The cerebral side of sport

The Journal learns how athletes train their minds

John Phelan worked with the 2002 Olympic men’s hockey team as well as several NHL teams.
John Phelan worked with the 2002 Olympic men’s hockey team as well as several NHL teams.

Close your eyes and imagine yourself on the ice in a hockey rink. You pick up a pass from your teammate and skate hard toward the opponent’s net. You beat a defender, deke out the goalie and score the game-winning goal.

It’s a nice picture, but will imagining yourself scoring increase the chances of doing it in a game?

According to John Phelan, a professor in the school of business and mental skills coach for the Florida Panthers of the NHL, it will.

For student-athletes, training your mind can be as basic as prioritizing, he said.

“It seems kind of simple, but you need to organize your life.”

He said one of the main objectives of mental training is to teach athletes that sports psychology is a tool they can use to accomplish more than they can with physical conditioning.

“[Physical training] is just the ticket to the dance,” he said. “Everyone has that.”

He said he became interested in pursuing sports psychology as an athlete when he realized that he needed something extra to give him an edge.

“I recognized when I got to the higher level that there was more to it than the physical aspect.”

He said that in order for athletes to succeed at an elite level, they need to consider the mental and emotional sides of sport.

“It’s also a very holistic approach.”

He described the importance of mental training by using the analogy of a table; the four legs of the table are physical preparation, mental preparation, emotional readiness and the spiritual aspect of sport, or the athlete’s reasons for competing and passion for their sport.

“If you don’t develop one leg it gets shorter and, as the pressure on the table increases, it collapses.”

But he said that devoting time to mental preparation doesn’t mean neglecting physical training.

Mental skills should be incorporated into an athlete’s regular training schedule, he said.

“I think you should be doing your mental training at the very same time as your physical training.” Leisha Strachan, a PhD candidate who is studying sport psychology, is also the mental skills coach for the women’s volleyball team. She said mental strength is important because an athlete’s mental state can change more frequently and more dramatically than their physical condition.

Using volleyball as an example, she said no athlete will wake up one morning having lost the ability to serve.

“But what does change is what’s going on in your head.”

She said the biggest part of mental training for university athletes is developing an awareness of the things that make them successful so they can replicate those things on game day.

At the beginning of the season, Strachan has each player fill out questionnaires about their personal pre-game routines as well as what aspects of mental training they are weakest in.

She runs weekly classroom sessions with the team to discuss games and practices and to pinpoint problems. She also attends practices twice a week.

Both Phelan and Strachan agree that having a coaching staff willing to take time in practice to work on mental training program is essential to creating a strong program.

Strachan said the coaching team she works with at Queen’s has been very receptive to new techniques.

“The coaches are very good because they’re very open, and that’s half of it.”

Phelan also said that having a designated mental skills coach who is trained in the field is important.

“At university-level sport, I think having someone on staff who’s willing to spend time doing that is really advantageous to the team and to student athletes for sure.”

He added that having a professional, rather than a physical training coach in charge of mental training, helps athletes take their mental preparation more seriously.

“A coach may have expertise in their sport but they may not have expertise in sport psychology,” he said. “But if the athlete gets it from a professional, they’re more likely to believe it.”

Strachan said she thinks the field is growing and gaining respect in international athletics.

“I think they’re really seeing the value of it,” she said, adding that many amateur and professional athletes are beginning to add sports psychologists to their support staff.

But she said there are still people who don’t believe mental training is a legitimate component of an athlete’s preparation.

“I think, to a certain extent, you will always have athletes that don’t buy in right away.”

Varsity lacrosse player, Faye Pang, said the visualization techniques her coach tried to get the team to use during her first year didn’t work for her partly because of her attitude.

“I think in first-year I kind of thought of it as a joke and [getting over that] was the first hurdle,” she said, adding that she was not alone in her skepticism.

