Sports psychologist: Anxiety often root of performance problems

Palm Beach Daily News – Updated on June 3,2024 by John F Murray – John Nelander – When their tennis skills are tumbling, or their slice is careening out of control on the golf course, most people think of three solutions: practice, practice and more practice.

But there’s a mental aspect to all sports, whether you’re a professional athlete or just a weekend duffer. Some people who are serious about improving their performance are looking to sports psychologists for help.

A sports psychologist won’t turn you from a 100-shot, 18-hole hack into a par golfer. But a fresh mental approach to your sport can help maximize whatever talent you do have.

The root cause of most athletic performance problems is anxiety, says John Murray, a sports psychologist who lives and works in Palm Beach. You can boil it down to fear.

“People tend to think about results, and that causes fear, because they’re afraid of losing, or looking bad,” says Murray, who has had a private practice in South Florida for 24 years. “They’e afraid of letting themselves down or their team down.”

The enemy is the old fight-or-flight response. As Murray notes: “it’s the same response that would occur if a snake was about to attack you.”

It’s an inappropriate response in this day and age, but our bodies haven’t yet caught up with that. To break that response, you have to get in and do some serious techniques, like classical conditioning and relaxation work.

The key is not to fight the anxiety response. It’s to make sure it doesn’t get turned on in the first place. A coach isn’t doing an athlete any favors if he stands on the sidelines screaming: Focus! Focus!

Imagine this calming routine on the tennis court: You’re at the service line. You bounce the ball once, take a deep breath, and then exhale. “Imagine a perfect serve, and then let it rip, says Murray. I don’t want people to think more, I want them to think less. I want them to be on auto-pilot.”

Action versus anxiety

The potential for anxiety to affect an athlete varies with the sport. In general, the more time you spend actively engaged in competitive activity, the less anxiety will be a factor.

Golfers are particularly vulnerable, because only about 1 percent of the time on the course actually involves swinging the club. That leaves 99 percent of your time to worry about what your next shot is going to look like.

For every hour on the tennis court, 15-20 percent of your time is spent engaged in a point. That still leaves plenty of time to lose your focus.

“Contrast that with a soccer match, Murray adds. There, you might be engaged in the sport 80 percent of the time. In NFL football it’s 33 percent, which is why I say American football is a more mentally demanding sport.”

New discipline

Sports psychology is a relatively recent discipline. The American Psychological Association’ws Division of Exercise and Sport Psychology will mark its 35th anniversary soon. There are about many members nationwide.

In its very early days, sports psychologists worked mostly with pros or serious amateurs. Now, more weekend athletes are taking the extra step. It’s usually about self-talk and how the athlete is coaching himself.

People have this inner dialogue going. We say about 200 words per minute to ourselves. If you’re involved in sports, it doesn’t help if you’re consistently critical of your own performance.

Like Murray, most psychologists use imagery to help people picture success on the field.

Murray has a general psychology practice as well, but 90 percent of his clientele has sports or performance issues and there can be performance issues in business, too. He sees a lot of high school athletes brought in by their parents who are hoping to see their kids score an athletic scholarship.

He’s also worked with some NFL teams, including the Miami Dolphins. He’s worked with major league baseball players and NCAA basketball stars.

“I’m still waiting for the phone to ring off the hook from the president or presidential candidates,” he says with a smile. Politicians are control freaks, and they often want to do it all alone. But my passion and dream is always to help anyone succeed more.”

Hope you’ve enjoyed this feature from the world of sports psychology