Class On Psychological Skills Helps College Athletes Perform Better, Study Finds
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Collegiate athletes may be able to perform better in their sports by spending more time in a classroom, according to a new study.
The research found that student athletes who took a semester-long academic class that focused on psychological skills to improve game performance actually received higher ratings from their coaches than did similar athletes who did not take the class.
A big focus was on teaching imagery techniques. Students learned how to imagine their performances in advance to correct mistakes and improve how well they do. Imagery allows athletes to essentially practice their game without physically performing.
The class-taking athletes were rated by coaches as achieving more in their sport, showing more leadership skills, playing with more confidence, peaking better under pressure and coping better with adversity.
“The findings show how success in sports depends a lot on mental preparation,” said Sam Maniar, co-author of the study and a sport psychology consultant at Ohio State University’s Sports Medicine Center.
“Learning how to prepare psychologically for competition plays an important role in achievement, just as does preparing physically.” Maniar conducted the study with Lewis Curry of the University of Montana. The results were published in a recent issue of the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology.
The study involved a course entitled “Principles of Optimal Performance,” which was available at a NCAA Division I university. The class was given a sophomore-level number and open to all students, although it attracted mainly athletes.
The researchers analyzed results from between 62 and 291 student-athletes (the number depended on the issues being studied) from a variety of sports who took the class between 1996 and 1999. These students were compared to similar athletes at the school who did not take the class.
About three-quarters of the course was devoted to mental skills that could help athletes in their sports, Maniar said. For example, students learned strategies for goal-setting, how to control their responses to pre-game stress and excitement, and pre-game rituals and routines.
A big focus was on teaching imagery techniques, he said. Students learned how to imagine their performances in advance to correct mistakes and improve how well they do.
“Imagery allows athletes to essentially practice their game without physically performing,” Maniar said.
In addition to teaching psychological skills related to athletics, the class also involved sections on solving problems on and off the field, sports nutrition, and drug and alcohol issues.
The results of the study showed that the class appeared to help athletes in several ways. Most significantly, coaches noticed a change in athletes who took the course, Maniar said.
At the end of the 1999 spring semester, all head coaches and full-time assistant coaches at the school were asked to complete a 10-question assessment for each athlete on his or her team the previous academic year. Coaches were asked to rate the athletes on an eight-point scale from “superior” to “poor” on various aspects of their achievement compared to other athletes.
Athletes who were known by coaches to have taken the class were eliminated from the study, as were any athletes who received individual sports counseling. In all, 168 athletes were evaluated.
Coaches rated the class-taking athletes and the control athletes as not having significant differences in achievement potential and physical giftedness. Yet the coaches rated the class-taking athletes as having achieved more on each of the measures on which they were evaluated.
“The fact that coaches noticed a difference in athletes who took the class is the best evidence we have that the course was successful,” Maniar said. “It shows that learning and applying psychological skills can make a real-world difference for athletes.”
There was other evidence in the study that the class was successful. Students who took the course scored higher on tests measuring their hope, self-esteem and sports-related confidence than did similar athletes who did not take the class.
In addition, 70 percent of the course-taking athletes said in a survey at the end of the class that they had made at least one behavior change in their approach to performance in their sport. Most frequently, the athletes said they changed their approach to goal setting as it applied to their sport.
Maniar said it was significant that athletes in a variety of different sports all seemed to benefit from the course, at least according to the coaches’ ratings.
“Learning psychological skills to improve performance can help almost any athlete, regardless of the sport,” Maniar said. “A course like this may be worth considering at other universities.”