Mind Over Matter

Focus, concentration, control … The latest trend in winning programs is mental skills training. Here’s how to implement it at any level of play.

By Laura Smith

Laura Smith is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management. She can be reached at lsmith@MomentumMedia.com

Athletic Management, 17.3, April/May 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1703/mindmatter.htm

It was midway through the 2004 baseball season, and Head Coach George Horton was at the end of his rope. His Cal State Fullerton team, which started the year ranked number four in the country, had finished the first half of its season with a 15-16 record and was no longer even in the top 25. "We had the physical talent, the sound baseball teaching, and the will to win, but something was getting in the way," Horton says. "We were exasperated and completely out of ideas."

Desperate to turn things around, Horton called Ken Ravizza. A Cal State Fullerton professor teaching sports psychology in the kinesiology department, Ravizza had provided mental skills training to Horton’s teams in the past. But with a tighter-than-usual budget in 2003-04, Horton hadn’t hired Ravizza. The veteran coach decided to reverse that decision, quickly. "We were failing miserably, so we decided, it’s only money," Horton says. "If there was a chance it would work, we’d find a way to fund it."

When Ravizza walked into his first meeting with the team, players couldn’t look him in the eye. Horton recalls the first words Ravizza had for his beleaguered team. "He said, ‘I don’t know why you are feeling so sorry for yourselves. You have the chance to make the biggest comeback in Cal State Fullerton history,’" Horton says. "And we all just kind of looked at each other. He was right. We had played ourselves out of the top 25, but we hadn’t played a conference game yet. It was still possible that we could be conference champs, even national champs. We could turn a season around within a season. Right then, guys bought into that."

Ravizza went to work assessing the holes in the team’s mental game. "I saw guys who were insecure, who had lost their confidence," he says. "I saw guys who couldn’t focus. Mostly, I saw guys who were trying too hard and not getting results. And the harder they tried, the worse it got. And as it got worse, they had no strategies except to try even harder. And ‘try harder’ never works. You have to have something else to go to."

Working with groups and individuals, Ravizza began stocking the team’s mental toolboxes with better strategies, drawn from the developing field of sports psychology. He worked on their confidence and focus and helped them separate the factors they could control from the ones they couldn’t. He told them to stop trying to win, and to play the game one pitch at a time. They listened. "We stopped trying to win so well that we won a national championship," Horton says.

"When I look back on it now, I can see that we started the season without our mental game in order," he continues. "As soon as we began to work the mental game, we started to win. There is no doubt in my mind that Ken’s help was what turned a 15-16 start into a national championship season, and I am more convinced than ever that mental skills training is an essential piece of the puzzle."

Horton is not alone. More and more coaches and administrators are realizing that maximizing success means training not just their athletes’ physical skills, but their minds as well. In this article, we’ll look at how to incorporate a mental skills training program into your department, no matter what level you play at.

HOW DOES IT WORK?
"Many coaches believe that coming to practice prepares athletes for competition mentally as well as physically," says Craig Wrisberg, Professor of Sports Psychology and mental training consultant at the University of Tennessee. "But most mental challenges faced during competition don’t come up during practice. Competing against a teammate during practice is never going to be the same mental experience as competing against a favored opponent on the road."

That’s where mental training comes in. "Mental training anticipates the mental challenges of actual competition—what we call the ‘mental moments,’" Wrisberg says. "It helps the athlete develop and rehearse proper responses to those moments."

Preparation centers on helping athletes control two things: their focus and their emotions. When things weren’t going well for the Fullerton baseball team, for example, they would lose control of both. Instead of concentrating on the next pitch, a player who was down in the count would have his mind on the last two pitches and feel devastated.

Ravizza started his work in practice. When a player was having a tough batting practice, he asked him to turn things around right in the middle, letting go of the last pitch and focusing on the next. By rehearsing letting go of bad swings, the player was building the skills he would need the next time he was down in the count during a game.

