22 February 2023

Ask an Expert: Sports Psychology tips with Shayne Hanks 

Athletes’ preparation for competitions mainly involves physical training, but the mental side of sport can be just as crucial to their performance. 

Whether they’re competing at an amateur or professional level, mental skills and resilience help athletes to perform to their full potential – when they need it most. 

In this special series, we speak to Australia’s leading experts for quick tips to give athletes and coaches an edge in competition. 

This week, we spoke to Shayne Hanks, the Founder and Director of Performance Boost, a team of sport and performance Psychologists that assist athletes and performers across Australia. Hanks has worked with professional athletes from the AFL, state and national cricket teams, the NRL, NBL, National Soccer League, National Rugby Union and international golfers. He has also worked with elite amateur athletes from the WA Institute of Sport, the Australian Institute of Sport, the Victorian Institute of Sport and many other regional academies of sport. 

Here are Shayne Hanks’ quick tips and insights on sports psychology. 

What are the biggest challenges that can throw athletes off their game mentally?

Well, when you consider the degree of consequence, and the widespread nature of it, there's really only one challenge that's worth talking about. It's performance anxiety. Almost every aspect of athletic performance comes back to athletes’ ability to manage their anxiety. It’s by far the largest single factor in derailing performance. 

Individual anxiety is a function of what a particular athlete feels threatened by. Anxiety is not a logical emotion, and it's not in many cases, rational. It's a process that's governed by the older structures of our brain. The limbic system is an older part of the brain that governs emotional processes, including anxiety. So those expectations are often not particularly logical or rational. It’s a little different in terms of professional athletes, but even then, the consequences that an athlete can imagine are often far more severe than the reality of what actually happens. If they have played a single bad game, for example, or had a single bad performance, many athletes would be fearful of that, but the reality is that it’s unlikely to result in longer term consequences, even for professional athletes.

What are the main ways athletes can remain calm and focused when nerves set in? Or when distractions occur?

I don't think distractions are the issue. That's an emotional regulation issue rather than a concentration or focus issue. I would suggest that athletes getting distracted speaks to broader issues around frustration, or anxiety, or anger, rather than the distraction itself. So that's probably a symptom of something else rather than the main cause. 

The reality is that when athletes start to become anxious, they need to be able to challenge their own thinking. Anxiety is something that, once it has triggered the fight and flight response, will take some time to subside. It's not something that will quickly dissipate, it probably takes 20 minutes to half-an-hour for a relatively significant anxiety response to dissipate. So, prevention is better than the cure, but the way athletes can do that is to be better at challenging their own thinking and understand the nature of what they feel threatened by. Anxieties cause you to worry about a future threat, you worry that something is going to go wrong. That feels threatening and dangerous, and the older parts of the brain will respond to that with the fight and flight response. So they need to be able to challenge some of that thinking and understand, in a logical way, whether the fears they have are justified, and the probability of those consequences occurring. 

You need to have answered the worries that you have before you compete. Worries take the form of “what if” questions. Like “what if I don’t play well and A, B or C happens?”. The reality is, if you can question that and say “ok, what would actually happen if I didn’t play well?” The most likely outcome will be that the athlete is personally disappointed, but certainly not to the extent they imagined, with other people judging them or feeling let down, and all those sorts of things. That’s not the reality for most people. 

Do you use the same strategies in preparing all athletes, or do you use a tailored approach for each individual? 

It’s a bit of both. We all have fairly similar brains, we tend to forget that we are governed by our brains and that all our brains are relatively similar. There may be some divergence and differences in terms of neurodiversity, but by and large, the main parts of the brain are the same. So, we'll experience things relatively similarly. But then there are individual circumstances and different sports, levels of competition, and degrees of support from family. All of these things will impact an individual athlete. So, of course, all of that needs to be factored into the strategies and interventions for that particular athlete. 

Are there any ways that parents can support/reinforce the mental support you provide to athletes?  

I think the most significant thing that parents can do is reinforce and reward their children, not so much based on outcome, but more around effort, attitude and the energy that they bring to a sport or performance. The vast majority of parents that I work with just want their kids to be happy. And mostly when they're not, it’s because the kid puts an awful lot of pressure on themselves. It's pretty unusual, at least in my experience, for parents to be adding to that. I think it's about parents doing what they normally would, which is expressing unconditional love and rewarding and reinforcing effort. You can reward effort, attitude, body language and support for others. None of those things require a particular athlete to win.

Are there any aspects of sports psychology that are commonly misunderstood?

I think one of the biggest aspects that's misunderstood is probably when former athletes build up a rivalry here or a rivalry there, and suggest that a current athlete is more or less motivated. That's pretty unusual. Professional athletes are pretty professional and there may occasionally be some genuine dislike, but it's a real misnomer for most professional athletes that they're going to want to do better because of some article in the paper. I think that stuff is largely irrelevant. 

Professional athletes are paid, and paid well, to perform well every week. And that's what they're trying to do. So, I think there's an aspect of that getting beaten up by the media and commentators saying that somehow, athletes try harder when they're playing a rival team or player. I don't think that is real to the extent that media commentators suggest. They often talk about an athlete that wanted it more and somehow the wanting made them successful. I would say that that's largely untrue. Often, the more an athlete wants it, the less likely it is to happen, because they get in the way of themselves. 

So, I think motivation is an element that's commonly misunderstood. Most athletes don't require motivation, they don't need a coach to motivate them, they're genuinely well motivated by all of the reasons why they play sport. For the most part, they don't need someone to tell them to fire up or whatever it might be. 

How would you recommend athletes find a balance between developing resilience and looking after their mental health?

Well, resilience speaks to the concept of being able to get up and be resilient to being knocked over. So, resilience doesn't make sense without confronting challenging circumstances. You have to be resilient to in order to maintain effective mental health and wider wellbeing. You can't be resilient if you never get knocked down. 

Resilience only makes sense if you have a broader goal of wellbeing or a broader goal of performance. And when you get knocked down, that's when you need to be resilient to get back up and dust yourself off, and continue in the pursuit of your goal. Whether that goal is performance in the workplace, whether it's performance on the weekend, or in your sport, or whether it's to have an effective mindset of broader wellbeing, that doesn't make sense without having goals to achieve and it doesn't make sense without being resilient. So there is no balance per se, between those two things, but you need to be resilient to have effective mental health. If you don't have resilience, then I think your mental health will suffer. 

You can find out more about Performance Boost here

For further sports psychology resources, please visit:

AIS Mental Health Referral Network


Mental Health Audit

Clearinghouse for Sport 

Sport Performance Psychology

 Orygen Centre for Mental Health 

What works for mental health in sporting teams?

[This content is intended for information purposes only. Australian Taekwondo always recommends seeking professional health advice when starting or changing any exercise, fitness, diet, or nutrition program. This information should not be used as medical advice or a diagnosis.]

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