Sports Psychology for Strength Athletes: Keeping Your Head in the Game

Participation in competitive sports places unique demands on the body and mind of an athlete. Even mainly focusing on improving personal best performances and reap benefits such as a better physique and less stress, hard training can have the opposite effect if the body and mind are not balanced and working in unison. And, let’s face it, athletes also have the same problems and challenges that other people have to contend with in their daily lives. From losing a loved one, having work and financial pressures, marital and relationship problems, family responsibilities, unexpected hardship, sleep difficulties, an unhealthy diet, and addictions, to routine everyday issues, most of us have been there, done that, and first-hand seen the effect it has on our training health. As such, most of us can benefit from knowing or practicing a few aspects of sports psychology for strength athletes that are described below.

So, how can sports psychology help?

The effectiveness of training – even showing up in the gym – has a lot to do with our physical and mental preparedness and attitude. These personal orientations are intricately linked with our personalities, character identity, and psychological capital – our natural capacity to hope, be resilient, exert self-efficacy, and maintain optimism. While these aspects are all developed through a lifetime of experience to form a unique profile for every individual, changes can be made through learning and practice to help achieve new goals. Let’s start with the concept of character virtues.

Character Virtues

Scientists have identified 24 different character strengths that we have to a greater or lesser extent depending on our psychological makeup, cognitive ability, and life circumstances. They have divided these into six virtue categories, namely wisdom, courage, humanity, temperance, and transcendence.

Wisdom – Cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge

Courage – Emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, external or internal

Humanity – Interpersonal strengths that involve tending and befriending others

Justice – Civic strengths that underlie healthy community life

Temperance – Strengths that protect against excess

Transcendence – Strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning

These concepts may sound lofty, but here are just a few examples to help explain some of these virtues in the context of strength training: Wisdom is to know and recognize from experience what has worked for you before (and what hasn’t) and to be able to apply such an insight to your training. Courage is the emotional strength to face heavy weights and challenging goals, especially when things are hard. Humanity is our ability to get involved in the strength community so that we can all benefit from shared support.

The Hero Within

Having psychological capital is when a person is in a positive state of mind that enables him or her to achieve their goals. They exhibit hope, optimism, resilience, and self-efficacy to shine and become their own personal hero!

Hope – having positive motivation driven by the energy and planning to meet goals

Optimism – the general tendency to expect positive results

Resilience – the capacity to bounce back from adversity, conflict, failure, change, and increased responsibility

Self-Efficacy – belief in one’s capability to perform a specific activity

It is self-evident that these dimensions are relevant to strength training and should be enhanced to perform at your best and achieve desired results. Together with character strengths, psychological capital can be greatly enhanced through simple and quick exercises with the help and guidance of a coach or mentor. Nowadays, coaching is not just about what you do in the gym, but how you cultivate your attitude outside of it too. The coaching can be formal/professional, informal, or online, whatever suits your needs best.

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Joan Swart is a master's powerlifting enthusiast, sports nutrition student, and forensic psychologist from Paarl, Western Cape.

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