The Voodoo Factor

keep-calm-because-i-m-out-of-ideasAthletes, 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?

True Story.

True Story.

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!


Performance Consulting for a National Title

The Leadership coach for the the Ohio State Buckeyes, Tim Kight, is the subject of a piece by the Wall Street Journal detailing some of the work that he has done to help prepare the team for the 2014 season. (You can read more here, and even more details of how the program is applied here). With a national title on the line and several big factors in play – that’s a heck of a depth chart you have at the QB position, OSU! – it’s interesting to examine what components of their program may be influential in the outcome.

From the Wall Street Journal:

“Tim Kight drilled Ohio State’s players over the past two years and redoubled his efforts with its coaching staff this season at Meyer’s request. His message—that a successful reaction isn’t impulsive but a skill that can be taught—has hit home with the Ohio State players who have harnessed a power of positive responses to every imaginable event.”

I really liked many of the points made by all three of these stories. In determining what would make for a successful performance consulting relationship – be that person a licensed psychologist, sport psychologist, consultant, or any other sort of “coach” – there are similarities in what makes it work or (not work).

  • Being a good decision maker is a HUGE skill on and off the field. Ohio State won’t have to deal with Oregon’s Darren Carrington because of a failed drug test. Decision Making Fail – can’t imagine having to miss the national title game for something so avoidable. Kight’s emphasis on making “positive decisions” is excellent in bringing attention to the element of the equation that the athlete controls. When competing, athletes simply do not have the luxury of time to become distracted by problematic weather, their opponent being successful, a teammate making a mistake. All of this has to be taken in quickly and a response given.
  • Coach buy-in. Performance enhancement services are becoming more and more common at all levels of sport. Not surprisingly, there are no guarantees that the program a coach tries to bring in will seem relevant to all/any of the athletes. Coaches who are involved in and excited about a program often make it more likely that the athletes will at least consider what is being offered. Furthermore, coaches can almost always benefit from practicing what is being preached – coaches need mental skills, too. Coach Meyer echoes this sentiment exactly, claiming that he has “learned learned more from those leadership classes than the players.”
Coach Meyer could totally pull off that hat/overalls combination.

Coach Meyer could totally pull off that hat/overalls combination.

  • Making time for mental training. “The garden grows where you aim your water hose” and many teams, athletes, and/or coaches are guilty of not aiming that hose at mental training. Athletes can only become proficient at a skill if time is spent developing it. Ohio State clearly made leadership training a priority for their staff and athletes, and this is incredibly important. Despite the “duh” reaction this observation might create, you would be unpleasantly surprised to learn (at least from my perspective) how often this isn’t the case. Kudos to them!
  • This program has likely been useful for athletes (to some degree) because it makes sense. If a performance enhancement plan is theoretically sound but doesn’t appear applicable or practical – if it doesn’t feel relevant it’s just not going to work. And it’s not going to fly just because the head coach likes it and wants the athletes to partake. There needs to be buy-in top to bottom.
  • The program was offered for a significant period of time by a consistent consultant. It is not unusual in the sport psych world to have people work with teams for a very brief period of time. A consultant could be hired and after spending little if any time observing the team, offer a talk for the day or weekend, leave, and maybe never come back. Now, if Michael Jordan agrees to show up and do a one-hour motivational talk, I’d probably recommend saying yes. But if a team is interested in real change or the development of actual skills, they are going to need to have someone become part of the team. Mr. Kight clearly accomplishes this and I’d hazard a guess that the time spent with the team is a significant contributing factor as to why athletes bought into the program. Athletes, particularly those in the well-known sports and teams are extremely hesitant to open up to outsiders – and pretty much everyone is an outsider. The successful consultation is one that is earned through diligent time and attention given.
No, no, no. Not those kind of outsiders.

No, no, no. Not those kind of outsiders.

There were also a few points that, as they were covered by the media, felt they deserve a word of caution in case awareness of OSU’s program inspires other coaches and/or teams to seek out similar services.

  • The world of performance consulting and sport psychology is open to an array of professional disciplines and educational backgrounds. The Association for Applied Sport Psychology offers certification to those consultants who meet specific criteria (education, applied experienced supervised by a qualified person, continuing education requirements), but obviously a team is free to hire anyone to improve performance. Because working with sports teams can be a highly desired position, individuals with questionable education or applied experience may attempt to gain entrance to a team with whom they have no business working. Perhaps sometimes the net result is benign, but no coach would want to find out the hard way that they introduced a counter-productive element into their team. So I always recommend double checking a person’s background to ensure that they are qualified to offer the services they are selling. (This recommendation also applies to hiring a psychologist, that while being licensed and educated in providing therapy, may not have experiences working with sports teams and would be practicing outside of their competency).
"Tesla's telephones, I've done it! I've isolated the 'makes crappy decisions in the red zone' molecule!"  Sport psych science does it again.

“Tesla’s telephones, I’ve done it! I’ve isolated the ‘makes crappy decisions in the red zone’ molecule!”
Sport psych science does it again.

