An executive coaches a colleague through performance psychology.

Performance Psychology: The Ultimate Guide to Getting the Most Out of Your Team

From C-suite executives at major companies to athletes who compete on the world’s largest sports stages, today’s top performers rely on mental strength to accomplish their goals. Like the rest of us, these individuals may have doubts, worries and anxieties about their extensive responsibilities and what may happen if their performance falls short of expectations. These top performers use psychological training and tools to address hindrances, enabling them to lock into a mental state geared for success.

Others looking to improve their performance can use the psychological training and tools that business and sports leaders use. Known as performance psychology, this branch of psychology focuses on enhancing people’s mental and professional skill sets, so they can obtain the best possible results.

Performance psychology can help salespeople to exceed quotas, recruiters to attract the most talented candidates, and managers and leaders to increase profits. Performance psychology isn’t an instant cure for every problem that an employee or a company may face. Think of it instead as a series of mental exercises and tools that, if practiced, can help a person or team to achieve greater success.

What Is Performance Psychology?

Performance psychology is often used to help business professionals and teams to improve their performance, as well as to assist top-caliber athletes who may be facing mental challenges. Before learning how performance psychology can benefit different individuals, it’s important to understand the basis of this scientific field.

Definition of Performance Psychology

Sport and performance psychology “focuses on identifying and applying psychological principles that facilitate peak sport performance, enhance physical ability and achieve optimal human performance,” according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Similar to how psychological practices and methods can help people facing particular mental health issues and challenges, such as anxiety or depression, other psychological tips and tools can help athletes who are facing unique difficulties in their performance or with their kinesiological procedures. Performance psychology can be used to help a kicker who’s having trouble making field goals in football, a pitcher who’s facing challenges throwing the ball at a certain speed in baseball, or participants in team sports who may be facing hurdles in their attempts to communicate and cooperate with other team members.

Performance psychology is often associated with collegiate and professional sports, but its principles can also be applied in business situations.

History and Development of Performance Psychology

The earliest instances of the application of sport and performance psychology date back to the 1800s, according to Psych Central, when psychologist Norman Triplett studied how the presence of other individuals impacted cyclists’ performance. Coleman Griffith developed the first sports psychology laboratory in the 1920s, and the discipline started to be taught in academic settings in the 1960s.

By the end of the 20th century, MLB teams had adopted sport and performance psychology tools. Today, sport and performance psychology is recognized as a legitimate means for helping athletes in various sports to grow and succeed.

Methods and Practices of Performance Psychology

The Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) discusses several common psychological skills that can help athletes to improve their performance, including:

  • Anxiety management or energy management. This skill helps athletes who “experience arousal at a level that is not effective,” such as being too energetic or not lively enough on the playing field. Breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, and imagery and visualization are some practices that can help with this issue.
  • Attention and concentration control, or focusing. This skill helps athletes to manage their awareness so they can perform effectively in certain situations, such as when a professional golfer is focusing on a shot. The techniques used can include attention as well as awareness expansion.
  • Goal-setting. This skill can enhance athletes’ motivation on performance aspects that need improvement. The techniques can include developing skills, setting target achievement dates and developing strategies to meet goals.
  • Team building. This skill helps team members to improve their ability to work with one another while developing core values, such as trust and respect. The techniques used in this process can include bonding activities and individual and team goal setting.

Practices similar to these can also be applied to individuals and professionals who aren’t athletes. For example, anxiety management and energy management can help someone who’s struggling when delivering presentations at business meetings. Goal setting can help someone who’s facing a unique challenge in a professional environment, such as not completing certain tasks by deadline or turning in reports and projects that aren’t the highest quality.

What Is Performance Psychology?

Performance psychology can help athletes to improve their physical skill sets and achieve goals they may not have previously believed were possible. Here are specific ways in which this branch of psychology can benefit athletes.

Improving Skills and Abilities

A professional hockey team member has shown exemplary command of the puck on the ice. The hockey player is able to dodge opposing team members without ever losing control of the puck and can make quick, efficient passes to teammates, almost effortlessly. Recently, however, when that hockey player had several chances to shoot on the goal, the shots missed the net by several feet.

Performance psychology can be used to help athletes to strengthen specific skills and abilities, or in this case, to help the hockey player develop stronger shooting skills. For example, goal setting can help players to improve their skills by meeting a series of benchmarks, such as making 5 of 10 shots on goal in one practice session, 6 of 10 the next and so on. Anxiety management and energy management can help players if they’re too energetic or too lethargic when taking their shots.

