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Mental Skills Workshops for Student Athletes

Student athletes are often exposed to high amounts of pressure when navigating sport and academics. This pressure to perform is made worse by the reduced amount of time available to student athletes to focus on sport or academics alone. 

A picture of two young athletes taking a break in the background of a football field while a soccer ball is at rest in the foreground of the picture

While an athlete makes the transition into and through third level education, the ability to manage the demands placed on them can influence a student athlete’s motivation and development. A transition has been defined as a change in assumptions about oneself and the demands placed on the individual, requiring a change in one’s behaviours (Schlossberg, 1981). In the case of student athletes, they experience changes in terms of:

  • Scheduling pressures: missing lectures, meeting deadlines, planning food intake, rest and recovery.
  • Sport Stressors: injuries, deselection and conflict with coaches and teammates.
  • Social pressures: maintaining a balanced social environment and contact with friends and family, and balancing career advancement outside of sport. 

Developing Skills to Cope with Pressure

To overcome these challenges, the student athlete can be supported in developing skills that enable them to cope successfully with pressures. Through my work in AIT, my role is to support student athletes in developing the skills required to successfully cope with being a student athlete. We work off a framework of 36 competencies we look to develop while the student is in AIT (De Brandt et al, 2018). The 38 competencies group together to form five main competencies: Self-management, self-regulation and resilience, social competencies, career planning and other.

With a focus on developing the student athlete’s self-regulation and resilience I delivered a series of workshops to help student athletes develop the ability to focus attention, remain in the present moment and persevere in the face of setbacks. As I believe sports psychology should be delivered through sporting activities, we delivered the workshops using different activities from various sports. 

A photo of David McHugh making a presentation to the Finn Harps Academy
David McHugh speaking to athletes and coaches at Finn Harps Academy

For one of the workshops I delivered we used the sport of Athletics to explore values and experiential acceptance (Gardner & Moore, 2007). In this workshop the participants worked on sprinting and relays to explore their values. In sport, athletes of all ages will experience negative situations. We are often told that when we experience a negative thought that we should change it to a positive through or do something that might make us feel better. 

However, if we look to change how we feel in a negative situation we might use a strategy that brings us further away from our goals. An example would be when we experience a loss and are frustrated with sport, an athlete might choose not to engage in the recovery session following the loss. This has the immediate goal of reducing negative thoughts associated with the sport experience. This however brings them further away from their overall goal. Instead of trying to change thoughts when an athlete experiences a negative situation, the aim was to help the students accept negative situations and grow from them. 

The students explored these ideas through engaging in relay races in two teams. The group identified how if they reacted based on their emotions they would give up or not try as hard even if they won or lost. In contrast when focusing on values they chose, such as being committed, hardworking or supportive, both groups regardless of whether they won or lost, reported maintaining their motivation. At the end of the workshops, all participants explored the values they feel are important for their participation in sport. 

This was one workshop of four delivered over the course of four months with each workshop building on the skills developed within the preceding workshops. Integrating the theory within different sports allowed the participants to learn how they can apply psychology within the activity and reflect on how the knowledge would apply in their sport. 

References

De Brandt, K., Wylleman, P., Torregrossa, M., Schipper-Van Veldhoven, N., Minelli, D., Defruyt, S & De Knop, P. (2018). Exploring the factor structure of the Dual Career Competency Questionnaire for Athletes in European pupil- and student-athletes. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology.

Gardner, F. L., & Moore, Z. E. (2007). The psychology of enhancing human performance: The Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment (MAC) approach. Springer Publishing Co.

Schlossberg, N. K. (1981). A Model for Analyzing Human Adaptation to Transition. The Counseling Psychologist, 9(2), 2–18.