Some of Ravizza’s techniques with the Fullerton baseball team may have seemed outlandish, but they worked. "For example, as a reminder to let go of bad at-bats, he installed a small toilet in our dugout," Horton says. "Instead of players coming in and slamming their helmets against the wall, they push the handle on the toilet, and it’s gone. They’re on to the next at bat. Eventually, it didn’t matter if we hit a grand-slam home run on the previous pitch, or someone hit a grand-slam home run against us. We were focused on the next pitch in the ballgame."

And if an entire game didn’t go their way, the Titans had a way to let go of that, too. Ravizza had players stand in a circle, take off their jerseys, and crumple them together in the dirt. "It was a way of saying that game was over and done with," Ravizza says.

Sports psychology professionals also teach athletes to use imagery to prepare for the mental challenges of competition. "Working with a field goal kicker, for example," Wrisberg says, "I might have him practice the following visualization: ‘There are two minutes left in the half. You have to kick a 41-yard field goal from the right hash mark. The wind is slightly left to right. See yourself going out, going through your pre-kick routine, staying smooth, and finishing the kick. Look up and see the ball as it splits the uprights.’ When he walks on the field to make the kick, he feels like he’s already done it hundreds of times."

Another key concept in mental skills training involves teaching athletes to focus on the variables they can control and to tune out the variables they can’t control. For example, Keith Waldman, a consultant with Marlton, N.J.-based Optimal Performance Associates, who works with teams at The College of New Jersey, does an exercise with basketball teams where he asks players to scrimmage while he is the official. "I become the worst referee on the face of the earth," Waldman says. "They play until they can ignore the bad calls and play through them. Then by the time they see a bad call in a game, shrugging it off without losing focus is automatic."

Waldman also engages teams in a game he calls "Raising the Bar." Inside a large circle, he places 30 numbers in a sequence, along with miscellaneous other obstacles like chairs or books. Athletes approach the circle from the opposite end of the gym, one at a time, and each must touch the next number in the sequence while Waldman keeps time. Penalties are assessed when a player touches the wrong number or one of the other items in the circle. Each time, they must try to improve on their previous score.

"Afterward, we talk about the key lessons," Waldman says. "Do they play to win, or tiptoe through the circle to avoid mistakes? When they do make mistakes, how do they react? Do they miss a beat, or play through them? Do they take responsibility for their mistakes, and are they capable of giving and taking constructive feedback? Do they use the strengths of each player? There are many transferable lessons that will help them win the mental game."

IMPLEMENTING A PROGRAM
There are several models for bringing mental training into your athletic department, depending on your resources. At one end of the spectrum is the creation of a full time, in-house position: a director of mental training services. Approximately 10 universities have taken this approach, and it has the advantage of making a mental skills trainer available to student-athletes and coaches day in and day out.

Retired Tennessee Athletic Director Doug Dickey was responsible for creating a full-time position in 2001, when he hired Joe Whitney as Director of Mental Skills Training. Whitney had previously worked with Tennessee athletes as Wrisberg’s graduate assistant. "We had noticed that more and more professional athletes were succeeding when they used mental skills trainers, and a growing number of our athletes and coaches were asking for the service," Dickey says. "If we have strength coaches on staff, why not hire a mental skills director as well? The cost was not that different from hiring outside consultants, and it’s been very successful so far."

Duke University has also hired a full-time Mental Training Director in Greg Dale. "It really helps that I’m not just here one afternoon a week," Dale says. "I’m able to develop relationships with coaches and athletes in much the same way an athletic trainer or strength coach would."

Both Whitney and Dale spend roughly half of their time consulting with athletes one-on-one and the other half working with teams, observing practices and games and conducting classroom sessions. "In the mornings, I’m in my office seeing individual athletes," Whitney says. "I also meet individually with coaches about things that are happening with their teams. Later in the day, I conduct classroom sessions with teams or groups from teams. These sessions allow us to go in-depth with particular topic areas that they are struggling with. I design them around what I’ve observed in games and practices that week. Then at night, I’m out observing games or practices."

Full-time mental training directors can also customize their approach for each team. "What I do varies a lot from sport to sport, depending on what areas the coach sees as needing improvement," Dale says. "With some teams, I work primarily with individuals. With other teams, I do more group work. I individualize each program to fit the philosophy of the coach, the time constraints of the sport, and the needs of the athletes on that particular team."

