you want to read up!)

One example of what SPPs are capable of is when a sports psychologist was able to teach a sharpshooters how to be aware of their heartbeats by using a biofeedback device. They were able to learn how to fire in between their heart beats giving them an advantage in a more steady shot.. I don’t know about you, but this is not something I expected a psychologist to be capable of! Yes in my studies I had heard about these devices but I never thought of using it in this type of case.

It’s not just a mental game of making yourself happier to become a better player, there are physical and biological things that psychologists are trained to know and do in order to help athletes. There are many psychological demands that athletes need to meet and there are many unforeseen difficulties that the NCAA cannot control and having this very important resource available is crucial.

There is a versatile range of sports psychologists, and like athletes, no two are the same in how they work. Over a sample of 96 universities who use sports psychologists, there are 10 different kinds of positions that are implemented. They differ from types of department affiliations, time-commitments, types of services, and clients.

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For those schools who do not have these services, their explanations are that it “isn’t in the budget, but maybe 5 years from now”. Although these schools believe that these services would be useful, it is usually because there is a lack of money to support a program.

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Most schools who do not have a built in SPP in their program have contact with an institution where athletes can reach out if they need to.

Dr. Wendy Borlarbi, the resident sports psychologist for James Madison University, is considered the coach of mind and spirit. She states, “college athletics is a job, we are asking these kids to do a full-time job and get an education. We need to give them the tools to be the athletes we want them to be and the students we want them to be.”

Having this opportunity available to student-athletes can help them clear their mind and conscience. With this, when they are up to bat, at the free throw line, or making a corner kick, they can be as successful as they are physically capable of.

Although most schools do not have a full-time SPP, the number is growing and the demand is as well. Because society is beginning to recognize mental illness as a very real problem, our athletes are also receiving the necessary help. Although not all athletes will need this particular help, having the option is always reassuring.

Most SPPs do not take credit for the success of failures of their student-athletes because correlation is not necessarily causation. There are a plethora of factors that influence and athlete’s performance and even though the psychological assistance probably had some influence, it is the athletes choice to implement the changes into their game.

SEE MORE HERE! (Bibliography)

  • Wrisberg, C., Withycombe, J., Simpson, D., Loberg, L. A., & Reed, A. (2012). NCAA Division-I administrators’ perceptions of the benefits of sport psychology services and possible roles for a consultant. Sport Psychologist, 26, 16-28.
  • Connole, I., Shannon, V., Watson, J., Wrisberg, C., Etzel, E., & Schimmel, C. (In Press). The Sport Psychologist. NCAA athletic administrators’ preferred characteristics for sport psychology positions: A consumer market analysis
  • Voight, M., & Callaghan, J. (2001). The use of sport psychology services at NCAA Division I Universities from 1998-1999. The Sport Psychologist, 15, 91-102.

Depression in Athletes


We all have had times in our lives where we are particularly down due to unfortunate circumstances that are going on around us. When it comes to being an athlete, the pressure, the fame, the disappointments can all lead to a decreased feeling of positive emotions and less self-efficacy. Having the capability to talk about your frustrations and get critical feedback from sports psychologists can be what saves an individual’s over all well-being.

Many may say that being part of a team can decrease one’s chances of depression. Although this can is true, athletes who have depression that goes untreated can not only be detrimental to team performance, but also the individual’s outlook on their own personal life off the playing field. Having a community of people who care for you like a team can be uplifting and can help bring athletes out of depression. Unfortunately, it doesn’t just take positivity from the team or the coach. Getting back into the game takes positive self talk, which is one of the hardest things to do for an athlete suffering from depression.

Athletes who suffer from depression often can harm themselves in different ways such as substance abuse, physical abuse, and also suicide. There comes a stage in depression that has little to do with what is going on around you, rather what is going on inside you. To any sports spectator, it seems ridiculous when professional athletes who are famous beyond belief can suffer from being chronically sad. It doesn’t make sense. These athletes are glorified and seen as inspirations to people around the nation and globe. Those who are engaging in the spectacle of sport look to these professionals to be healthy, without mental illness, and strong. But the truth of the matter is, these athletes are just humans who suffer from the same exact thing us “normal” humans do.

Mental illness already has a stigma in general. When it comes to a professional athlete feeling depressed, their mental capacity for the game is lost and will ultimately affect their play. With the opportunity of being in the limelight, an athlete is public property, a celebrity, and someone who has an image to uphold. If they are seen as weak or unstable, their performance will be judged, which will most likely heighten their feelings of unease.

Dr. Donald Malone, a psychiatrist says it best when he states:

“If an athletes stubs their toe, they’re in an MRI machine, but if they’re having problems mentally, they feel they shouldn’t tell people about this. Like it may affect their contract. There’s a little reality to it, but the bigger reality is if you get treated, you’ll perform better” 


Athletes have an immense amount of weight on their shoulders to be stable on a mental level. If their well-being and emotions are ever questioned, it seems to be deemed as unmanageable. Having sports psychologists available to athletes is crucial considering mental illness does not discriminate based off of athletic ability. One in about 10 Americans are diagnosed with some type of mental illness like depression. With these numbers and the numbers of depression induced suicides in athletes, you would think more organizations would invest more money in research to see where these dots line up.

Depression can not only affect your mental mood but also many physical aspects as well, such as lack of sleep, a suppressed immune system, and poor eating habits. As an athlete, all of these physical attributes that come with depression can decrease one’s ability to perform in any type of competition. Within sports culture, there is this idea of hyper-masculinity, which can impact one’s ability to admit their flaws and to seek help.

What contributes to depression in athletes:

Pressure, biology (which can leave individuals more vulnerable to mental illnesses like depression when in certain environments), balance between academics or life and sport, past trauma that cannot be answered through sports, and negative self-talk. The list goes on.


