Today is the day I’m going to talk about sports psychology.
Many of you know me as primarily focusing on sports parenting issues, having written youth sports columns for a decade for Sports Illustrated, and of course, doing my Sports Edge show on WFAN Radio for the last 20 years.
But before I went into the area of sports parenting, I developed a strong and lifelong interest in sports psychology. This goes back all the way to my days in college and in graduate school. For years, I promised myself I would put my thoughts and insights into a book which focused on sports psychology, and would tailor it to athletes, coaches, and parents, and I’m happy to report that my book is now available for sale this week, both in bookstores as well as online at Amazon or BN.com. It’s available both in paper or as an ebook. The book is entitled Secrets of Sports Psychology Revealed: Proven Techniques to Elevate Your Performance, and in it, I’ve tried to provide the reader with a basic primer of what sport psychology is , and how a young competitive athlete can benefit from it. There’s even a chapter at the end on sports psychology and sports parenting, since the two topics often go hand in hand.
First, some quick history. Sports psychology is a relatively new science. When I was an undergrad at Harvard in the early 1970s and was studying psychology, and I was also an aspiring baseball player, I wanted to find as many books and studies as I could about the mental side of sports.
Of course, this was long before google and the internet, so there was no online search. I basically went through the old fashioned approach of library research: going through card catalogs in several of the Harvard libraries. To my amazement, and disappointment, there was only scant material.
In short, there was very, very little about sports psych that I could find in the literature. Oh, there were a few articles here and there, but for the most part, sport psych was a brand new field that was being practiced only in some degree by the East Germans with their Olympic athletes.
But beyond that, no one in American sports – especially at the professional, collegiate, or HS levels – was fully involved in helping athletes when it came to their mental approach.
It just didn’t exist.
But for whatever reason, I found this topic to be fascinating and I continued to pursue it. And bit by bit, over the years, I was thrilled that it began to grow. I did my senior honors thesis at Harvard about sports psychology and specifically how top athletes viewed the world in a different way than most people do, and I also earned my Master’s in psychology as well. I had the opportunity to interview the members of the New York Knicks championship team in 1973, and I was fascinated by how these fellows viewed life. It was an eye-opening experience for me.
Along the way, I played professionally in the Detroit Tigers organization, and when I retired from that, I started to coach at the collegiate level. I also started to write articles and books about sports psychology.
AN AMAZING BREAK
Then, one day in the late 1980s – I got a call out of the blue from a gentleman I didn’t know named Harvey Dorfman. Harvey explained to me that he had been working for the Oakland Athletics for a few years as their mental skills coach- this is when the A’s were winning World Championships – and he told me that he knew of my work and writing in sports psych, and he wanted to recommend me to other major league teams.
I was flattered and thrilled beyond belief – and to make a long story short, I was approached by several major league GMs and decided to sign on with the Cleveland Indians. For somebody who had a huge interest in sports psychology, and in working with top pro athletes, this was a dream come true. I spent the next five years working with the Indians in everyday contact with the major league players, the minor leaguers, the front office and so on.
Harvey, by the way, spent years in baseball and worked as a sports psych coach for several major league teams and worked with literally hundreds of top players, many of whom went onto become Hall of Famers.
Harvey Dorfman was my mentor – and he was considered to be the pre-eminent leader in the field of sports psychology for pro athletes. In short, he truly opened the door for people like me and others. In any event, I joined Cleveland in 1989. This was when the Indians were just beginning to rise and become dominant in the American League in the 1990s. Young minor leaguers like Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle and many others were in the Indians’ minors at the time, and it was the experience of my lifetime to get to know and work with these talented ballplayers.
Along the way, I found that pro players had many of the same issues and concerns and worries that most of today’s athletes have when it comes to playing at a high level. I encountered questions such as:
o Are pre-game rituals and superstitions okay to have – or should they be avoided?
o Is there is a guaranteed way for an athlete to reach the “zone” – that rare stretch in a game when everything is going your way, and everything seems to slow down…as a basketball player, you just don’t miss a shot…as a pitcher, you have perfect pinpoint control of your pitches…and so on.
o Does visualization really work – and is it a good practice for athletes?
o What about making adjustments in the heat of battle? You hear commentators talk all the time about a player having to make adjustments in a game – what does that really mean from a psychological perspective?
What about just taking a deep breath when things get tight? Does that work?
