football is pleased to announce a very exciting exclusive interview
with leading Melbourne Sports Psychologist Michelle Pain.
Michelle as part of her many career credits "ran
the sport psych testing at the AFL Draft Camp" (1997) and is a
wealth of knowledge on the "relatively" new science of Sports
Psychology. She is now running her own Sports Psychology Seminars for
wants to improve their sporting performance" both elite and
non-elite sports people alike. To further demonstrate her dedication
she has invented her own unique highly
effective, easy to use modern-day tool to ensure all sports people
attain their peak sporting performance called Pocket Sports
Psychology. (More about that later ... AND a chance to WIN one.
takes the time to give us an insight into Sports Psychology and particularly
how AFL football clubs, players & staff have handled the science.
At one point she even demonstrates her current knowledge of the game
and sets me straight on a slight error by me.
Firstly, Michelle ... Thank-you for joining us on Talking Football.
Straight "off the
bat" I must confess I'm a complete novice when it comes to the
field of Sport Psychology. However, the topic absolutely fascinates me.
really pleased to be talking to you and your Talking Football readers.
Sport psychology, when I first started out, wasn’t even a profession
and I reckon I’m the luckiest person in the world doing something I
really love, and it’s fantastic fun to be working with people who
really want to improve themselves.
In a past life I was a Television sales person for Myer ... How cool
is that I got to watch the cricket all day in summer. Can you give us a
little history on your past - sporting or non-sporting ... say Pre-
In what seems like another lifetime ago, I was a track and field
athlete at my local club and I grew up around people who were
Nationally and Internationally ranked athletes (as well as those of us
who were just in it to see how far we could go).
I was probably clever, but not brilliant at school. I had no real idea
what I wanted to do but my Mum took me to a couple of Open Days at
universities and I decided I wanted to do something in sport. I changed
my Humanities focused line of study to Science. I was aiming for Human
Movement Studies (now it’s called Exercise Sciences) but didn’t
quite get the marks. I ‘fell’ into Psychology instead.
When I think of the term Psychology I instantly think about the
brain, then probably wrongly think of the term psychiatry. As Sport
Psychology is relatively new to me and possibly many of our readers.
Can you please give us an outline as to what exactly Sport Psychology
You’re close…sport psychology is about looking at the way an
athlete is thinking, to help them improve their performance and
enjoyment in sport. Sport psychologists help athletes and coaches think
better by teaching them ways to get rid of distractive or destructive
patterns of thinking, so that what is left is an achievable plan of
What drew you
specifically to the field of Sport Psychology?
One of my best friends was selected to represent Australia and she
found that although she performed really well in trials here in
Australia, on a bigger stage she was badly affected by nerves and never
really showed the talent she had. It got me thinking that I’d like to
help people like my friend.
has its highlights ... Can you discuss your career highlights so far?
Looking back over my life, I have a history of seeing something missing
and saying, ‘well, I could give it go – why not?’ and
I reckon I’ve come up with some good solutions. I think I’ve made a
significant contribution to my profession in a number of ways.
When I was in my second year of a Psychology degree at Monash
University, thinking about helping athletes perform better in spite of
their nerves, I made an appointment to see the Head of the Department
to see where he knew I could study something related to sport. He said
there wasn’t anything like that in Australia – probably only in
America. When I finished my degrees and got a job teaching psychology,
I had an entrepreneurial Head of Department who, when I suggested
creating the first sport psychology coursework Masters degree in
Australia, encouraged me to do so. As a result of having a postgraduate
pathway, the Australian Psychological Society finally allowed the
creation of ‘sport psychology’ as a specialist title for
psychologists wanting to work specifically with athletes and coaches.
