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Nico van Yperen: ‘There’s no such thing as a mentally weak top-class sportsperson’

06 February 2018
Nico van Yperen, the new professor of Sport & Performance Psychology.
Nico van Yperen, the new professor of Sport & Performance Psychology.

It’s the day after Tata Chess on Tour was held in Groningen. Norwegian world champion Magnus Carlsen was the top of the bill. Professor of Sports Psychology Nico van Yperen is interested in every type of sport, including chess. He is intrigued by the immense pressure under which top-class chess players compete and fascinated by Magnus Carlsen’s response to it. ‘It was one of the things they concentrated on in the wonderful documentary about Carlsen recently broadcast on NPO3. If you didn’t see it, make sure you do!’

Text: Martin Althof / Communication Office UG

Van Yperen is the first professor in the Netherlands to focus primarily on the psychology of sport and performance. He occupies the chair in Sport & Performance Psychology. Which psychological factors and circumstances affect optimum performance and pleasure in sport, and how can you stimulate the mental aspects of sport and performance? And how can you recognize creativity and talent at an early stage?

Role and importance of mental factors

Van Yperen has noticed a growing focus on, and interest in, the role of mental competence in sport. Increasing numbers of mental coaches are being employed to help top-class sportsmen and women peak at the right moment. Cautious steps are even being made in the somewhat conservative world of football. Van Yperen: ‘This was unheard of in 1974. In his book ‘We were the best’, Auke Kok recounted how goalkeeper Jan Jongbloed described the mood of the Dutch squad before the final: “All we really wanted was to go home.” That doesn’t help you to win. We might have been world champions in 1974 if we’d had a good mental coach!’

Interaction between body and mind

The physical and technical aspects of top-class sport receive the most attention. Improving the mental factors is further down the list. Van Yperen explains: ‘Mental factors are hidden away, out of sight and difficult to measure. In addition, mental factors are closely connected with the person’s character and a judgement about mental factors can feel threatening. Finally, it is assumed that mental factors are enhanced by good physical form and good performance. But how is a sportsperson supposed to cope if he/she is not in good physical shape and performing below par? What can you do to start winning again? In situations like this, mental factors can make all the difference.’ Van Yperen is keen to stress that this often relates to just a few minor aspects of the psyche. ‘There’s no such thing as a mentally weak top-class sportsperson. They’re already achieving at a very high level. You only get there by huge physical and effort and a good mentality. But there’s always room for improvement. As a sports psychologist, you work closely with the athlete and the trainer/coach.’

Magnus Carlsen at the Tata Steel Chess Tournament in the Academy Building. A model sportsman capable of performing under pressure, according to Van Yperen. (Photo: Marcel Spanjer)
Magnus Carlsen at the Tata Steel Chess Tournament in the Academy Building. A model sportsman capable of performing under pressure, according to Van Yperen. (Photo: Marcel Spanjer)

Research among top-class sportsmen and women

Van Yperen explains that very little research has been carried out into the importance of mental factors in top-class sportsmen and women. ‘Research of this kind isn’t easy. The best thing would be to sprint alongside them and ask questions along the way. But this obviously isn’t an option. So you ask them questions afterwards, but then they know the result. And the result has a huge influence on what has happened and how the sportsperson perceives and judges his/her performance.’

Banishing negative thoughts

In his sport blog, Van Yperen claims that the key to mental coaching is to help sportsmen and women to focus exclusively on the task facing them at that precise moment and prevent negative thoughts (“I’m not up to it today”) from getting the upper hand and becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy (“I wasn’t up to it today”). A sportsperson at the top of his/her game does not allow him/herself to be distracted by negative thoughts or other unwelcome factors (pain, poor ice quality, the weather). But how do you do that? Van Yperen: ‘Top-class sportsmen and women must constantly be aware of their winning qualities (tenacity or will power, for example) and their drive, so that they know why they do what they do. Being able to depend on these qualities is essential for long-term, optimum performance and for an ingrained ability to cope with stress, winning and losing. Bart Veldkamp blew the 5 km speed skating race at the Albertville Winter Olympics in 1992. Despite meticulous preparation, it still went wrong. Unlike his rivals, Veldkamp was forced to skate on very rough ice. But he got his act together for the 10 km race, shelved his disappointment, remembered what he was capable of and quite literally got himself back on track. The result: a men’s gold medal, the first since Piet Kleine in 1976.’

One decisive lap

At the forthcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, the 500 m will be decided in just one lap. Many skaters have a preference for starting in the inside or outside lane. What’s the best attitude in this situation? Van Yperen: ‘The most important thing is to stay focused. If you lose your focus (‘Typical; I've got the bloody outside lane again’), it will affect your performance. The aim of mental coaching is to help people deal with external factors like this. And you can practise it, in training or in other competitions.’

Ajax youth team

Natural talent and dedicated training obviously help someone to get to the top. But where do mental factors come in? Van Yperen studied the youth team at Ajax FC. ‘It was in the days when Louis van Gaal was trainer. Successful footballers showed more goal commitment: they were prepared to dig deeper to achieve their goals. They were also more inclined to face up to their problems (which inevitably arise sooner or later). Finally, many of the best youth footballers had a good relationship with their parents: social support is important to success. The level of performance in the youth squad at Ajax turned out to be the best predictor of a subsequent successful football career. But mental factors are definitely decisive; they partly determine whether a youth player will eventually develop into a star footballer. I hope that my research will help the sports world to realize in future that mental factors are always an issue in sport and performance, and not as mysterious as many people think.’

Prof. Nico W. Van Yperen was previously Professor of Organizational Psychology in the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences at the University of Groningen. The remit for this chair focused strongly on motivation, sport and talent development, and included a Master’s track in Talent Development & Creativity . By creating this new chair, the UG is increasing its investment in the field. The new chair in Sport & Performance Psychology also has close links with the Sport Science Institute Groningen (SSIG), a network organization in which the Municipality of Groningen, UMCG, Hanze University of Applied Sciences Groningen and the UG are combining all the sports-related teaching and research in Groningen and linking it with the practical side of sport. Van Yperen represents the UG in the SSIG management team and his course unit in Sport and Performance Psychology is part of the Minor in Sport Science for Bachelor's students at the UG.

Last modified:12 March 2020 9.23 p.m.
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