Understanding how the mind affects an athlete’s performance draws many into a sports psychology career. These professionals explore the critical mind-body connection – a connection that gives those who understand its potential a strategic advantage.
Yet gaining a strategic advantage translates into more than just winning, even though it preoccupies the minds of most athletes, according to Jeff Greenwald, a sports psychology consultant and licensed family therapist in Northern California (learn more about Jeff on his website). The sense of empowerment one feels when performing at an optimal level affects all people, whether they’re competing in a tournament or simply practicing with friends.
Sports psychologists employ many of the same strategies and interventions that other psychology professionals use to empower and change lives: helping athletes understand the connections between their thoughts and behaviors – and likewise, how their behaviors affect their thoughts.
How do Sports Psychologists Help Athletes?
“From my perspective, it’s getting a playbook for your mind, ” Greenwald says, describing how the “mental” game helps athletes win – and cope with losing. Greenwald and many other sports psychologists use cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) in consulting with athletes because of its focus on specific, goal-directed techniques and interventions. These interventions help athletes to recognize the impacts their thoughts have on their performances.
For example, consider a college high jumper, who set a track and field record, but finds she can’t jump the bar at levels much lower than her record. Despite her physical capabilities, she can’t seem to reach her peak performance, and decides to seek assistance from a sports psychologist.
During initial meetings, this professional might employ visualization techniques, having her picture herself jumping over the bar at the lowest possible level, and then in her mind, raising the bar in increments, successfully clearing the bar at each stage.
The consultant will then take the athlete to the field and, through several stages, have her begin jumping again. Relaxation techniques will also help the high jumper, allowing her to calm down before each jump, decreasing tension and apprehension while increasing her focus.
Greenwald, who played tennis professionally for two years before becoming a sports psychology professional, said that separate people react differently to pressure, depending on a number of personality traits. Distraction is a major issue that affects many athletes, especially for those who are highly sensitive, emotional, and tuned into the environment.
To help a softball player overcome issues with distraction and anxiety (see Anxiety), Greenwald creates scenarios that simulate competitive situations. Before taking her to the field to pitch or hitting fly balls to her, he teaches her techniques to block out distractions and remain focused.
Then, while on the field, he creates distractions and anxiety-producing situations, helping her to use the techniques they practiced in the office. It’s about helping individuals reframe their thoughts, showing them how to focus on relevant cues, such as the ball or target, or the task at hand, Greenwald said.
“The best of the best have a very narrow focus when they’re performing at their peak,” he said.
These athletes learn to take the surge in adrenaline they feel when they become fearful or anxious, and channel it to their advantage.
Supporting Young Athletes
The Association of Applied Sports Psychology provides a number of tips for parents hoping to provide support for their children. While athletic events are a time for competition and enthusiasm, it’s best to leave those aspects to the children.
Psychologists provide parents with the following list of do’s and don’ts when raising an athletic child:
- Support a child’s choice to play any sport they wish
- Teach the child to respect the coach
- Allow the child to make mistakes and improve upon those mistakes
- Be interested and supportive of the child’s learning process
- Relive your youth through the child
- Blame the coach, other players, or weather for the child’s mistakes
- Constant push the child beyond their capabilities
Source:Association of Applied Sports Psychology
Serving Athletes and their Families
About half of Greenwald’s 25 weekly clients are athletes, the other half are individuals and families with a variety of mental health issues. Greenwald said that his work as a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist adds a depth of knowledge to his expertise when working with the parents of youth athletes. “People get frustrated with parental involvement, but the attempt to exclude them is a mistake,” Greenwald said. “They need to be included, but in the right way.”
Greenwald said educating parents is essential. He coaches parents on how to optimize their childrens’ experiences by saying and doing the right things – in other words, how to work as team members with their children. Visions of out-of-control parents at the Little League game come to mind when considering how parents might hinder their child’s athletic experiences. According to the Association of Applied Sports Psychology, parents should offer support to their children — whether they win or lose. Sports psychologists help parents to develop supportive communication techniques, fostering confidence and enthusiasm for athletics in their children.
Some of these Techniques Include:
- Save critical evaluations of player performances for coaches, and remain an unconditional source of support.
- Avoid comparing your child to other children on the team — this increases feelings of pressure and might negatively impact their performance.
- Do not undermine the couching staff in post-game conversations. Even if you do not agree with their advice, they are still the leaders of the team
- Be supportive in comments to your child, but do not lie or exaggerate.
By training both competitors and their families to engage in enhancing practices, sports psychologists help new generations of athletes reach their peak performances.
Becoming a Sports Psychologist
Preparing for a career in sports psychology also requires an understanding of how sports, exercise, and physical activity affect overall development and health throughout the life span. A career in sports psychology can involve conducting research and educating others about the field. These professionals teach at colleges and universities, and also work with athletes, coaches, or athletic administrators.
Sports psychology research and principles are used by a number of other professionals, and often a career in the field involves consulting or advising a number of different specialists. Exercise specialists, athletic trainers, youth sports directors, recreation directors, rehabilitation specialists, physical therapists and other psychologists all utilize sports psychology research findings and principles.
Master’s degrees and PhDs are required to work in the sports psychology field. Those who want to work for a sports team usually need a PhD although some teams hire consultants at the master’s level.
Do Supportive Words Really Matter?
We’ve all witnessed scenes in movies where coaches shout words of encouragement into the ears of struggling athletes, watching as they suddenly gain the strength to push back defenders or lift heavy objects.
Does this sudden increase in strength, speed, or physical capacity actually have anything to do with those words? Research from The British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests it does.
In “Verbal Encouragement: Effects on Maximum Effort Voluntary Muscle Action,” Peter McNair and other researchers tested twenty subjects on whether or not verbal support would result in an increase in physical efficiency.
Subjects gripped a machine that measured their bicep activity, contracting their muscles while supportive words of “Come on, you can do it!” were spoken to them. Analysis of the results showed that when subjects were verbally supported, a 5% increase in performance was observed.
When words were spoken at a higher volume, performance increased further. The findings suggest that those scenes of supportive coaches are more accurate than previously thought, and motivating athletes has potentially significant benefits.