Mind Over Sports

Archive for September 2009

Athletes who withhold (bottle-up) their feelings and emotions create psychological baggage for themselves that negatively affects their performance. For example, and I’m using this only as a hypothetical situation, let’s assume that just prior to the New England Patriots-Buffalo Bills game Monday night, September 14th, 2009, the Bills’ Leodis McKelvin had an argument with his girlfriend or a coach or his business agent but didn’t tell anyone about it. He chose to keep everything inside himself. With Buffalo leading 24-19 and just 1:58 remaining in the game, rather than taking a knee in the end zone he chose to return it instead and fumbled the ball around the 30 yard line, his second fumble of the game. New England then scored for what turned out to be the winning touchdown and won the game, 25-24. I’m not saying that McKelvin had issues, since I’m not privy to what goes on behind the scenes or in the Bills’ locker room, but his performance (two fumbles) was an indication that something was not right.leodis_mckelvin_inside
When athletes are not focused and are not thinking clearly, they are more prone to making mental errors. In the NFL this often shows up when a quarterback throws multiple interceptions (as Kurt Warner once did when his wife Brenda was having an ongoing argument with the St. Louis Rams’ then head coach Mike Martz), or a wide receiver dropping multiple passes that hit him on the numbers, or a lineman exploding in anger at the opposing player but when you scratch the surface you find that his anger had little or nothing to do with the game. A good example of this was what happened with Albert Haynesworth when he was playing for the Titians. As a result of his on-the-field behavior, he was not only fined but was also required to undergo extensive counseling and afterwards commented: “Honestly, it’s helping. I can actually talk about stuff. My wife likes it, too. I actually open up and talk about problems I have.” Today, Haynesworth is considered one of the top defensive linemen in the NFL.


Over the years, when working with athletes and sports teams, I’ve found that what takes place in the personal lives of athletes off the field dramatically affects what takes place on the field. Athletes’ personal unresolved issues and problems directly affect their ability to focus and often show up in the form of mental errors and mistakes during game competition.
So when I first wrote this, I wanted to find out the answer to this question: Unless a sport psychologist is also licensed as a counseling psychologist or therapist, is he or she prohibited from helping athletes with their personal issues and problems?
The answer I found was: Yes!
According to a psychologist I interviewed at a Midwestern University, he told me that the ethical practice of psychology involves not practicing outside one’s domain of expertise, and that psychological treatment for personal problems generally falls into the realm of clinical and counseling psychology. Sport psychologists not trained in clinical and counseling psychology would typically limit their practice to psychoeducational interventions related to enhancing sports performance and refer outside sources for mental health treatment.
When I interviewed Jon Stabler, co-owner and co-founder of GolfPsych, and husband to Dr. Deborah Graham, one of the country’s most successful sport psychologists who is also a licensed psychotherapist, he told that me that “unless sport psychologists are also licensed therapists, it is illegal for them to give advice or direction on personal issues or other issues outside of the sport. Unfortunately, we are aware of several instances where well-known sport psychologists have crossed that line and the advice has not been what a licensed therapist would offer. If the advice they gave resulted in adverse or damaging outcomes, they could be very liable for those results.”
In harmony with this point of view, I’ve found that when athletes are encumbered with psychological baggage (issues and problems) visualization and other mental techniques normally taught by sport psychologists, will be ineffective. Some sport psychologists believe an athlete can become focused just by blocking these issues out, but I disagree. Issues and problems cannot be “just blocked out.” They must be identified, addressed and dealt with before visualization will work. But for those athletes whose lives are in harmony, who have resolved (or begun the process of resolving) important issues and problems in their lives, the use of visualization can be highly effective.
One has to wonder why our colleges and universities continue to offer degrees in the field of sport psychology and not require an accompanying degree in counseling.
From a positive perspective, I’ve found that when athletes have a high sense of self-worth, when they are not repressing their feelings and emotions, when they are highly spiritual, when they are helping others less fortunate than themselves and when their lives are in harmony, they will actually create positive events in their lives, on and off the field of competition.

It’s not uncommon for athletes (and others) to set goals for themselves and that’s great, but an article written by Derek Sivers (sivers.org) has pointed out the importance of not revealing those goals/intentions to others since it could have the opposite effect of what you may have intended. Here’s a brief summary of what Derek wrote:

Shouldn’t you announce your goals, so friends can support you? Isn’t it good networking to tell people about your upcoming goals? Doesn’t the “law of attraction” mean you should state your intention, and visualize the goal as already yours?

Not at all. Tests done since 1933 show that people who talk about their intentions (goals) are less likely to make them happen. Announcing your intentions (goals) to others satisfies your self-identity just enough that you’re less motivated to do the hard work needed.

In 1933, W. Mahler found that if a person announced the solution to a problem, and was acknowledged by others, it was now in the brain as a “social reality”, even if the solution hadn’t actually been achieved.

NYU psychology professor Peter Gollwitzer has been studying this since his 1982 book “Symbolic Self-Completion” and recently published results of new tests in a research article, “When Intentions Go Public: Does Social Reality Widen the Intention-Behavior Gap?”

Four different tests of 63 people found that those who kept their intentions (goals) private were more likely to achieve them than those who made them public and were acknowledged by others.

Once you’ve told people of your intentions (goals), it gives you a “premature sense of completeness.” You have “identity symbols” in your brain that make your self-image. Since both actions and talk create symbols in your brain, talking satisfies the brain enough that it “neglects the pursuit of further symbols.”

It may seem unnatural to keep your intentions (goals) private, but try it. You’ll be amazed at the results.

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