PSYCH: Some Psychological Factors for Promoting Exceptional Athletic Performance

From: Chris Rasch (
Date: Tue Apr 24 2001 - 20:32:10 MDT

Some Psychological Factors for Promoting Exceptional Athletic

Brent S. Rushall, PhD San Diego State University

Some psychological factors associated with performance
enhancement in serious athletes are discussed. Those factors
are delimited to what occurs during a competitive
performance. Four mental skills: (a) segmenting, (b)
task-relevant thought content, (c) positive self-talk, and (d)
mood words are reviewed. Typical thinking developed through
sport participation, a very common control condition, is not
conducive to optimal or maximal performance. The
implementations of these mental skills produce athletic
performance enhancements, even in elite athletes. Any extra
effort or physiological cost does not accompany
improvements. It is proposed that the teaching of these and
similar skills must become part of an athlete's experience if
performance standards are to be improved further.

Psychology is the study of behavior, it being both covert and
overt. It is relatively easy to investigate overt behaviors
accurately and reliably and to employ independent verification
of phenomena, but when it comes to covert behaviors, such as
thoughts and emotional interpretations, the ability to verify
phenomena independently is usually thwarted. While it remains
possible to manipulate external events and observe behavioral
outcomes, functional relationships between environmental
psychological factors and performances can be described. It is
not scientifically appropriate to attribute outcomes to
intermediary events such as thoughts and perceptions when they
have not been directly observed. A position on that restriction
has been described elsewhere (Rushall, 1992). While talk is of
thoughts and covert activities, it is the external stimulating
events that influence them which are really the causal factors
in the research works discussed.

    Serious Competitive Settings

A serious competitive setting is where the consequences
of performance are most important and strongest for an
athlete. Factors that affect an athlete's perception of
this setting have been described in the Sport Pressure
Checklist (Rushall & Sherman, 1987). Variations in these
factors produce performance inconsistencies (Teed, 1987)
as well as suggest patterns that predispose excellent
performances (Rushall, 1987). In challenging and serious
performance situations, it has been found that
performance-oriented "strategies" (plans) of specific
detail have notable effects on performance consistency
and reliability (Coles, Herzberger, Sperber, & Goetz,
1975; Vestewig, 1978). The need for specific preparations
is now commonly recognized in several fields (e.g.,
business, performing arts) and its founding research so
convincing that it is now rarely investigated. However,
it is still being neglected in the majority of sporting
situations by coaches and sport psychologists. Further,
when strategies are formulated primarily by athletes they
generally produce the following benefits: (a) reduction
in uncertainty and interpretive distractions and the
stress of negative situations, (b) enhanced performance
consistency, (c) improved coping capacity for problems,
and (d) minimized performance deteriorations (Averill,
1973; Hollandsworth, Glazeski, & Dressel, 1978). Research
reports of the value of performance strategies in sports
have been published (e.g., wrestling, Horton & Shelton,
1978; basketball, Meyers & Schleser, 1980; skiing,
Rotella, Gansneder, Ojala, & Billing, 1980; swimming,
Rushall, 1978; rowing, Rushall, 1990).

