The Extra 1%

Throughout the 20th century there have been numerous advances in the world of sport. The performance of athletes during this period has been a result of their genetic makeup, their efforts in training and the contribution of science. The contribution of science to sports performance started when coaches, physiologists, nutritionists, biomechanists, analysts, statisticians, and psychologists began applying their knowledge to athletic performance. The application of science and knowledge has led to advances in athletic performance through new training methods including skills coaching, strength and conditioning, nutrition and sports psychology. With athletic competition being a very competitive endeavor, this has led to athletes, coaches and support teams trying to get an extra 1% over their fellow competitors. This has placed a demand on support staff to innovate, adapt and develop their practice in pursuit of performance.

So, what is performance? Portenga, Ayogi & Cohen (2017) define performance as an event where a person, group or team is expected to execute specific knowledge, skills and abilities, which are compared, judged, evaluated or held to some standard. With this definition, we can see that performance requires an athlete to develop specific knowledge, skills and abilities over time which are then put into action. The actions the athlete engages in are evaluated against other performers often in a public setting. To develop and execute the knowledge, skills and abilities in performance situations, athletes usually have coaches and other support staff who can help them to perform. However, I am sure we all know of someone that has the knowledge, skills and abilities to perform in their sport, but they still don’t perform when it matters most.

This is where people often turn to psychology, especially when other areas of performance enhancement have been exhausted. The field of sport psychology is concerned with the application of psychological principles to help athletes perform in the upper range of their capabilities on a consistent basis and more thoroughly enjoy the sport performance process (Portenga et al, 2017). In order to achieve this goal, sports psychology draws on a range of topics from psychology. To help athletes perform under pressure we might draw our knowledge from how an athlete can use mental skills to make good decisions under pressure and cope with the demands in and out of competition. This has been the traditional perception of sports psychology. However, it can be a lot more than helping an athlete with their mental skills. With the increasing focus on athlete mental health, sports psychology can be applied to help facilitate environments that support athlete well-being and performance. Sports psychology can be applied within talent development and the wider social environment in which sport takes place. This social environment includes coaches, parents, and the talent development pathway. Knowledge from the field of sports psychology can help those involved in sport facilitate environments where athletes develop life skills through their experiences in sport.

Sport Psychology in Practice

With the increasing focus on identifying areas for performance improvement, we are seeing an increase in the number of Sport psychologists working with athletes and teams. I am sure you are wondering what a sports psychologist does in practice. The practice of sports psychology, first of all, requires ethical practice. This means never breaching confidentiality, managing client expectations, and not allowing conflicts of interest to undermine the quality-of-service delivery. Second, the sport psychologist should always know what they are doing. A sport psychologist does not just “hit and hope” when a person’s well-being or performance is involved (Keegan, 2016). The sport psychologist goes through several steps such as carrying out an intake, needs analysis, case formulation, choosing an intervention strategy, planning the support, delivery of the intervention, and monitoring progress. This process is based on research evidence and how psychology can be applied in sport. Third, the sport psychologist keeps accurate records of this process. This allows the sport psychology practitioner to engage in reflective practice to constantly evolve and develop their service delivery.

With the increasing demands on athletes, coaches, and teams to find the next area of performance improvement, we can see that sport psychology has a role to play. I often ask people involved in sport “if you knew how to perform under pressure, support performance and well-being, and how to create an environment that will help you learn from experiences, would that help?” The answer is always yes. Sports psychology can help answer those questions not by telling you what to do but giving you the evidence and rationale behind what to do.


Portenga, S. T.,  Aoyagi, M. W., & Cohen, A. B. (2017). Helping to build a profession: A working

definition of sport and performance psychology, Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 8(1),

  1. 47-59,DOI: 10.1080/21520704.2016.1227413

Keegan, R. (2016). Being a Sport Psychologist. Palgrave Mcmillan.

David is Programme Director on our MSc in Applied Sport & Exercise Psychology, which you can learn more about here. You can also download our brochure below.

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