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Commentary: Sports psychology has progressed beyond stigma

By Steven Hendlin

There was a time back in the '80s when the notion of using a psychologist to help sports performance was viewed as a weakness.

It didn't matter whether it was a team game like baseball or an individual game like golf, nor did it matter whether it was a professional or amateur sport. It wasn't that athletes and coaches didn't value the mental and emotional aspects of their game.

No, it was more the fear that if your competitors found out, they would think you couldn't compete without help. The mentality was pathology-oriented, as in, "We don't go to shrinks because it will reveal we've got a mental problem."

It was, of course, the sports rendition of the same stigma that was pervasive through the general population: It was shameful to need the help of a psychologist for anything. Except that for typically macho athletes, it was even worse. Enlisting the knowledge and skills of a psychologist was perceived as letting your opponent know that you couldn't figure it out all by yourself.

But times have changed, and athletes and their coaches have come to appreciate sport psychologists and the importance of fine-tuning the mental and emotional aspects in bringing out the best in their performance. From Olympic and pro sports teams having psychologists on staff, to college and high school teams using consultants to serious amateur and pro individual athletes being open to the concept, psychology is now part of the game.

I view the work on two levels: personal and performance. A sport psychologist who is also trained clinically (many are not) may help an athlete with any personal problems that may be interfering with play. Problematic relationships, substance abuse, anxiety, managing time, travel and money, goal-setting, coping with injury and any issues related to family-of-origin dynamics may all be part of the sessions.

The second focus is on the actual sport. With golfers, for example, it will encompass analyzing and creating a repeatable pre-shot routine that works under pressure, visualization, breathing patterns, coping with negative self-talk, thinking clearly about different shots, swing thoughts and addressing interruptions that distract from full concentration when needing to execute.

When warranted, it will also include discussion about physical conditioning and diet with adolescents, teens and college players. Each aspect of the game will be addressed, from course management, long and short game, and putting. Even such things as pace of walking the course, dealing with difficult situations and competitors, and coping with changing weather conditions of play are included.

Sport psychology can be helpful for the "weekend warrior" participating in a sport who wants to get better and control anxiety. But it tends to be most useful for those who are already reasonably proficient at the physical aspects of their game and now want to gain that extra edge that comes with better thinking and creative adaptation in competition.

STEVEN HENDLIN is a clinical and sport psychologist in Newport Beach.

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