Other departments have hired mental skills trainers on a retainer basis, either by finding an expert in the field at their school, at a neighboring institution, or in the community. Ravizza recommends checking with a school’s sports sciences or kinesiology department for potential candidates, looking for someone with training in sports psychology who has hands-on experience in an athletic environment and can talk to athletes without using clinical terms.

Wrisberg feels that even those just learning the field can be effective. "Graduate students are often looking for opportunities to develop their craft, and working under the supervision of a professor, they can provide excellent services, sometimes for free," he says. "Our graduate students have worked with several local colleges and high schools."

Win Palmer, Athletic Director and Boys’ Basketball Coach at Sewickley (Pa.) Academy, found his school’s mental skills trainer when he received marketing materials from Aimee Kimball, Director of Mental Training at nearby University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s sports-medicine department. "Aimee had recently been hired by UPMC, and she contacted all of the schools in our conference," Palmer says. "I set up a meeting with her, and I was very impressed with what she had to offer."

At The College of New Jersey, Women’s Soccer Coach Joe Russo hired Waldman three years ago after one of his assistants had heard praise for the work he was doing with another team in the area. Russo has since hooked Waldman up with other teams at his school, including the men’s basketball team, which made their conference playoffs in 2004 with his help. "Ask coaches and administrators in your area whether they have used a mental skills trainer," Russo advises. "It’s great to start with a person who is endorsed by someone you trust."

When a mental skills trainer is only working part-time with a school, they usually work with a team primarily in the beginning of the season, give the sport coach direction in furthering the program, and then come back at key points in the season. "We can’t afford to have Keith on staff, so we bring him in during the preseason for a three-hour session, then we’ll bring him back periodically," Russo says. "In the meantime, he stays in touch and he comes to watch some of our games. He’s always available via phone and e-mail, and over the past three years, athletes have come to see him as part of the coaching staff."

"The key to making it work is having the sport coach reinforce what the mental skills trainer is teaching in between sessions," Waldman adds. "I work with coaches on how they can continue to build on what I’ve started, and I give them follow-up activities they can use with their teams."

STARTING SLOWLY
Whether a school decides to hire a full-time professional or a part-time graduate student, it’s best to ease the trainer into the program. Some coaches see the idea as a threat or disruption to their program, so Wrisberg recommends going slowly and never forcing it on a coach.

"The first stage can be simply having the consultant sit in on a few coaches’ meetings, getting to know what each team is like and what their goals are," Wrisberg says. "Let coaches know, ‘This person is available. If you feel comfortable, give it a try.’"

Another first step is to have the trainer conduct a workshop for your coaching staff. "The consultant can give coaches tools for improving their own mental performance and introduce them to the basics of coaching the mental game with athletes," says Ravizza. "After the workshop, you’ll have some coaches who are really interested in going further. You can start your program with their teams."

To ease his department into a program, Palmer began by using mental skills training with just one team: his own. "We specifically chose to have Aimee work with boys’ basketball because it’s been very successful," Palmer says. "I would not suggest starting with a team in turmoil. Coaches and athletes will interpret it as, ‘That person is here to work with that team because they have so many problems.’ Then when you want to introduce it to more teams, there will be a stigma attached and people will not want to be involved.

"The continued success of our basketball team has made it an easy sell to other teams," he continues. "Now I have coaches and athletes asking me when they’re going to get the chance to work with Aimee. In the spring, we’re going to grow it slowly by having Aimee working with our strongest girls’ program, which is lacrosse."

Another team that may be ripe for mental skills training is one that consistently makes it to the final rounds of competition but falls just short of bringing home a championship. "That scenario happens to a lot of teams, and mental training can make the difference," Kimball says. "Coaches and athletes in that situation are usually open to trying something new to get them over that final hurdle."