A little bit later, I noticed that AFL football clubs who were thinking
about drafting a young player would have them fill out a questionnaire
(or two), but if the same player was being courted by several clubs,
they’d need to fill out (often the same) multiple questionnaires. It
got me thinking that it might be better if they had to do this only
once – the best questionnaire, the TAIS, is 122 items long, taking
half an hour or more to do – so I approached the AFL to see if they
could include ‘psychological testing’ as part of their process at
the Draft Camp. Permission was given in 1997 for me (and my team from
Monash University) to run the psych testing component for the first
I’ve also run about 6 or 7 annual sport psychology conferences (which
are designed for sport psychologists to share ideas and network, but
are open to anyone interested in sport). Networking is an important
part of career development, as is serving on committees. ‘Being where
the decisions are made’ is a crucial career step.
Lastly, I think it’s expensive to see a sport psych – probably
prohibitively so for most people – so I wanted to make it more
affordable for my clients. (If you look back and see how many years of
tertiary study sport psychs do, and the amount of professional
development that goes into the skill of a sport psych, you’ll
understand why the fees are steep.) I charge less than the APS rate (my
fee is currently $125/hour and the APS fee is $261/hour, for instance)
and I do this because sport psychology is not on the schedule for a fee
rebate from Medicare like other specialisations within psychology.
Because I think there are ways that we (psychologists generally, and
sport psychologists specifically) can help people if we too think
differently, I’ve ‘invented’ something to help people use the
principles of psychology to help themselves, but in an affordable way.
More on my invention later…
every field Sport Psychology I'm sure has its "roots" &
"founding or famous personalities". Can you discuss its
"roots"? With any key "founding or famous personalities"
Sport psychology has a pretty recent history but some of my heroes are
Rainer Martens (USA) and Lew Hardy (UK), and I’m very lucky to count
John Kerr (Netherlands) as a mentor and friend. (If you are interested
in seeing the development of theories of anxiety in sport, I recommend
you start here.) In Australia, our profession was or is well served by
Denis Glencross (WA), Tony Morris (Vic) and Peter Terry (Qld).
Personally I love my job I get to do great interviews like this,
sure beats watching the cricket. You .. meet famous & interesting
people. Any names you are prepared to drop, any famous or interesting
athletes you have worked with ... just between you and me.
Associated with the psych testing at the 1997 Draft Camp, I also gave a
sport psychology talk to the Academy squad (15 and 16 year olds, I
think) and there was a young lad there who was just so keen to know how
to help himself become a better player. He asked lots of questions and
really wanted to understand himself better His attitude really
impressed me – it’s what I wish all my athletes had – it was that
desire to absolutely leave no stone unturned. He was talking about his
love of the game, and how he hoped he’d be picked by the team he
supported as a youngster, and I wished him luck and thought, ‘Gee, I
hope he gets picked by that team – I reckon he’s a future
captain’ and sure enough, this year that dream finally came true for
him. Good for you, Cameron Ling, I knew you could do it!
My first football coach (sorry Dad) always fancied himself as a bit
of a Psychologist. However, what educational commitments does it take
to become a Sport Psychologist?
It’s a really long haul, so you’ve got to be committed to it all.
Firstly, you need to do an accredited sequence of psychology (ie
within an Arts or Science degree, usually) – that’s three years
minimum; then a fourth year (either a Graduate Diploma or an Honours
year, and if you’re lucky you’ll be at a uni that allows you to
start doing something such as a thesis, or practicum, in sport psych at
this stage); then a two year coursework Masters degree in sport
psychology (these are only offered at a few institutions in Australia
and usually have small intake numbers); and then finally two years of
supervised study. If you are interested in teaching at university, a
PhD on top of this is preferred (ie an extra 2 years fulltime, or
equivalent part time study). I did a PhD (but it was in the days before
the supervised practice was mandated) so I was at university longer
than in primary and secondary school combined!
