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Sport pyschology – the feel good factor

Sport psychology is the study of how psychology influences sports, athletic performance, exercise and physical activity. This month we focus on the ‘feel good’ factor: the relationship between exercise and self-esteem.

We all know that regular

exercise is good for us.

It strengthens our bones

and muscles, keeps our

heart and lungs in good condition,

helps us to relax, can keep our weight

in check and can make us less likely to

get ill. However, exercise can do more

than just give us physical benefits, it

can also boost us psychologically.

Individuals who engage in exercise

often report ‘feeling good’ afterwards,

people can feel energised or just

generally feel happier. The belief that

exercise positively influences mood is

widespread and long standing, with

individuals often claiming that by

‘feeling good’, they often mean they

feel better about themselves after

physical activity. Feeling better about

yourself or self-esteem is often seen as

the single most important measure of

psychological wellbeing.

What is self-esteem?

Firstly, it is important to understand

what self-esteem really is. Self-esteem

can be referred to as the value we

place on aspects of ‘the self ’. It is

closely related to self-concept, which is our identity or a ‘description’ of ourselves. This ‘description’ could be all the information we have gathered

about ourselves in our lives based on our abilities, qualities, traits and roles in life. It is a part of our self that we are aware of and can describe. This self-concept becomes increasingly complex as we mature from infancy to adulthood. Our self-esteem is a self-rating of how well ‘the self ’ is doing.

As a mental construct self-esteem is abstract, not directly observable or measurable and exists only in the mind of each of us; we are the only people who know how we truly feel about ourselves!

Why is it important?

Self-esteem is paramount to our mental

and physical well-being. If people

feel good about themselves, they are

likely to be in better physical and

mental health. Our level of self-esteem

determines how we operate in life –

how we interact with others, such as

our spouses, children, friends and

strangers. Self-esteem can determine

our goals and what we strive for, our

achievements and our satisfaction and happiness in life. It therefore makes

sense that anything you can do to

boost your self-esteem is going to

benefit you.

What is the relationship between exercise and self-esteem?

There are two main approaches in sports

psychology to

looking at the


between exercise and self-esteem. Can you decide which approach you fit into?

One approach

says that self-esteem

can be a motivator

for physical activity.

Individuals who have higher

self-esteem and physical self-worth

are more likely to take part in physical

activity contexts as this is an area

where they are competent and their

self-worth can be maintained. We all enjoy feeling good about ourselves and

are therefore drawn to opportunities

and experiences that enable us to have

high self-ratings. Therefore if you have

higher self-esteem, it can motivate you

to engage in physical activity.

The other approach states that

self-esteem can be changed through

experience that is either positive or

negative, through development in

skills, mastery, success and so on. You

may recognise this approach from PE lessons at school. In this approach self-esteem is seen as an outcome of

physical activity (as opposed to self esteem facilitating engagement in physical activity).

In reality, these two approaches are not mutually exclusive as initial engagement in physical activity could be externally motivated, may lead to enhanced self-perceptions, which, in turn, may motivate subsequent activity.

What does the evidence say?

Reviews of literature in this area do

conclude that physical activity can

enhance physical self-worth and

self-esteem, however the strength of

the effect is less clear. The belief that

exercise just improves self-esteem is

considered too simplistic, it may be

that although exercise can enhance

self-esteem, it may be that this is due to

changes in physical self-perceptions.

What about you?

One of the most

important aspects of sport psychology

is becoming self-aware and learning about yourself. Contemplating your ownself-esteem in relation to your swimming, or any exercise that you participate in, is one that you may or may not have considered before. Try answering some of the following questions to get you thinking.

Consider the last time you engaged

in physical activity:

  1. How did you feel immediately after

    the exercise? 

  2. How did you feel several minutes


  3. How do you feel days later?

  4. Do you notice a difference in your

    mood related to exercise/physical


  5. How do you feel if you don’t


  6. Do you feel differently after a high

    intensity bout of exercise or a gentler

    bout of exercise?

Knowing how you feel about exercise,

and having an awareness of the benefits

it can give you, is the first step to

working on building your self-esteem.

How can I build my self-esteem and protect it?

Your self-esteem can influence your

happiness or success. It can, however, be

swayed by everything from the people

in your lives to your own inner voice.

Here are some tips to help you build up

your own self-esteem through exercise. 

  • Try identifying and challenging any negative self-beliefs about yourself. It can be helpful to practise talking to yourself in the same way you would talk to others.
  • Connect with people who care –

    this can be family members, but

    also people you swim with, friends

    or members of your club. Listen to

    what they say about you, take it on

    board, it can help you to feel good

    about yourself.

  • If you like swimming and enjoy it, then do more of it! Try and focus on

    the process of what you are doing,

    rather than the outcome.

  • Focus on the positives – celebrate your successes! No matter how

    small they may seem to you, take

    time to praise yourself.

  • Keep practising and working on all

    of the above, try and see boosting

    your self-esteem as a habit you can

    work on daily.

Helen Davis

is a sport


consultant who

works with


teams and

coaches on

all aspects

of sporting


Helen has a

BA (Hons) in

Psychology, an

MSc in Sport

and Exercise


and is currently

working towards

chartered status

with the British


Society. She is

also an active

masters and

open water


Find out more: Follow Helen on Twitter @helenDav22453

Next month: How are you

viewing your next performance? As a

challenge or as a threat?

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