In The Sports World, Your Psychology Matters As Much As Your Skillset

by Ryan Freeman

No athlete likes to admit he or she needs mental help.

I’m not talking about mental illness, but rather, mental assistance in a person's day-to-day life.

For years, psychology has been associated with Freudian theory (how your latent sexual urges toward your parents is at the source of all your mental tics and follies), or with Skinner behavioral psychology (how a rat in a cage will tell you about who you are deep inside -- a pattern of behaviors evacuated from a stimulus).

The truth is, today, we know more about the mind and its workings than either Freud or Skinner could imagine. The days of psychology being used exclusively for the obviously ill or disturbed are over.

Yes, psychology plays a huge (and, arguably, still underrated) part in our healthcare system, but the importance of psychology in our normal, daily lives is only growing. One area in which this is most apparent is athletics.

Athletics has played an important part in human culture for thousands of years, leading back to the first Olympia in Ancient Greece, where a champion in a sport was regarded as a celebrity.

I guess not much has changed. We worship individuals today because of their ability to shoot a basketball or throw a ball with perceptually-superhuman accuracy.

It is their ability to do physically what we cannot that leaves us in transcendent awe. What is most amazing about the elite athletes we idealize is their mental ability not only to be "sports-smart," but also to overcome doubt, anxiety and distractions (the obstacles we deal with every day) and win.

Only a few years ago, it was considered "weak" or "a bad sign," to seek the help of a sports psychologist, or mental strength coach to get you to overcome the mental struggles associated with any competition.

It was even more unheard of for a head coach of a team seek the help of a mental expert. But, those days have changed; the rise of sports psychology and mental strength coaching is here.

Prior to the 2013 NFL season, Pete Carroll, the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, brought into the program a sports psychology expert who had been working previously with Red Bull-sponsored athletes.

That season, the Seahawks team was made up of an eclectic group of athletes that seemed unable to become an elite team.

The Seahawks had an oversized defensive back, a small middle linebacker running the defense, a running back that ate Skittles on the sideline and an almost undrafted and clearly undersized quarterback leading the offense.

At the beginning of that season, no one believed they had a chance at being a top NFL team, but by the end, they were playing in the Super Bowl.

Not only that, they dismantled a future Hall of Fame quarterback and destroyed a very good Denver Broncos team, resulting in one of the most lopsided Super Bowl victories in history.

Just months after their victory, dozens of NFL teams sent representatives to talk with most of the USA Olympic team’s sports psychologists as they went to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games.

What many thought of as a potential weakness just months earlier became a sought-after commodity. They wanted to know if mental coaching, not just sport-specific or physical training, could make their teams into champions like the Seahawks.

The NFL is a little behind the trend.

Sports psychology and mental coaching has caught fire in recent years, especially in Olympic and extreme sports. The USA Olympic teams have been employing sports psychology experts for some time at several of their national training centers.

During each Olympic Games, a group of sports psychology experts travels along with the athletes, coaches and doctors in the official travel party to help the athletes have any competitive advantage they can find.

This was extremely apparent at the Sochi Winter Olympic Games where the the USA’s Freestyle Skiing and Snowboard teams brought Dr. Craig Manning, a mental strength coach who works at the USSA (US Ski and Snowboard Association) training center in Park City, Utah, to help them while in Sochi.

The Freestyle Skiing and Snowboard teams won six of the USA’s nine gold medals in Sochi.

Not only are large athletic organizations bringing in sports psychology experts to train their athletes, but so are sponsors.

Red Bull has been using mental strength coaches to work with their sponsored athletes and do amazing things that include helping with the world record breaking Stratos jump made by Felix Baumgartner.

That which applies to free-falling from space also applies to surfing, racing and head-to-head competitions.

The world of sports is becoming more and more competitive as time goes on. What most coaches and athletes are finally starting to realize is that the difference between the good and great athletes might not have anything to do with talent or natural ability.

The difference is literally in the athlete’s head.

With the rise of sports psychology not only in extreme or Olympic sports, but also in mainstream sports like football and basketball, it is exciting to think about what future athletes will be able to accomplish.