New Course Gives Mental Edge

By Staff

Athletic Management, 14.6, October/November 2002,

If you’ve made a career in institutional athletics, you know that the mental side of sports is critical. Visualization, self-awareness, alertness, and self-control can be the difference between long-term success and mediocrity. But do you know if your coaches are really teaching these skills? Or do they go through the season and hope that these traits get absorbed along the way?

Several Boston-area high schools have decided to ensure the lessons don’t fall to chance by putting their coaches and student-athletes through sports psychology workshops from Get Psyched Sports, a non-profit corporation providing a written sports psychology curriculum for youth and high school teams. In the workshops, lawyer-turned-coach-turned-consultant Mitch Lyons (not to be confused with the NFL wide receiver of the same name), preaches a gospel of meditation, visualization, self-awareness, communication, and discipline.

“Sports psychology is admittedly a soft science,” Lyons says. “But no one disagrees with the basic underpinning: Positive imagery works. Having a positive self-image works.”

Newton North High School was one of the first to sign up for the program. Director of Athletics T.J. Williams says he has long appreciated the mind-body relationship in athletics, and notes that many top professional athletes pay large sums of money to sports psychologists.

“I figured we should try to grab every edge that we can in that department,” Williams says. “If this can help kids to believe in themselves, even despite rejection and losses, then we get a more consistent product. That’s why I wanted to start this sport psychology initiative.”

In the workshops, Lyons introduces, to both coaches and student-athletes, how to visualize certain components of athletics: carrying out an athletic skill, maintaining intensity, focusing the mind on the task at hand, and developing awareness of the field, court, rink, or track. Setting a pick, for instance, is approached as steps to be accomplished in a series, with the athlete aware of how well he or she is carrying them out, not just the end result of getting into position. Players are taught to constantly think ahead to what may be next and what they must do to be prepared.

Phil Vaccaro, Athletic Director at Reading Memorial High School, where Lyons has conducted workshops for several teams, has sat in on the sessions. “He’ll say, ‘Close your eyes. Follow me, we’re walking down the street, and you see a swing set. You want to get on that swing set. Now, how many people’s minds are wandering?’

“He tries to give them various techniques to stay on task,” continues Vaccaro. “He brings up the example of if you’re driving a car and your mind wanders, and a car pulls out from a side street, what’s your reaction time then versus if you’ve been expecting someone to pull out? You cut your reaction time immensely.

“In athletics, it’s basically the same way. If you’re mentally preparing yourself as you’re playing, your soccer teammate could bring the ball wide instead of inside, and you’ll be ready.”

The workshops also focus on positive thinking. A golfer thinks not of the imposing water hazard, but instead imagines herself driving the ball straight for the green. A soccer goalie sees himself making a great save in the corner or taking the ball down off the cross.

The role of a coach, Lyons says, is to teach those steps and talk about the self-awareness of carrying out each one every day. “It’s not in addition to drills,” he says. “It’s in the way we teach that drill.”

Lyons also gets student-athletes and their coaches meditating, in order to help focus and be aware of oneself. In addition to performing better, a deeper level of awareness has other benefits, Lyons says. “They learn to recognize their response to trash talk from the other team, for example,” he says. “They use a cue word, maybe ‘sound,’ when they hear opponents start in. It tells them the trash talk is just a sound, and they don’t have to react to it.”

Vaccaro says these are things that many good coaches do already. The difference is that Lyons writes down how to teach and practice them as part of a sport season.

Another benefit, Vaccaro says, is that these are transferable skills. “It helps the athlete bridge the gap between real life and athletics,” he says.

Williams and Vaccaro say that acceptance among coaches has varied widely. “The problem we have with coaching at the high school level these days,” Williams says, “is they feel so tied to X’s and O’s as the way to achieve success that they lose sight of the fact that they can get a lot more out of kids with some sort of psychological enhancement.”

Adds Vaccaro: “It probably has not caught on as much as Lyons would like it to and it’s because everyone’s busy. But I have to say that my baseball coach, who was a little bit cautious about even bringing Lyons in, had nothing but good things to say about the workshops.

“It was good for girls’ ice hockey, too,” continues Vaccaro, “because it was at a time when things weren’t going very well in the season and they had a little spurt coming out of it, as well as a better understanding of each other. In girls’ soccer, I had a first-year coach and it helped the team get together and really enjoy the season.”

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