Dr. Jim Afremow is a sports psychology specialist, licensed professional counselor, and the author of The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train and Thrive (Rodale, January 2014). He is the founder of Good to Gold Medal, PLLC, a leading sports psychology coaching and consulting practice. To learn more about Dr. Afremow, including details regarding his services and products, please visit his website: www.goldmedalmind.net.
At what age/competition level should a young athlete consider seeing a sports psychologist?
Young athletes looking to improve their game—to more consistently play their best, experience greater enjoyment, and increase their odds of success—can benefit from sports psychology services at any time. Kids of all ages can learn playful and basic research-backed relaxation techniques and mental skills. These skills include belly (or deep) breathing, positive self-talk, body language and visualization. Children need to learn effective strategies for relieving stress and increasing resilience, just as much as adults do. Moreover, mental skills are life skills. Children are fast learners so these beneficial skills will become ingrained and last a lifetime.
In general, young athletes can gain a significant head start on their peers by intentionally developing their mental strength early on, rather than waiting until college or beyond. High school is an especially good point in time for young athletes to train their minds for achieving excellence in sports, school, and daily life. Young athletes can fine-tune their games mentally and also learn how to cope with any kind of setback, such as a mental block, injury, or prolonged slump. In sum, a sports psychologist is a mental coach with a parallel role to a team coach and is just as pivotal in helping athletes reach their true potential.
What makes an athlete mentally strong?
Mental toughness does not mean clenching your teeth, thinking more, straining your eyes to focus, or steeling yourself when someone screams ‘Be Tough!’ at you. Mental toughness is the ability to remain positive and proactive in the most challenging of circumstances. Legendary soccer player Mia Hamm has said that mental toughness is the primary mental attribute that any player must possess. Just like physical skills, mental skills can be practiced and developed. The idea is to seek out challenges and then get “comfortable being uncomfortable” to build mental and physical muscles. Ways of developing and demonstrating mental toughness include:
- Rising early in the morning to get in extra training
- Moving through non-injury pain and discomfort to finish strong during a hard workout
- Staying focused after making a mistake or getting a bad call from an official
- Never letting your opponent’s attitude or effort be stronger than your own
- Wanting the ball for the last play to win the game.
What are some of the biggest challenges young athletes face when it comes to developing confidence in themselves and their athletic ability?
Young athletes must be confident in themselves and their athletic ability to perform at their best, whether trying out for the team, cracking the starting lineup, playing against a higher-ranked opponent, rebounding from a poor start or tough loss, or transitioning to the next level (e.g., going from junior high to high school). The goal is to identify a challenge and then learn how to overcome it.
One factor that can contribute to young athletes’ psychological difficulties is that of having overbearing parents who focus on winning and less on learning and development. It is more important for parents to encourage their children to focus on practice, make errors and develop. Young athletes may also have coaches that use a lot of negative feedback rather than focusing on the positive. It may be that a young athlete needs to learn how to tune out these sorts of comments and focus on their individual goals. Otherwise, young athletes may not have the confidence necessary to fail, practice, and rise to the next level.
To maintain a high confidence level through the inevitable peaks and valleys of sports participation:
- Regularly rehearse and relish past successes and highlights
- Find positive and successful role models to emulate
- Recall positive comments about your game from coaches, teammates, and family
- Realize that pre-performance anxiety is how your body readies itself to perform
Understand that competition is always a great opportunity to have fun and either win or learn by making corrections to help you excel. If kids are constantly rewarded for getting A’s, rather than their effort, or for winning games rather than putting in 100%, there may come a time when they fear not reaching that achievement.
Can an athlete’s mental training impact their recovery process after sustaining a season-ending injury? How?
Mental training is important to conquer any physical challenge, especially during the recovery process after sustaining a significant injury. Mental training for sport is easily transferrable to the training room. Training for sport is about overcoming challenges; rehabilitation creates similar hurdles and stresses. In fact, athletes would be doing their best if they viewed rehab as their new “sport” until they get their game back and return to the field. Important mental skills and strategies athletes can and should utilize during rehab include:
- Setting clear short- and long-term treatment recovery goals in tandem with the sports medicine team
- Practicing positive, energetic language to motivate themselves into a winning frame of mind for their rehab sessions
- Keeping open and honest communication with the support and medical team to work though negative feelings, and address any questions or concerns about the healing process
- Visualizing the injured area healing and regaining full function
- Mentally practicing sports skills while watching their teammates perform on the field
- Breathing deeply and meditating to reduce stress and manage pain and discomfort
- Maintaining confident, upbeat body language to get the feeling of well-being into the body and mind.
Why do you think some athletes crumble under pressure while others seem to thrive?
Athletes can crumble in crunch time for a variety of reasons. Some don’t put their best effort forward because they fear failure and the consequences that come with it, including personal shame and/or guilt about letting the team down. Others hold back because they fear success and the incessant demands and increased expectations that come with it. Others mistakenly believe they need a super-human performance, do something extra or different than what they’ve honed in practice, and force an often negative result. All of these responses produce excessive muscle tension and increased distractibility which bottles up an athlete’s talent rather than allowing it to flow in a natural, unrestrained way.
Clutch players practice to the edge in training by making losing a point in training as big a deal as in a playoff game. So when the real deal comes along, it’s just like practice. They are always competing like everything’s on the line, even if it’s just playing cards with their friends. They hate to lose, but they never fear it. Their philosophy is to always “Be in it to win it,” whether in practice or games. Sure, they’ll lose a few games, but they’ll win many more because they never defeat themselves.