Mental training taking its place in athletics

Depending upon whom you ask, the “mental” aspect of competition determines anywhere from 50-95 percent of the outcome.
All theories and athletes aside, mental preparedness and toughness is an important part of competition, and is increasingly being recognized as such. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the athletic departments of three of the nation’s top colleges, where there are staff members specifically assembled to address mental training with athletes.
One of the oldest and most prestigious programs is at West Point Military Academy. The Center for Enhanced Performance began as a small pilot program for the football team in 1989, and four years later, services were made available to all cadets.
Dr. Nate Zinsser heads a staff that includes four civilian psychologists, and has an audio/video production studio that helps aid their instruction. Zinsser said a full spectrum of services are available to athletes who want them.
“We provide training, educating, mentoring and skill development in every area that effects sports performance,” Zinsser said.
This can mean confidence-building, comprehensive goal-setting, attention control, stress/energy management, imaging and visualization, or a combination of many or all of these strategies, according to Zinsser.
“Developing all of those skills comes out of an understanding of the psychology of performance – about understanding how you think, act and feel when you’re at your best,” Zinsser said.
The Center uses its video equipment to film athletes for hand-eye coordination work, and uses biofeedback to teach self-regulation skills. The department does not counsel students in personal matters, however.
The Center and its staff are introduced to all cadets when they enter the academy, but participation, as at all colleges, is voluntary. Zinsser said he and his colleagues see about 300 athletes per year, or about 25 percent of the student athlete population.
An athlete’s participation in mental training development, to an extent, depends upon the coach of the team he or she is on. Zinsser said some coaches put more stock in sports psychology than others, and there are a few instances at West Point where almost the entire team will work with the Center.
Zinsser said the number one issue he deals with in athletes is when they are afraid to “go all out in competition for the win.”
“The athlete will play tentatively and cautiously because they are afraid they’re going to mess up,” he said.
To address that problem, Zinsser begins by having athletes complete a structured assessment so he can find out what they think the problem is, and what they want to accomplish.
Zinsser makes a crucial distinction between the psychology of training and the psychology of playing, which he likens to the difference between opening a cookbook and preparing a meal.
“When training, you’re trying to acquire an ability and expertise,” he said. “When playing, you’re trying to release what you’ve acquired.
“The process of being analytical and critical of your own performance – you’ve got to let that go, because that interferes with what you want to do.”
The University of Tennessee’s Mental Training Department arose from the arrival of Dr. Craig Wrisberg – a professor who came to head an academic program in sports psychology about 30 years ago. One Tennessee coach took Wrisberg’s classes and begun teaching the techniques to his athletes. Athletes, in turn, began catching on, and soon Wrisberg was working with the Athletic Department. He was made part of the staff in the late 1980’s.
Today, Dr. Joe Whitney heads the Mental Training Department, which also includes a couple graduate assisstants. They see 25-30 percent of UT athletes every year, on a voluntary basis.
“We help athletes learn to use their minds to work for them rather than against them,” Whitney said. “They train their minds like they would train in the weight room.”
Whitney said athletes usually fall into one of two categories: those who are struggling with some aspect of their mental game and/or emotions, or outstanding performers who want to take their game to the next level.
“Everybody has a mental game,” Whitney said. “We help them find their strengths, and teach them how to build on that.”
This may include visualizing a particular arena and anticipating distractions, as Whitney explained that “image and visualization are rehearsal.” By re-training their thought processes, Whitney said athletes build more self-confidence.
“It has to be something that the athlete takes responsibility for,” he said.
One of the best things about what Whitney and his staff teaches is that it is transferable.
“The things we talk about and teach them are things they can use in the rest of their lives,” he said. “We often hear from athletes later on, telling us that.”
DaveYukelson is the lone sports psychologist at Pennsylvania State University, but he carries a large reputation. Unlike his West Point and Tennessee colleagues, Yukelson works with the counseling center at Penn State to help student athletes transition to college in their first year.
“First we help them transition to being everything in high school to being a smaller fish in a big pond,” he said. “Once we get them past that, then we work on their performance, aspects of playing their sport, imagery, emotion and energy.”
Yukelson also asks athletes to tell him what happens when they perform, and what they’d like to work on. He said how athletes talk to themselves is a crucial part of development, and he teaches them what they can do to control negative talk.
“Some of the more common things I help athletes work on are preparation skills, focus skills, mental toughness skills, how to sustain concentration, and how to let go when you make a mistake,” he said.
As an athlete who was a nervous wreck before competitions in high school, I’m really glad to see the rise of sports psychology as a legitimate practice and part of athletics programs. I just wish it had happened sooner.