Questions like these pepper the elite athlete’s mind. Which is one of the main reasons why I wrote my book. More to the point, these days most athletes focus only on their physical skills – running, weight training, doing repetitions in their skills — that they rarely if ever focus on their mental approach to the game. In short, they just go out and play.
But as you climb higher on the pyramid of competition, you find that you begin to need every advantage you can get, and the mental side of your game becomes more important.
So I wrote the book to be an overview while also covering key topics. It’s deliberately written to be fully accessible – there’s no psychological mumbo-jumbo in it. It’s written for immediate and direct application and use by athletes.
A QUICK SAMPLING
Here’s just a very brief overview of some of the points I discuss:
1 – Let’s start with superstitions and pre-game rituals….This is all tied in with an athlete trying to get into the zone….and if he or she had a really good performance in their last game, then they are instinctively going to try and repeat everything they did in their pre-game preparation in the hope that will elevate him or her to the zone again.
That makes sense and also explains why athletes will often repeat the same pre-game meal (remember Wade Boggs and his obsession with eating chicken on game day?), or wearing the same clothes, or taking the same route to the locker room.
So these “superstitions” are fine – so long, of course, that they don’t get out of hand or interfere with the rest of the members of the team. In my experience, so-called superstitions are just a way to psychologically prepare oneself to play better.
2 – Then there’s visualization….This has been around for a number of years. I recall first reading about this mental rehearsal practice in a classic book entitled PSYCHO-CYBERNETICS by Dr. Maxwell Maltz, who was a surgeon. Before doing an operation, he would mentally rehearse and “see” in his mind’s eye every aspect of the upcoming procedure.
Other performers do the same thing….actors, dancers, musicians, and so on. They want to visualize every aspect of their upcoming performance – and most importantly, see themselves performing in a totally positive way. That’s key. But to visualize properly and to do it right, you have to be very precise in your approach. This is covered in my book.
3 – What about the standard advice about dealing with pre-game anxiety by taking 2-3 deep breaths?
You hear that all the time from coaches and parents – it’s become common advice when a player is in a tight spot in a game: “Just take a few deep breaths.” But does this really work?
In my experience, I tell athletes not to try and avoid the nervousness, but to embrace it!
That is, when your body is so wired and seemingly anxious – that’s a good sign. That is, your body is telling you that it’s fully ready to rock and roll – that your body is humming like a tuned-up race car at the start – and that your body is full of adrenaline.
So, rather than try to avoid, suppress, or walk away from those feelings, I tell athletes to look forward to it…it means that your physical body and mental approach are alert and ready to go.
Many years ago, when Bill Russell was the superstar center of the legendary Boston Celtics, he would get so nervous before each game that Bill would have to throw up. It became something of a regular event before games.
So much so that his teammates began to realize that they wouldn’t be ready to take the court until Bill threw up. But once he did, they knew that not only was Bill ready to go, but so were they. You get the idea. They all looked forward to and embraced Bill’s pre-game nervousness.
In any event, can you still take a deep breath when times are tight? Sure. But as you do, use that moment to remember to rely on your athletic instincts and experience. Learn to trust your hard-earned athletic skills. Those will get you through the tough times. It ‘s those key elements that will take you where you want to go – not just taking a deep breath or two.
4- What about self-talks? Do they work?
Well, yes, they do. But only if the athlete has done their homework long before the game.
When you find yourself in a jam, this is where your pre-game self-talk comes in handy.
Have you ever seen a pitcher in a game on the mound, seemingly having a conversation with himself? This is a self-talk in which the pitcher is using a few pre-planned reminders of the mental blueprint he’s trying to stick to during the game.
This keeps the pitcher from losing focus or losing control of his actions. Harvey Dorfman introduced me to the power of mental cue cards..These are small cards that many athletes use in their pre-game warm-ups to help remind them what they need to do to maintain their mental focus when it starts getting rocky on the field. Some athletes write reminders on their wrist bands…others in the bill of their cap….but again, these are the basis of self-talks.
I’m a huge proponent of these cue cards which I cover these in the book.
Again, this is just small sampling of the mental approach in sports, but I do hope you will pick up a copy not only for yourself, but to share with your athletic son or daughter. Since my days in college, when sports psychology was not even a well-known term, we have evolved where just about every professional or collegiate team has a sports psychology coach on call.