Positive Sports Psychology

Kath Sambell, Director of Sport

At a recent Grand Final, one of our Netball teams came from behind to win the game. The expectation of the players as the final whistle was blown would have been to have heard positive congratulatory remarks as the team had shown great self-belief to fight back from seven goals down.

Why then, were errors mentioned in the post match euphoria rather than a focus on the match winning intercepts and good team play?

Positive sports psychology focuses on recognising and enhancing strengths. Matthew Schole from La Trobe University spoke on this topic at the Heads of Sport Conference recently.

He suggested we have a negativity bias in sport. Why do we focus on what went wrong rather than what went right? Michael Jordan says he missed 9,000 shots in his career, lost 300 games and was trusted to take the winning shot 26 times in a game and missed.

He says, ‘I failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.’

Alisa Camplin speaks of the many sports she tried in her quest to become an Olympian. She believes that trying and not ultimately succeeding at a wide variety of sports gave her a ‘bag of tools’ to take forward.

She didn’t see that she had failed at each sport because she didn’t get to the top. Rather, she believed that each sport was a stepping-stone in her quest to win Olympic gold.

Sport gives us the opportunity to identify and use our strengths while supporting our weaknesses.

Skill acquisition varies and takes longer for some children. Parents and coaches need to be patient and aware of the differences in each child. It can be frustrating when your child isn’t performing at the same level as others in their year group.

Steve Moneghetti tells the story of how his father was told not to bother bringing him back to Little Athletics, as he was ‘too slow’. Steve’s father recognised he loved to run and told the coach he would keep bringing Steve for as long as he wanted to attend.

Of course, Steve found his niche as one of Australia’s most successful marathon runners. So being slow may have been seen as a major weakness but Steve’s determination, endurance, persistence and love of running were undoubtedly strengths he put to good use.

When coaches and parents give recognition and positive feedback to the things players have done well, it helps build their optimism and resilience. By reinforcing positive aspects we allow athletes to enjoy the game and learn from examples of good play rather than always highlighting the mistakes.

It is easy to build a child’s self esteem and self belief if they hear what they did well … not how many times they dropped the ball in a match. They will strive to improve the aspects of the game that they know are weaker than their team mates but it is also good for their team mates to recognise the varying strengths of players in the team.

We need to grow the strengths of each team member for a team to succeed. A positive team environment nurtures good team play. The player under pressure from her teammates inevitably makes mistakes.

As coaches and parents, we need to try to look beyond the final score. If tactical mistakes are made, look at the strategy or the process employed by the individual. We can then be specific about areas to target for growth and improvement and give athletes things to focus on when they are on the field/court.

Schole suggests we can help our athletes be engaged and positive about sport by endeavouring to look at what went well first, ask the child what they thought they did well in the game, identify and celebrate their achievements no matter how minor they may be, especially in the early years of sport.

Encourage and show gratitude for the work they have done, give specific and real feedback and help them to process praise and areas for improvement.

None of us have ever played the perfect game and as the Grand Finals were viewed on televisions around Australia last weekend, we saw teams strive for perfection.

Fifty per cent of those Grand Finalists would have gone away disappointed with their loss. But they won’t have failed. As we view these gladiators of sport we need to reflect on how our words and actions on the sidelines and post match can shape our girls’ wellbeing and view of themselves in sport.