The Psychology of Performance

The Psychology of Performance

Performing your best at the office, on the baseball diamond, or in the service entails more than physical activity and work; it’s also about state of mind. That’s the concept behind the psychology of performance.

Well known in professional athletics, the practice of “sports psychology” expanded into the various parts of the military. Now, the benefits of helping people reach their highest level of achievement have also reached the professional workplace.

Studying the psychology of performance opens up a variety of career options. We talked to a long-term sports psychology professor about how the field has grown over the years, including the introduction of a new area of study.

What is the Psychology of Performance?

One of the younger disciplines of psychology, this field originated in 1920 when Carl Diem established the first sports psychology lab in Berlin. In 1925, two more were established, including one at the University of Illinois. It wasn’t until the 1970s, though, that it became a more widespread area of study. In the 1980s, the research became more rooted in scientific investigation. Today, sports psychology principles have crossed over into other industries and, with this, we’re seeing new on-campus and online degree programs offered, such as a master of arts in performance psychology.

Douglas Barba, Ph.D., is a sport psychologist and professor of performance psychology at National University, and he’s been teaching and consulting in the field for more than two decades. He explains that the psychology of performance grew out of sports psychology research: scholars began to see the potential of theories being applied beyond athletic performance.

“(It’s about) the benefit of using mental skills in a more timely and effective way,” says Barba. “It’s a growing and expanding profession.”

Adding further credibility to this field, the Association of Applied Sports Psychology (AASP) now offers a certification in mental performance consulting. Barba says every major league baseball team employs at least one specialist in performance and adds that the U.S. military is the number-one employer of these consultants.

“We’re a helping profession,” says Barba. He continues that performance psychology professionals help their clients move beyond their expectations “… to help them find success they never imagined.”

Beyond Sports: Mental Performance is Key in Other Fields, Too

In years past, no matter where they ended up working, professionals in this growing field may have earned a sports psychology degree. Many of the concepts behind a psychology of performance degree are similar, if not exact: it’s primarily a broadening of where these skills can be used and on what type of clients. To illustrate how mental performance applies beyond the field or the court, Barba refers to a few surgeries he had last year.

“When you are getting ready for a surgery, you want your surgeon to be on top of their game,” he says. “Those places (operating rooms) are more important than where you make a free-throw or a putt.”

He said that performance psychology is applicable to performing artists: dancers, musicians, actors. Business leaders also can benefit. When considering how this might fit into a corporate setting, think about positions that might require someone to reach goals regularly. Let’s use a salesperson as an example of someone who could benefit from a mental performance consultant.

“If you understand the theories behind motivation, it can help you create a more motivating climate,” Barba says.

Motivation is also key to the military. The United States Armed Forces has long embraced sports psychology. For example, the Department of Defense established the Total Force Fitness (TFF) program to prepare members of the military for deployments and other active duty. TFF takes a holistic approach and recognizes the connection between mind and body. On the psychology side, the AASP lists these topics as especially important to the military:

  • Building confidence.
  • Goal-setting.
  • Attention control.
  • Energy management.
  • Imagery.

As you can see, the evidence-based practices that work in sports are equally effective in other environments. We’ll explore some of those in more depth later in this article. But first, let’s discuss a professional credential — beyond a performance or sports psychology degree —  you’ll need to work in this capacity.

What is a Certified Mental Performance Consultant (CMPCⓇ)?

Many students of performance psychology have a goal to earn the CMPC designation. The AASP provides an official description of this professional credential on its website:

“The Certified Mental Performance Consultant demonstrates to clients, employers, colleagues, and the public at large that an individual has met the highest standards of professional practice, including completing a combination of educational and work requirements, successfully passing a certification exam, agreeing to adhere to ethical principles and standards, and committing to ongoing professional development.”

Achieving this status, according to AASP, “signifies the highest standard of education and training in the psychological aspects of sport science.” To become a CMPC, you must have a master’s or doctoral degree in sports psychology or a closely related field, like performance psychology.

(It’s important to note that becoming a CMPC doesn’t make one a sports psychologist; providing psychological services requires licensure, which varies by locality.)

Who Uses Certified Mental Performance Consultants and Why?

As Barba noted, CMPCs work with athletes and teams, members of the military, performers, and business professionals. Other individuals or organizations who might opt to enlist a mental performance professional include high school athletic departments, university athletic departments, Olympic athletes/teams, and youth sports organizations.

The AASP offers a list of reasons why someone might want to work with a CMPC (or why parents might wish to hire one for their youngsters):

  • Lack of confidence during practice or games.
  • Perform better in practice than in competition.
  • Looking to gain a competitive edge.
  • Lost confidence or motivation after an injury.
  • Struggling to start or continue an exercise program.

