Essay, assessing the psychology needs of athletes: interviews and questionnaires

Dr. Andrew Chappell BSc (Hons), MSc, PhD, RNutr (Sport/Exercise)

The modern elite athlete has a whole team of professionals at their disposal to enhance sporting performance. Sports psychologist work as part of a team including doctors, physios, nutritionists, trainers and coaches with the aim of maximise athletic performance. Although sports psychology is often perceived as a relatively new addition to this list of professionals the practice dates to the turn of the 20th century with the early work of Norman Tiplett (Weinberg & Gould 2003). Although the effects of sports psychology may not be directly measurable compared to the effects of strength or skills training, it is generally accepted that elite athletes require strong psychological skills to attain high levels of performance (Weinberg & Gould 2003). Creating a positive and constructive mindset for performance is therefore important, in my experience the difference between winners and losers often comes down to grey matter, rather than a lack of talent. So as a coach how do you go about assessing your athletes mental state, to ensure high levels of performance?

“in my experience the difference between winners and losers often comes down to grey matter, rather than a lack of talent.”

When it comes to psychological training coaches should aim to induce psycho-behavioural changes in athletes to enhance: performance, quality of the sport experience and for athlete personal growth (Vealey 1994). The approach taken to induce these psycho-behavioural, is often based on the psychologists or coaches own training, background and professional philosophy. However, prior to any intervention, Beckmann and Kellman (2003) noted the need for effective psychological needs assessment in order to implement appropriate interventions particularly in top level athletes. Interviews, psychological tests (questionnaires), observations, performance profiling and a combination of these techniques are commonly used (Beckmann & Kellmann 2003). The importance of building rapport between the coach or psychologist, and athlete or the notion of “just hanging out” is well documented and influences the effectiveness of any interventions (Fifer et al. 2008; Tonn & Harmison 2004). Coaches must therefore first establish trust and working relationships, athletes and trainers before they can hope to be effective. You can’t expect someone to open up to you about straight out the gates, particularly if you’ve never met the athlete before, would you?

“Coaches must therefore first establish trust and working relationships, athletes and trainers before they can hope to be effective.”

Thereafter interview techniques allow an athlete to open-up, and “tell their own stories” and build rapport (Anderson 2000) Moreover questionnaire can and I would recommend should be used to corroborate assumptions made during interviews. The practices underpinning sports psychology are based on Poczwardowski et al’s (1998)11 points for designing, implementing, and evaluating psychological services for personal growth and performance enhancement in a sports setting. The 11 points include: professional boundaries; professional philosophy; making contact; assessment; conceptualizing athletes’ concerns and potential interventions; range, types and organization of service; program implementation; managing the self as an intervention instruments; programmw and consultant evaluation; conclusions and implications and leaving the setting (Poczwardowski et. al 1998). It is beyond the scope of this paper to give an in-depth analysis of all Poczwardowski et. al’s (1998) 11 points, however a brief description of the key points to this paper will be discussed.

Sports psychology pratice, 9 relevant points

  1. Be aware of your own limitations and don’t work out with your professional boundaries
  2. The approach to sports psychology, will dependent on your own philosophy, background or training. E.g humanist, psychodynamic, behavioural.
    1. This will influence if the psychologist may be more concerned with the athlete winning, or the athletes wellbeing, and any interventions the implement.
  3. Make contact and build rapport with your athletes to gain trust.
  4. Be aware that all athletes, and teams are different.
  5. Carry out interviews
  6. Use psychometric questionnaires to help with assessments
  7. Assess the effectiveness of any intervention or programme
  8. Reflect on how you can improve practice
  9. Make changes based on reflections, to improve service delivery

When providing a service Poczwardowski et. al (1998) states that a psychologicst must know their own professional boundaries. A SP must understand that they have limits based on education and training, or as my good Friend Vicky Mirceta AKA ‘the tiny titan’ would say, people need to know when to “stay in their lane”, if you’re out of your depth it’s possible to do more harm than good. So be aware of the boundaries to your expertise and knowledge and be ready to refer a client if you do not have the necessary expertise to deal with a situation. Trust me you’ll get respect from the coach and athlete you’ve referred. It’s not bad for business.

The importance of building trust and rapport with athletes, coaches and trainers is well documented (Fifer et. al 2008). A SP must build trust, respect, and credibility and establish good working relationships in order to operate effectively. The role of assessment is the most significant in determining the needs of an athlete, coaches, organisations and allows the coach to identify what interventions might be needed. Since every team and athlete is unique, any mental skills programme or intervention must be tailored on a case by case basis (Fifer et. al 2008). The effectiveness of any intervention therefore will be determined by how well they are able to evaluate the individual’s needs and implement changes based on this assessment. It does however seem prudent though to point out that athletes dislike the use of paperwork when carrying out assessment (Beckmann & Kellmann 2003). The final point relevant to this essay is consultant evaluation., Poczwardowski et. al (1998) states that there is always room for improvement in order to consistently improve a service. We should always seek to reflect on our experience and seeking to learn, and evaluating your service ensures the consistent evolution of a practice.

Once rapport has been established a coach must carry out a need’s assessment. This is often done via interview. During an interview it is important to promote active listening: sit/ stand squarely to the athlete, ensure an open posture, lean towards the athlete, maintain eye contact but don’t stare & stay relaxed (Egan 1994).  Yukelson (2001) maintained that there are three stages of listening: active, inattentive, and arrogant. Clearly, it’s important to employ the former rather than latter something that can sometimes be an issue for natural extraverts. After the completion of an interview psychometric questionnaire can be used, I’d suggest the “athletic coping skills nventory-28” (ACSI-28) (see appendix 1) (Smith et. al 1995) to help evaluate any assumptions made during an interview.

