For many years, I have coached and counseled athletes and parents or
athletes from a wide range of sports including: baseball, basketball, golf, tennis, bowling,
football, surfing, skiing, archery, wrestling, boxing, shooting, football, hockey, soccer,
ice skating, billiards and the martial arts.
Most of these athletes contact me when they are nervous about a big
competition or when they are in some kind of a slump. Even world class
athletes report choking, being nervous and failing to perform to their
Frequently, the athlete is unaware as to what it is that allows them to play “in
the zone” or “out of the zone”. And sometimes, it is difficult for me, their
parents or their coaches to figure out how to alleviate the athlete’s psychological
problems which are hindering his or her performance and development.
Recently, I have started to attend more and more of my client-athletes
events and competitions. These visits have proven to be very valuable as
there are things that you can observe during the heat of battle which tell the
athlete and me a great deal about how they feel, think and behave while
they compete. Body language, attitude and self-talk on the day of
a match, tournament or championship communicate a great deal about
the athlete’s psychological and emotional makeup.
Some time ago, I watched a pro golfer who I work with compete at a
Nationwide tournament. He is a scratch golfer, but becomes quite
self-critical after he makes his first bad shot. This self-criticism causes his
his mind and his game to unravel. The psychological valleys that he slips into
are much worse than what he had described to me during his office visits.
Two years ago, I watched a fine junior tennis player compete in a tournament.
I was shocked at how poorly her parents behaved during her match. The
mom and dad were quite rude towards other players and were very unkind
and unsupportive toward their child. In addition, I was very surprised to
see this athlete completely abandon her battle plan once
the competition began. Again, what I observed during the event was very
different from what the tennis player or her parents had presented to me.
Many years ago, a young golfer who told me he loved the game when
he was in my office with his father confessed that he was burnt out on
golf and he actually hated the game when we talked at a tournament.
He added that he was only playing golf to appease his dad.
It appears that many athletes understate or deny the actual nature of
their emotional problems related to competing. As therapists, we are
always helping people to become more aware of themselves. The
information that we can share about our in office and on the field observations
can be informative and in many instances invaluable.
When I started to practice and was doing a lot of family counseling, I would
sometimes visit families at home. While this was time consuming, it was very
valuable as I could observe the family system in its natural environment. Furthermore,
some people because of shame and guilt present very differently in the office than
they do at home. For instance, sometimes, a father who seemed very easy
going in my office was actually a tyrant at home. Information like this, which
I accumulated during these home visits, is very much like what I learn when
I see an athlete in his or her competitive world.
What happens before, during and after the event is very useful information
as we try to better understand sport psychology in an effort to help
competitors reach their fullest potential. If you are a serious athlete,
start to observe your thoughts and feelings very carefully when you compete.
If you are a parent of a athlete, encourage your child to do the same thing.
You may find keeping a journal to be a useful tool in better understanding of
yourself and your behavior..
When you are trying to understand human behavior, sometimes
there is no substitute for being there up close and personal.
Jay P. Granat, Ph.D., is a Psychotherapist in River Edge, NJ.