At first glance, those bullets may seem associated with sports, but if you swap out “game” or “competition” for “a show” “a recital” or “a big presentation” it’s easy to see how these skills can be tailored to other professions or performance events.

Barba says anxiety is a common concern for public speakers and performers. Mental skills training can benefit those who are feeling the pressure of the stage or front of the boardroom when facing an audience, large or small. An AASP press release further explains that many of the issues affecting elite athletes are also experienced by professional performers, down to returning to work after an injury.

Dr. Sharon Chirban, a performance consultant for the Boston Ballet, Boston Symphony, and several opera singers, says in the release, “This grouping of people tends to be perfectionistic, so tolerating failure is often quite difficult. We work together to build strategies to manage perceived setbacks.”

When you think of teams, you might first picture a group in matching uniforms on the field, but work teams can often use coaching to perform better together and individually. The Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM) sees more and more HR consultants working sports principles into their coaching. In SHRM’s 2011 article “Sports Psychology Finds a Niche in the Workplace,” consultant Jim Taylor — who also is an Ironman triathlete — explains the connection between sports and business: “…all types of performance require fundamentally the same things.” One of the first steps he takes with his corporate clients “is to help them see themselves as world-class performers, not just as businesspeople.”

Some of the issues Taylor and his colleagues might see in their corporate performance consulting include:

  • Low productivity.
  • Poor performance.
  • Loss of enjoyment.
  • Inability to focus.
  • Team conflict.
  • High turnover.

Finally, as mentioned earlier, the United States Armed Forces is the top employer of CMCPs. Many times these professionals are civilians who work for agencies contracted by the government. An example of a position with the military could be providing mental skills training to elite military recruits. Additionally, coping and resilience-building techniques rooted in sports and performance psychology can be used as prevention of — rather than treatment for — stress caused by trauma.

You can learn more about career opportunities with a performance or sports psychology degree on our blog.

What Will You Learn in a Performance Psychology Program?

A performance psychology master’s degree program will typically be well-rounded, including courses in the psychology and science of sport, as well as classes that cover practical and people skills, such as counseling, communications, and ethics. For example, a few course titles in National’s program — which is offered both on campus and as an online degree — include:

  • Sport/Performance Psychology.
  • Organizational Behavior.
  • States of Adult Development.
  • Behavioral Research.
  • Performance Psychology in Corporate Populations.
  • Motor Behaviors.
  • Theories of Behavior Change.

Most programs will also include a hands-on element, such as required fieldwork. National University students living in or near San Diego, California, have the option of getting this real-world experience on campus at The Center for Performance Psychology. Those pursuing online degrees are able to participate in these experiences through video-conferencing, or they can also choose to find opportunities with local athletic groups, arts organizations, or businesses.

Who is a Typical Psychology of Performance Student?

A master’s program in the psychology of performance may be a logical next step for someone who has earned an undergraduate sports psychology degree, but this field could also appeal to people with any educational or professional experience.

“There’s not one typical student,” says Barba. At National University, he sees people with many different backgrounds and career goals in his performance psychology classes, including coaches, parents, or those who plan to earn a doctorate degree in psychology. “There are students in their 20s, and there are students in their 60s.”

He adds that the common factor is simply a matter of interest in helping people. “It’s about pushing people to be their best selves,” says Barba. “That’s what I push for my students.”

The Future of Performance Psychology

Barba explains that as more research and literature are released, the performance psychology field will continue to gain recognition as a profession. And he’s in a good place to be part of that advancement. National University’s Carlsbad, California campus is home to The Center for Performance Psychology. Here, students and researchers work with local high school and college athletes and their coaches “to foster coaching and performance excellence.” Through its various workshops, events, and training programs, Barba says the Center educates the local community about the ways they can use performance psychology.

This Center also publishes a quarterly journal which shares the latest studies with the general public. For example, issue eleven of the journal focuses on the emotional impact of injuries. “The idea is to take the research out of the ivory halls of academia and into a digestible format,” he says.

And people are paying attention to these positive results, both those who would benefit from the services and those who wish to enter the field as a practitioner. The AASP, which was founded in 1986 with 138 charter members, now has more than 1,600 members in more than 39 countries. AASP explains a big part of this growth is the rising focus on improving public health, and perhaps that’s why performance psychology has also found a home in the workplace.

It’s an exciting time to be in the field of performance psychology; it’s evolving and gaining ground and finding a solid place in a variety of professional settings. If helping people and teams perform to the best of their abilities — and then some — appeals to you, studying the psychology of performance may be an ideal choice for you. You can learn more about National University’s Master of Arts in Performance Psychology on our program page.

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