When doing some research for the questions, I could not help but sit
up and take notice of the "Sports Psychology Terminology" ...
can you talk a little about that terminology
1/ Goal Setting
This is usually where you
help in the athlete’s or player’s preparation for sport. It
involves working out where the client wants to go with their sport, and
what plans they have for achieving that goal. Sometimes the goal needs
to more clearly defined, sometimes there are competing goals that need
to be prioritised…
2/ Imagery or Visualisation
important for an athlete or player to be able to clearly see themselves
performing in various situations so they can mentally rehearse how they
might respond to various situations (eg needing to show more effort,
needing to complete something technical in their routine etc). This is
what we call ‘visualisation’. ‘Imagery’ is where one uses
images (pictures in one’s head) to represent something. For instance,
we might imagine a green ball of light rotating around the site of an
injured limb or body part, and we might imagine that the ball of light
starts off small and spins slowly, but gets bigger over time as it
collects the all the feelings of pain. One might imagine that spinning
ball moving up the limb or up the body until it you can imagine it
moving through one’s head and spinning out of your body, taking all
the pain with it. One might imagine oneself then being bathed in gold
light (representing healing), and then a blue light (representing
confidence), and a red light (representing determination)… etc.
Imagery is where you think of an object to represent something else,
and you build it into a picture that leaves one feeling more empowered.
3/ Focus &
Focus and flow are almost
the direct opposite in meaning to a sport psychologist! When one
focuses, one pays attention to the things that matter (and by
definition, not pay attention to the things that don’t matter).
Sometimes a coach telling an athlete/player to ‘focus’ doesn’t
actually help – sometimes ‘trying harder’ makes things
worse. In that instance, what the coach is really requiring the
athlete/player to do is relax and play more instinctively. This is
‘flow’, where performances are automatic and less attention is paid
to technique or possible outcome of the performance.
4/ Have I missed anything?
Most of my clients are prompted to come and see me because they
aren’t performing to the best of their ability due to nerves. I work
a lot with junior athletes/players, in a range of sports. I like
working with young people because if you can teach them some skills
that they might not have previously been exposed to, they can use them
in a wider context (ie exam preparation etc) in addition to their
sport. It can also save a lot of time and frustration, getting these
things sorted out early.
Sorry I've never visited a Sports Psychologist ... the way I played
Cricket or Footy I probably should have. Is there a "standard set
of questions" you ask the athletes? Are you looking for one key
point over another?
Everyone who wants to improve their sporting performance could benefit
from seeing a sport psychologist. We’re there for everyone, not just
the elite players. You should know that you’ll be up for usually an
hour long session. Here, I get the athlete to tell me what prompted
them to contact me. It may be more than one issue that they’ve
identified. I get them then to fill out a short questionnaire – we
psychologists love questionnaires! The benefit is that our clients are
being asked a list of standard questions – in this case it is about
how much experience they have in using 7 areas of sport psychology
(confidence, coping with negative emotions, generating positive
emotions, attitude, imagery, motivation and attentional control). The
client draws up the profile to see what their responses to the
questionnaire says is their problem (usually this matches what
they’ve already told me, but it might indicate more than one issue),
and then we prioritise what they want to work on. In this session, I
usually go through each of the 7 categories to give them strategies for
improving themselves, and we work together on strategies to overcome
the one they say is the issue. It’s a really practical session, so
they should walk out of there with a concrete plan of action.
Now lets talk
AFL football. Sorry! Most of our readers have a one track mind. I
noticed on your website you said you have worked with some AFL club/s,
can you share with us who & in what capacity?
In 1997 when I ran the sport psych testing at the Draft Camp, very few
Clubs really knew the value of the information we collected, so I ran a
few sessions with the recruiters on the key features they should be
looking for on the profile that is made up from a player’s responses.
Some of them still felt a little unsure, so I worked as a consultant
with the recruiters after the Daft Camp to help them prioritise their
selections on the basis of the sort of criteria they were after for
their club. Of course, the sport psychology information is just one
type of information they receive, so they use the feedback I gave them
in conjunction with other decisions they were making on the type of
player they needed. I worked with one club over several years, and
other clubs I helped for one year. I always aimed to do myself out of a
job, so I’m interested in training the club personnel up so they can
make these decisions for themselves in the future.