Of course, getting started also means determining how you’ll fund the project. For Palmer, placing Kimball on retainer meant putting the cost into perspective. "I can fund her for an entire sports season for the cost of an assistant coaching stipend," he says. "It didn’t turn out to be as expensive as I expected. By increasing our budget by one stipend per season, our athletes are benefiting tremendously."

While Duke and Tennessee fund their full-time positions within the overall athletics budget, most college athletic directors ask coaches to fund mental skills training within their individual sport budgets. This was the case for Horton, and he found success by going to his booster club. "I went to our boosters and said, ‘This is just like buying a new batting cage or pitching machine,’" Horton says. "I explained to them why I believe it has value, and they supported it."

For high schools, Kimball suggests having the mental skills trainer talk directly to boosters. "Ask the person you are considering hiring to give a presentation to your boosters about the services they can offer," she says. "For marketing purposes, most consultants will do this for free. When parents get an idea of what mental skills training is all about, they are often the ones who raise the money for my services."

EVALUATING SUCCESS
Once you have started mental skills training with one or more teams, how can you tell if it is effective? Professionals suggest that, first, you give the process time before evaluating the results, waiting at least six months to a year before passing judgement.

Next, listen to your coaches and athletes. "They are the ones who will tell you if it’s working or not," Wrisberg says. "If mental skills training is improving their performance and allowing them to have more fun doing it, they’ll be quick to tell you, ‘This is great. We want to continue it.’"

For Whitney, the biggest piece of evidence that his program is working is the growing number of student-athletes using his services. "We have grown from 500 or 600 individual sessions a year to 1,700 sessions a year," he says. "And we’ve seen many of the athletes we’ve worked with succeed at a very high level, including 40 All-Americans, 12 conference champions, nine NCAA champions, and two Olympic gold medallists in the past two years."

For many mental skills trainers and coaches, however, the real measure of success is the effect mental training has off the court or field. "We talk about goal setting, confidence, motivation, and staying focused, which are the same skills you need to study for an exam or give a speech," says Dale. "And that is reflected in our athletes’ GPAs and our retention rate."

The impact doesn’t stop at graduation. "I have athletes who come back five years after they graduate and tell me, ‘I’m still using the mental skills you taught me in my job as an ad executive, or in my marriage,’" Ravizza says.

Among those returning athletes was one firefighter who called Ravizza 10 years after graduation. "He told me, ‘I went into a burning building and I saved three lives,’" Ravizza says. "‘My coach was on one shoulder, reminding me to stay in control. On my other shoulder, I heard your voice telling me to breathe and stay focused. Your work helped save three people’s lives.’"

"This, more than anything else, can make athletes good role models instead of fodder for the next scandal on the sports page," Horton adds. "I feel strongly that our players will be better human beings for the rest of their lives because of Ken’s work."


Sidebar:
ALSO FOR COACHES
In addition to working with athletes, a mental skills trainer can help coaches get better at their jobs. "Coaches are performers just like athletes, and they face the same mental skills challenges," says Joe Whitney, Director of Mental Skills Training at the University of Tennessee. "They have to make instant decisions under pressure and they are susceptible to the same emotion and focus issues as athletes. I work with coaches at Tennessee on controlling their level of emotion, staying focused on what is important, and understanding when they are being most effective in getting their message across."

Win Palmer, Athletic Director and Boys’ Basketball Coach at Sewickley (Pa.) Academy, whose team works with mental training consultant Aimee Kimball, says the process has helped him learn to communicate better with his players. "I’ve coached for a long time, and as good as I thought I was at communicating with players, working with Aimee has made me much better," Palmer says. "I’m more aware of my players’ reactions and of when I am getting through, and I have more tools for changing what I’m doing when I’m not getting through."

In fact, when mental training consultant Ken Ravizza began working with the baseball team from Cal State Fullerton last year, his first stop was the coaching staff. The team had a losing record at that point, and Head Coach George Horton now realizes the coaching staff was contributing to the team’s problems.

"A lot of what was going on with the players was a reflection of the mental mistakes we coaches were making," Horton says. "We were chipping on umpires, yelling at players, and getting wrapped up in negative thinking. Ken gave us tools to use as coaches that allowed us to take blows and keep going.

