Psychology » Applied Psychology

The best books on Sports Psychology

recommended by Bill Cole

What do you think about when you’re training at the gym, or on the tennis court? And what should you think about, if your goal is maximizing performance and results? Seasoned sports psychologist Bill Cole, coach for numerous Olympic teams and top-level international athletes, reveals that the number one road block to athletic performance often isn’t physical—it’s overthinking.

Interview by Cal Flyn

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How important is psychology in sport? Where does it rank compared to natural ability and the time that people spend in practice?

That’s a great question. I’ll use a phrase that symbolizes how I work. As an athlete or a coach, you may not be interested in psychology, but psychology is interested in you. Psychology is part and parcel of learning, training, and performing. Those are the three big buckets that I deal in. A lot of sports psychologists only deal in the performance bucket, but I think it’s quite important to be knowledgeable about all three, because people will get into trouble or have difficulties or challenges in all of these areas.

“You may not be interested in psychology, but psychology is interested in you.”

I get virtually zero people who come to me for coaching as beginners in their sport. I get very, very few that are intermediate in their sport. Basically, my kind of work—sports psychology done by a practitioner—is not exactly only for the advanced, but that tends to be how it ends up.

Now, if I were a coach, I’d be using psychology from day one with beginners. I think good coaches do that all the time. I taught college for 15 years, and one of the classes I taught was the psychology of coaching, techniques of coaching different sports. A good teacher has a variety of psychological methods to teach their students. They might not call it ‘psychology’, but psychology is being utilized.

So to summarize: it’s there all the time, whether we know it or not. I think it’s important as a coach or consultant to consciously use psychology to good effect. And of course that’s why we’re having this chat about these five books, which I think are pivotal in the sports psychology field, or at least representative of different angles and audiences in the field.

Is there a personality type best suited to achievement in sport? Or can anyone put sports psychology into practice and become that successful athlete ‘type’?

I’ll answer the second part of your question first. These techniques, or approaches, or methodologies—whatever you want to call them, we’ll talk about all of them today—can be utilized by anybody in any sport, at any age, of any gender, at any level.

In terms of personality, well, personality has been extremely well studied in the sports psychology literature, and I think they’ve determined that there is no such thing as the ‘ideal’ athlete personality. But I think it’s also been well determined that there are certainly desirable attributes of personalities that contribute to success in sport. Going further, there are certain sports to which certain kinds of personalities are attracted. For example: long distance running. I don’t think we see a lot of extroverts in that sport, because the training is basically solitary. You’re off running alone, or with a couple of competitors and you’re not talking to them. Sport like that does tend to attract introverts.

“There is no such thing as the ‘ideal’ athlete personality”

And if we use introversion versus extroversion, quieter people versus rowdier people, certain positions in sport would attract them as well. So there is no singular universal athletic personality, and all of these approaches we talk about today can be utilized essentially by anybody.

That’s promising! Well, let’s talk about the first book that you’ve chosen to recommend: The Inner Game of Tennis by W Timothy Gallwey. It’s a classic. Billie Jean King called this her “tennis bible.” Why is it so good?

Well, I would completely agree with Billie Jean. You know, this was a very controversial book in its day and still is today, even though it’s now sold over a million copies. Gallwey also has a group of books based on his ‘Inner Game’ methodology: Inner Tennis: Playing The Game, The Inner Game of Music, The Inner Game of Stress, The Inner Game of Work, The Inner Game of Golf, and Inner Skiing. The other person who has probably sold the most books in the history of sports psychology is probably Bob Rotella, but we’ll get to him in a minute.

This was written in the early 1970s. Back then, top coaches and athletes were using sports psychology, but it had a real stigma. If you told people you went to a sports psychologist, you were considered mentally weak. However, the Eastern Europeans and Russians were famously using psychology to gobble up all sorts of medals in the Olympics and other competitions. They saw the value right away. When Gallwey wrote his book, he was kind of a pariah in the tennis teaching world because The Inner Game of Tennis was extremely misunderstood. I’ll come back to that.

