As sports psychology becomes a more crucial component of a well-rounded athletics program, a greater number of players and coaches are beginning to realize that what happens off the field can be as critical to success as what happens on it.
“Mental conditioning is essential and has become a part of our training curriculum,” says Dean Koski, head coach of Lehigh’s men's soccer team. “It has been integral in helping our students develop beyond just the physical part of the game.”
Ian Birky, sports psychologist and director of Lehigh’s Counseling and Psychological Services
, says players don’t always realize that they can optimize their performance by attuning to psychological strategy. For example, he says, when an opposing team scores or an athlete makes an ill-advised play, a typical response is for the player to lower his head, drop his shoulders, and temporarily take himself out of the flow of play.
That moment, Birky says, is when a player is very vulnerable and has an increased chance of being scored on again.
“Players don’t necessarily realize the psychological response they have in these types of critical moments until a sport psychologist meets with them,” he says. “We go in and talk to them about these situations, get them to reflect on and analyze their behavior and help them begin to identify their usual responses, both physically and mentally, during these situations.”
Many players, Birky continues, begin to describe physical responses they are aware of, such as a clenched jaw, poor focus and a drop in their shoulders. What they don’t realize is that they can turn the situation around much quicker by being psychologically prepared.
“If they are not prepared,” says Birky, “their response is going to run its normal course.”
Players who develop and practice psychological strategies can shorten that period when they are down and can go back to a peak performance mode quicker, he says.
Techniques for success
Birky, along with fellow sports psychologists Jeff VanLone and Joel Ingersoll, work with many of Lehigh’s athletic teams to teach them these strategies and how to incorporate them on the field.
“We’ve worked with teams and individual players and assisted them in developing the strategies to deal with everything from teambuilding to pre-game anxiety and recovery from mistakes or poor performance,” Ingersoll says. “Whether an athlete needs short-term or long-term help, we help them to develop strategies, teach them how to incorporate these strategies, and assist them in knowing how to carry them out during the game.”
Adds VanLone: “Mental conditioning can also help individuals with a certain skill base to manage their stress, manage their energy arousal, build that commitment to team, and to ultimately perform at a high level.”
These strategies, used increasingly by successful athletic programs, include visualization techniques, energy arousal control, and anchoring.
“The field hockey team has been using some visualization techniques that we do at the end of the practice before the game,” says Julie Mazer, head coach of the women’s field hockey team. The players, she says, create a scene in their mind of what they want to happen at their game the next day.
“I think some athletes visualize on their own,” Mazer says. “But I think the mental approach to the game, if the players can be in complete control of that, can complement their play on the field.”
Managing energy arousal, Birky says, is also a critical component of sports, and helping athletes understand its importance can be helpful during competition. When a player experiences a sudden adrenaline spike, that player may be vulnerable within the next few minutes to an equal and opposite down time during which energy and focus is decreased.
“We teach players that these feelings are a normal psycho-physiologic reaction, and that if they don’t go so high emotionally, then they also won’t go as low,” Birky says.
Armed with the right strategies in high-energy arousal situations, he says, players will smile, pat each other on the back, and then get right back into a level energy zone. Consistent energy levels are ideal for peak performance and for top competition.
Birky is also working with the field hockey team on anchoring, a technique that players use to help them recover from a mistake.
“If a player makes a mistake, there is a physical spot that she touches—like on her arm or her hand—that gets her back to a place that reminds her of all the good things she’s done,” Mazer says.
That anchoring technique, she says, gets the player out of the psychological low caused by the mistake she made and helps her compete to her full capabilities.
While many colleges hire sports psychologists to travel with their teams, Counseling and Psychological Services is a department within the university, a resource that many coaches view as valuable.
“Our players view the counseling center, and Dr. Birky, as a wonderful resource,” Koski says. “Dr. Birky has come out to our practices and talked to guys individually and some of our players will come up to him after games and tell him what they are struggling with. Having that resource on our campus, for both me and our athletes, has been invaluable.”