Factor 1: Performance Segmenting

If an event is of long duration, it needs to be broken
into segments. Partitions should be short enough for the
athlete to totally concentrate on what needs to be
thought of and done in that period. This assists focusing
on the completion of successful competition elements.
Structuring performances in this manner is called
"segmenting." In the U.S. Navy, a similar approach to
combat missions is known as "compartmentalizing" (e.g.,
TOP GUN). Segmenting originates from two sources. First,
the goal-setting literature has shown that distant goals
have less effect on performance than do more proximal
goals (House, 1973). Short-term performance goals that
focus on the processes needed for successful behavior
enhance performance (Harackiewicz, Abrahams, & Wageman,
1987). Second, individuals faced with extensive tasks
usually break them down into more manageable segments
(Gibson & Heads, 1989, describing the across-Australia
run by Tony Rafferty). Botterill (1977) noted successful
young athletes spontaneously reconstructed an endurance
strength-task into shorter performance segments, each
having its own goal or goals. A skier overcame
difficulties with traversing a slope when attention was
shifted to progress by task parts that eventually lead to
completion of the total run (Syer & Connolly, 1984).
World-champion target sportspersons have reported
attempting to fire "one shot at a time" during extended
shooting contests (Wigger, Anderson, Whitaker, & Harmon,
1980). Performing artists have intuitively divided long
performances into stages (e.g., acts and scenes,
movements) so that performance quality can be
maintained. Thus, theory and practice support the notion
of segmenting extensive tasks for improved performance
outcomes. Manges (1990) and Wahl (1991) both tested the
segmented versus total performance goal-orientation in
runners. Using intraparticipant research designs, the
value of short-term process goals over terminal (distal)
goals was conclusively demonstrated. Manges' three
runners improved 2.0-2.7% while Wahl's ranged from
1.1-6.5% with one participant not improving (-0.9%). The
performance differences could not be accounted for in
terms of altered physiological functioning, a phenomenon
noted long ago by Wilmore (1970). The way segments are
structured and their content is particularly
individual. Differences in segmenting strategies and
moderating factors need to be determined to understand
this factor more clearly. The anecdotal and goal-theory
literature at present is inadequate for fully explaining
this phenomenon.

Factor 2: Task-Relevant Thought Content

Performance efficiency is reduced by distraction and
enhanced by relevant concentration. There are some minor
exceptions to this principle (e.g., cognitive
interference), but in tasks performed under stressful
circumstances, the focus of attention has to be on the
processes for completing the performance to achieve the
highest level of outcome (Jones & Hardy, 1989). This is
particularly true in sports. Cognitive concepts such as
"attentional focus," "concentration," and "flow" are
characterized by a singular task-orientation, although
that orientation varies according to the stage and type
of activity. "The focus on task-relevant information is
intended to ensure that all resources available to an
athlete in a competition are used fully and in the most
efficient manner possible" (Rushall, 1995, p. 8.13).
While task-relevant concentration might seem to be an
obvious characteristic of performance control, it is
surprising how few athletes develop it effectively
through normal training experiences. Training seems to
develop a form of habitual/practice thinking that does
not transfer effective benefits to competitive
settings. Intraparticipant alternating-treatments designs
have been used to compare "normal/habitual" thinking with
sport-specific task-relevant thinking that has been
individualized to the participant. The experimental
variable in this paradigm is confounded between
individuality and task-specificity. Some studies have
introduced other unrelated thinking conditions (e.g.,
Chorkawy, 1982; Ford, 1982; McKinnon, 1985) for further
comparisons. Group designs (Crossman, 1977; Selkirk,
1980) do not demonstrate effects as well as
single-participant experiments. Task-relevant thinking
appears more consistent in influence the higher the
standard of the athlete:

    Canadian elite rowers (N = 5) improved an average of 3.5%
    on an ergometer task (Rushall, 1984b).

    Canadian national team cross-country skiers improved an
    average of 1.96% over a training track lap (Rushall, Hall,
    Roux, Sasseville, & Rushall, 1988).

    Norwegian junior national team cross-country skiers
    improved an average of 2.5% using both skating and
    classical techniques over a training track lap
    (Kristiansen, 1992).

A common feature of these studies was the opportunity for
the athletes to individualize the content and nature of
their thoughts after receiving instructions. That feature
may be a very significant moderating variable. The
normal/habitual thinking developed through training and
coaching is far from optimal in its effect on
performance. Even though coaches commonly claim to teach
and stress "technique," it was only after instructions
and practice to use self- and activity-specific detailed
content that performances improved.

