Mental Equipment Syndicated Column – Feb 1, 2000 – Dr. John F. Murray – We must all continue to acquire sport psychology strategies, tips and theories to maintain our competitive edge. When used regularly, these “tools” help reduce distractions, enhance performance, and improve enjoyment in competitive endeavors. Tips are great, but seeing how others conquer challenges is valuable too. This month, let’s step back and observe athletes being assisted through the counseling process. The forthcoming examples are not based on particular clients. However, performers in many different situations face comparable challenges daily. Keep in mind that there is no substitute for actually receiving sport psychology counseling.

The Choking Junior Tennis Player

Many junior tennis players appear to have all the talent in the world. They attend the finest academies, are well conditioned physically, and love their sport. Unfortunately, they often unravel just when on the verge of making a real breakthrough. Coaches and parents are befuddled about why their performance falters after they gain a decisive lead in the final set of the big tournament.

The answer to this challenge is frequently found in mental skills training (For example, see: “Competitive Pressure in Tennis”). These athletes are rarely emotionally disturbed (until after their fifth major choke!). Rather, they are responding naturally to a highly unnatural situation. It’s not easy to stare at a major victory (or defeat) for the first time, and calmly ignore it. Thoughts become scrambled, muscles tighten, and the heart pounds, and the ball keeps flying into the net. Meanwhile, the opponent with nothing to lose just plays tennis and finds himself a happy 6-4 winner.

The origin of the choke lies within the processes of attention control and energy regulation. After seeking a sport psychologist, these players learn that their problem is universal. They gradually realize that the “pressure” of the moment is a greater adversary than any opponent. They also learn that choking can never be completely extinguished, because competitors care about winning, care about what others think, and want to improve. However, they gradually learn to change their thoughts about what it means to be a strong tennis player, and begin putting self-awareness and thought control into action. After learning to manage this nasty beast, they wonder why they never practiced “choke busting” long ago. Since practice situations rarely simulate the excitement or pressure of the big match, players must patiently monitor their feelings, evaluate performance in a slightly different way, love the struggles, and go for it with confidence and courage even in the scariest moments.

The Isolated Baseball Player

Baseball players, and other athletes, often feel that they are not really part of the team. They want to make an impression, gain acceptance, and or earn a regular spot on the roster, but find themselves constantly discriminated against by the starters or coaches. This problem occurs frequently when a player transitions from a lower to higher level such as from high school to college.

Not feeling accepted might have both historical roots, and be part of the normal process of transitioning to a higher level. Low self-esteem in childhood and adolescence, or a history of unsuccessful relationships, may contribute to the maladjustment. The desire to be accepted may develop a life all its own, making it even harder to gain acceptance because the player tries too hard.

While these players may benefit Mental Equipment self-help strategies (e.g., by reading “The Art of Confidence”), one-on-one sport psychology counseling is often needed. A careful assessment can help distinguish normal adjustment difficulties from more severe developmental problems. Although most baseball players are well adjusted, a professional assessment is the key to proper diagnosis and treatment.

Discussing their feelings of isolation in the safe counseling setting often helps them realize that others share their problem too. Social skills training, and other specific strategies, often help. For difficult cases involving long patterns of relationship difficulties, the psychologist may help the client resolve past issues and conflicts too.

By gaining a more realistic perspective on the problem, and receiving quality feedback and support, the isolated baseball player learns to change perceptions and behaviors resulting in greater social acceptance and growth.

The Injured Football Player and Frustrated Coach

Injuries are a way of life in American football. Some players bounce back rapidly following an injury while others linger in the training room, miss rehabilitation appointments or engage in unhealthy activities (e.g., drinking, drugs or illegal activities) to cope with stress. The well being of the injured football player is extremely important, and directly related to the mental state of the football coach and whole organization. With a plentiful supply of warriors ready to give their all, everyone is better positioned to succeed.

For the coach, drafting players who most easily recover from injury is essential. Knowing how to treat the player once he has become injured is equally challenging. This is an area where the sport psychologist has great impact. By gaining knowledge through formal assessment and observation, the psychologist is positioned to enhance personnel selection, reduce injury onset, and assist in rehabilitation.

Mental Equipment self-help is useful for injured football players (See “Coping With Athletic Injuries”), but great benefits also may occur one on one. There are many stress and injury management techniques available to reduce distress, and monitoring the athlete in rehabilitation promotes optimal recovery, both mentally and physically. Regular sport psychology counseling sessions have benefits including an opportunity to release negative emotions, and problem solve in a productive manner. Goal setting and imagery are particularly beneficial for speeding recovery among injured football players. Regular consultation with the coach helps ensure that each player is treated in a manner most appropriate to ensuring healthy individual recovery.

Important To Know About Sport Psychologists

Individuals in the above examples benefited from Mental Equipment tips as well as from psychological counseling. The choking junior tennis player learned to utilize “choke busting” tools after thoroughly examining his outlook toward important performance situations. The isolated baseball player discovered why he was feeling isolated. Processing this in counseling led to changed perceptions and behavior. Finally, the injured football player and frustrated coach found many benefits from the regular input and assessment provided by the sport psychologist. These included enhanced injury rehabilitation, better stress and pain coping, healthy emotional release, and consultation for personnel decisions.

It should be emphasized that personal problems are quite common in seemingly isolated cases of sports performance impairment. Researchers and clinicians often report that in 60 to 80 percent of their cases, much more than performance enhancement is needed. The player dealing with low confidence on court may also be distracted by a failing romantic relationship or difficulties on the job, and require general counseling too. The anxious swimmer may have an eating disorder or academic problem detracting from sports performance and overall health. The bottom line is that it is usually impossible to separate the whole person from his or her performance. Off court issues disrupt performance, and faulty performance may lead to general distress. This does not mean that athletes are mentally disturbed! Most are healthier than the general population. However, many performance problems arise from problems in daily life.

The public needs to be aware that there are two main types of sport psychology professionals. The first group of individuals have graduate training in the sport sciences and performance enhancement techniques, but are not trained or licensed to provide psychological services. They may teach performance enhancement to athletes, but when clinical issues arise, they refer their clients to licensed professionals (e.g., clinical or counseling psychologists).

The second type of sport psychology professional is the licensed clinical or counseling psychologist with additional extensive formal training in the sport sciences and athletics. This “sport psychologist” offers the benefit of one-stop-shopping by training athletes in performance enhancement while conducting formal assessments and counseling as needed rather than having to refer the client to someone else. If you would like a “sport psychologist” with these latter qualifications, find out if they are licensed in their state as a psychologist and if they have received advanced training in the sport sciences and supervised training in counseling and performance enhancement to athletes.

I hope you enjoyed this month’s illustrations of progress. Keep sending your messages regarding topics for future columns.