Sports Psychology: The Forgotten Child of Sports Science

Sport development all over the world is now based on strong scientific foundations. More and more countries and sports organisations are increasingly embracing science in order to have an advantage over their competitors.
Sadly, a lot of the scientific research has been focusing on the “hard science” of the anatomical, physiological and technological aspects of sport performance. The “soft science” of the athlete’s thinking and psychological condition has seldom been investigated.
When some of us were growing up, playing sport was a question of whether you had the required skills or not. Passion or will-power was never investigated or considered important by coaches. If you could not perform certain basic skills, you were immediately left out of the team. Coaches would concentrate their attention on those that were deemed to be potentially talented and skilful. The rest, tough luck for them, they had to find another sport or leisure pursuit.
Even today, the pressure of winning makes school or development coaches ditch potentially good performers who do not initially live up to expectations. However, advances in sport science, which incorporates sport psychology, have unravelled previously unknown facts. Not only talent or skill is required. There is also need for a winning mentality.
Many of us, as lay people, would ask what is this “winning mentality”? According to the illustrated examples of modern sport, the winning mentality is that extra factor which overrides tough conditions, fatigue and all other challenges that may confront a competitor. As Muhammad Ali aptly stated, “Champions are not made in the gym”. They have that extra reserve of strength and they can always go the extra mile, against all odds. This is very true coming from the man who is deemed to have been the greatest in professional boxing.
Muhammad fought against bigger, stronger and faster opponents in the form of Ken Norton, Joe Frazier and George Foreman and others. In the end, he prevailed because of superior mental toughness, which is an element of sport psychology.
The question that goes through the minds of many coaches is how this “never-say-die” attitude can be instilled into elite performers. Clearly, some have it and others do not. Some sports performers wilt at the slightest indication that things are going to get tough. Others try to persevere but ultimately give up. Others simply do not give up. For them submission, surrender, defeat, draw or compromise is taboo.
One would ask, is this winning attitude something that you are born with or can it be suddenly developed in the minds of athletes? Is it a question of the upbringing of the athletes? For example, in boxing, there is no doubt that in the majority of cases, boxers coming from disadvantaged or underprivileged backgrounds are tenacious fighters compared to those who were born with the proverbial “silver spoon in their mouths”.
Football is almost the same. However, this is not always the case as performers from other socio-economic backgrounds have also risen to the top. These are questions that scientists need to assist us unravel. One would ask what really drives great sports people, such as Tiger Woods, Haile Gebrselassie, Kenenisa Bekele, Usain Bolt, Michael Schumacher, Lionel Messi, Frank Fredericks, Maria Mutola and Chad le Clos?  Can this spirit be identified and replicated in other people?
Sport psychology has largely been ignored in Africa. Sports administrators and coaches have focused mostly on the “hard sciences” of physical conditioning of athletes and teams before major games and competitions. On the other extreme, there is a belief, especially in Africa that supernatural intervention, magic, traditional medicine or ‘muti’ can enhance sport performance. This is especially prevalent in football, where in some instances colossal amounts are spent on traditional healers and witchdoctors. Even in South Africa, traditional healers have gone public claiming that “Bafana Bafana”, the senior South African National Football Team, were underperforming because they had not paid them their dues.
It is a public secret that football administrators, coaches and players constitute a significant percentage of clientele for traditional healers. The medicine and other services provided give the performers a huge belief and confidence that they are going to perform better and win. Whether this can stand the test of critical scrutiny is yet to be seen. It is, however, important to respect other people’s beliefs, no matter how weird or indeed stupid they may appear.
It is clear that there is need for greater investment in sport psychology research especially in Africa. There is no doubt that some very interesting revelations will come out of the findings. In recent sports performance history, it has become clear that it is not only the most gifted or affluent that can win. It is also those that are well-prepared psychologically, hungrier and tenacious who win the accolades. It is a fact that in some instances, African athletes fail to deliver results because of an inferiority complex where they think that because of their underprivileged backgrounds they cannot possibly win against opposition from other parts of the world. However, some have thrown caution and fear to the wind with amazing and fantastic results.
Who would have thought that at the 1990 FIFA World Cup, Cameroon would beat holders Argentina, even with nine men on the field of play? Again at the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Korea/Japan, any one betting for a Senegal win against holders France would have been condemned to a psychiatric hospital. Senegal went on to shock France, the world and even themselves with a gallant victory. More recently, at the 2012 London Olympics, even the most die-hard patriots would not have put any money on the possibility of young South African, Chad le Clos beating the great American legend, Michael Phelps, in swimming. However, just like the Cameroonians in 1990 and Senegalese in 2002, Chad le Clos made history and brought a lot of pride not only to South Africa but the rest of Africa.
I believe sport psychologists in Africa have a big to role to play. They must enable African athletes to believe in themselves, throw caution and fear to the wind every time and shock the rest of the world at major games. Sport psychology must graduate from being the neglected child in sport science in Africa.

As some wise people say, “Winning or losing – It is a state of mind”.

May 2013
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