Gallwey was the first author to detail practical, in-the-trenches sports psychology techniques. He wasn’t really a theory guy or a data guy or a research guy, but practical techniques—his books are loaded with those. He was the first person to ever do that, period. When he did it in the 1970s, it was Earth shaking; it was shocking. Up until that time, all sports instruction was considered to have used what’s called the command method: ‘I’m the coach, and I tell you what to do.’ Gallwey was the opposite. He used the question method: ‘Tell me how that feels. When you hit that last backhand, were you early, late, or on time?’ He used a series of very clever questions to engage the learner in their own experience, thereby raising their self-awareness.

I’ve used Inner ever since the 1970s. I use it daily. It’s one of my strongest approaches, raising the awareness of the learner and setting the proper goal. Here’s what we want the ball to do—a certain span, certain height, whatever—that combination produces the performance. There’s no command needed; there’s ‘don’t do this, don’t do that.’ No ‘you’re messing this up.’ It’s all about asking questions and raising awareness.

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Here’s the kicker. Gallwey said: “Perfect tennis is just inside you, waiting to come out.” This is where he was misunderstood. He could have helped his cause if he had said a little bit more about that. People said: ‘Oh, so we all have perfect tennis, huh? All you gotta do is relax and it comes out, huh?’ People in sport equate a book’s value with the status of famous people who endorse it. Unfortunately, Gallwey didn’t have any high level endorsements at the time. Then of course, he went to golf and skiing and music. He became more and more respected. I don’t know when he got this moniker, it might’ve been in the 1990s, but today he’s now considered one of the fathers of modern coaching.

So Gallwey has been monumental in the field multiple ways. Number one is as the ground-breaking practical guy. In the 1970s he wrote the first book, and just kept layering books like crazy. He’s known for giving technique after technique after technique in his books, a veritable how-to taxonomy of techniques. And then he got moved into business/life coaching and he was credited with that field. But very controversial, very misunderstood. I think now he’s way more appreciated than he was back when he was in his prime.

He’s almost 80 or close to that now, but he’s still pretty active. Of all the books we’re talking about today, I would definitely rate Gallwey as the number one most important in this field.

Great to know. I was also intrigued by what you said about how initially sports psychology was a taboo subject. What about now? What might prompt a client to meet with a sports psychologist—does it still tend to come in after, say, a high profile failure?

That’s the prime reason. They just failed in a performance, or they’ve had a series of failures and now someone’s telling them they’ve got a problem, and they better go see somebody. They’re in a slump. ‘Hey, if you don’t pick your game up, you’re going to be demoted to the bench,’ or ‘We’re going to drop you down a level on the team,’ or ‘You’re off the team.’ ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with you, but you seem to be mentally weak.’ The athlete is hearing all these things, whether it’s from a parent or from a coach or themselves or whatever, and that’s the triggering event that’s most common.

Transitions are another huge reason people call me. They just went up a weight class, an age group; now they’re going national, international. They went from high school to college, and maybe there’s nothing particularly wrong with their performance, but they don’t feel normal. They don’t feel grounded.

You mentioned Bob Rotella earlier. Let’s talk about Golf Is Not A Game Of Perfect. What can a reader expect from this book?

Bob Rotella is probably currently the most famous sports psychologist out there, still active. He works primarily in the golf world with a huge number of famous golf pros. Bob’s books—he has a series of them—are really easy to read, really practical. He uses a narrative style and tells lots of stories, unlike Gallwey who tells some stories, but has tons of techniques to try. I mean literally dozens upon dozens.

I think Bob is not known as a technique guy. He’s more: ‘Let me tell you a story about Padraig Harrington, who I coached at the British Open, and the struggles he had and the advice I gave him, and maybe that’ll help you.’ That’s Bob’s style. I think it’s a really great style. Like I said, it’s very easy reading and it has the ring of truth because he’s in the trenches every single day, and has a huge amount of credibility.

