The goal for many athletes in any sport that they play is to perform to the best of their abilities on their respective fields of action. One thing we must realize and understand is that there is more to the athlete than his or her physical prowess, his or her experience in their field, or even how much of a team player they are when performing in team oriented sports. A side to the game that sometimes goes overlooked, misunderstood, or underappreciated is the mental side.
Being the biggest, the fastest, or the strongest is all good and well but if you don’t have the mental chops to back it up then you’re likely leaving a great bit of your actual talent on the table and your overall performance is probably suffering as a result. In an effort to get a deeper understanding of how the mental side of sports can impact athletic performance I reached out to Dr. Jim Afremow, who is a sports psychology professional that does work with Arizona State University and has his own Phoenix-based private practice Gold Medal Mind. You can also check him out on twitter here.
I’m not sure how many people are 100% certain of your role, or what you do with athletes as far as counseling is concerned. Could you explain your position and how it is you work with athletes?
Lance, what separates the top few from the many players in a sport? It’s their mentality. The importance of the mental side of athletics was once brilliantly summed up by basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, “Your mind is what makes everything else work.” I’ve provided sports psychology services to many athletes and teams during the past 15 years. In my work at Arizona State University, and through my private practice, I’ve consulted with top men’s and women’s teams and coaches, from mental skills workshops, to individual sessions with athletes. In addition to my work for Arizona State University, I work with professional and Olympic athletes across all sports.
Specifically, I consult with athletes in two key areas: performance enhancement and mental health. My goal is to help athletes reach their true and full potential, and to compete at their very best level on the day of competition. Topic include: confidence, concentration, composure, commitment, leadership and recovery from injuries. I also work with coaches to communicate more effectively and help their athletes become better, as well as with teams to learn how to work together better. Off the field, I help athletes increase their psychological well-being and overcome any mental, emotional or interpersonal problems, such as anxiety/depression, eating disorders, substance abuse and marital difficulties.
When you describe it and speak of the “mentality” of a player being what separates the top few from everyone else, why is dealing with the mental side of sports more challenging than many of us even realize? What makes it that way? The reason I ask is because if handling the mental aspect of athletic performance was so easy and straight forward then we would have far many true greats than we do today.
No one can play better than at their best, but they can certainly play at less than their best. Sadly, the latter is much more common. Although we all have physical limits, it is our mindset that determines whether we are maximizing our capabilities and potential, and whether those limits have been reached. Traditionally, athletes and coaches have mistakenly believed that mental skills like ‘confidence’ are either something you are born with or just get after a good week of practice or a winning performance. Importantly, mental skills can be developed similarly to physical skills through deliberate practice. Part of the sport psychology work with an athlete is coming up with an individualized plan to actively increase confidence, improve concentration, etc.
How do you get coaches and players to understand that “confidence” isn’t just something that you are or are not born with and instead is something you can actually develop?
1. Share with athletes and coaches research findings demonstrating the effectiveness of psychological interventions in competitive sport to enhance performance. For example, regarding the benefits of positive body language (i.e., “acting like a champion”, I might discuss recent research by Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy and colleagues, showing that simply holding one’s body in open, expansive (versus closed, contractive) postures for only a couple of minutes can produce meaningful elevations in testosterone, decreases in cortisol, and increased feelings of power and tolerance for risk when it is needed.
2. Share with athletes and coaches anecdotal reports and quotes from champions about the importance of the mental game, and the benefits they’ve received from working with a sports psychologist. As examples, ace MLB pitcher Roy Halladay credits much of his success to his work with mental skills coach Harvey Dorfman, whereas Tiger Woods was age 14 when he began working with Dr. Jay Brunza on confidence, concentration and relaxation. 2012 National Champion Basketball Coach John Calipari regularly consults with sports psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella, as well as having Rotella speak to his teams throughout the years.
3. Challenge any misunderstandings regarding sports psychology services, and work together to overcome these perceived barriers. Athletes might have all kinds of misunderstandings, like the sports psychologist will make them do something they don’t want to do such as take psychiatric medication, or go blabbing their story to the team or coach. Then, of course, there are the self-limiting beliefs, like “I should be able to solve all my personal or performance problems on my own,” or “Meeting with a sports psychologist is an admission of weakness that I shouldn’t have.” Asking for help or support is not an admission of weakness. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that you are human and that you want to hone your performance or enhance your life, together with a specialist.
