This weekend it was reported that Safa CEO Dennis Mumble wants to hire a Sport Psychologist to work with Bafana Bafana. This is both good news and bad news.
We would all agree that the mind of the player is critical to performance. How many times have you heard the terms mental toughness, confidence, attitude, focus or teamwork used to describe elements of success? That any team at international level would not already be working with a Sport Psychologist is disappointing, therefore the good news is that Safa are now open to using such expertise. This is a positive step forward.
But there is something concerning in the reports too, which I think speaks to a misunderstanding of what sport psychology actually is. Some papers reported that a sport psychologist would be called in to work with the team before Saturday’s game because the players lacked motivation. Another said the players needed a bit of inspiration.
Sport psychologist are not motivational speakers – there is a bigger problem at play here if our players (the best of the best) lack motivation to play for their country. Players don’t need inspiration – emotional hype doesn’t last long. Neither does a quick positive thinking talk help. As someone once said “You can’t sit in your garden and think ‘there are no weeds, there are no weeds’ and hope the weeds disappear. Find the weeds and rip them out!”. Players need mental and life skills training, which takes time and effort from all involved.
Far too often I have someone new call me up a few days before a major event wanting some help. This is not how sport psychology works. Yes, I can teach a few quick practical breathing techniques and body language skills in one session, but it’s just a plaster. The real work takes time. And it is work. Just as players need to practice hours on end to get better, so too they need to practice and refine mental skills over time.
Then there is the trusting relationship that a sport psychologist builds with players and teams. Who would want to talk with someone they hardly know about their insecurities, anxieties or worries? I wouldn’t. It takes time to get to know athletes and for them to get to know you. Often, the real value of a sport psychologist lies in the relationship built.
In addition to mental skills, life skills and self-development are crucial. For sustained performance players need to learn to manage themselves both on and off the field. There is no quick fix to this.
To be fair Mumble did say they were looking to work with someone on a more full-time basis. This is great, because as Tim Urban says ”Considering that the human mind is an ocean of complexity that creates every part of our reality, working on what’s going on in there seems like it should be a more serious priority”. I just think there needs to be a very clear understanding of what it takes to help players from a psychological point of view, and a collective will to do the work – because it can make a difference. Being mentally tough may not win Bafana Bafana the game, but being mentally weak will lose it for them.