Factor 3: Positive Self-Statements (Thinking)

Positive thinking is the covert utterance of positive
self-statements. Taylor's work (1979) showed that under a
positive mental orientation, the body's physiology
performs more efficiently than when under an aversive or
negative mind-set (see also Schuele & Wisenfeld, 1983;
Vera, Vila, & Godoy, 1994). Positive self-talk is also
related to factors associated with improved performance,
such as coping (Girodo & Roehl, 1978), self-concept
(Smit, 1992), and self-efficacy (Weiss, Wiese, & Klint,
1989). Dalton, Maier, and Posavac (1977) reported the
direct effect of negative thoughts on swimming
performance. Among 24 junior tennis players during
tournament matches it was found that negative self-talk
was associated with losing, and players who used and
reported believing in the utility of positive self-talk
won more points than players who did not (Van Raalte,
Brewer, Rivera, & Petitpas, 1994). Positive self-talk was
an important part of a game strategy for improving
basketball performance (Kendall, Hrycaiko, Martin, &
Kendall, 1990), for learning compulsory figures in
ice-skating (Ming, 1993), and for increasing the number
of games won from deuce-point in a tennis player
(Desiderato & Miller, 1979). Intraparticipant
investigations on the effect of positive self-talk on
performance in a variety of settings produced results
similar to those of task-relevant thinking:

    Canadian rowers improved from 1.21-2.20% on an evaluative
    ergometer task (Rushall, 1984b).

    A wide range of Norwegian cross-country skiers improved an
    average of 3.63% over a test distance (Holingen & Vikander,

    Superior Canadian age-group swimmers improved from
    1.39-2.13% over two distances (Rushall & Shewchuk, 1989).

An emphasis on positive self-talk while performing a task
enhances performance. This further supports the
inadequacy of habitual sport thinking for provoking an
optimal training or competitive response. Self-talk is
an individual skill that needs to be practiced before it
is evaluated for influence. The general level of effect
is marginally less than that of task-relevant thinking,
but that is not surprising considering it usually does
not entertain direct effects on skill economy. Rather,
it sets the "atmosphere" for efficient physiological
functioning which then has to be translated into
efficient movement patterns. There are certain
characteristics of positive self-talk which are
recommended for use in practical situations (Rushall,
1995). Positive self-statements should not be trivial,
cheerleader-type expressions (e.g., "go, go, go," "let's
do it now"). Four appropriate uses in competitions are:
(a) encouraging oneself, (b) handling effort, (c)
evaluating segment goals, and (d) general positive
self-talk to maintain atmosphere. It should be spread
throughout a strategy. It could be most effective when
second-person phrasing is used (e.g., "you," "your"),
which produces a perception of control over oneself. The
dynamics of positive self-talk in sport settings need to
be delineated further.

Factor 4: Mood Words

Another form of covert vocabulary involves particular
words that emote or energize the individual. Language has
basic words which, when said or thought with appropriate
feeling and emphasis, have some movement or emotional
outcome. They cause a physical reaction in the body. Some
languages/cultures use these words more frequently (e.g.,
Italian, Arabic) than others (e.g., English). Performing
artists frequently use simple words emoted in a
particular way to promote a behavior that expresses a
mood. Mood words require no translation. The expressive
thinking of words should produce a feeling appropriate
for some performance capacity. If a feeling does not
occur, then the content is inappropriate and will be
ineffectual. Mood words can reflect various performance
capacities. Typically, a list of monosyllabic synonyms
for strength, power (force), speed, agility, balance, and
endurance are presented to an athlete. The athlete
selects from the lists, or augments personal words that
have a similar meaning, the capacities and words that are
meaningful to him or her. Those words are then inserted
into a performance strategy at the time and during the
appropriate task-relevant thoughts when they will be most
effective. For example, a rower taking the catch in a
stroke might think "BOOM" as a way of elevating the power
of that part of the stroke. Rowers have reported that
this does increase performance over thinking normally or
imaging what is intended. That talk is more effective
than imagery during performance has been reported (Oei &
Barber, 1989). Mood words of this type increase the
effectiveness of thinking. When one wants to be powerful,
thinking words that make one feel powerful will increase
the actions of power. Rushall (1984a) reported
unpublished data on a grip-strength test with four
Canadian rowers. Three thought-content conditions were
used: (a) normal thought content as a control, (b) the
utterance of a phrase that had the correct meaning but
was unrelated to the emotional state needed to be strong
(e.g., the words "exert force"), and (c) the utterance of
mood words, such as "crush," "grind," etc., of the
athletes' choosing. All athletes recorded the strongest
grip under the emotive mood word condition. Mood words
enhance performance marginally better than either
task-relevant content or positive self-statements
(Holingen & Vikander, 1987; Kristiansen, 1992; Rushall,
1984b; Rushall et al., 1988; Rushall & Shewchuck, 1989).


