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People profile: Dr Paul McCarthy, sports psychologist

Psychology lecturer and sports psychologist

Published in Sports Management Mar Apr 2017 issue 130
Read on turning pages | Download PDF of this issue
Dr Paul McCarthy helps athletes to think about competition positively
Dr Paul McCarthy helps athletes to think about competition positively

How do you assist athletes?
As sports psychologists, we aim to re-educate people to interpret events positively. I teach athletes to view emotions as information, rather than direction. When we understand the emotions we’re experiencing, we can better decide what to do with that information.

For example, some people interpret butterflies in their tummy as a sign of worry, but if you think about this feeling as your body preparing itself for a challenge, then this feeling becomes more positive.

Can a negative mindset have a negative impact?
Absolutely. Too much thinking can take you in the wrong direction. We help people to understand which thoughts are helpful and which should be discarded.

Our bodies work less efficiently when we’re in a stressed state, compared to when we’re in a challenged state. If we see a competition as a challenge – which is in our control – and we have the resources to cope, along with sufficient energy and excitement, then our bodies respond better physiologically and psychologically.

What’s the optimum state to be in before a competition?
Each individual has a different response: some will be bouncing off the walls and others might want to do a crossword. Many athletes haven’t worked out what works for them yet and that’s what we try to facilitate. This is why it’s important for children to get used to the sporting context early on.

How important is personality type in sporting success?
All types of personalities can succeed in all sorts of sports, but it has been shown that people who persevere are more likely to get to the top of their sport than others.

Those with a high working memory – who keep a lot in their head – tend to perform worse under stress compared with others.

Single-mindedness can help you succeed in sport, although not necessarily in your life outside sport. This ability to narrow and focus is helpful in individual sports, however could be a disadvantage in a team game.

How can sports managers apply your research?
They should help new members to get what they want. Most people come with a goal, but don’t know how to achieve it. They come with the intention and motivation, but need to be given the strategy, and then feedback, to succeed in their goals, otherwise the intention eventually wears off.

What works universally is simple: support, encouragement, warm feedback, direction and guidance. The people who receive this do exceptionally well. Coaches and instructors need to help people to believe they are the person they wish to become.

Elevate speaker info:

Paul will join a line-up of industry speakers at this year’s Elevate conference, taking place at ExCel, London, on 10–11 May 2017.

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