Case study example of a needs assessment

The athlete in question was a national level sprinter and was performing at an almost professional level. After performing a semi-structured interview, (a 45-minute recorded interview, which had 5 predetermined questions, see appendix 2), I made several assumptions based on key themes that cropped up during the interview.  During the interview there was a recurrent theme that the athlete was consistently worried about injuries, and almost seemed to lacked belief in their abilities. This was illustrated by the fact that when faced with the task of performing at a high-profile event, the athlete lacked the confidence to perform and felt outclassed despite being a British champion. Although the ACSI-28 did not directly reflect this. a competitive anxiety questionnaire could be used prior to an event may show the association more effectively. Remember though athletes dislike paperwork, and you may not want to interfere with pre event rituals.

Another interesting point that helps reinforce this lack of self- belief is the fact the athlete pointed out that they “perhaps fear success” they don’t believe they can be successful despite their obvious talents, and they were unsure how they would handle any success. Self–esteem enchantment such as self-serving bias or minimising the amount of negative information filtering through can be effective at improving self-belief (Horn 2002). Positivity is important to override negative reinforcement. In my experience few benefits come from an over critical approach and bullying in the classic drill instructor sense. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be realistic, hubris comes with its own problem’s but focusing on positives rather than negatives is very often a much more effective strategy.

“hubris comes with its own problem’s but focusing on positives rather than negatives is very often a much more effective strategy.”

The athlete in question had great resilience overcoming low points in their career when faced with injuries. This showed the athlete had good mental toughness and was able to overcome adversity, this assumption corresponded well with the ACSI-28 where the athlete scored well above the average. Thus, highlighting the benefits of using a tool like the ACSI-28, something that could easily be incorporated into any pre-client screening programme. It’s important to know what your dealing with ahead of any new coach athlete relationship and information is key. Despite overcoming injuries, the athlete did tend to be overly concerned with worry about the reoccurrence of injury and ability to compete with so called “big name” athletes. The athlete admitted that perhaps the pressure of certain situation had gotten to them despite previously thinking they had no problems with pressure. This is an important point, since your athlete may never have verbalised how they deal with competitive stress. They may think they can manage stress, but have they thought about it, or spoke about it?

The athlete demonstrated a high level of commitment and motivation to take part in their sport and maintained the love and excitement of their sport. This was illustrated well as the athlete described the enjoyment of even the most mundane task when getting ready for events. The athlete also described their ability to maintain high levels of concentration and focus during their preparation phase of an event, as one of their strongest mental strengths and regularly used imagery to help them concentrate and focus.

“Imagery is often a skill I get athletes I work with to practice……. You’ve already performed the task a 1,000 times in your head, all that’s required is to carry it out physically.”

Of biggest concern was the athlete’s inability to relax after training and the feeling that they have no time to themselves. With a hectic working, training and travelling schedule and other outside influences affecting them, the athlete reported having trouble getting to sleep. The athlete reported feeling tense, stressed and overwhelmed at times. Relaxation techniques therefore were required pre competition to ensure athletic performance but also for the sake of the athlete’s own well-being. Again, the ACSI-28 seemed to agree with these assumptions. Therefore, I recommended adopting good sleep hygiene practice (avoiding phone usage close to bedtime and the implementation of constant bed times and waking cycles) and deep breathing techniques to reduce anxiety like the ones outlined by Morris & Summer (1995). I regularly practice this myself and works as follows:

Relaxation and breathing techniques

Aim to take three breaths per minute

If possible, lie down in a quite place with your legs raises. Make sure you are comfortable and warm.

  • Inhale for 5 seconds,
  • Hold that inhales for 5 seconds
  • Exhale for 5 seconds,
  • Repeat the process two more times and in a minute you’ll have taken 3 breaths.
  • Practice this over 5 minutes and I find it significantly reduces my heart rate and any anxiety I might have.

Following on from the experience the athlete reflected, discussed and gave feedback on the interview experience as both productive and positive. When carrying out your need’s assessment be sure to use a Dictaphone to ensure nothing is missed and use a quiet room booked to ensure confidentiality for yourself and athlete. In conclusion this paper illustrates the classic approach to applied sports psychology and showed how it can be effective at identifying things like a lack of self-belief and pre competition stress in an athlete. These findings were corroborated by a questionnaire and recommendations for psychological skills training such as imagery and relaxation techniques were made to facilitate an improvement in the athlete’s athletic performance.

If you plan to conduct your own sports psychology needs assessment the questionnaire I used is detailed below along with key references. You don’t have to be a sports psychologist to conduct an interview or carry out a questionnaire, just be aware of your limitations. Don’t over interpret your findings and like everything, remember practice makes perfect. The more you carry out this process the better you’ll get at it. Finally, if sports psychology assessment is something you’re interested in, then get in touch with ProPrep Coaching and we’ll see if we can’t lend you our expertise to help improve your performance. Just follow the sign up today link.

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SMITH, R. E., SCHUTZ, R. W., SMOLL, F. L., & PTACEK, J. T. (1995) Development and validation of a multidimensional measure of sport-specific psychological skills: The Athletic Coping Skills Inventory-28.  Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 17, 379-398.

TONN. E., & HARMISON. R.J. (2004) Thrown to the wolves: a student’s account of her practicum experience. The Sports Psychologist. 18, 324 – 340.

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Appendix 1, Psychological coping questionnaire

Appendix 2 Semi-sturctured athlete interview