When it comes to addressing depression, many sports psychologists want to help young athletes understand what exactly it means to be depressed and how it is something that needs to be addressed early on. By doing so, these athletes that grow up and move into professional sports, can help educate their teammates about mental illness. This information will not only get through to the team but also to the community of sports as well. This can help decrease stigma and encourage players to address the mental issues they may be experiencing when it comes to sports. Having sports psychologists available for professional athletes is crucial for performance because without their insight on mental health, athletes will continue to suffer and won’t get the help they need to perform.


Eating Disorders in Sports


When it comes to athletics, there are different standards set for men and women in not only the area of performance, but also appearance. When you google images of men’s sports versus women’s sports, you will see a difference in how they are represented.

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This came up when I searched “women’s sand volleyball”.

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This came up when I searched “men’s sand volleyball”.

The difference between the pictures is two-fold. The women are scantily dressed in their bikinis and are not pictured playing nearly as much volleyball as there are pictures of their behinds. Although this is just one example, women can develop more mental illnesses like eating disorders because of this representation of women in sports.

Pictured at the top of the post is Eugenie Bouchard, a professional tennis player who suffered from an eating disorder that began after her season in 2014. A dean of kinesiology at University of Calgary said, “the women athletes are criticized for what they wear, what they look like, whether they are fat or not.” In comparison to their male counter parts, women are scrutinized for either being “too manly” or “butch” as well as “she runs like a girl” or “she is so graceful when she shoots”. Men also have this same issue when it comes to sexual orientation and being told they are not physically capable because they are gay.


Although I understand men and women are very different biologically, why must sport be defined as male or female? Why must men have to be “manly” in order to be a successful player? Why must women be labeled as “lesbian” in order to gain recognition for her talents?

When women reach stardom, cameras and media become much more present. Because of this, a woman’s body is glorified and she can feel pressure to reach a certain expectation aesthetically as well as in her performance. There is a stigma that comes with eating disorders and other mental illnesses and athletes are even more at risk for developing these due to their increased stress and hectic lifestyles.

There are many different factors that put athletes at risk for eating disorders such as sports that emphasize weight requirements or muscularity like gymnastics or wrestling. Along with these risk factors comes issues with self-esteem. If a player is unsuccessful in their competition, their self worth might suffer, which can lead to developing a mental illness.

In a survey sent out by the NCAA, it was discovered that eating disorders have become a significantly larger health problem among college athletes than was expected. “Sixty-four percent of NCAA member institutions responding to a survey reported that at least one student-athlete had experience an eating-disorder the past two years. The vast majority of the reports (93 percent) were in women’s sports”. (Moriarty, D & Moriarty, M., 1994).

Here are some numbers to look at regarding responses to eating disorders:

Women’s gymnastics: 48%

Women’s XC: 23%

Women’s swimming and track: 21% each

Although this issue has come to light in recent years, the job of a sports psychologist is greater than making sure a team is bonding well. There are issues such as athlete body stereotypes, an athletes need to please, and gender issues that need to be addressed head on when dealing with mental illnesses such as eating disorders. It is typically when the eating disorder becomes detrimental when one can physically notice symptoms of an eating disorder, which is why educating athletes first is the job of a team psychologist. Knowing that there is support available can allow for a more open conversation amongst athletes that are suffering. Including coaches and athletic trainers in on this conversation is an absolute must and can greatly influence this discussion.

There are many mental illnesses that athletes suffer from today, which will be discussed in later blogs. Stay tuned to hear more about Sports Psychology TODAY!


Sherman, R. T., & Thompson, R. A. (2001). Athletes and disordered eating: Four major issues for the professional psychologist. Professional Psychology: Research And Practice, 32(1), 27-33.


Sports psychology began around the late 19th century when psychologists like Norman Triplett began studying groups and teams. The first sport psychology lab was founded at the University of Illinois in 1923 but was shut down after lack of interest and the Great Depression less than 10 years later. It didn’t come to greater attention until Glenn “pop” Warner wanted to find out how to make the offense move faster and in unison when the center hiked the ball. During this era of sports psychology, more and more athletes and teams became inclined to use these insights in order to analyze performance and to increase successes. Many people today in the world of sports believe that much of any game is mental no matter the sport. That being said, sports psychologist began creating experiments and resources to help with the mental well being of their athletes.

One of the first labs that was opened up tested many different things within athletic performance in university athletes. It studied:

  1. The relation between physical exercise and learning,
  2. The effects of extreme physical exercise on longevity and disease resistance
  3. The nature of sleep in athletes
  4. Methods of teaching psychological skills in football
  5. Measurement of physical fitness
  6. The effects of emotion on learning of habits
  7. Muscular coordination
  8. Persistence of errors
  9. The effects of fatigue on performance
  10. Measures of motor aptitude
  11. Mental variables associated with excellent athletic performance

(as cited in Benjamin & Baker, 2004)

With all of this knowledge, sports psychology began to grow and develop to be a well researched and respected field.


We all admire athletes’ abilities to contribute to society at a physical level, but what many people to not understand are the inner workings of an athletes’ brain and team chemistry. By stretching the limits of human capability, one could imagine the mental and psychological strain on an individual. In having the ability to overcome high-stake situations, athletes need to have a way to communicate their frustrations in order to proceed in their successes.
The job of any sport or performance psychologist is to help athletes and other professionals within the sports world overcome issues that may hinder any performance based success. This job can range anywhere from helping clients overcome stress, anxiety, or trauma to helping teammates communicate with coaches and accept or grow from their criticism. Being able to hone in on human potential can create a resilient and successful player or team.