Following on from 1997, one of my students wanted to follow up on a
research idea for his fourth year thesis on looking at the
psychological style of AFL players, so we got permission from 10 AFL
Clubs to test their firsts and seconds players to see if there were
differences between forwards, midfield and backline players. It was a
really interesting study, but more importantly, it showed to us the
value of two new subscales that were added to the TAIS (the
questionnaire used at the Draft Camp) that we really didn’t have much
data on at the time of the Draft Camp. To me, the ‘performance under
pressure’ subscale was an absolute ripper! Over time, it has
shown that Brownlow and Norm Smith medalists come from those people who
score in a particular way on this subscale. And yet, to the best of my
knowledge, the people who took over running the psych testing at the
Draft Camps after 1997 only used the original TAIS questionnaire, and
not the improved one with the two new subscales. Sacrilege! I tried to
agitate the Clubs and the AFL to request it, to no avail.
Now please, please feel free to give away a few secrets. How do AFL
clubs use Sport Psychology? How advanced do you think they are? Do you
think we can learn anything from any other sports or countries?
It may surprise you to
know that Australian sport psychologists are amongst the best in the
world. It has been attributed to our superior training – the
fact that we are trained to be able to read research and evaluate data,
that we work with athletes in sporting settings and come up with
practical solutions that suit the situation, and work on our ability to
teach others how to do what we do (ie to do ourselves out of a job).
Most other countries are able to do one or two of these things, but not
usually all three. In my particular field, good work is coming from the
UK, where they are pouring lots of dollars into preparing their
athletes for the London Olympics.
Some of my colleagues
have been lucky enough to work with teams on more than the consultancy
basis that I have, so they would be better placed to talk about what
goes on at a club from day to day. I will say that, if they are like
me, some of their best work will be with the coaches, rather than the
players, in terms of ‘presenting well’, ‘dealing with stress’,
and ‘keeping the message consistent’, but this depends entirely how
receptive the coach is to receiving this form of assistance. Some
coaches think they know it all already. When I’ve worked with teams
(in other sports), a lot of my time was spent on non-sport issues
revolving around lifestyle (eg dealing with the myriad of commitments
an elite athlete faces, relationship counseling etc) and on educating
the players on general themes within sport psychology. Then, those for
whom I’ve struck a chord will follow up with me to help them in their
Most of our readers like to think their club is "the
best"! Do you feel any club/s are more advanced in the field of
Sorry, I can’t answer
that one because I don’t know what goes on in many clubs, but I have
observed the mental skill level of players has increased over the
years. In the ‘olden days’ , the first 20 minutes of a Grand
Final was just a series of fumbles and turn overs because players were
too distracted by the crowd and the sense of the occasion. These days,
it’s really rare to see that. What I will say is that it doesn’t
matter how ‘rich’ or ‘poor’ a club is, a sport psych works with
the players and coaches without the need for fancy equipment, so it’s
possible to get maximum effects for very little outlay.
This time of
the year many supporters turn their attention to the AFL Draft because
sadly their team has missed out on the finals ... trust me I have for
the last 4-5 years. Again, I noticed on your website you talked a
little about the AFL draft. In AFL drafting terms what in your
experience do AFL clubs look for?
Each club is usually looking for similar, but slightly different
things. It may depend on the culture of the club (or the patience of he
coach) as to how they might handle a player who is ‘a little bit
different’ or if they come with some sort of baggage. It might
depend on what sort of support they can offer.
Few clubs have players who are natural leaders, but he TAIS can
identify this. You would also want coachable players, not those who
think they know it all already. You want players who are not too quiet,
who’ll call for the ball and speak up at team meetings, and who offer
verbal support to team mates. Mostly though, you’d want players
who are good at reading the play and making quick (correct) decisions
as to how to dispose of the ball, and were good under pressure. These
were all things the TAIS could reveal, if you knew what to look for.
AFL football is a very
"score-board" driven sport. Ultimately there is only one
premiership so in theory one winner. Do you feel that they (AFL
Football Clubs) over emphasis one criteria over another in terms of
No, actually I’m
OK with the idea of striving for perfection (or ‘better perfection
that the other teams’). If it were easy, everyone would have one! The
more things you work on getting right on the day, the less things are
likely to go wrong, so this perpetual striving is just part of sport
and it’s probably what makes it so attractive (because it’s such a
As my wife is a
school teacher she particularly wanted me to ask you a question about
teaching (I told her the interview was nothing to with myschool
website) ....However, do potential draftee's come well prepared or do
most of the tactics & techniques of Sport Psychology need to be
taught? If they need to be taught can you talk a little about that.