Addressing Anxiety and Doubtfulness

A field goal kicker for a professional football team has maintained a perfect kicking record for every home game during a five-year career. At away games, however, that kicker has frequently missed field goals, many of which were from a short distance, and some that could have been game winners for the team. The kicker has reported feeling energized and alert when playing on the home field, but anxious and overwhelmed when playing at stadiums filled with opposing fans.

In this instance, performance psychology tools can be used to address the kicker’s anxiety and doubtfulness. The kicker can use self-talk, a tool that the AASP discusses, which can help the kicker to modify his thoughts and actions. “Common components include the identification of negative or irrelevant thoughts, challenging these thoughts, the creation of positive thoughts, and the substitution of positive thoughts for the negative thoughts,” according to the AASP. The kicker can identify negative thoughts, such as the belief that the field goal will be missed, and substitute positive thoughts, such as the belief that the field goal will be made.

Setting and Reaching Goals

A basketball coach at a top-tier university has assembled a group of talented student-athletes in hopes of bringing home a championship this year. The coach is struggling to make the new recruits work effectively as a team. Many were the stars at their respective high schools and believe they deserve more attention and praise than they’re getting. Others, despite showing promise in high school, don’t seem to perform effectively on the collegiate level.

The team isn’t going to become championship caliber overnight. In this circumstance, goal-setting performance psychology methods can help to improve the coach’s own performance, as well as that of the team. The coach can identify and target specific goals to accomplish with the team throughout the season, such as scoring a certain amount of points each game or adopting a zero tolerance policy for player insubordination. For the team members, the coach can help them to meet their own specific goals, such as improving their defensive skills or learning to effectively identify more scoring situations when approaching the hoop.

Performance Psychology in Professional Leaderships

Athletes aren’t the only ones who can benefit from performance psychology. Leaders in professional fields and organizations can use performance psychology practices to benefit themselves and their teams.

Addressing and Managing Stress

The APA discusses various factors that can contribute to workplace stress, such as excessive workloads, work that isn’t meaningful, and lack of control over pertinent decisions and actions. Depending on the office setting, employees may have difficulty reducing their workloads or acquiring more decision-making power. What employees can help to change, however, is the way they respond and manage the stress that these conditions cause.

Similar to how an athlete may use self-talk and anxiety management in stressful sports situations, employees can use performance psychology techniques, such as breathing exercises and relaxation methods, to help manage the stress they’re feeling.

Tackling Negativity and Self-Doubt

A company employee may have become consumed with negative thoughts due to a poor rating in a performance review. Another employee at the same company may have failed to land a crucial deal or partnership and now is having performance- and capability-related doubts. These situations are common and can be addressed through performance psychology.

For example, adopting a “growth mindset,” in which specific abilities and talents aren’t necessarily inherent in an individual, but are areas in which one can improve, can help those who may be experiencing negative feelings or self-doubt about their performance. “Those who believe they can improve if they keep trying are more motivated to persist with difficult tasks because they believe they can ultimately succeed,” Adam Fridman writes for Inc. “They’re more willing to try new things because if they fail, they can simply adjust course and try again.”

Increasing Focus

Some workplaces are naturally hectic and can be difficult environments for professionals who are trying to focus on their work. An employee in a retail business may face challenges dealing with the spike in the number of shoppers during the holiday season. An office worker in a high-pressure sales environment may have difficulty trying to concentrate while surrounded by animated colleagues.

The imagery, visualization and mental practice techniques that the AASP describes can be beneficial to those who need a stronger focus. “Common components include the evaluation of imagery ability, the establishment of the proper physical and mental setting (i.e., relaxed and quiet), and practice creating vivid and controllable images,” according to the AASP.

Motivating, Inspiring and Leading Team Members

Beyond the difficult responsibilities associated with a specific position or the other stressors that an employee can face in the workplace, much of a worker’s own dissatisfaction may stem from not enjoying the work itself. An architect may have loved design and visual aesthetic, but the day-to-day demands of the position may have caused a loss of pride in the profession. A data analyst may have originally entered the field because of a love for numbers and math, but workplace politics may have led to a loss of passion.

Motivating team members to focus on finding joy in their work can be a helpful performance psychology tool. In an article in The Wall Street Journal featuring advice from mental skills coaches for MLB, a coach named Geoff Miller discussed how a passion is no longer fulfilling when it becomes work. Miller “coaches athletes to play baseball like they’re playing ping pong: ‘Battle on every pitch and compete, and have fun at the same time.’” Showing team members that ability to find joy in their duties and see beyond the stressors can help them to find more pride and fulfillment in their jobs.