She said that, over the past three years, the team’s focus has shifted from individual techniques like visualization to activities geared more toward team-building. Throughout the year, team captains are in charge of organizing things such as team potlucks to help the players get to know each other off the field. She said forming strong bonds with each other helped them all to develop the mental toughness required to help each other through the season.

“Understanding the negative but focusing on the positive was really important for us in not getting down on ourselves,” she said. “One of the key things is just recognizing that it’s a mental issue.” Varsity volleyball player Stuart Hamilton said his team also focuses less on specific mental training techniques and more on developing a strong support system within the team during practices and games.

“We come into the centre [of the court] after every point,” he said. “Everyone should touch up between points to make sure everyone is on the same page.”

To maintain focus throughout a match, Hamilton said, the team breaks down each unit of the game to its smallest increment to ensure each player is concentrating on the right thing at the right time. He said playing in a series of games is a perfect example.

“[The game] is not the second of three, it’s one game that breaks down into one set, one point, and the next point is exactly the same thing.”

Because the men’s team doesn’t have a designated mental skills coach, the coaches and players take it upon themselves to implement a program that works best for them.

Hamilton said visualization is a method that many people on the team find useful.

“Going through it in your head just makes it so much easier,” he said. “You can see [players] in warm-up going through it in their heads.”

Phelan said that in order for mental preparation to be effective, athletes needs to realize that finding what works for them takes time. In the same way that some athletes are physically stronger than others, he said, some athletes are naturally mentally tough. However, he also said that everyone can always improve. He said sport psychology is mainly about preparation and each person needs to find out what hinders them from performing at their peak when it counts.

Johnny Yap, mental skills coach for the figure skating team and Brockville-based psychologist, said using sports psychology techniques to achieve the right level of physiological arousal is one of the most important things he teaches his skaters.

He also said that mental training often needs to be approached on an individual basis.

“It’s really up to each skater to find the optimal level for themselves to perform,” he said.

Yap said he uses four main techniques to help skaters develop consistent practice and pre-competition routines.

The first step is goal-setting.

“Many skaters set goals in their heads but I think it’s really important to write them down,” he said. “That way, when they succeed, they know it.”

At the beginning of every season the team meets to set both individual and team goals. Those goals are then put together and each skater receives a printed copy of everyone’s goals for the year. Yap said that, when everyone knows what their teammates are striving for, athletes can help each other achieve their goals more easily.

He said the other three exercises are aimed at reducing the stress that comes with performance.

He said he teaches athletes to use “positive self-talk” as a means of building confidence. Skaters often create stress by focusing on negative things instead of thinking about the positive, he said.

“My job is to help them modify that [negativity] so it can be helpful as opposed to making them more anxious for their performance.”

He also teaches skaters how to use external factors to their advantage. For example, skaters determine for themselves what kind of music helps them relax and who they like to have around them before they compete.

The last technique is controlling physiological responses to stress.

He teaches skaters breathing exercises to help them slow their heart rate and gather their focus. He said that just slowing down their movements, whether it’s walking around slowly or even deliberately slowing their speech, are ways of developing mental strength that allows the athlete to perform to their full potential.

Phelan said the principles of sports psychology are applicable to more than just sports.

“If you take a look at what’s happening in society, you’ve got a lot of personal trainers and even life coaches. That in a way is sports psychology.

“It’s really just a part of how we do better with our lives.”

Opportunities to study sport psychology at Queen’s

PHED 165 - Psychology of Sport and Exercise – Introduction to both theoretical and applied aspects of human social behaviour in sport.

PHED 363
– Psychology of Sport and Performance – Discussion and analysis of issues related to performance, and practical application of mental skills such as arousal management, attention control, decision making, goal-setting, positive self-talk and time management.

PHED – 465 – Psychology of Sport Expertise – Exploration of the acquisition of expertise in sport and discussion of development aspect and learning conditions that allow individuals to reach high levels of performance in sport.

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