This article was originally published on Knowable Magazine.
Since the early years of this century, it has been common for computerized analyzes of sports statistics to guide a baseball manager's choice of pinch hitter, a football coach's decision to throw or pass, or the debate from a basketball team on whether to trade a star player for a star player. a draft pick.
But many sports experts who watch the games know that the secret to success lies not only in computer databases, but also in the heads of the players. So perhaps psychologists can offer as much insight into athletic success as statistics gurus.
After all, sports psychology has been around much longer than computer analysis. Psychological studies on sport appeared at the end of the 19th century. During the 1970s and 1980s, sport psychology became a fertile area of research. And over the past decade, research in sports psychology has exploded, as scientists have explored the nuances of everything from the pursuit of perfection to the harms of overtraining.
“Sport permeates cultures, continents and even many facets of daily life,” write Mark Beauchamp, Alan Kingstone and Nikos Ntoumanis, authors of an overview of sports psychology research in 2023 Annual Review of Psychology.
Their review examines the results of nearly 150 articles studying various psychological influences on athletic performance and success. “This body of work highlights the diverse ways in which psychological processes contribute to athletic endeavors,” the authors write. Such research has the potential not only to improve athletic performance, they say, but also to provide insight into psychological influences on success in other fields, from education to the military. Psychological insights can contribute to competitive performance under pressure, help assess the benefits of striving for perfection, and assess the pros and cons of high self-confidence.
Trust and suffocation
In sport, high self-confidence (technical term: high belief in self-efficacy) is generally considered a plus. As baseball pitcher Nolan Ryan once said, “You have to have a lot of confidence to be successful in this game.” » Many baseball managers would agree that a batter who lacks confidence against a given pitcher is unlikely to reach first base.
And in fact, there's plenty of research in psychology that supports this view, suggesting that encouraging self-confidence is a beneficial strategy. Yet even though confident athletes appear to perform better than those who doubt themselves, some studies suggest that for any given player, overconfidence can be detrimental. Artificially inflated confidence, unchecked by honest feedback, can lead players to “not allocate enough resources based on their overestimated sense of their abilities,” Beauchamp and colleagues write. In other words, overconfidence can lead to poor results.
Other work shows that high confidence is generally more useful in more difficult situations (like attempting a 60-yard field goal), but is not as useful for simpler tasks (like scoring an extra point).
Of course, the ease of scoring a long basket or extra point depends a lot on the stress of the situation. With time passing and the game on the line, a routine game can become an anxiety-inducing trial by fire. Psychological research, Beauchamp and co-authors report, has clearly established that athletes often exhibit “impaired performance in pressure situations” (technical term: “choking”).
In general, stress impairs not only the direction of movements but also the ability to perceive and make decisions. On the other hand, it is also true that some elite athletes perform better under high stress. “There is also insightful evidence that some of the most successful performers seek and thrive in the anxiety-inducing contexts offered by high-pressure sport,” the authors note. Just ask Michael Jordan or LeBron James.
Many studies have investigated the psychological coping strategies that athletes use to stay focused and ignore distractions in high-pressure situations. One popular method is a technique known as the “quiet eye.” A basketball player attempting a free throw is generally more likely to succeed by maintaining “a longer, steadier gaze” at the basket before shooting, studies have shown.
“In a recent systematic review of interventions designed to relieve so-called choking, eye quiet training was identified as one of the most effective approaches,” Beachamp and coauthors write.
Another common point stress management method is “self-talk”, in which players say educational or motivational phrases to themselves in order to improve their performance. Saying “I can do it” or “I feel good” can motivate a marathon runner, for example. Saying “eye on the ball” can help a baseball batter get a hit.
Researchers found moderate benefits to self-talk strategies for both novice and experienced athletes, Beauchamp and colleagues report. Various studies suggest that self-talk can increase self-confidence, improve concentration, control emotions and initiate effective actions.
Moderate performance benefits have also been reported for other stress-relieving techniques, such as biofeedback and possibly meditation and relaxation training.
“It appears that stress regulation interventions represent a promising means of supporting athletes facing performance-related stressors,” Beauchamp and co-authors conclude.
In search of sporting perfection
Of course, sports psychology encompasses many other issues besides influencing confidence and coping with pressure. Many athletes set a goal of achieving perfection, for example, but such effort can induce harmful psychological pressures. One analysis found that athletes who pursue purely personal standards generally achieve superior performance. But when perfectionism was driven by fear of criticism from others, performance suffered.
Likewise, although certain training strategies can improve a player's performance, several studies have shown that overtraining can harm performance, even for the remainder of an athlete's career.
Beauchamp and colleagues conclude that a wide range of psychological factors and strategies can contribute to athletic success. And these factors may well apply to other areas of human activity where choking can impair performance (for example, during brain surgery or when piloting a fighter jet).
But the authors also emphasize that researchers should not neglect the need to consider that in sport, performance is also affected by the conflictual nature of the competition. A pitcher's psychological strategies that are effective against most hitters might not work as well against Shohei Ohtani, for example.
In addition, sports psychology studies (many like computerized analysis) are based on statistics. As Adolphe Quetelet, a pioneer of social statistics in the 19th century, pointed out, statistics do not define any individual: average life expectancy cannot tell you when a given person will die. On the other hand, he noted, no exceptional case invalidates the general conclusions of sound statistical analysis.
In fact, sport is about the individual's (or team's) quest to overcome the opposition. To be successful, you often have to defy the odds – that's why betting on sporting events is such a big business. Sport is about competitions between averages and exceptions, and neither computer analysis nor psychological science can tell you in advance who will win. That's why they play these games.