“Just play. Have fun. Enjoy the game.”-Michael Jordan
If you grew up being an athlete, then you probably can relate to Michael Jordan”s quote. You also probably can relate to the “life as a sport” metaphor, probably etched in your mind by a coach or two that you had along the way. As a high school football player, I had a charismatic coach by the name of Hugo “Scooch” Giagiari, who use this metaphor quite frequently. “The game of football is like the game of life…,” and some inspirational, motivating, speech would follow. In college, I was fortunate to play football for a hard working, blue collar plugger, by the name of Peter Mazzaferro, who began each preseason with a speech about how the walnuts would always rise to the top of a jar of jelly beans, his metaphorical way of explaining how the best players would emerge through the first week of double sessions. For while after my competitive athletic career ended, these kinds of stories were merely good memories. When I became a psychotherapist, I became aware of the truths in much of what these men taught me.
The truth is that counseling psychology, personal coaching, and psychotherapy is way behind the curve in comparison to sports psychology. I believe the reason is that sports psychology takes a far more comprehensive approach to human performance. It has to, because unlike other types of counseling, sports psychology has measurable, observable outcomes by which one can gauge the improvement. An issue that many have with traditional psychotherapy, myself included, is that the results are often hard to quantify, both for therapist and client. Some in the field would balk at my statement, my contention is that sports psychology has a lot to teach a psychotherapist. While you may not agree with the life as sport metaphor, you may be able to see that the comprehensive approach taken by sports psychology could lead to the creation of a more well rounded life.
Sports psychology draws from a number of disciplines in order to obtain desired results. Drawing from psychology, physiology, kinesiology, and biomechanics, sports psychology examines how these fields interact and effect human performance. Athletes become deeply involved in a comprehensive process that is well thought out, frequently readjusted, building up to one or more competitive events. These competitive events are, in many ways, similar to stressors that we all face as part of our lives. Wouldn’t we be better prepared for these stressful events if we approached our lives from the total wellness perspective that sports psychology suggests?
Some of the more commonly used sports psychology techniques have a place in the healthy lifestyle of everyone, both athlete and non-athletes. A few of these techniques are:
1. Arousal Regulation-This is the ability to control our level of anxiety before, during, and after stressful events. For athletes, these are their competitions. For others, these are life events such as the presentation at work, the final exam, that date with a special someone, marital problems, and virtually anything else you can think of. Learning to control your mental and physiological arousal systems allows you to slow things down, make better choices, and perform better. For athletes, as well as nonathletes, this can be done through techniques such as the breathing exercise, progressive relaxation, positive self talk, and various other methods.
2. Goal Setting-Successful athletes and teams tend to be those that are most goal oriented and persistent. Athletes and teams that perform best are the ones that know where they are going and how they intend to get there. Successful coaches put a lot of thought into where they and their team are in an ongoing process. Well formulated goals tend to be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time sensitive, subject to evaluation, and can be re-adjusted as needed. Successful athletes and nonathletes can make good use of these principles.
3. Visualization-This is an area where sports psychology is far ahead of counseling psychology. Successful athletes tend to visualize, in their minds eye, how they intend to perform. The human mind cannot distinguish between something that is imaginary and something that is real. Athletes have been doing this for centuries. In the martial arts, especially karate, visualization is a major part of the practice. The karate student visualizes, as vividly as possible, his opponent while practicing what appears to be ritualized routines called kata. In basketball, visualization is part of good foul shooting, boxers shadowbox, golfers mentally line up putts, and so on. Everyone should visualize, as positively as possible, things that they have anxiety about performing. Mentally planning that interview, presentation, do-it-yourself project, or virtually anything you can think of will tend to create the outcome that you want.
4. Pre-performance Routines-Athletes use routines and rituals to decrease preperformance anxiety. Controlling the level of arousal before a stressful events tends to slow down anxiety to its optimal level. An athlete would never want to eliminate all anxiety, as anxiety is necessary for optimal performance. All successful athletes, whether they are conscious of it or not, have preperformance routines. To an outsider these routines often appear like superstition, and perhaps they are, but they allow the athlete to control subjective feelings that could get in the way of optimal performance. Finding rituals and routines that fit in with your life stressors can go a long way to improving your performance in anything that gives you anxiety that you feel the need to control.
5. Positive Self Talk-What goes on between our ears is incredibly important for both athlete and nonathlete alike. The things we say to ourselves before, during, and after stressful events are a major part of how successful we are. Some athletes are naturally better at this than others. Those that speak out loud to others about their positive self talk are often perceived as “cocky,” “conceited,” or “arrogant.” Muhammed Ali, Joe Namath, and Deion Sanders are examples of this kind of athlete. Some keep the positive dialogue inside. Tiger Woods, Tom Brady, and Barry Sanders, are examples of those that keep their internal dialogue to themselves. If an athlete is successful, it is a guarantee that they engage in positive self talk on a regular basis. One cannot be successful without this. Everyone, athlete or not, can set themselves up for success by engaging in as much positive self talk as possible. It’s your call as to whether or not you share this with others.
6. Rehabilitation and Injury Prevention-In athletics breakdowns in functioning are obvious. An athlete knows when they are injured and when they need rehab. Athletic trainers systematically work with athletes to get them back into competition as soon as possible. The same is true of psychotherapy or personal coaches. I often tell my clients that one of our goals is to get them “out there,” into the real world as soon as possible. The real therapy takes place outside of the counseling room, in the real world, when a client uses a skill or technique successfully to cope with a life stressor. In athletics, an athlete doesn’t know how successful his physical rehabilitation is until they are back in competition. A therapy client really isn’t much different.
Sports psychology has a lot to teach those of us who engage in counseling psychology. Taking a more comprehensive and preventative approach works far better for most clients. Yes, some clients want to talk and the vent emotions, but most want results. Using principles borrowed from sports psychology increases the ability to get them back out there sooner, better equipped to cope with life on life’s terms.
Life is a contact sport, so strap on that helmet and get out there and make a play!
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