(Opinions are my own, retweets are not necessarily an endorsement)

Dr Michelle Pain trained as a psychologist at Monash University in the 1980s, and has practiced as a sport psychologist for over 30 years. As she earns her living working in the tertiary education system at both Victoria University and Deakin University (in Melbourne), she has let her AHPRA membership as a practicing psychologist lapse (meaning she is unable to use the term 'sport psychologist' these days to describe herself, although she is legally able to use the term 'mental skills coach' to describe her work with athletes/players and coaches).

Michelle is keen to work with esports players and teams to assist them - using the same principles of sport psychology - eg cope with stress, make good decisions under pressure, communicate better, regulate emotions etc


I love this interview by Michael Molnar at Talking Footy (unfortunately I can't recall when it was done...2008 or 2009 I think) - it's my favourite! I get the chance to explain what sport psychs do, and I think it stands the test of time... My words are in white.


Talking football is pleased to announce a very exciting exclusive interview with leading Melbourne Sport 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 Sport Psychology. She is now running her own Sport Psychology Seminars for "everyone who 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.


Michelle takes the time to give us an insight into Sport 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. 

Thanks, I’m 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- Sport Psychology.
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 is.
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 action.
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.
Every career 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 time. 

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… 
Normally like 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 "Sport 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

It is 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 & Flow 
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 particular situation.  
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 Sport Psychology?  

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 Sport Psychology?

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 challenge).  
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 – www.competitivedge.com - 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 

Sometimes 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 difficult! 
Its fairly 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 wasting activities.

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 laterally. 

Thank-you 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 Psychology can be found at www.pocketpsychology.com.au, and if it interests anyone to attend a sport psychology conference in December or January, just send me an email from that website.