Introduction to Performance Psychology


In my initial blog on sport and exercise psychology, I defined sport and exercise psychology and gave an insight into how a sport psychologist might work with individuals and teams. I also discussed how individuals or teams might assess their need to consult with a sport and exercise psychologist. I would encourage those interested in the psychology of performance to read this blog to gain an understanding of how a performance psychologist may work with those in the business of performance as well as how to make an assessment of whether a psychologist trained in aspects of performance may assist you.


As a fairly precise explanation of the background of performance psychology already exists, I will let my colleague Associate Professor Gene Moyle explain:


“Sport and exercise psychologists are often sought after to apply their knowledge, skills and experience from a sporting context into other performance-related industries and endeavours. Over the past two decades, this has noticeably expanded out from a natural progression into the performing arts with other ‘typical’ performers (e.g., dancers, actors, musicians, singers) through to people who work in high pressure environments that consist of clear performance outputs and requirements that are usually linked to high impact consequences for non-achievement (e.g., lawyers, surgeons, executives, military personnel, safety professionals).”


Division 47 of the American Psychological Association (APA) provides us with a definition of performance psychology:


“Performance psychology is the study and application of psychological principles of human performance to help people consistently perform in the upper range of their capabilities and more thoroughly enjoy the performance process. Performance psychologists are uniquely trained and specialized to engage in a broad range of activities, including the identification, development, and execution of the mental and emotional knowledge, skills, and abilities required for excellence in performance domains; the understanding, diagnosing, and preventing of the psychological, cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and psychophysiological inhibitors of consistent, excellent performance; and the improvement of performance environments to facilitate more efficient development, consistent execution, and positive experiences in performers.”


Before moving on, I would like to reiterate that in Australia, sport and exercise psychologists are trained as psychologist’s first, sport and exercise psychologists second. The distinction means that the psychological wellbeing of the individual or group will always be prioritised over performance.


Sport and exercise psychology, and subsequently performance psychology, is a relatively new are of research and practice in psychology. Most people would be aware that the idea of applied psychology began to take off as a profession with Sigmund Freud in the early years of the 20th century. However, sport and exercise psychology was only recognised as a psychological specialisation when it became a Division of the APA in 1986. Although only recognised as a specialisation in 1986, sport psychology was an area of research prior to this. As an example, it is now well known that before most countries, and behind the Iron Curtain, the USSR were engaged in sport psychology practice with their athletes in an attempt to gain an advantage over the “West” at the Olympic Games.


Sport Psychology initially borrowed from other psychological disciplines to understand what lead to high performance, e.g., goal setting was taken from industrial psychology (Locke, 1978). Rather than attending the factory and mindlessly manufacturing goods, research identified that employees became more productive when they were given targets to reach. These targets were more effective when linked to incentives for reaching those goals. Goal setting remains as important in the performance domain as it ever was. Goals create an air of motivation and direction. To begin the journey, we must first know where we are going.


The following shows why purposeful goal setting is most effective. We have all likely heard the saying “Practice makes perfect”. Although well intentioned, this popular saying has become redundant. I won’t go into the debilitating effects of the concept of perfection here, however, I will introduce a more acceptable saying that states: “Deliberate practice makes permanent”.


Deliberate practice is the idea that rather than go through the motions of doing a task for the sake of doing it, we must first identify what it is we are attempting to achieve and commit to tasks that are designed to assist us in achieving that goal. For example, if we want to improve our communication skills we could simply go out and have more conversations with people. However, a more effective method would be to learn what effective communication is and how to achieve it, and therefore have conversations with people that involve practising the skills we have learnt about effective communication. This is where the idea of permanence comes in. What we practice will likely become permanent; therefore we want to be deliberate about what we are practicing. If we practice the wrong way of doing something, we will continue to get it wrong. If we practice a more effective way of doing something, there is a greater likelihood that it will become a more permanent fixture in our day-to-day experiences.


I have provided a tip sheet in the resource area of my webpage on how to set S.M.A.R.T.E.R goals, however this is not the full story. The S.M.A.R.T.E.R goal system is a way of drilling down to setting specific goals, however we must also consider using goal setting in an effective way that leads to consistent progress (i.e., like a step ladder) towards some higher purpose, or what I like to term – The Dream. We must also think about setting outcome, performance, and process goals, all of which have functional purposes to help us get to where we want to go.


As always, if you would like assistance with your performance needs, I would only be too happy to assist.