Players who come through Academy squads have so much better training
and resources available to them, but even players who haven’t had
formal sport psychology training can still read good books or use good
resources on their own. I recommend a free website to all my clients
- where you can sign up for their bi-monthly newsletter (or search
their archived newsletters for a theme).
I’ve got an
invention called ‘Pocket Sport Psychology’ that
is extremely reasonable. It is content that gets downloaded to your
iPod or mp4 player. They are short movies (each less than 2 minutes)
that a player can listen to whenever they want to, on their own
equipment. There are a selection of tracks (11 of them in the sport
theme) to choose, depending on the situation (eg building confidence,
dealing with set backs, coping with injury etc), and a CD will be
posted out to you for $32.50. Check out my website at www.pocketsportpsychology.com
the public perception and reality are two different things ...
sometimes AFL footballers appear very robotic and sometimes for want of
a better term "simple & single focused" You know the old clichés
"lets take it one week at a time" etc. Does intelligence play
any part in the Sport Psychology?
Not intelligence, but
‘insightfulness’. Sport psychology is all about looking at patterns
of behaviours and thoughts, and doing again those things that are
helpful to performance, and stop doing those things which aren’t
helpful to performance.
Clubs don’t want
to give any other team an advantage, so they all practice not saying
much. To give responses that gives nothing away is actually pretty
standard practise to use Ben Cousins name in every AFL interview, on
the old theory "Benny Boy" sells newspapers ... not so
long ago he found himself in hospital for over use of No-Do's or
caffeine supplements. Can you overdose on Sport Psychology?
Just to clarify, I don’t believe Ben was in hospital for over-using a
caffeine supplement. I’m under the impression it was because he mis-managed
the dose of the sedatives he took to counter the effects of the
caffeine supplement (but I could be wrong…) (*Ed
- Nope you are right ... I stand corrected)
Hmmmm, overdose on sport psychology…I don’t think so (unless you do
it so you don’t have a life, but I’ve not been accused of
it…yet)…and it’s legal!
Clubs are looking for every advantage possible, so I think the science
bit is only just getting started to be honest. I think the advances in
medicine and treatment of injury is improving all the time. I think the
better education in specific fitness training has led to some big
improvements in teams’ performances.
Just for a sporting "Mr Joe Average" like myself... Ok my
batting average was in single digits, honestly I was a 4th change spin
bowler. How can I use Sport Psychology to improve my performance on the
field? And, are there possibly any techniques I can use in the business
world ... AFL Website management is a very competitive field.
Usually there are small things that everyone can do to make a
significant improvement to performance and/or consistency. I would put
a sign somewhere where you see it regularly, reminding you of something
that you want to improve.
A generic one I’d recommend is ‘Is what you are thinking or doing
right now helping you become the best ___________ you can be?’
(fill in the blank to make it either a sport or business-related
message) to keep you on track and to minimise disruptive of time
I reckon the formula is: Success = talent + motivation + perseverance +
‘being in the right place at the right time’ (ie luck).
I’ve found that the more often I’ve put myself in a position to
take advantage of opportunities, the luckier I’ve become. That’s
part of the philosophy of the athletes I work with – keep trying
to put yourself in front of the selector’s eyes as many times as you
can by being mentally and physically prepared. Plus, I learned that
‘there’s usually more than one way to skin a cat’, so think
Michelle for your time to help us understand Sport Psychology and
particularly in relation to AFL Footy. Good luck with your venture, and
again where can our readers find you?
Thanks Michael, and good luck to all your readers in their own sporting
endeavours. My Pocket Sport psychology can be found at www.pocketsportpsychology.com,
and if it interests anyone to attend a sport psychology conference in
late January, just send me an email from that website.
Your Sporting Performance ... Put
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