  • Evidenced-based, scientifically supported programs are best. For many years, the field of sport psychology has been working hard to provide rigorous evidence of the usefulness and benefits of mental skills training programs. The media may have neglected to include specific details about the program OSU is using from a presumption that such a detail was unimportant, the information wasn’t offered, or because the program is the creation of Mr. Kight and not an officially recognized and/or researched entity. Another HUGE recommendation from my desk to yours to ask questions regarding the nature of the program and/or skills a consultant wishes to provide. It’s certainly anyone’s right to use any type of program, be it mental skills, leadership, or otherwise focused. But inquire about data that supports these interventions. Be a smart consumer!
  • “Positivity” receives a lot of attention in pop media, self-help, etc. Athletes are frequently told to “think positive” and for reasons that deserve a whole other blogpost, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. Stay tuned for that one! OSU’s program seems to use word in a different manner, referring to choices that result in a proper/desired outcome and those that do not. I prefer to use the continuum of functionality – does a particular choice function or work to achieve a desired end? This wording choice comes from my background in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) which is very well researched and growing exponentially in popularity in sport psych applications. It may be a silly personal preference, but given the difficulties inherently tied into the concept of positivity, I am very selective about how I use it.

I hope these reflections help you, my Driven reader, think more critically about how the best performance consultation can come together. I also hope that if you are in the market for a consultant of this sort, you feel more encouraged to ask questions about supporting evidence, training and background of the consultant.

As for me, I don’t believe I have a favorite team to cheer for in the national title game. Although I grew up in southeastern Michigan, which would dictate cheering against the Buckeyes on a matter of principle, I’ve lived in Missouri long enough that I think I’m supposed to hate Kansas now. Except Kansas and Mizzou don’t play in the same conference any more, so I’m actually feeling a bit lost in Know Your Rivalry department. Honestly, it’s my hope to see both teams play spectacularly and impress all who shall spectate. And eat copious amounts of buffalo chicken dip.

Not sharing, doesn't care.  Photo credit: Closet Cooking
Not sharing, doesn’t care.
Photo credit: Closet Cooking

I’m just just that kind of girl.


The universe seems to be talking extensively on the subject of sacrifice lately. Fourth of July celebrations always hum along this theme; and along with other adventures (the details of which are unimportant here) I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the sacrifices of athletes. Sacrifice and its bestie commitment, are some of the most fascinating sport psych topics to me.

It has long been my theory that one of the most defining characteristics separating elite athletes from the rest of us is the ability to tolerate such total immersion in one activity.

In my opinion (I don’t believe that there is specific research out there offering evidence to support this, so just an opinion at this point), all other variables being equal – talent, coaching, conditioning, physical health and freedom from injury – the person who would be successful would be the one with the ability to accept the need for sacrifice and tolerance for the discomfort that this brings. It would be the person who could withstand making the same sacrifices over and over again for years. It doesn’t take much imagination to know that this is a very unpleasant thing to do at times; most of us could not cope with it.

Humans by nature struggle to accept discomfort. Buddhist teachings talk extensively on this subject: we typically want what we want and in the most expedited manner possible. We search out short-term comfort without thinking of the impact on big picture goals. We itch for new and novel experiences; too much of the same thing becomes tedious, prompting us to abandon the half-completed project long before achieving completion or mastery. But not so with successful athletes (and by extension, often coaches and other support staff).

After a decade of observing some of the highest level of sport, I have witnessed untold numbers of sacrifices made in the name of sport. While typical students escape for rest after a hard semester, many athletes only take a few days to go home or miss out on holidays altogether. Those who are able to take a day or two for fun often have to make arrangements for workouts and must avoid indulging in holiday revelry so that they can make weight or stay on track with their training program. They make decisions about injury management not according to pain scales or even the best long-term outcome, but often what works best with their athletic schedule. While many enjoy semi or fully funded college educations (although not nearly as many as you would assume), it is not unusual for athletes to spend less time considering what they would like to do for school and a future career because they are busy being athletes. And travel/competition schedules often mean missing out on class, having no time for office hours, and taking tests on the road. Trust me, there are nerdy athletes out there for which this is a real dilemma 🙂

For better and sometimes for worse, being an athlete often demands sacrifice for just the hope of a reward. And because rewards are never guaranteed, my encouragement to athletes is this: be intentional about the sacrifices you are making and why. Take that extra minute – or ten – to determine what values are prompting your choices. Sometimes these sacrifices will not end as you wished. Clarity about WHY you chose plan A, B or C, can help you feel less resentment towards your sport or the people around you (who often pressure athletes intentionally and unintentionally to make certain choices). Understanding your WHY also helps you cope with any regret you might experience later, reconfigure your plan, and move forward.

Being able to make and tolerate sacrifice, to delay gratification of what you want now for a more meaningful later, is a tremendous strength. Most of us would likely benefit from further refining this skill. No time like the present! Get out there and do not just what comes easy, but what matters most to you!