Task-relevant content, positive self-statements, and mood
words presently are perceived to be the structures that
should be employed as thought content during a segmented
competitive performance. They should be integrated into a
meaningful dialogue by each athlete, and practiced,
performed, and evaluated for effect and possible
improvement. Their inclusion in training programs is not
difficult, and practice could constitute "sporting
homework" in a fashion that is not possible with other
performance factors. The magnitudes of the performance
enhancements reported in controlled research settings
with high-level athletes makes the use of thought-content
skills an imperative for athletes wishing to maximize
their performance and for coaches seeking to optimize
their effectiveness. These four psychological
determinants of performance produced enhancements and
alterations in a large number of the studies and
participants considered. Performance improvements
occurred without any notable extra perceived exertion
(Chorkawy, 1982; Ford, 1982; McKinnon, 1985), increase in
direct measurements of physiological parameters
(Kristiansen, 1992; Morgan, Horstman, Cymerman, & Stokes,
1983; Rushall et al., 1988; Wilmore, 1970), or other
increased thought dynamics, such as the degree of
concentration or "trying harder" (Chorkawy, 1982; Ford,
1982; McKinnon, 1985). These mental activities are a
"painless" avenue for assisting athletes to improve. When
athletes are exposed to these skills and evaluate their
effects they are particularly enthusiastic about their
value and use. Psychology offers many performance
determinants, only a few being addressed here. It needs
to be recognized that psychology becomes more important,
the higher the standard of competitor. It has been
reported that psychological factors are better
discriminators of high-level performance capacity than
physiological measures (McDonald, 1984). For example,
Silva, Shultz, Haslam, Martin, and Murray (1985) found
that psychological variables discriminated Olympic
wrestling team qualifiers from nonqualifiers better than
physiological variables. Psychology has a major role to
play in determining the levels of performance achieved in
competitive settings. Athletes should be appraised of the
techniques and provided practice opportunities for their
implementation as part of the evolving professions of
coaching and sport psychology.


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-__________________________ This article was first presented as
the Psi Chi Distinguished Lecture at the annual meeting of the
Western Psychological Association, Irvine, Calif., May 1, 1999.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Brent S. Rushall, PhD, RPsy, is professor of
exercise and nutritional sciences at San Diego State
University. An Australian who has taught in Australia, Canada,
and the U.S., Dr. Rushall was the first student to graduate
with the DPE (honors) degree from Sydney Teachers College and
the first student to graduate with a PhD degree in human
performance from Indiana University. Among his many
distinctions, he started the first postgraduate degree in the
study of the theory of coaching in the Western world, and is
recognized as the founding scholar in the field of behavioral
sport psychology and as a world authority in coaching
science. Dr. Rushall has written 74 books and technical manuals
and has published more than 380 articles, book chapters, and
sport psychology tests. A featured keynote speaker at many
world and international congresses and symposia around the
world, Rushall is also a four-time Olympic Team psychologist
for Canada (for the sports of wrestling, swimming, ski-jumping,
and cross-country skiing) and the first sport psychologist to
be appointed to a Canadian Olympic Team and to become a member
of the Olympic Club of Canada. He has represented Canada and
the U.S. at Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games, World
Championships, and World Cup events in a number of sports. In
addition, he has consulted with over 80 international
organizations in the fields of sport psychology, coaching
science, coaching education, and systems design, and has
coached world-record holders and served as psychologist to some
of the world's best athletes.

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