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Sports Psychology

In the ever changing world of sport, one of the major innovations of recent years has been the growing introduction and influence of sports psychology. High profile individuals have thrived because of it, teams have turned to it ahead of major tournaments, and in the reported case of new Everton manager, Sam Allardyce, struggling clubs have used it to repair the fragile confidence of under performing players.

One of the most famous examples of this is the impact of Steve Peters on five-time World Snooker Champion, Ronnie O’Sullivan. Although he’d long since been heralded as the greatest talent ever to play the game, and already boasted an enviable collection of trophies, prior to working with Peter’s, O’Sullivan was considered by many to have underachieved in his career. Some of this was down to a number of so-called meltdowns. On one occasion, while losing to Stephen Hendry, O’Sullivan, visibly fed up with how things were going, shook hands with his opponent mid-frame and simply walked away.

Such is the impact that Ronnie O'Sullivan say he owes psychologist Steve Peter's for making him the player he is today.

A similar ‘meltdown’ came on Snooker’s greatest stage. Speaking about his 2006 semi-final at the World Championships, O’Sullivan says: I was struggling mentally. I couldn’t deal with my thoughts and emotions. I just kind of imploded and sabotaged it. I wanted to lose. I had a meltdown.’ O’Sullivan would go on to lose eight frames in a row to be knocked out by underdog, Graham Dott.

The change from this Ronnie O’Sullivan to the more composed, happy player that sits at the top of the sport today is largely down to Steve Peters. So much so that O’Sullivan himself says he owes the psychologist for ‘making me the player I am today.’

‘I was sabotaging myself,’ he says. ‘Allowing my mind to tell me: “I’m s***, I’m not going to play well, I can’t win this tournament, you might as well as get beat, go home.” And then I would act on that.

‘Steve helped me re-programme my belief system. Just bring me into reality a little bit. Not every shot can be perfect.’

Since working with Peter’s, O’Sullivan has lifted countless trophies, and last week matched Stephen Henry’s record of winning eighteen of snooker’s ‘major’ titles. As one of the UK’s outstanding sporting talents, he is a prime example of the impact of sports psychology; but its impact is noticeable across the sporting landscape in general.

Kelley Fay, Sports Psychologist


Last week, South West College welcomed Kelley Fay, from KF Performance Psychology, to talk to sports students about sports psychology as a career, and give them an example of the clients she works with and the interventions she performs.

Kelley works with Ulster Rugby, British Parasnowsport, and Irish Swimming, amongst many others, and focuses on both individuals and teams, employing sports psychology interventions to help them perform to their optimum level.

‘Generally you use the same interventions across different sports, and it’s the approach you take that changes. In rugby you do a lot of work one-on-one with players, based on their specific needs, as opposed to in a team setting, but still do some work in groups to ensure that everyone’s on the same page. I’ve worked with visually impaired athletes in snow sports, who are racing down a speed hill a 90kmph, so the work you do with them is based around building confidence and building their belief in their own ability.

It helps to understand the nature of the sport, but you don’t need to understand everything about it. People used to say “you’re not a rugby player, how can you work in rugby” and it’s true, I’m also not a skier, not a swimmer, or a golfer, but I am from a sports background and that gives me an idea of the anxieties involved in competing. Understanding sport is more important than understanding the specifics of individual sports, because that helps you build rapport and respect and know how and when you can employ your interventions in the times that matter.

I definitely think the stigma of sports psychology is disappearing. It’s growing and emerging, and people are people are appreciating its value. It’s been around for a long time, but now people are speaking publicly about it, and there’s lots of stuff in the media, lot’s of high profile athletes talking about it. Every GAA county team now has a sports psychologist, and I don’t think there are any professional sports that don’t have a sport psychologist on staff.

Gone are the days where you had to see a sports psychologist just if you had a problem. Now it’s about wanting to be the best athlete you can be, and asking what else can I do to achieve that? Golf is an individual sport and very much a mental game, and sports like that can be very reliant on sports psychology and it can play a huge role. But I think the same goes for any sport, no matter what it is. With Rugby being such a physical game people might think what’s the need for sports phycology? But everyone is a human being, everyone makes mistakes, everyone gets nervous because they want something, and so every opportunity you have to employ interventions to help people get better is only a good thing.

‘If you want to be an athlete in sport, or you want to be a practitioner or even a coach, I think you have to be willing to work really, really hard. Personally, I’ve had to put in a lot of hours and unsociable hours to get to where I’ve got to, but you do get rewarded if you’re willing to put in the work. The big thing is respect and rapport. You have to be able to build relationships with people. As an athlete, you have to develop relationships with coaches and staff, and as a practitioner you need to be able to communicate with everybody. So I think if you’re willing to build on relationships and work on communication skills and also work hard, then I think anyone can achieve whatever they want to.

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