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19 October 2004

Sport Psychology: Heidelberg Leads the Field in Germany

Pressure on athletes increasing — Major public interest in top-level sport — "Training champions" unable to exploit their full potential in contest situations — How the Institute of Sport and Sport Science of the University of Heidelberg provides assistance

This year's Olympic Games in Athens were an all too clear indication of the way public interest in top-level sport has been increasing over the years. This was reflected in the preoccupation with totting up the number of medals each country obtained, a pastime that appeared to fascinate some commentators more than the contests themselves. At the same time it became apparent how immense the pressure on athletes has become. For sponsors and television viewers back home, success is the only thing that counts.

It is not surprising that stress of this kind produces mental barriers that can prevent sportspeople from living up to their potential. "This is what is meant by the widely used term 'training champions'," explains Prof. Hans Eberspächer. "These are competitors who are fully able to come up with first-class performances away from the contest situation. But with the eyes of the stadium audience fixed on them they suddenly fail to live up to their actual potential." The Heidelberg scientist specialises in the field of top-level competitive sport and is one of the pioneers of applied sport psychology. He does his best to help sportspeople to get to grips with the pressures exerted on them.

"Training champions are not the only phenomenon we have to deal with," says Eberspächer. "Other target groups are young people whose motivation is impaired when they no longer see any real point in carrying on with their chosen sport. Communication problems between trainers and athletes is another thing we investigate closely." In addition, Professor Eberspächer takes a major interest in psychological rehabilitation in the aftermath of sporting accidents and injuries. "Of course that is a very specific problem," he says. "An injury is always a traumatic experience for a young person. Though it may not necessarily end up in a total loss of perspective, an injury will always have a major mental effect on a sportsperson."

In general terms, sport psychologists can ultimately be regarded as special trainers concentrating on one aspect of sport that is still neglected far too often. "Sporting success can be expressed in terms of quite a simple formula: material, physique, mind," says Eberspächer. "This is of course a drastic simplification — but it does indicate the central points. Material refers to such things as the right kind of footwear or modern swimming pools with low-level wave-formation. These are the contexts required for a well-trained physique to capitalise on its potential. Unfortunately, the third aspect — the mind — is still neglected far too often. But mental abilities can be trained just as systematically as their physical counterparts. And they play just as significant a role in the difference between victory and defeat." Of course this does not mean shifting one's attention so exclusively to mental aspects that physical training is neglected as a result. "What we need is a systematic link between the two. Only then will success materialise."

But sometimes even the best preparation cannot rule out embarrassing errors. "You can only have the fullest sympathy with a hurdles contestant who stumbles in the finals and has this fatal error plastered all over the newspapers and shown over and over again on every TV channel," says Eberspächer. "It's not so easy to get an experience like that out of your mind." In this connection he also refers to the skater pair Mandy Wetzel and Ingo Steuer. "In all the contests they took part in they always came second. Victory seemed to be permanently beyond their gasp. In the course of time this became an immense handicap for them. Here again the problem was not insufficient training or poor material, it was the mental barrier. So we had to work on that very systematically. In the end, however, our efforts were rewarded. In the late 1990s they finally won the world championships," Eberspächer recalls with satisfaction.

Such successes are of course the basis on which the excellent reputation of the Heidelberg location rests. "It's fair to say that we now have a special status throughout the German-speaking world — and across all disciplines." Accordingly, the Heidelberg scientists not only advise various German sportspeople but also the Swiss judo trainer. Hans Eberspächer has very telling evidence for his assertion: "We got a whole sheaf of postcards from Athens. That proves that our work is appreciated."

Yet he still sees major deficits in comparison with other nations: "Countries like Belgium or Sweden were quicker to realise the significance of the systematic integration of sport psychology. We have to take our bearings from them." Eberspächer is clear in his mind about the way things need to develop in the coming years. "In future sport psychology has to be incorporated much more centrally into the organisation of sport. The evaluation of the results at the Olympic Games in Athens is a clear indication of this. We need to get away from short-term 'crash consultations' and head for systematic counselling over longer periods of time. That's the only way we can give athletes the best possible preparation." In the context of "material, physique, mind" the mental aspect must not be short-changed any longer.

Please address any inquiries to
Prof. Dr. Hans Eberspächer
Institute of Sport and Sport Science
University of Heidelberg
Im Neuenheimer Feld 700
69120 Heidelberg
phone: 06221/544644

For journalists:
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

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