As a professional tennis player, I studied sport psychology for my own purposes, but then as a doctor of clinical psychology, I went even further in my studies. The biggest misconception about sports psychology is that it is about dysfunction. In 1980 when I first joined the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers to be their sports psychologist, the players were very suspicious of me. They thought management wanted me to be a spy to label who the “crazies” were. It took a lot of time and small talks with the players to convince them that there was inviolate confidentiality between them and me, and that sports psychology is about teaching athletes how they can enhance their performance and it was not about focusing on problems.
The main tenet of sports psychology is that there is a connection between our minds and our bodies. What we think, imagine, or visualize matters and can affect our performance in our sport. For example, if you graph performance against tension, you get an inverted U-shaped curve. That is, when tension or physical activation is low, performance is also low, there’s nothing on the line. As tension increases, so does performance, we’re more focused, we care more. However, after tension increases past a certain point, it actually hurts performance, we care too much, we try too hard. In this state, there are detrimental physiological changes: peripheral vision narrows, heart rate goes up too high, blood pressure goes up, and muscle reaction time slows, all symptoms of “choking”.
So the goal of sports psychology is to help the athlete learn how to prepare correctly to get into that optimal zone of activation or tension that is conducive to top performances. In pursuit of that goal, the tools at hand are visualization, mindfulness, goal setting, relaxation techniques, self talk, mental rehearsal, and resilience. Each of these tools could take up a chapter, but I will take a stab at summarizing them briefly.
Visualization is not some exotic technique employed by just a few athletes, it’s actually something we all do all the time, but I call that “worry”. We miss a tennis shot and then worry about doing the same thing at a crucial time. Effective visualization is then seeing in our mind’s eye what we would like to accomplish, not what we want to avoid. If I’m a golfer looking at a tee shot that has to go over water, I want to see the arc of the shot and the landing zone and not focus on the water at all.
Mindfulness is the art of being present in our bodies with a calm mind. If I’m in my head about the shot I just missed, or what the audience is thinking of my play, or what a bad result might do to my ranking, I’m not as aware of the direction of the wind, the angle of the sun, the dead spots on the court, the pattern of play of my opponent, or my own level of physical activation. In other words, I’m not taking in all the important data that would actually help my performance.
Goal setting gives us a direction for every day we’re out playing. I have athletes set short, medium, and long-term goals in their sport, their fitness, and their personal lives. Goals are not markers of success or failure so much as guide posts to give us feedback on the efficiency of our training. If I want to be in the top ten in the world in a year then where do I want to be in six months and what specifically do I need to work on every day to get there?
Relaxation techniques are used to help us get in that zone of optimal tension. Most athletes do not have to be revved up for a game, but more often, calmed down. There are specific techniques, but practices such as meditation, yoga, and prayer can accomplish the same results.
Self-talk is another behavior we all are doing most of the time, only again, often it is used negatively: “You idiot, how could you miss that volley?!” “I’m so tired, I’m not going to make it to the finish!” The goal is not to lie to yourself with fake positive talk, but to be aware of the negative talk and convert it into something that is genuine, but helpful. For example, “I am really tired, but if I just concentrate on one step at a time, I won’t feel so overwhelmed.”
Mental rehearsal, like visualization, is a tool to focus on positive changes and outcomes. It can be used to mentally rehearse specific techniques or strategies or replay successful events or games. It can even be used to rehearse an internal feeling like joy or gratitude for being able to participate in your sport.
Finally, resilience overlaps with all the other tools. If these tools are used, they result in resilience. If I make an error and then visualize the correction before starting play again, if I use self-talk inspirationally and not negatively, and if I’m in the here-and-now in my mind and body and not lost in negative thoughts, then I’m better prepared to bounce back from any mistake or loss.
These practices need not be confined to the athletic arena, but can be useful in daily life. We all have to “perform” in our lives at work, at school, or on the sports field and can enhance our performances by using these tools.