Getting your head in the game

How Queen’s is building resilient athletes through mindfulness and mental training

Image by: Tessa Warburton
The mental aspects of sports have become more prevalent in athlete-development

Although sports often rely on physical prowess, it’s long been recognized that perhaps the determining factor in a player’s performance comes down to their state of mind. Even 70 years ago, Yankee’s hall of fame catcher Yogi Berra delivered one of his famous malapropisms—known endearingly as ‘Yogi-isms’—stating that “Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.”

While the mental aspect was sorted out by players themselves in Yogi’s time, there has since been a marked shift in sports. Strategies like meditation and mindfulness have now become commonplace and many teams now employ the services of what’s called a mental training coach. The change, however, has been gradual.

“If you were to say that [you’re seeing a psychologist] when I was first starting, people would say ‘oh, he has a mental illness’, or ‘he’s depressed,’ or that there’s an issue. But today, it’s very different when we think about the way people are describing these services,” said Dr. Dean Tripp, psychology professor at Queen’s and mental training coach for Queen’s Athletics.

As a psychology professor, his research centres around self-regulation in how patients appraise and cope with visceral pain.

While Tripp is a licensed psychologist, he prefers the term of mental training coach over sports psychologist because he isn’t doing a psychologist’s work with Gaels—he’s training their minds to respond more effectively, be it to help elevate focus or alleviate performance anxiety.

Tripp, who started working with athletes over 25 years ago, said that while people have begun understanding the broader applications of psychology and its use as a proactive measure, the advances in mental coaching also came from a much more open and accepting younger generation.

“I think that’s opened up the whole dialogue for people just looking for assistance. Whether you’re running into some kind of issues of frustration or you’re running into issues of being really distressed about something […] these types of things can all kind of come out when people now are much more open.”

Tripp also believes coaching has evolved to take a more holistic approach in accounting for players from a mental standpoint, a trend he noticed while earning his high-performance hockey coaching certification.

“When I did that, a big part of the training was on mental training and awareness of your athletes from a mental perspective, and that didn’t exist in the previous Hockey Canada coach training,” he said.

“So, coaches are much more aware of it […] it’s much more of a language to use now.”

At Queen’s, in addition to employing Tripp’s services for pre-game chats—which, according to men’s rugby player Liam Varvaris, “make you want to run straight through a brick wall”—coaches are also incorporating the mental side of sports into their regimens.

“I kind of approach the mental side of it from a macro, median, and a micro level,” said Matt Holmberg, Queen’s women’s hockey head coach.

“The macro is bigger picture, maybe away from the rink. And so that can involve things like imagery and visualization, meditation, and just overall mental wellness. The median level is more pregame, so getting yourself into that mental spot that gets you into that zone […] Micro is the little bursts that happen within the game, so you know you have a bad shift or a goalie lets in a weak goal—the game is continuing and so you need to get yourself back in that zone pretty quickly.”

Holmberg believes that not only has increased attention to mental well-being and alertness benefitted athletes, but it’s also elevated team dynamics and performance.

“It’s all pieces of the same pie and so it really does become part of your team culture,” he said. “I think that individual positive mental skills absolutely have an effect on making the team more cohesive, more positive, and that in turn just bounces right back to the individual in a very cyclical way.”

The sentiment was shared by women’s volleyball coach Ryan Ratushniak, whose coaching strategy emphasizes team unity and working together toward shared goals. One vehicle he’s found useful in solidifying this atmosphere is a brief mindfulness exercise with the entire team before and after all training sessions and games.

“We’ll come together as a team in a circle and we’ll just take 30 seconds and it’s just silent. Everyone focuses their thoughts on being present […] Let’s bring ourselves completely to these next two hours, for our training objectives and becoming a better athlete and a better team.”

“At the end, it’s really to reflect on what [you] did as an athlete during this practice or during this game. ‘Did I achieve my objectives? Were my actions aligned with my priorities?’ […] And it brings a lot of closure to the sessions.”

While a lot of attention is now paid to the mental wellbeing of athletes, sports are just as much of a mental game for coaches. Ratushniak believes that buying into the mental importance of sports is critical for his performance and instilling confidence in his athletes.

“I try not to get too emotional. I find as a coach—and I’m not perfect at this—I get upset at times with referee’s calls,” he said. “If I’m showing too much emotion for my team, I’m not thinking clearly, then I’m not able to make decisions and react as best as I could.”

“It’s all about being calm, being in the moment, and making sure I can react to what I need to react to as a coach.”

Tripp explained that the goal of mental training, beyond improving as an athlete, is to grow and develop resilience.

“Resilience is a really interesting concept [in] sports that we talk about in a whole bunch of different ways, there’s different words for it, like ‘grit.’ To me, they all boil down to the same thing. It’s how do you perceive your world? And how do you respond to your world?”

While Tripp considers resiliency an endpoint, he was quick to note that it’s not stagnant; it can “take knocks” and it can grow, which is normal. But ultimately getting to the top of your game, be it a sport or another endeavour, requires constant practice.

“If you want to be elite, being elite is a challenge and it’s hard because you’re asking people to change a lot of their behaviour, perhaps—but being elite is not easy.” 

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