What exactly are psychological skills?

Beth E Lee MBA MSc
6 min readMar 14, 2023

Psychological skills are thinking skills that can help you get what you want, in any area of life.

I grew up in an era where the term psychology was associated with negativity. You had a psychological or mental “problem” or “issue”. The stigma was that you were different, wrong, or “not normal”. Nobody wants those labels attached to their being, so the study of how we think created a wall to mental health and well-being. It wasn’t until Martin Seligman made his speech to the American Psychological Association annual meeting that he asked (and I’m paraphrasing), why is psychology the study of what’s wrong with people? He then launched the positive psychology movement, which studies how people thrive, and flipped psychology on its head. It’s a flip I am extremely grateful for.

I came to psychology late in my life after a year-long struggle with post-natal depression. But when I did enter the psychology universe, I found courses such as the neuroscience of mindfulness, the psychology of flow, narrative identity and its effect on life stories. I trained to be a psychological coach (which sits in the middle of a therapist/counsellor who works with the past and a mentor who works with advice). Psychological coaching is working with psychological blocks to help people move forward. I was granted my British Psychological Society approved psychological coaching certificate in 2019 and started to “coach”. But I quickly realised that I was too empathetic to many of my client’s issues. Issues that took me a year of therapy to address myself. I found myself referring clients on and actually feeling quite down about the prospect of ever being able to help anyone.

I hung up my coaching hat and continued researching topics that I found interesting, such as mental visualization, the effectiveness of our inner voice, and the importance of story. I realised that what I was researching was connected to my year of therapy where all I wanted was to find a way to get what I want. There’s a lot tucked into that, but not only was I practising the thinking skills that my therapist taught me garnered from CBT, ACT, and DBT, I found myself practising positive psychology techniques, NLP techniques, and psychological skills training (PST) techniques that were being taught to athletes by coaches for years. They are all different disciplines, for different reasons, but they all apply to the question, how do I get what I want? The want is what’s different in each scenario.

Within the upcoming weeks, I’ll write more about wanting from a psychological and neuroscience perspective, but first, I want to outline the view I take on what psychological skills actually are.

What are Psychological Skills?

(Photo credit: ashkan-forouzani-m0l9NBCivuk-unsplash)

Psychological skills are thinking skills, mental skills, life skills — whatever you want to call them, they are techniques that come together like puzzle pieces to help you achieve goals and get through adversity.

In academic literature, Weinberg & Gould explain that Psychological Skills Training (PST) actually refers to:

the systematic and consistent practice of mental or psychological skills for the purpose of enhancing performance, increasing enjoyment, or achieving greater sport and physical activity self-satisfaction”(1).

If psychological skills training was for the purpose of enhancing performance, increasing enjoyment and achieving (insert any goal here), don’t we all WANT to have those abilities in life?

Let’s look at each of them from a life point of view. Enhancing performance. This can be enhancing the way you interact with others and how you act in different situations, such as giving a speech or running a meeting. It could be enhancing your singing, your painting, your writing, your speaking — anything that has an action element. How about enhancing your performance as a human being to get closer to your ideal self? I’d say it takes thinking skills to achieve all of those wants/goals.

Increasing enjoyment. I think it goes without saying that we all want to be happy. Having a psychological skill or a thinking skill to help increase enjoyment is something for everyone.

Achieveing greater [sport and physical] activity. I would replace [sport and physical] and insert any active goal you’d like to achieve. We all have goals. We all have wants. And we all want to achieve our goals, whatever they may be.

And even though the above quote put “physical activity self-satisfaction” in one bucket, I’d say self-satisfaction in general can be enhanced with psychological skills. Who doesn’t want to feel self-satisfaction in everyday endeavours such as conversations, actions, and uncomfortable situations?

The differentiator here is the systematic and consistent practice piece. It’s not possible to be constantly aware of absolutely everything coming into our brain, but we can make space and become noticing beings, giving us moments to consistently practice any psychological skill. And noticing, being aware, is a skill in itself! These skills are the same skills we use for coping with change, uncomfortable situations, and self-regulation. They are more than just life skills, they are thinking skills to thrive.

Psychological Skills Aims

Mental practice techniques have been used for decades by sports psychologists to help athletes perform at their highest level. Applying these same types of mental techniques to our daily lives and our individual and personal goals can have a profound impact on how we perceive and interact with the world.

There are four main techniques in PST programs consisting of goal setting, mental imagery, self-talk, and regulation. (2) Although these practices will depend on the person and the sport, from a PST perspective, I think we could broaden them out for all of us to use to enhance anyone’s performance, increase enjoyment, stay active and feel satisfied in LIFE. Here’s my take:

  • Goal Setting (What do you want?)
  • Mental Imagery (What does it look like?)
  • Self Talk (What Do you Say to Yourself?)
  • Regulation (How do you bring yourself back to centre?)

There are techniques within each of these topics, but we have to remember that underneath these topics, are our individual personalities and identity. We as humans have our own motivations, values, self-worth or confidence, and habitual behaviours. You can do all the psychological skills training in the world, but if you don’t know how to be intentional in your thinking, you may find yourself frustrated, depressed, and back to square one. (I promise after this post we’ll be diving into intentional thinking.)

The Three Stages of Psychological Skills Training (PST)

Again the literature explains that a PST program usually has three stages.

1. The first is the education phase. This is where I hope (starting Thursday this week) this newsletter can help you by providing you with education about psychological skills.

2. The second phase is applying a technique. This newsletter will not only provide you with the importance and research on psych skills but I’ll also give you a technique to try through my “learn, link and live” sections in each newsletter.

3. Finally the third stage is practice. That’s where you come in. It takes repeated practice in different situations to hone in on the skill itself.

You’ll find a new skill to try and practice each week in this newsletter.

Psychological Skill Number One — Realisation

As I mentioned in the intro of my article, after studying and learning, I found myself practising the skills that my therapist taught me as well as those from other psychological disciplines. I noticed some were similar to PST. I also saw how psychological coaching focused on the forward movement of thinking to achieve. It all came to one realisation; I could get what I wanted.

It was through the studying of psychological therapies, sport psychology and organisational behaviour psychology (which I taught at an International College in the UK), that I REALISED that psychological skills training is not just for athletes. We all need thinking strategies, mind tips, coping concepts, and a toolbox to be able to go forward in life to achieve goals and get what we want. We do that by being intentional in our thinking and that all starts with the realisation that intentional thinking requires practice, but we can do it by acquiring psychological skills.

References:

Weinberg, R. S., & Gould, D. (2023). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology. Human kinetics.

Röthlin, P., Birrer, D., Horvath, S., & grosse Holtforth, M. (2016). Psychological skills training and a mindfulness-based intervention to enhance functional athletic performance: design of a randomized controlled trial using ambulatory assessment. BMC Psychology, 4(1). doi:10.1186/s40359–016–0147-y

About the author:

With an MBA in Marketing, Beth E. Lee spent 20 years working within global corporations, NGOs and SMEs in the marketing, advertising, and branding industries. In 2019 Beth received an MSc in Psychology & Neuroscience of Mental Health and a British Psychological Society approved Psychological Coaching Certification. She hails from Boston but has lived in 5 countries, currently residing in Dublin where she inspires and promotes creating an intentional life.

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