Written by Geoffrey Peal Psy. D.
Time management is one of the most difficult things (non-professional) athletes of all ages
encounter. Starting in high school, or even middle school for some, the athlete’s day becomes a
battle of competing interests between keeping up grades, practice, getting enough sleep, and
having some semblance of a social life. Balancing these activities can be another stress on itself,
which leads us to the main question: Why would I devote extra time to sports psychology
when I could be doing some of these other things?
Mental performance is not a new concept in sports, but has been brought to light by some of
the most high-profile coaches using it in the past couple of decades. Phil Jackson, who has won
11 NBA Championships, devoted practice time for each of his teams toward mental
performance, focus, and relaxation under George Mumford, a sports psychologist. Even more
recently, the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks spent considerable time during practices
using mindfulness and other sports psychology-related techniques to improve their
performance in games. They used mindfulness, imagery, and relaxation, under the supervision
of sports psychologist Mike Gervais, to build more focus and improve their game as a team.
Many teams now hire sports psychologists to help devote time to mental toughness and
practice coping with the intense stress of games.
Most athletes have heard terms directly related to this stress and the negative impact on their
game. Announcers love to use illustrative terms like “choking” or “he’s in his head!” Baseball
also contains examples such as Chuck Knoblauch, a pitcher who lost the ability to accurately
throw to first base and eventually moved to the outfield. As pressure has been shown to have a
huge negative impact on performance, sports psychologists work with athletes on ways to deal
with this pressure, both on the field and off the field.
Sports psychology with athletes helps them work on strategies to improve focus by turning
down that voice inside their head that creates the stress. There are studies across all areas of
performance, not just athletic, that show negative self-talk can have a major impact on our
ability to think and react. One of the major struggles athletes have in all sports is turning off this
critical self and letting all of the training and hard work take over. Sports psychologists call this
“flow,” and others have called it “in the zone” and other various terms. One of the main goals
of mindfulness with athletes is opening up to this experience.
Sports psychologists also practice relaxation and imagery with athletes. Muscle tension, or
“trying too hard,” often leads to errant throws, shots, putts, etc. Teaching relaxation can help
athletes identify this tension and quickly return back to their ideal performance zone. Imagery,
used more as a preparation technique, can help the athlete get “reps” in for a certain situation
or play without requiring a court, field, or ball. Research has shown just the act of imagining,
especially guided imagery using a variety of sensory input, can improve performance in various
areas and activates the same areas of the brain that are active when performing the action in
real life. Imagery can also be used to desensitize athletes to stressful situations that may come
up in a game and is a common technique used in treatment of anxiety. If the brain is
desensitized to stressful situations, athletes are able to keep their “fight or flight” system from
activating and are able to use the full resources of their calm mind to approach the situation in
the best possible manner.
Sports psychology helps athletes to balance both these in-game stresses and stresses outside of
athletics. Many of these same techniques discussed in relation to sports can help our clients
manage the stresses of relationships, school work, and promote healthier lifestyles that include
better eating and sleeping. As sports psychologists, we believe that time spent focusing on
these skills and strategies are not a waste at all, because they apply to every moment of the
athlete’s life and have positive effects well into the future, past even most athletic careers.
Now that you know the benefits of finding time to include sports psychology in your training routine, you need to find psychologists that specialized in sports and performance related issues. FPA Performance is a subsidiary of Family Psychology Associates and can help with all your sport and performance relate issues including stress, performance anxiety, focus and relaxation techniques. Individual and group consultations services are available for athletes of all ages. We have an office of Palm Harbor psychologists (727-725-8820) and an office of psychologists in Trinity (727-203-3770) to assist you. If time restraints are an issue, we also offer online counseling and therapy services in sports.