In a minute, we’ll talk about the other golf book, Zen Putting by Dr Joseph Parent. And if you compare Zen Putting to Gallwey’s Inner Game of Golf, the latter has very few stories, but lots of techniques. Parent’s book has a good number of stories and huge number of techniques. And then Bob Rotella’s books have fewer techniques and exercises, but he is a compendium of stories, very well told, each with little nuggets of psychological truth that golfers can use.

Rotella says he focuses on finding the right attitude or mindset in his golfers. Could you say a little bit more about that, the idea of the holistic approach?

Right. So Bob makes a distinction between the ‘training’ mentality and the ‘trusting’ mentality. He has a lot of clients—and I have the same kind of group—that train like crazy. I’ve got people on Team USA, I’ve got people on Team GB in different sports. Usually, those people have a very high drive and a huge work ethic and they leave nothing to chance.

But the problem is, if they’re having a challenge, they train in the lead up to their event too consciously. They’re thinking their way through their training. They’re telling themselves what to do; they’re reminding themselves what not to do. They’re still in telling-themselves-what-to-do mode, and that is the opposite of trusting mentality.

“When you get near an event, you have to get out of the conscious mindset—that’s a training mentality, and you’ve got to get into a trusting mentality”

For example, if you had a tennis ball there and I said, ‘Pick up the ball please and start playing catch with the ball’, I’m sure you could just flip it up and catch it and back and forth. I do that with clients all the time. Then I say, ‘Let’s pause a minute. Now, did you tell yourself how to do that or did you just do it?’ And of course they say, ‘I just did it.’ The same way we brush our teeth or feed ourselves with a fork. All of that is natural. That’s the trusting mentality that Bob talks about.

Here’s the way he operationalizes that. Both of the mentalities, or mindsets, whatever you want to call it, are good. He calls them training versus trusting. I break them down into three, I’ve got learning, I’ve got training, I’ve got performing. But his are training and trusting. When you get near an event, you have to get out of the conscious mindset—that’s a training mentality, and you’ve got to get into a trusting mentality.

So, for example, two weeks out from the championship, instead of continuing to tinker with their game, or remembering what the coach said, or what they saw on a YouTube video, or what’s on their checklist, or in their notes, they let all that go. They say, ‘Alright, for better or worse, I’m going to play today’s round as if I’m in a tournament. I’m going to trust what I’ve got.’ Now they’re allowed to tweak it a tiny bit, but not at a conscious level. There’s the distinction between Rotella’s training mentality and trusting mentality.

Attaining that trusting mindset sounds beautiful—a bit like creative ‘flow’ states. It sounds instinctive, even transcendent. Maybe that brings us to our third book. This is Joseph Parent’s Zen Putting. I don’t know what I expected from a selection of sports psychology books, but this title immediately surprised me. Are many athletes you work with philosophically or spiritually inclined?

I’ve been doing this since the early 1970s; I was the first person in the world to earn an undergraduate degree in sports psychology and I’ve had my practice ever since then. Back in the 1970s, myself and my prior tennis coach, Bob Mack, started something called the Zen Tennis Clinic. So we were into Zen all the way back in the 1970s. But to answer your question, I’ve never had anybody come to me in my life and say: ‘I want you to teach me about Zen sports.’

I don’t really expect them to, either. But here in Northern California, which is a hot bed of mind-body disciplines and alternative ways of looking at the world, I’ve had plenty of Buddhists come to me seeking help in their sport, and I have plenty—probably a few times a month, expert meditators, in whatever discipline—come to me for the same reason. They’re unable to use their Buddhism (or meditation, or mindfulness, or whatever they’re calling it) to assist them in their sport.

And I’ve discovered that’s because as good as those disciplines are, they’re just over there as a generic form of mental control. What’s missing is the application directly to their specific sport, which we call ‘attentional-control cues.’ Like: what do you look at when you’re on the tennis court? What do you think about when you’re on the golf course? What should you look at when you’re on the balance beam, as a gymnast? All those are missing in generic meditation and Buddhism.

