Picture an athlete who becomes injured at the beginning of her junior year in high school. She was training with her varsity high school team and had started the recruiting process for college as one of her goals was to become an NCAA Division I athlete. She is told she has to take six weeks off for rehabilitation and is devastated by this novel injury. Rehabilitation goes considerably well, but when she returns to practices she feels behind because half the season is already completed. In her first game back, she played with low levels of confidence and inconsistency and is highly distracted which propels her into a bad cycle of more stress and frustration as her performance and confidence continued to decline. How can this happen to an athlete who has lived and breathed her sport since elementary school? What can be done to help her return to high performance and confidence after her injury? Psychological science may be the help this athlete needs. For example, improving mindfulness, or participating in mindfulness-based interventions, could allow athletes to cope with and manage their athletic anxiety, improve concentration, and enhance their performance confidence (Chariton, n.d.). Through an array of theories and tools from cognitive, social, developmental, and health psychology, she could learn lifelong skills that can help her improve her athletic performance as well as her mental state.
Starting broad, let’s look at how general psychological knowledge can help the larger population of people. George A. Miller says that in order for greater human welfare, we must give psychology to everyone through practical applications and educating in a way where the general public can come to understand it and practice it better (1969). And for this to work, we have to educate everyone, and not just by means of traditional schooling. However, the main importance lies within understanding the system, not just trying to control it thus our major scientific goals are understanding and prediction (Miller, 1969). Now, there is often lots of room for distortion of information when it is given away to the public which could be another barrier to the dilemma of how to give psychology away. However, if we, as psychologists, can educate the general public with practical applications based on psychological theories, we can start to dispel some of the common psychological science myths and help people better their lives in the process. Additionally, Miller noted that “in order to get started, we must begin with people where they are, not assume we know where they should be” (1969). As sport psychologists, this is just what we must do. We need to strive to help people starting from the point they are currently at and help them by providing and teaching them the tools they need to attain their own goals, not where we think they should get to.
Keeping Miller’s quote from the last paragraph in mind, self-help can be a good place to begin for this struggling athlete, but first, we need to examine the self. Looking at this in another light, the self is made up of and can be influenced by so many factors, including economic change, culture, ethnicity, social influences, education, creativity, and curiosity, and our stories continue to change as we experience more and tell our narratives to others. Because of such plasticity, the tools and psychological skills we are given and learn can influence our sense of self tremendously. Schamel made the point that in order for advice to be effective, it must account for many layers of social pressure, with economics being one of those layers (2020). Self-help can often be a positive tool for people to better their lives. Initially, self-help appeals to many people because it helps give them a sense of personal control and can give them excitement about choices in their lives (Schamel, 2020). Putting more power on the self than the social influences gives us more feelings of control (Schamel, 2020). This is extremely important to note as one of the reasons our athlete was feeling frustrated was because she felt her teammates had surpassed her in training while she was out with her injury. This is why so many different kinds of self-help books, videos, apps, programs, etc. have gone viral among popular culture and social media. We are all and have always been, striving for better lives. Even something like bullet journaling, where “mindfulness-meets-productivity,” can be used as a tool to help us learn more about ourselves (Russell, 2019). Carroll talked about how this method had helped him a lot with his anxiety and stress and certainly could be a beneficial tool for some people (Russell, 2019). When we learn to use coping skills and other psychological tools, we can learn more about ourselves and support personal growth. Bullet journaling is an example of this kind of self-help. But keep in mind, while bullet journaling is effective for some people, it is not as carefully formulated and planned as a wise intervention.
A specific kind of self-help that is grounded in psychological science is called a wise intervention. Wise interventions are based on psychological theories and good learning strategies and are “wise” to the person and situation at hand. There are five general principles of wise interventions. The first is “alter specific meaning to promote change” which means that wise interventions can alter the way people think about themselves or other social situations (Walton & Wilson, 2018). The second is “meanings operate within complex systems” which alludes to the fact that “subjective meanings do not work in a vacuum,” they are within complex systems (Walton & Wilson, 2018). The third is “new meanings can stimulate recursive change in people and in situations” which means that even though meaning change can be self-sustaining, wise interventions can redirect people to more positive views of themselves and the situation (Walton & Wilson, 2018). The fourth is “methodological rigor and process” which means that wise interventions need to be tested “rigorously, with randomized field experiments” (Walton & Wilson, 2018). And finally, sometimes the mere idea of attempting to change people’s behaviors or thoughts can be concerning which makes it extremely important to take “ethical considerations” into account (Walton & Wilson, 2018). With all five of these, wise interventions have a larger chance of being successful and effective which is why this might just be the solution for our athlete trying to return to competition.
On another important note, the motivations that underlie meaning-making are the need to understand, the need for self-integrity, and the need to belong (Walton & Wilson, 2018). A common example of using wise interventions would be through a growth mindset. When you hold a growth mindset, you believe that interpretations are not fixed. Therefore like a working hypothesis, we can alter them with brief but targeted exercises and are able to create long-lasting change such as sustaining motivation and improving performance (Walton & Wilson, 2018). In order to do this, we need effort, effective strategies, and help from others which is where psychological theories and wise interventions exercises come into play. While wise interventions can be remarkably effective when implemented correctly, they can only help people who are willing to accept change and the process of it, similar to psychological counseling, and there must be a match between the advice and the context or situational factors, otherwise, the intervention is not targeting the problem at hand and will be remedied ineffective.
Moving back into specific sport psychology applications, sport-related anxiety can cause additional issues to arise as well. Athletes could also experience “feelings of worthlessness, physical/emotional exhaustion, and a reduced sense of fulfillment” (Chariton, n.d.). In addition, athletes can have a tendency to “dwell on past performances or worry about future actions, and they may lose focus on their current situations. Such athletes attend to their internal thoughts and feelings instead of fully immersing themselves in the present moment” (Chariton, n.d.). This is where a wise intervention could be helpful for our athlete. In teaching her to practice mindfulness or other exercises, it could help heighten awareness, improve concentration, and reduce burnout. All these positive effects can, in turn, improve her performance and confidence, and get her back to that elite level of athletics.