That’s very interesting because I know players have their concerns that what they say or how they feel could be shared with others. And of course there are some coaches or players who subscribe to that “old school” way of thinking that admitting you could use some help means you are weak when that is simply not true.
In your experience, do you feel that professional sports organizations for all sports – and even at the collegiate level – don’t put enough resources into supporting the mental side of the game or is it completely the opposite? Is there any one sport that does a better job of it than the others?
Sports psychology is more accepted than ever and is utilized across the board, including college, professional and Olympic sports. I do think there is still plenty of room for growth at all levels. The United States Olympic Committee has an excellent sports psychology department. Specifically, Olympic athletes and coaches can receive individual sessions, attend mental game workshops, and read the USOC Olympic Coach E-magazine which regularly provides practical sports psychology articles. Sports psychology is extremely popular in sports like golf, tennis, baseball, etc.
That’s very refreshing to hear because it’s an aspect of sport and athletic performance that many fans aren’t even aware of, or don’t realize how much of an impact it can have on the performance of a player.
Let’s say, hypothetically, that a professional sports organization reached out to you and wanted you to head their mental performance efforts. How would you build up a program from scratch to assist the athletes of that organization? Would your strategy change based on the sport or level?
I would definitely start by conducting a needs assessment through talking with the key players and decision-makers in the organization, including the coaches/managers, leaders/
captains, team docs and trainers to get their thoughts about what the team needs in order to go from where they are to where they want to be. That is, what are the team’s strengths? What are the key areas for growth?
I would then tailor my interventions to meet these particular needs, such as working with the players individually, meeting in small groups for mental skills training (e.g., Let’s say I was working with a baseball or softball team, I might want to meet with the pitchers/catchers, infielders, and outfielders in separate groups), and also make sure to get everyone together for team building (there is a shared common destiny, and as such, all behaviors must be for the benefit of the team).
In terms of sport or level, specific topics would likely be more emphasized. For example, I might discuss how to manage success and high status with pro teams, whereas college teams might want to learn how to better balance school and sport. My general goal would be to help create a positive and professional organizational culture built for ongoing excellence.
Is it more difficult, in the sense that there is more resistance, to work with athletes at the professional level or the collegiate level?
Resistance is futile Most college athletes are definitely open to learning and talking about the mental game, but the pros from my experience are more likely to follow through by exercising their mental skills on a regular basis, such as taking 10-15 minutes to visualize each facet of their sports performance.
Are there any particular issues or concerns athletes have which are recurring across all levels?
How to maintain confidence without becoming complacent.
How to play in the present and refocus quickly when distracted.
How to be resilient in face of adversity, such as injuries, demotions or adapting to a new role or team.
How to get along better with teammates, coaches and family members.
How to deal with the fear/risk of both failure and success.
Is there any one of those that come up more often than the rest when you speak with players?
Lack of self-confidence/pre-
What are feelings like that typically attributed to and what can a person do to combat them?
There are many sources of self-confidence, including proper preparation. “As long as I’m prepared, I always expect to win,” said Jack Nicklaus.
A favorite tip: “Practice as if you are in competition; compete as if you are in practice.” Most athletes have it backwards. They understimate the importance of practice by going through the motions, and then panic on the day of competition because they perceive it to be bigger than life in which they have to be better than themselves and do something extra special in the moment of action.
Modeling and social persuasion are also crucial sources of confidence. As such, coaches should have a strong sense of confidence and optimism about what they are doing. Athletes need to know there is hope and trust, and they’ll look to coaches and team leaders for cues.
I really appreciate your time Jim; you’ve been absolutely fantastic talking to me.
Do you have any final thoughts or advice for players that are currently having difficulty getting their thoughts in order when trying to perform on the field?
Focus on the process, not the end result. The future outcome can wait.
I’d like to thank Dr. Afremow for taking the time to talk to me about the mental side of athletic performance and how all hope is not lost if you’re someone who is having difficulty getting your thoughts in order on the field. Sometimes we get so caught up in believing that we have to always give the impression that we’re the toughest, the strongest, natural born leaders and winners but those things are easier said than done.
If you are having trouble with the mental pressures of performing, getting in contact with a sports counselor doesn’t make you weak – it makes you smart and one step ahead of those who refuse that aspect of performance. Some of the greatest athletes of their respective sports have spent a large portion of their careers speaking with these individuals and I believe their careers speak for themselves as to the results of doing just that.