I think the unique quality of the Zen approach is its wisdom about life itself, applied to sports, and this is the reason I put this in there. I guess you could argue that The Inner Game is Zen, but in all of Gallwey’s books I don’t believe he’s ever used the word ‘zen’. Even though that was the thing that triggered him to write the books. In his early- to mid-twenties, having graduated from Harvard and played on the team—he was a really good junior tennis player—he was searching for philosophical answers in his life. He moved over to India and lived in an ashram for a period of time, which he did, and then he wrote his book. So basically, Gallwey’s base material came out of the Indian ethic from that ashram, even though he never referenced that language. And he never referenced Zen. On the other hand, Joseph Parent is very into Zen. So if you want to compare Gallwey and the Zen approach is that the Zen approach even has more wisdom about life.

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Here’s an example. Parent talks about people have trouble dealing with pressure on the golf course. His advice is: don’t try to escape the anxiety of pressure shots, because that escape urge can damage your focus. Instead, and here’s the money quote, “Stand still in the middle of the anxiety and enjoy it.” To me, that’s a beautiful quote, and it’s harkening back to mindfulness. Don’t fight what’s in your mind. The mind is like a monkey, it likes to jump all over the place. So, when you’re up in the middle of the pressure, enjoy it.

When they tell me that the pressure is getting to them—let’s say they were in a tournament, in the final, and there was so much pressure—I say, ‘it’s over now, but look at it like this: when you were in the final and you were feeling that pressure, wasn’t that a privilege?’

This is the Billie Jean King angle, to come back to her. She wrote a book called Pressure is a Privilege, and the thesis of it is, when you’re in a ‘pressure moment’ it’s really a privilege. Before the match even begins, you were good enough to get to that final. It’s really quite an honor that you were good enough to get there. Now, let’s see what you do with it, but enjoy it. That’s also the Dr Parent idea: Enjoy the pressure, don’t fight it.

My angle is this: if you’re in the finals of a tournament and you’re feeling pressured, you’re doing well compared to the other people in the tournament who are out, at home with their feet up on the couch, stress-free feeling no pressure. Where would you rather be? Now, for a lot of people, that’s a revelation. ‘Hey, I’ll take the pressure any day because that means I’m doing something really cool.’ That’s the way I look at it. This particular book, Zen Putting, is a follow up to his earlier Zen Golf.

Would you recommend this one over the former?

They’re about equal, but the reason I chose Zen Putting is that I think it even has more techniques than the prior book.

Great. Let’s move on to Heads-Up Baseball: Playing the Game One Pitch at a Time.

Dr Ken Ravizza is who I did my first Masters under at Cal State, Fullerton. He would perhaps be considered the father of psychology of baseball. This is a very accessible book. It’s very readable, very practical, with lot of good advice. It’s easy to understand at every level and valuable for every level.

Ken has some really good, deep insights. I think one of his best ones is: in order to have some degree of control over your outer world, you first have to get your inner world under control. Now that sounds very simple, but it’s not easy to do. That statement guides all the work I do, that’s for sure. But I think that Ken put it very, very well.

Ken also talks about the fact that confidence is overrated, which I think is a great idea. When people hear that, they say, ‘Wait a minute, I thought sports psychology was all about confidence. Isn’t that what people come to you for?’ And it is, we do help them with confidence. But what if you’re out there one day, and things are not going well—you’re playing a superior opponent, you’re having some bad luck, you’re sick, you’re tired, you’re injured, whatever—well, you’re not going to be at your peak. So this concept of needing supreme confidence doesn’t exactly work.

“Confidence is not required to win. You can win without it.”

Here’s the new concept. You can still succeed. I tell people: ‘Think back to a time when you were in a match and you did not play well. You might even have been nervous, sick, tired, or whatever. However, you still figured out a way to win.’ And they think for a moment they start to nod their heads: ‘I’ve had many of those.’ That’s a perfect example of winning without supreme confidence. And there’s another author—the tennis guy Brad Gilbert has a book called Winning Ugly. That phrase I use all the time to encapsulate the idea that confidence is not required to play well. Confidence is not required to win. You can win without it. Is it nice to have? Yes, we’d all like to have it, but we also have all had plenty of times where, no, we didn’t have it that day and it turned out fine.

