What do young athletes understand about psychological skills?

This week’s journal club research study was analysed by Cal State East Bay Kinesiology Research Group. They looked at the following paper:

McCarthy, Paul J, Jones, Marc V, Harwood, Chris G, Olivier, Steve. What do young athletes implicitly understand about psychological skills? Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 2010, 4, 158-172.

Given the limited information about the effectiveness of psychological skills training for young athletes, this study seeks to identify what young athletes implicitly understand about goal setting, self-talk, mental imagery and relaxation.  The authors’ goal was to demonstrate both the individual’s current level of understanding, but to also insight into how this understanding develops over time.  A further intention of this study is to help guide the practice of sports psychologist when working with youth, as the authors’ feel that there is limited data on this topic.

What did the study involve?

  • 118 young athletes between the ages of 10-15 years old
  • Athletes participated in a number of sports in England
  • Participants completed open-ended questionnaires in their classrooms with a teacher present
  • Participants wrote answers to the following questions about the four basic psychological skills:
    • “What do you think goal setting means?”
    • “What do you think mental imagery means?”
    • “What do you think self-talk means?”
    • “What do you think relaxation means?”
    • Each question had the generic stem: “I think this means. . .”
    • Data analysis was done following the Inductive Content Analysis technique

What were the main results?

The study provides evidence to support the claim that increasing chronological age was significantly associated with better explanations of psychological skills.  The report provides a detailed description of the content analysis techniques and the statistical calculations.

What can be taken from it?

When sports psychologists choose to engage in psychological skills training with youth athletes, content should be modified to reflect their age and level of development, which is supported in other studies (Munroe-Chandler, Hall, Fishburne, Murphy, & Hall, 2012).  Other studies have shown that in addition to content, motivation is an important consideration in youth PST (Harwood, Cumming, & Fletcher, 2004).

The methodology used brings a drawback to the study.  Relying only on open-ended questions with technical terms may not accurately reflect the actual knowledge by the athletes.  For example, in another study that investigated youth soccer players’ knowledge and use of imagery first defined the terms clearly to the participants prior to questioning their knowledge and use (Munroe-Chandler, Hall, Fishburne, & Strachan, 2007).  Other techniques of investigation have included open-ended questioning in focus groups where the researchers asked about performance techniques used and then related these back to specific psychological skills (Holland, Woodcock, Cumming, & Duda, 2010).  Furthermore, the level of skill in the athlete’s domain and whether they compete in open or closed task sports as these may also influence their use and knowledge of psychological skills (Yu, Fu, & Chan, 2013).  Since the authors’ stated that their goal was to demonstrate how these skills developed over time, a consideration of skill level could have provided further insight.


Harwood, C., Cumming, J., & Fletcher, D. (2004). Motivational profiles and psychological skills use within elite youth sport. Journal of applied sport psychology , 16 (4), 318-332.

Holland, M. J., Woodcock, C., Cumming, J., & Duda, J. L. (2010). Mental qualities and employed mental techniques of young elite team sport athletes. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology , 4, 19-38.

Munroe-Chandler, Hall, C. R., Fishburne, G. J., & Strachan, L. (2007). Where, when, and why young athletes use imagery: An examination of developmental differences. Research quarterly for exercise and sport , 78 (2), 103-116.

Munroe-Chandler, Hall, C. R., Fishburne, G. J., Murphy, L., & Hall, N. (2012). Effects of a cognitive specific imagery intervention on the soccer skill performance of young athletes: Age group comparisons. Psychology of Sport and Exercise , 13 (3), 324-331.

Yu, Q.-H., Fu, A., & Chan, C. (2013). Influence of sport type and skill level on visual imagery perspectives of young athletes. Hong Kong Physiotherapy Journal , 31 (1), 51.


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