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Mind over Matter

There was once a time when people would have laughed at the thought of “sports psychology.” Now, a professional athlete’s own psychologist may be the most vital facet of his or her entourage. In fact, the relatively new-found trend to address and strengthen a player’s mental abilities may even be applied before one turns pro. According to a recent article by Bill Pennington of the International Herald Tribune, “the idea that mental coaching can help the athletes has pervaded the upper reaches of the country’s zealous youth sports culture. In the pursuit of college scholarships and top spots on premier travel clubs, the families of young athletes routinely pay for personal strength coaches, conditioning coaches, specialized skill coaches like pitching or hitting instructors, nutritionists and recruiting consultants. Now, the personal sports psychologist has joined [the fray].” If you are interested in pursuing a career in psychology but you’re not yet sure on what to specialize in, then it may be in your best interests to have a look at the top psychology jobs for inspiration.

Regardless of the sport in question, contemporary sport psychology often concentrates on a well known but little understood phenomenon known as “the zone,” a term credited by authors and psychologists alike to both baseball legend Ted Williams and tennis great Arthur Ashe. According to one study published by The Online Journal of Sports Psychology, “‘the zone’ describes ‘an optimal or heightened state of consciousness…likened to the diverse range of phenomena covered by the umbrella terms of ecstasy, transcendent or altered states of consciousness…and includ[ing] the concepts of ‘peaks,’ ‘perfect moments,’ ‘mindfulness,’, ‘peak experience’ and ‘flow.’ Competing or practicing in “the zone” is therefore more a mental task than it is a physical one.

In his famous book The Inner Game of Tennis, which is widely read by coaches and athletes in a variety of sports (I’ve most often seen it quoted by college football coaches) W. Timothy Gallwey writes that “if we are to master or find satisfaction in playing any game, we have to consider the relatively neglected skills of the inner game, the game that takes place in the mind. This game is played against such obstacles as lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt and self-condemnation. To improve our game, the objective then is not to beat the opponent, but to conquer, or at least live at peace with, these obstacles.”

One sport where sports psychology has garnered an inordinate amount of attention is golf. And one primary reason for this increased interest has been (surprise) Tiger Woods, whose experiences with the game and its inner workings were indelibly shaped by his father, Earl. As one writer noted:

“We know a lot about Earl’s grooming of Tiger for greatness, but the mental strength that sets the young man apart gets too little attention. A father with a degree in psychology and subsequent Special Forces military training wasn’t about to neglect that critical area. As a child, Tiger listened to ‘subliminal messages’ from audiotapes, and subsequently watched (and requested) motivational videos. Growing up on the golf course, Tiger enjoyed it when Earl deliberately created distractions to improve his concentration. When Tiger was 13, Earl asked him if he’d like to work with Dr. Jay Brunza, a psychologist friend of a friend. Tiger was eager. Brunza coached him on techniques for relaxation, visualization and focusing, ‘with hypnotic elements.’ Brunza shies from talking about hypnotism for fear it suggests county-fair quackery, but in effect he taught Tiger to self-induce entry into what athletes call ‘the zone,’ where they transcend mechanics to attain peak performance under pressure, as the dogma goes. “It’s all mental discipline,” Brunza says, “and Tiger worked hard to master it at an early age and absorb it into his technical excellence. The unique thing about him to me has always been his great gift of creativity. People are seeing it in his short game.”

While sports psychology is a burgeoning field, two men stand out within the world of golf. One is Dr. Gio Valiante, a professor at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, and a consultant to the Golf Channel, Golf Digest, and the University of Florida (where he is a volunteer assistant to the men’s golf team). Valiante works with many of the game’s premier players including, but not limited to, Justin Leonard, Chris Dimarco, Chad Campbell, Camilo Villegas (whom he met at Florida), Jack and Gary Nicklaus, Heath Slocum, Franklin Langham, Notah Begay III, Charles Howell III, Billy Andrade, Fred Funk, Tommy Armour III, Matt Kuchar, David Duval, Chris Parra, Lori Rinker, and Davis Love III. Valiante’s teachings can be found within his 2005 publication, Fearless Golf: Conquering the Mental Game. Per his website, Valiante teaches players “how to think in ways that give them the best chance to succeed at a difficult game, sometimes against long odds.” The second is Deepak Chopra, a motivational speaker, writer, philosopher and spiritualist who in fact is represented by Hambric Sports Management out of Dallas. While Chopra’s latest New York Times’ bestseller deals with Buddha, his work in relation to golf, according to one reviewer, “reveals how golf can be mastered through mindfulness, a form of awareness that combines sharp focus and relaxation at the same time. Expanded awareness, he tells us, can accomplish much more than external mechanics to improve one’s game.”

As stated above, sports psychology transcends all sports. Former Chicago Bulls and current Los Angeles Lakers head coach Phil Jackson, for instance, is a firm believer in what he calls “mindful basketball,” and he openly credits the concept with his ability to harness both the egos and the athletic talents of players such as Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, and help them push aside ego and individual fracases and focus their talents more efficiently and effectively within the team-oriented rigors of league competition. Jackson, called the “Zen Master” by critics and confidants alike, was once said to be the master of mind games. In sports parlance, this can be both a bad and a good thing. In Jackson’s case, it was an attempt to help his players come to terms with the potential that lay not in their muscles, but in their psyches. His mindfulness techniques encompassed both basketball-related skills, as well as more general philosophy, and are openly credited by many of his players. “Living in the moment is something that I will continue to always understand and associate with my life,” noted Bryant. “It sounds like a minor thing, but it’s very big when you’re playing at this level to really be aware of everything around you.” Jackson himself mediates daily and “believes in it as a vehicle for finding peace and promoting harmony for himself and his teams.”

Critics and skeptics of the field may still roll their eyes. What is this new-age garble? But then again, perhaps there is some credence to this stuff. Is it merely a coincidence that Tiger grew up in an environment designed to strengthen his mind, and lo and behold, his opponents now credit that very mind and a steely, unwavering resolve during tournament play, for Tiger’s unparalleled dominance? Likewise, were aspects of Jordan’s heroics due, at least in part, to superior mental processes? Valiante’s client list grows by the day, and while some athletes are turning to illegal, performance enhancing drugs to help them gain an edge physically, what separates the good-from-the great players may in fact be largely mental, and nothing to do with physique or muscle mass. Agents everywhere should be mindful of these concepts, and should be prepared to help their clients connect with leading sports psychologists should the need arise.

Hey, what entourage doesn’t have room for one more?

— Jason G. Wulterkens

7 replies on “Mind over Matter”

“The zone” is a physiological phenomena, where the heart rate is elevated, but not too much. Below a certain rate you are distracted by unimportant stimuli, too high and you can’t focus on any stimuli.

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