Ask a Sports Psychologist: How Do I Deal with My Team?

BrainspiralNovember 8, 2013

Sometimes in skiing, there are issues that can’t be solved by just pushing through that last interval, getting a good night’s sleep, or spending a couple extra hours in the gym each week. Whether in high school or college, a full-time elite athlete or a master blaster with a desk job, skiers have to balance their athletic goals with their everyday lives. And a lot of the time, life creeps into athletics, whether you want it to or not.

Sometimes it’s in a good way – the support of family, friends, and teammates can make an athlete more confident and perform better. But sometimes it’s not in a good way. Whether it’s the stress of school or difficulties in relationships with other people, all of this can affect the outcome on race day. These are things that coaches may not be able to help with – and athletes may not want to share their personal life with their coach, either. The relationship with the coach may even be part of the problem (we hope not – love you, coaches!).

Luckily, there’s an entire field dedicated to understanding how sport life and normal life interact. Sports psychology is the study of human behavior in sports; another way to say that is that it looks at the influence of psychological state on athletic performance, and conversely at the impact of performance on an athlete’s psyche. Sports psychology has an academic, research-oriented branch, but you can also meet up with a sports psychologist to get help with your own performance. They reside in hospitals and clinics; national teams have psychologists available, often through national Olympic committees, and so do many universities through their athletic departments.

If you’re serious about approaching your athletic goals from this viewpoint, you should meet with a sports psychologist in person. But for an idea of how to deal with some of these situations, read on. We reached out to Dr. Mark Hiatt, a clinical psychologist at Dartmouth College, both in the school’s general Health Services and as a member of the athletic department’s interdisciplinary Peak Performance team. The FasterSkier staff came up with some common scenarios that skiers might face, and asked Dr. Hiatt for a quick overview of what’s going on and what tools they might use to improve their performance.

A lot of these – like goal-setting and visualization – are things that athletes are probably already familiar with, if in a less-formal framework. Others are not – and we’ll explain more along with his answers.

We’ve divided the scenarios into two general categories. This week, we’ll talk about team dynamics and other personal relationships; next week we’ll deal with the pressure of big races.

Scenario 1: A student has just arrived at college, is living away from home for the first time, and is faced with more challenging classes than she saw her senior year of high school. She’s very excited to make new friends and spending a lot of time socializing as well. Faced with a new training plan, she is nervous about where she will fit in on her college roster, too, and whether she should make all the changes suggested by her coach. How can she stay focused and calm, even if the first races of the season turn out to go pretty badly?

Mark Hiatt: “One place to start with a student in this situation is to talk about goals and aspirations both with skiing and with life in general. I think it is very important for collegiate athletes to find a healthy balance between the demands of their sport, academic life, and social life. I would encourage this athlete to be patient and work on both long term and short term goals, including goals for individual practices. The athlete may benefit from relaxation strategies and visualization techniques, as well as cognitive strategies when she experiences thoughts that create a lot of doubt or anxiety.”

Highlights: The idea of goal-setting is commonly used by coaches, and some teams specifically practice setting short-, medium-, and long-term goals at the beginning of each training year. This can help in a lot of different ways. First, coming up with a goal for each individual training session can ensure that other concerns don’t become distracting, or that no matter how tired or stressed an athlete is, he or she can get the most possible out of that afternoon’s practice. It can also help keep an athlete realistic, by focusing on small things rather than overreaching. On the opposite end of the spectrum, setting some long-term, multi-season goals can keep motivation going even if current race results aren’t as good as he or she had been hoping for.

For more on “cognitive strategies”, check out scenario 4.

Scenario 2: A college athlete is at a camp over Christmas break with all of his teammates, sharing a room with three other guys who are all competing for varsity starts. They’re his friends, but sometimes he secretly wishes they would have a bad day (or break a leg?) so he could get the carnival start. How can he compete against his friends?

Mark Hiatt: “This is a very difficult situation for a lot of collegiate racers, and students can come up with different ways of managing these relationships. I would support the student to have a sense of acceptance that these relationships in particular involve multiple roles. He is friends with his teammates and (not ‘but’) they are also competitors. It’s okay to be competitive with your teammates and to want to do well for yourself. I think the important think is to try to strike a balance with these feelings. Another strategy is to focus on goals that are more team focused than individually based. I would encourage him to work on strategies that focused on his performance rather than that of his teammates. With swimmers and track and field athletes we have talked about it in terms of ‘staying in your lane’ and ‘running your race’.”