Definitely. I’ve heard this book is often handed out to high school baseball teams. And given what you’ve just said, I can see how sport might become a more general character building activity for teenagers—to help with developing calmness and resilience.

Yes. I think that is the case. Like I said, I think some books in the sports psychology field would not fall under that. They’re full of research, they’re full of theory and maybe they have technique and they don’t talk much about life. However, Ken’s book does talk about that. Also the Zen Golf series definitely talks about life, which is I think a really nice angle.

Ken talks about some other major things: about being present, focused, avoiding going through the motions. He has a number of techniques that help people be calm, present, focused. You’ve got to be in control of yourself before you can control your performance. And he has a really clever but simple concept: the traffic light idea. So: green, you keep going; amber or yellow, you’re cautious or wary, you might even get ready to stop; if the light is red, you definitely don’t go through the intersection.

That can be applied to all sports. Let’s say a soccer player has a free kick, or a basketball player has a free throw. Before that’s executed, that athlete needs to achieve a green light within themselves, which is that they’re physically ready, mentally ready, emotionally ready. They’re all locked in, everything is ready to rock and roll. Then they know when they have the green light, and they take the shot. But let’s use a golfer. They’re over the ball, but something doesn’t feel right. Well, okay, they’re not going to swing, they’re going to back away, start their entire routine or ritual from the beginning. Hopefully the next time they get green light and then off they go.

Let’s move on to your final choice, which is The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, And Thrive. This book is about the psychology of performance in sports more generally. Is that right?

Yes. This is another one of those books for everybody. Top level people can get some things out of it, and very low level people can get a lot out of it, too. This is also written in a very practical, accessible style. He doesn’t use fancy language; he doesn’t use theory; he doesn’t cite research. And, just to mention this, in all the years I’ve been doing this as a consultant, I can barely remember anybody ever asking me about research while we are engaged in sessions. It just doesn’t come up because people just don’t care. If you can give them what they need—and these books give people what they need—that’s all people really care about.

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His approach talks about a few different things. He talks about greatness, and how to learn it from other people: to look around your sport world, the coaches and athletes at every level, Olympic, pro, national, local, and notice what you like or admire in those people. He says, if you can notice some of these elements, that must mean you have some of those elements in yourself, that you could develop. That’s a big message he sends.

“Champions have a short memory for the bad and a long memory for the good”

He says that champions are not made in gyms; they’re made from something they have deep inside them, a desire, a dream, and a vision. Let’s call that positive psychology. Then, on the flip side, he says: identify precisely what you do that hurts your own cause. That’s also pretty valuable advice. To put it another way: in what ways do you self-sabotage? In what ways do you defeat yourself? In what ways do you beat yourself before the game begins? Now, other authors would call that ‘self-limiting beliefs.’ I use all that language. A lot of people, when they come to compete, think: ‘Oh, I could never beat someone that good.’ Well, then what are you going to the event for? You’ve got to believe in your mind it’s possible to succeed. That’s the minimum starting point.

Let’s see. He also talks about how you can hate to lose, but you shouldn’t be afraid to lose. I go a little bit further and say: convert the fear of losing into the hatred of losing. If you hate to lose enough, you’ll do something about it and train, and then when you compete you’ll lose a lot less. Another one is: to perform at a champion’s level you must cultivate long-term memories for your successes and short memories for your failures. This is language I use all the time. Champions have a short memory for the bad and a long memory for the good.

“Avoid the perils of perfectionism and paralysis-by-analysis syndrome, where you overthink—which is really the absolute number one roadblock for people not performing”

He says: avoid the perils of perfectionism and paralysis-by-analysis syndrome, where you overthink—which, by the way, is really the absolute number one roadblock, mental block, if you will, for people not performing. Whether it’s learning, you can perform when you learn, even though you’re learning and when you perform, people overthink.

