Athletes, coaches, and often the public in general often have a lot of assumptions about what sport psychology is and what it is that a sport psychologist does. And understandably, a lack of knowledge frequently results in hesitation or even fear in reaching out for help with mental skills — even when it is glaringly apparent that what you have been doing is not working and you are fresh out of ideas on how to fix it.
Miami’s Angel Rodriguez was kind enough to illustrate this dynamic beautifully. (And yes, I have had athletes refer to me as the “Voodoo lady.” Which is weird, I don’t see myself as having that kind of mystique.)
Luckily for Rodriguez, he had coaches who were willing to push the issue, encouraging him to get extra help, and believed in what sport psychology has to offer. Of course, Dr. Bob Rotella is HUGE name in the world of sport psych and mental skills training. He literally wrote the book. Or was it that other book? No no, it was THIS book. Honestly, just google the guy. I could be here all day otherwise.
But do you want to know a tiny secret? You don’t have to be able to get Dr. Bob on the phone in order to get benefits from a sport psychologist. Handy, really.
I recommend that athletes regularly read about sport psych topics, both generalized across the field and specific to their sport. Actually, I even emphasize reading up on sport psychology for other sports and seeing what you can apply to your athletic ventures. This stimulates critical thinking skills and helps you better encode the information that you’re reviewing. That is to say, you understand things better after you’ve picked them apart and re-organized them — just like you know where all of your belongings are after you clean your room and put everything away piece by piece.
Secondly, be willing to talk to a knowledgeable professional if a problem persists despite your best attempts to resolve it. This is making a decision based on functionality (“is it working to solve this on my own? Nope? Ok then….”) and values (“is it more important for me to get better or avoid feeling uncomfortable? Ok then….”). Likely most of what you will discuss with a sport psychology consultant will be things you already know. However, the process of talking through the issue and having them reflect back to you what they hear can be amazingly beneficial.
I liken it to teaching. If you are going to teach or tutor a friend in calculus, it forces you to really understand the concepts involved. You even discover yourself learning as you teach this person about calculating derivatives. Similarly, when athletes explain their concerns to me, they are in essence teaching me about the problem. More times than I can count, an athlete has stopped in the middle of their discussion to observe “well, that’s silly. Why am I doing X when I know that Y works so much better? I’m going to go back to Y. Thanks!” I have long said that I am an expert question asker – not necessarily the purveyor of all knowledge.
Lastly, sport psychologists help athletes (and teams and coaches) refocus on what’s important and what works. During a hectic season, lots of pressure on surviving the travel, rehabbing the injury — all of that can be mentally consuming. In my experience, just talking about mental skills, not necessarily teaching or learning anything terribly innovative, is an invaluable refresher and focusing tool. Your coach helps you focus on X’s and O’s, your strength and conditioning coach helps you focus on body maintenance, and the sport psych talk helps you focus on that 6 or so inches between your ears. It’s a pretty important 6 inches, wouldn’t you say?
A final word of encouragement: while I would sell my granny for an invite to Hogwarts and one of those flying broomsticks, I actually have zero magical abilities. Well, my sense of humor is pretty magical, but I don’t think that counts. So fear not!
Until the next time, stay awesome!