You’ve got a booming serve, and one more good one gives you the match. You’re deft with your putter, and sinking this final short one means victory. Thanks to our year-round good weather, so many of us are out there playing our favorite sports and hoping to get the best out of our skills. But as we all know, your mind matters almost as much as your physical gifts, impacting performance for better or worse. With the pressure on, will you do what you’re capable of—or will thinking too much undermine you?
Curious about this, I sought out a local sport psychology consultant to see what we could learn about mastering the mental side in achieving our best results. The path led to Christopher Stanley, Ph.D., psychology faculty at Florida Gulf Coast University. He’s a Certified Mental Performance Consultant (CMPC) and has been involved in performance enhancement work with college athletes who turned pro and future and current U.S. Olympic athletes. He described some of his past cases to show how your mind and emotions can hurt your game, and how consultation can fix that.
Case 1: This female college softball player started having anxiety about her performance and it affected her play. “I encouraged her to examine her internal dialogue with herself,” Christopher says. “She was being too negative, and we had to house-clean negative thoughts and not dwell on images of failure. Get her more positive and feel that way in the batter’s box. She had been a key player for her team and with this new approach got back to being that once again.”
Case 2: Christopher works by contract with the USA Track and Field organization. These are elite high school seniors and college freshmen and sophomores with promising skills in their events. One was a highly skilled javelin thrower but relatively new to the sport. “As I watched him perform,” Christopher says, “I could see that the coach was giving him too many instructions, and it was affecting his throws. I suggested to his coach to give him just one or two things to focus on. Over time, this approach worked out and he did much better in bringing his natural skills into his throws.”
Case 3: This involved an adolescent female golfer. Initially, her parents were supportive, cheering her on. “But,” Christopher says, “pressure built up with her dad giving advice that sometimes conflicted with what her coach was telling her. Anxiety built up. I had her communicate with her dad. In one session, we did some role playing, where I played him and she communicated how his good intentions were actually causing undue pressure and negatively impacting her enjoyment and performance in golf. She was able to help her father see the consequences of what he was doing. It helped when he stopped pressing her, and her game was more consistent then.”
I also inquired about what causes choking—that dreaded time when you’re not performing up to the level of your skills. “From years of practice,” Christopher says, “elite athletes become almost automatic in their muscular movements and skills. They thus have muscle memory and go fluidly into performance, not thinking too much about fundamentals. From time to time, though, even they return their focus to executing a previously automatic skill, which puts tension into their motor mechanics. That can negatively impact performance.”
1. Focus on building relevant skills. Focusing on personal improvement and mastery—rather than outcomes or outperforming your peers—works well for motivation and enjoyment.
2. Goal-setting is time well-spent. Goals can focus on the process of the skill(s) and should be challenging yet realistic. Enlist the support of others (coaches, trainer, family and friends). They can not only support you but also hold you accountable.
3. Monitor internal dialogue. Identify self-defeating and negative thoughts. Be your own advocate and dispute them. Employ visualization that consists of positive progress and outcomes.
4. Try to ‘be where your feet are.’ Tied to mindfulness, our present moments in sport and physical activity can be invaded by thoughts related to the past and speculation about the future. These can distract, can be wrapped up with worry and doubt, and elicit negative feelings. Simple rhythmic breathing is a good way to start to bring your attention back to the present.
Thanks, Christopher. Now boom that serve. Tap that ball into the cup. And smile. It is supposed to be fun. Right?