Q+A: Sports psychologist Rod Corban

Sport psychology is one part of the puzzle in an athlete’s preparation to win on the world stage. HPSNZ sports psychologist Rod Corban explains how mental skills training and sport psychology help athletes to perform.

One of the questions we are sometimes asked is why HPSNZ provides sports psychology to our top athletes and teams.

When asked this question, I try to get the reporter to imagine what it is like being a high performance athlete when you have to get up every day and train perhaps twice or even three times a day, you receive constant feedback on how you need to improve, you have a dream to be an Olympic champion, but at any moment this dream can be taken from you due to injury, loss of form and de-selection.

Also you are financially under pressure, you have most likely sacrificed your education to a great extent, your relationships, you have probably moved away from your family support and there is also the added pressure of what you will do with the rest of your life once your sporting dream is over. Your failures, both personal and sporting wise, are often highlighted in the media, and often without the complete facts.

Combine this with the fact that you are also most likely a highly self-critical individual who likes to do everything perfectly, that you have been successful at this sport throughout much of your life and so doing well is an important part of your concept of self.

Wouldn’t you think we would have an obligation to help these individuals deal with many of these issues? HPSNZ prides itself on having support through our psychology team and our Athlete life advisors to help athletes deal with many of these stressors, so they can focus on training and performing against the world’s best athletes.

How does mental skills training and sport psychology fit with all the other training that athletes do?

Mental preparation is one part of the puzzle in athlete preparation. It is about developing the daily habits that are essential to perform at the highest level. Through these habits, people develop confidence that they possess the necessary skills to perform when it counts.

Often people see sport psychologists as people that can magically "fix" broken athletes, but this is not the case. The role of sport psychology is to develop mentally strong, robust, independent athletes. People often talk about mental strength or toughness and this is something that can be developed just like physical strength. Most athletes already possess physical attributes that are necessary to perform, but in order to perform at the highest level they need to continually build on these natural physical attributes. Similarly, most top athletes will have, by necessity some mental strength, but just like physical training they can benefit from further “mental training” to increase this “strength”.

Do many athletes use sport psychology?

There are numerous examples of top athletes who have publicly acknowledged the input of sport psychology in their winning campaigns including Jo Aleh and Polly Powrie, Sophie Pascoe, the Evers-Swindell twins, Rob Waddell, etc. About 80 per cent of our winning Olympic medallists in London had a sport psychologist working closely with them – not just at the event, but months and often years beforehand.

How does sports psychology help?

Sport psychology is about helping athletes focus on doing what is important right now (in training and competition), without being distracted by thoughts about winning/losing, the crowd, the opposition, stresses from other parts of their lives, etc. The role of sport psychology is to help athletes deal with thoughts and emotions that distract them from focusing 100 per cent in the present moment. All of us have mental blocks that we have developed throughout our lives based on our genetics, upbringing and life experiences. These blocks sometimes get in the way of allowing us to perform at our best, particularly when we feel “threatened” in some way. Sport psychology is about helping people understand these blocks and working out how to prevent them from stopping them from achieving their goals – in all aspects of their lives.

Should athletes use sport psychology?

The nature of sport is changing and the difference between winning and losing at the top can be negligible, thus athletes need to attend to all of the necessary elements that lead to success -- physical, technical, tactical and mental. Even if sport psychology assists athletes to be 1 per cent better, then this is 1 per cent most top athletes would jump at. This is a key point, sport psychology does not magically make people win; it is part of an integrated approach to developing our athletes to be the best they can be.

Is sport psychology a misunderstood science?

Part of the problem with the perception of sport psychology is that there are many people out there delivering sport psychology who are not trained psychologists and so do not really understand human behaviour and its complexities. Thus, they will promote the use of strategies that make people feel good, or have what we call great face validity (e.g. motivational quotes, videos, speeches etc.) but that have very little impact on performance.

We have a small team of mental skills trainers and psychologists at HPSNZ who are highly qualified, experienced psychologists whose opinions around the mental aspects of performance are sort after worldwide. They are psychologists first, who just happen to specialise in working in a high performance sport context.

Do affirmations work?

Affirmations on their own are not that helpful, but they are often used as reminders of some of the work done in an athlete’s preparation. In that way, they sometimes act as focus triggers to remind athletes of what is important. You could stand in front of a mirror everyday telling yourself how good a golfer you were, or have signs around the house telling you how good you were, but ultimately if you had not developed the necessary skill set to play golf, then these would not help you to perform.

Self-belief is similar - people will often surround themselves with people that tell them how good they are, and that everything will be alright. Now this might make them feel good, but unless they have had an absolute commitment to all aspects of their training, this self-belief would desert them pretty quickly.

The brain controls all human behaviour, and there is an abundance of evidence from the past 10 years that "talking therapies" have a big impact on the structure of the brain, allowing it to perform particularly when under stress. This is a complex area, so if a high performance athlete has a question about how that works they can talk to one of our sports psychologists who would be able to explain that further.