"In fact, we decided to take it a step further," Horton continues. "We have had financial and morale issues throughout our entire athletic department, so we recommended to our athletic director that we have a session with Ken for the entire coaching staff. The theme of the session was ‘compensate and adjust.’ We worked on looking past the things that we were unable to have because of funding and found creative ways to fill the gaps. We left with solid tools we can use when we face frustrations, and our entire department is better off for it."

Sidebar:
GOLD MEDAL FOCUS
It was the 2004 Olympic Games, and pole vaulter Tim Mack was one jump away from a gold medal. Following a detailed plan based on months of data, he selected a pole and crossbar placement for the jump. He missed his first attempt. Then he missed his second.
But fortunately for Mack, he had been working with Joe Whitney, Director of Mental Training at the University of Tennessee, since his undergrad days. Whitney had taught Mack that he operates best in a thoroughly methodical mindset, where every decision, from what time to eat lunch to what pole to use at what height, is carefully decided beforehand.

"Even though I had missed two vaults, I came right back to my process," Mack says. "I reminded myself to trust the plan we had made. I laid on the ground and put my feet up. I closed my eyes and visualized, telling myself, ‘You will clear the bar.’ And that’s what happened."

Mack set a new Olympic record, clearing 19’6.25", then reached 19’8.5" later that year at the World Athletics Finals, ending 2004 ranked number one in the world. "A lot of people have asked me, ‘What did you do differently this year?’" says Mack. "I feel like the single most important factor has been the mental skills training I’ve done for the past eight years. Through the goal-setting work I did with Joe, I was able to figure out exactly what I needed to do, step by step, to get to Athens. And once I got there, because of the mental preparation we had done for competition, I was able to stay mentally tough and stick with the plan I knew would work.

"No amount of physical preparation alone would have granted me the confidence and focus I had," he continues. "And that made all the difference."

Sidebar:
DEGREE NEEDED?
When hiring a mental skills trainer, what degrees and credentials should you look for on resumes? Unfortunately, there is no one answer to this question. And there is much confusion on even the proper terms to use.

First, it’s important to understand that while mental skills training often goes by the term "sports psychology," most mental training consultants are not licensed psychologists. The title "psychologist" is protected by law and can only be used by those who have obtained a master’s or doctoral degree in psychology and passed a licensing exam. There is actually no recognized sub-specialty in the psychology field called "sports psychology." Most mental training consultants have doctoral degrees in sports psychology from kinesiology, physical education, or sports sciences departments, and are not fully trained to deal with clinical issues like depression, anxiety, or substance abuse.

John Murray, a mental training consultant who works with many professional athletes, is a licensed clinical psychologist, in addition to holding a master’s degree in sports psychology, and he argues that having educational preparation in both fields is essential. "I believe the training required to become a licensed psychologist prepared me to better understand people, do more accurate assessments, and recognize when an athlete has a mental health issue," Murray says. "To obtain a psychology license, I had to undergo thousands of hours of supervised counseling work, and I believe that education was tremendously important."

Others, however, argue that a psychology license is not necessary, since mental training consultants focus on performance, not mental health issues. "A degree in sports psychology from a sports sciences department provides optimal preparation for the job, as long as there are psychologists on campus or in the community to whom athletes with deeper problems can be referred," says Greg Dale, Mental Training Director at Duke University.

Other combinations of degrees and experience exist. For example, some licensed psychologists with experience in sports, but no degree in sports sciences, list "sports psychology" as a specialty. Other mental skills trainers combine master’s degrees in psychology-related fields, like social work, with graduate-level education in sports psychology.

The Association for the Advancement of Applied Sports Psychology (AAASP) attempts to take the guesswork out of hiring a mental training consultant through a certification process it established in 1989. AAASP-certified consultants use the letters CC, AAASP after their names and have met the organization’s standard for education and experience. The AAASP specifies that its certified members do not provide diagnosis or treatment of mental illness, but focus solely on using sports psychology principles to enhance athletic performance.

To search a registry of AAASP-certified consultants, visit www.aaasponline.org/index.php.