This is an excerpt from Handbook of Assessment in Sport Psychology Consulting by Jim Taylor.
To understand your athletes, you need a comprehensive knowledge of all aspects of the athletes that will affect their performance. This broad understanding involves who they are as athletes and, just as importantly, who they are as people. Assessment also tells clients a great deal about who you are and how you work and about your field more broadly.
Understanding the Person as an Athlete
The most obvious part of understanding involves the person as an athlete - that is, what makes her tick in training and competition. This understanding involves a wide range of psychology, including how athletes think, the emotions they experience, and the way they behave, particularly in the heat of competition. Specific components of athletes’ psychology consist of their attitudes toward and relationships with success, failure, expectations, and competition. Mental factors that must be understood include motivation, confidence, intensity (e.g., energy, arousal, anxiety), focus, and emotions. Athletes’ psychology can also include the mental tools athletes use in their preparation and performance, such as goal setting, mental imagery, routines, self-talk, and breathing. Furthermore, it can include their relationships with teammates, coaches, competitors, officials, and, importantly for young athletes, parents.
Even though consultants may be focusing on athletes’ psychology, a true understanding of athletes must also include every area that affects performance, such as physical conditioning, technique, tactics, equipment, and team dynamics. Consultants need to know athletes’ strengths and weaknesses in these areas, as well as how they approach their training and competitive performances.
Understanding the Athlete as a Person
In sport psychology there may be a tendency to view clients as athletes alone, forgetting that they are first and foremost people. For example, when athletes enter the field of competition, they don’t leave their personness, so to speak, on the sidelines. Whoever they are as people will be expressed on the field as they pursue their athletic goals. Whatever weaknesses they hold as people, such as doubts, worries, or fears, will come out in their athletic performance. In a more positive light, whatever strengths they possess as people - whether determination, confidence, or resilience - will also emerge in practice and competition.
Just thinking about exploring the depth and breadth of a client’s internal athletic life, much less her personal psyche, can be a daunting task. The athlete as person encompasses every aspect of who athletes are:
- Their innate dispositions, temperament, and tendencies (e.g., introverted or extroverted, stoic or emotional)
- Their values and priorities that act as signposts for their aspirations and goals
- Their beliefs about themselves (e.g., self-assessment, self-identity, self-esteem), which guide their internal dialogues, emotional reactions to situations, and the way they act on their world, interact with others, and perform in their sport
- The way they think and how this influences them both off and on the field (e.g., optimistic or pessimistic, critical or accepting, analytical or intuitive)
- Their emotional life, including their sensitivity, expressiveness, lability, and emotional reactions to setbacks and failure
- Their behavior in sport and nonsport settings
- The quality of their relationships and the way they interact with others (e.g., with empathy, support, divisiveness, or aggressiveness)
How Clients UnderstandThemselves
Self-knowledge on the part of athletes is an essential piece of the sport performance puzzle. Yet, the mental can lag behind the physical and technical facets of sport performance in terms of the athlete’s appreciation, understanding, and development. Perhaps the most fundamental reason for this is that the physical and technical aspects of sport are readily observable and measurable. For example, if athletes want to determine their cardiovascular fitness, they can take a O2max test. If they want to be evaluated technically, they can watch themselves on video or participate in biomechanical testing.
In contrast, the mental side of sport is quite ethereal; it can’t be seen, touched, or measured directly. Also, whereas the physical and technical elements of sport are highly objective, the mental components are very subjective. From the outside, we can only indirectly measure an athlete’s psychology. From the inside, athletes don’t always have great insight into the psychological and emotional machinations that occur between their ears. In a sense, assessment can enable athletes to build a better relationship with themselves by helping them understand what makes them tick.
Assessment can be a powerful tool for helping athletes plumb the depths of their psyches both on and off the field. All assessment tools, whether interviews, mental status exams, personality tests, sport-specific inventories, or psychophysiological measures, can help athletes understand their mental strengths and areas in need of improvement. This understanding can be valuable in several ways. Most obviously, assessment can clarify what areas athletes need to work on in their mental training. At a more basic level, effective assessment and the understanding it provides can explain to athletes why they do what they do mentally, such as why they get nervous before competitions or why they become frustrated when they can’t readily learn a new technique. These realizations are often accompanied by the statement, "Now I know why I react that way!" From this epiphany and the greater understanding that psychological assessment provides, athletes gain the impetus and means to improve their strengths and alleviate their mental shortcomings.
How Clients Understand You
Assessment isn’t just a unidirectional collecting of information in which you gather data about your client. Rather, it is a valuable tool for developing and strengthening the burgeoning relationship between you and your client. Assessment is a powerful way to begin building the connection, rapport, and trust that are so important for establishing an effective and comfortable professional relationship.
The assessments you use and the ways in which you collect information about your clients tells them a great deal about who you are as a person and as a professional. It is an opportunity for you to demonstrate appreciation for why your clients come to you. You can use assessments as a means of expressing concern and empathy for the difficulties that brought your clients to you. Assessment can also send the powerful message to clients that you understand them, and that understanding can act as the foundation for their belief that you can help them.
The assessment tools you use also educate clients about your areas of expertise, such as whether you focus on mental skills or administer psychophysiological protocols. Additionally, your choice of assessments reveals the mental areas that you believe are most important to athletic performance, such as motivation, confidence, focus, or mental imagery, and it communicates those areas that you intuit are at the heart of your clients’ performance challenges, such as perfectionism or fear of failure. The assessments you select for clients give them their first hint at the intervention tools you may use (e.g., mental imagery, goal setting, cognitive restructuring) and how you may help the clients overcome their mental obstacles to achieve their athletic goals.
How Clients Understand Sport Psychology
As students or professionals in sport psychology, we have a clear and sophisticated understanding of what it is and how it can benefit athletes. However, clients who come to us for assistance related to the mental aspects of sport don’t have this perspective. For many athletes, sport psychology is an amorphous concept; they only hold a vague sense that their mind is getting in the way of achieving their competitive goals. Yes, they know that the mental side of sport is important to athletic performance and success. At the same time, many would be hard pressed to provide an extensive accounting of what sport psychology entails, specific examples of mental factors that affect their performance, or mental skills they might use to improve their performance.
During the assessment, you evaluate your clients on many areas that are common to mental training programs offered by sport psychologists and mental coaches, including motivation, confidence, anxiety, focus, and mental imagery, as well as other performance-relevant areas such as perfectionism, fear of failure, and stress. As a consequence, assessment can provide clients with the opportunity to gain a better understanding of sport psychology, its components, its impact on their performance, and how it may benefit them. You are not only gaining a better understanding of your clients, but they are also learning more about all aspects of sport psychology. Thus, the assessment not only informs you about your clients and how best to assist them, but it is also provides them with an introduction to the field.
Learn more about Assessment in Applied Sport Psychology.