Highlights: Study after study has shown that having good relationships among teammates can make a team, and all the individuals on it, better. Peer support is crucial and on of the reasons that society views sport as creating something good. Does it suck to compete against your teammates? Yes, a little bit. But that’s not what skiers should focus on. There’s not quite room for everyone on a six-person varsity, a four-person relay team, or a three-person NCAA squad (or a four-quota-spots World Cup start list), but to some extent, teammates can all succeed, together. Coaches and older team members should try to create this dynamic, but anyone can do it – particularly if they are a talented athlete, but even if they are not. A study of 10 U.S. Olympians, who had won 32 medals between them, found a trend that most of these successful athletes were deemed “good teammates”. One athlete’s parent said that one of his good qualities was to “infect his teammates with his drive and intensity.” Aim for that.

Scenario 3: Another college skier came into school as a mediocre skier who loved the sport but also had many other interests, and many friends who were not athletes. Now, she has improved and is taking skiing more seriously, which means more hours of training, sleeping, and careful time management. She’s feeling guilty that she is now turning down many invitations from her friends even though she would love to see them, and she is losing sleep worrying that she will lose these relationships – it’s beginning to make her resent the sport that she loves. What to do?

Mark Hiatt: “I would encourage the skier to reflect on her values and goals across skiing, social life, academics, etc., and to develop a sense of balance that is meaningful to her.  There are always going to be trade-offs when you are competing at this level, and athletes make tremendous sacrifices for their sport. It may be that this athlete has been neglecting other areas of her life and needs to rebalance a bit to make her participation more healthy and sustainable. I would also recommend that she reflect on what she enjoys about the sport so as not to lose sight of this as she goes forward.”

Highlights: Balance is hard, but important. A paper in the International Journal of Sport and Society found that having interests, hobbies, and friends outside of your sport can help you perform better. The authors surveyed elite Australian athletes and noted that “Elite athletes are faced with increased training and competition demands. As a result, they are in danger of developing a one-dimensional identity as an ‘athlete’, may lack life balance, be more prone to burnout, be less prepared to transition into life after sport and fail to recognise that life-skills acquired through sport can be transferred into other settings… More than 90% of athletes indicated that actively engaging in non-sporting pursuits helped to lengthen their sporting career.” Seeing friends less often does not mean losing them, and taking some extra time off from your training from time to time may help you out in the long run.

Scenario 4: An athlete has realized that she doesn’t get along very well with her coach – maybe it’s a personal issue or maybe he doesn’t believe in the training system anymore. However, it’s only the beginning of the race season and this is his team. He has to stick with for the remainder. How can he focus on getting his best performances without letting these issues get in the way?

Mark Hiatt: “I would recommend cognitive strategies to dismiss or counter negative (unproductive) thoughts and focus more on his goals and performance. Visualization strategies and time to process his feelings about the coach may also be helpful.”

Highlights: The coach-athlete relationship has been studied a lot. It’s called a “dyad”: both people’s behaviors are interconnected and affect the other. Much research has gone in to determining how athletes should act and approach their job in order to maintain the best possible relationship, and recent work has revolved around the three “C”‘s, Closeness, Co-Orientation, and Complementarity. Psychologists believe that when coaches and athletes are incompatible in one of these areas, or when they perceive differently how the other behaves or thinks of them in one of these areas, problems arise. But that doesn’t help much in real time, with coaches and athletes who are who they are and are unlikely to change their approach to their side of the relationship.

So just what are these “cognitive strategies” that Hiatt has been talking about? Self-instruction. Self-motivation. Stress management. Self-monitoring. After all, even with a good coach-athlete relationship, skiers can’t rely on other people to do everything for them. According to one review article, these strategies are beneficial to training and skills acquisition: “Differential self-monitoring is the process of systematically observing and recording successful (positive self-monitoring) or unsuccessful (negative self-monitoring) behaviors. In situations where subjects display low task mastery, positive self-monitoring, compared to negative self-monitoring, appears to enhance performance. However, when subjects are highly skilled, the addition of negative self-monitoring may provide information for further refinement of the self-regulated behavior.” If your coach can’t help you, then learn to help yourself.

Or maybe cognitive strategies can be ways to trick youself. Here’s one example: the New York Times recently posted on its fitness blog, Well, about a study that found that self-talk, for instance telling yourself that you’re feeling good even if you aren’t, actually does improve performance. You can trick your mind into perceiving fatigue differently – just as you can focus on different aspects of any situation. One cognitive strategy is taking a negative thought and replacing it with a positive one. Instead of thinking, “we shouldn’t be doing this workout at this time of year,” focus on some other aspect of the coach-athlete relationship, one that is going well. Or, as Hiatt suggests, stop thinking about the coach (or parent, or frenemy), and think about yourself, the aspects of your training and performance that you can control, and what you can do given the circumstances to fulfill your goals.


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