Coming full circle—we started with talking about trust. Why are people unable to trust in themselves? Maybe they don’t have a history of winning much, so they’re overthinking, or they think they can’t win. Maybe they’re unsure of their training, so they overthink. Maybe no one ever told them: ‘Don’t think just trust. Just do it.’ Maybe no one ever told them that. And finally, a lot of people will get into overthinking because they want to win too badly. This falls under the fear of losing.

I’ll wrap up discussion of this book by saying the following: great champions win consistently—not every time, but consistently so—because they’ve figured out all these psychological lessons and techniques as they’ve gone through their sport. Sport is a series of challenges. Roadblocks, if you want to call them that. Lessons. I like to call them lessons that have to be learned. How do I play against that kind of an opponent? How do I play in these conditions? How do I handle it if I’m jet-lagged and injured?

All these things have to be discovered—whether coaches tell them, or the person reads about them, or they just learn them on their own. Once these things are discovered, then lesson number 278 goes to the log book, and you move on to lesson 279. You keep rinsing and repeating. Eventually, champions have thousands of these lessons logged in their DNA. When they get in similar situations again, and they will occur again and again as they move through their career, we call that experience. The champions call that confidence. So it boils to the following: If you know what you’re doing, what’s the problem? Answer, there is no problem. Because I know what I’m doing. Because I know what I’m doing, I can trust my training.

You’ve got me nodding along in agreement. An important lesson in sports psychology, but also an important takeaway during life’s challenges more generally. To close our discussion, I wanted to ask you a little about your work beyond sports psychology. I know you’ve applied this expertise more broadly. Could you say something about how what you you teach under the heading of sports psychology can be more universal?

Universal, exactly. And I believe it can be. My offices are here in Palo Alto, California, about four or five miles from Stanford University, so I’m kind of the on-call sports psychologist there. I work with a lot of athletes over there.

But over the years, while I’ve been working with somebody on their golf game or their tennis game, they might ask me: ‘I’m the VP of sales, can you help my sales team?’ Absolutely. That’s how my program The Mental Game of Selling developed. Then that kept going, and a similar request led to The Mental Game of Speaking. So depending on who I’m talking to, I call myself different things.

I’m the founder and president of the international Mental Game Coaching Association. It trains and certifies people to become mental game coaches, or to have more of an expertise in that field if they’re already a coaching practitioner. This is a wide range of people. For example, later today, I’m just speaking with someone who’s a doctor of Chinese herbal medicine. I’ve had people that are chiropractors, therapists, coaches, trainers, parents. So this applies to everybody.

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I do a lot of interview training. That came about because I’ve done a huge number of interviews in the media. I’m pretty comfortable doing it, but I had to figure out how to be effective at that and I discovered that tons of people became hugely afraid when they go to an interview. Rightly so. But it’s all in the training.

We come back to that same idea, whether it’s in sales, presentation, interview coaching, what-have-you: if you know what you’re doing, that gives you a feeling of self-security. And then you can turn your performance over to trust. We didn’t use this expression, but your unconscious. If you’re an athlete, you turn it over to your body. Some people turn it over to a lot of different things. The universe, if you want to go more broadly than that. Basically, trust is what it’s all about, to put out a consistently excellent performance. Good training, consistent training, recognizing your training is great. Then I tell people: just remind yourself that you’ve had excellent training and let all that natural goodness flow out of you.

Interview by Cal Flyn

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Bill Cole

Bill Cole is a world-class sports psychology consultant, having worked with athletes or coaches of 19 world and national teams, nine international and Olympic teams, 32 professional sports teams, associations or leagues, and of athletes who have won 36 world and national championships. He was the first person in the world to be awarded a Bachelor of Science (with honors) in Sport Psychology.

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Bill Cole

Bill Cole is a world-class sports psychology consultant, having worked with athletes or coaches of 19 world and national teams, nine international and Olympic teams, 32 professional sports teams, associations or leagues, and of athletes who have won 36 world and national championships. He was the first person in the world to be awarded a Bachelor of Science (with honors) in Sport Psychology.