Sports Psychology: Get'cha Head in the Game

Dec. 1, 2008 | By AnnaMahalak, DSJ Staff Reporter

You’re in the middle of a test that you’ve studied so hard for - you’ve gone to Swem more this week than in your entire life. Test anxiety takes over. Replace this test situation for the final two minutes of a tied basketball game - the last shot comes down to you. How do you deal with this anxiety, the distraction of the crowd, or the student tapping his foot next to you? Sports psychology can help.

“It’s about eliminating distractions to bring out the best game,” says Deidre Connelly, sports psychology consultant for Tribe Athletics.

The stigma about seeing a sports psychologist or a counselor in general often mistakes the students who use this service as having something “wrong” with them. Deidre Connelly disputes this stereotype about counseling.

“It’s not about pathology, what we’re about is wellness. People who [see a sports psychologist] are goal-oriented and want to get better at what they do. It’s about people trying to do something special. It’s about how to be your best when it counts the most.”

While Connelly works mainly with Tribe athletes and coaches, she also receives referrals from the counseling center. These students receive extra help - help that we all could use - when it comes to stress management and coping skills, text anxiety and perfectionism issues, among others. And what William and Mary student isn’t over-involved and exposed to stress, or doesn’t have a little bit of perfectionism in him or her?

Many teams develop mantras or slogans throughout the season - one phrase they can see that will remind them to refocus. A popular slogan - “right here, right now” - is particularly difficult for William and Mary students, said Connelly. “You guys can do 23 different things at one time and get them all done,” she explained, but focusing on just one of those and staying in the moment is the difficult challenge. “[So] a lot of what we do is teaching people to stay in the moment. Real absorption in what you’re doing is when we have our best performance.”

Nerves and anxiety can also cause some of the biggest distractions, but it isn’t always about blocking out the nerves - sports psychology tools teach athletes to channel those nerves into something positive. “It’s about trust,” explains Deidre. “[Knowing that] what you have is good enough, and now you can manage.”

As the sports psychologist for the athletic department, Deidre Connelly spends much of her time teaching coaches tools to block out distraction and channel nerves, so that they can, in turn, teach their teams. As a former coach, she often finds it easy to relate to coaches who come in for a consultation on their teams. Furthermore, she added that many of the Tribe coaches are “great sports psychologists themselves.” They know how to bring out the best in their players.

One of these coaches is Men’s Head Gymnastics Coach Cliff Gauthier. His talented program has won 33 straight Virginia State Championships, as well as seen great success at the national level in recent years. As an athlete himself in both diving and gymnastics, “two sports” he describes “that lend themselves to developing the ability to visualize skills and mentally practice both skills and routines,” Gauthier understands the importance of a strong mental game combined with physical skill. In college, he utilized a variety of sports psych tools such as meditation and self-hypnosis in order to maximize his performances.

“I always assumed that if you wanted to maximize your potential in athletics or anything else you would never leave any stone unturned, so to speak,” he said.

To ensure their best performance in the athletic arena, Gauthier and his men’s team work closely with Dr. Fred Ward, a William and Mary alum and specialist in infectious diseases. He also holds an AMA board certification in hypnosis.

Gauthier explained, “He teaches our guys how to use self-hypnosis to help in all aspects of life, from overcoming fears and competing in gymnastics to performing well on tests. I regard Dr. Ward's working with the gymnasts as potentially a gift of a lifetime to these lucky guys, not only in the area of sports psychology, but also in the area of what it is to have a positive impact on people around you and to be a true gentleman. The use of positive self-hypnosis can be applied to everything from test taking (for example, actually being able to get down the information you know under the pressure situation of a test) to developing self-confidence and a personal sense of worth that can help form the cornerstone of a very successful and rewarding life.”

There are a variety of ways to utilize sports psychology to perform your very best. Deidre Connelly used the examples of a team putting an X on the back of their wrists before games, serving as a mental cue whenever something wasn’t going their way to get their heads back in the moment. She also often recommends athletes bring reminder cards to games so they can remember “I was going to play this way today.”

These cards have attitude and mindset goals, as opposed to playing goals which coaches often discuss in pre-game meetings with their teams. And sometimes, as Connelly explains, all it takes is just a “calm neutral voice that just says ‘get it done’ or ‘ready to go’ or ‘today is my day.’” These phrases are all a part of the mental preparation that goes into any athletic event, as well as job interviews or the LSATs.

Using sports psychology to “get’cha head in the game” will not only ensure success on the sports field, but also in the classroom and the workplace. To learn more about sports psych and distractions in personal performance, schedule an appointment with the counseling center, or enroll in a sports psychology class next fallurnal.