The Secret to athletic success? It’s all in the mind

By Jim McCurdy

MIAMI, Fla. – Barry University softball player Megan Copeland paused as she pondered the question. What is the state of a student-athlete’s mind these days?

“Probably confused,” Copeland said, chuckling.

From the classroom to the practice field to meetings to competition to social life, college athletes juggle a lot every day. At Barry University, they have an outlet to turn to when the workload becomes overload. Enter sport psychology services.

Duncan Simpson, an assistant professor in the Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology department at the Miami Shores-based institution, and Lauren Tashman, an assistant professor and Coordinator of Sport Psychology Services, are the backbones behind the program. Both are both Certified Consultants with the Association of Applied Sport Psychology (AASP-CC) and together, with the help of second-year graduate students, they provide valuable resources to Buccaneers athletes off the playing surface.

“I think the student-athletes have a lot on their plate, and they have a lot of pressures on them, both as a student and as an athlete,” said Simpson, who’s worked with professional and college athletes. “Sometimes, these things they can’t talk to their coach about. We provide services, and we provide an expertise where perhaps they can’t get expertise in another area.”

The sport psychology department at Barry assists student-athletes in developing confidence, easing anxiety or pressures of competition and dealing with internal team issues with teammates or coaches.

“We’re just another spoke in the wheel or another service, just like strength and conditioning,” Simpson said. “We’re helping them maximize their mental approach. We’re trying to help the athlete be the best student-athlete they can be.”

When Simpson and Tashman began working with student-athletes four years ago, their efforts were dedicated to a couple teams and limited one-on-one consultations. Now the school’s sport psychology services have morphed into working with seven of the Buccaneers sports and 30 individual athletes. Second-year graduate students also work with the athletes under supervision, and receive contact hours for their field of study.

Tashman, who also runs a private practice outside of Barry, works with students pursuing degrees in sport psychology and the student-athletes in a multitude of different areas. Those areas include vision training, thinking intentionally to improve mental approach to the game, team effectiveness, team coordination and team dynamics.

“There’s two approaches we can take,” said Tashman, who’s also worked with Olympic athletes. “One is performance enhancement, where we’re looking at that athlete who doesn’t have any issues, but just wants to work on the mental game to get even better. And there’s performance restoration, where there’s some problem with performance.”

Injuries can take a toll on an athlete, not only physically, but mentally. Barry men’s soccer goalkeeper Johnny Rodrigues was an honorable mention All-American as a junior in 2011. But an injury in the first preseason game before his senior year sidelined him the rest of the season. His presence on a team that had high expectations, following a second round NCAA Tournament appearance in 2011, carried a lot of weight.

After sitting out a year and returning in 2013, his role took on different meaning. When Rodrigues first began using Barry’s sport psychology services, he discovered he needed to change the way he communicated with teammates.

“When I first started, I was working on my emotions,” Rodrigues said. “Then I started working on how to communicate with people as a captain. I learned you don’t communicate with people like a coach. You have to use more of a friendly way to communicate. When I started changing my communication style, I got a great response. Later on, I figured out that you’ve got to communicate with different people in different ways. There’s not one set of communication skills that you can use for everybody. I think that was really useful in my last year because I was 26 years old, and I was playing with kids that were 18 years old, so there’s a different way to communicate with those kids.

“I have an explosive personality, so for me it was harder to communicate to people. I was always good at listening or being able to assimilate everything that they are saying, but my problem was to express myself.”

Rodrigues’ teammate, Thomas Coombes, agrees that developing more effective ways to communicate is crucial to a team’s success.

“The way you say things and the way you view things can alter a lot,” Coombes said. “It can change for the positive and the negative. You can say the same thing in two different ways, and it can be taken in two different ways.”

Barry’s sport psychology services emphasize the importance of proper communication, especially as it relates to working within the team concept.

“Soccer is a difficult sport. You’re playing with 10 other people on the field, and it’s 10 other opinions,” said Bucs women’s soccer player Laura Rockel, who’s used the services for three years. “It’s really hard to pinpoint to just one opinion where we all can agree on. With Dr. Tashman and the team, they’ve really helped us because that’s our issue, and we’ve been working on it. You can see it in our success in the fall. Communication played a big role in that. It’s helped people grow as a better player and as a better person.”

Rockel has had to cope with injuries the past two years, preventing her from seeing the field. Using the sport psychology services at Barry has cushioned the disappointment of not playing.

“It’s helping me get past that stage in my life, and it’s giving me a better outlook on what I need to do,” she said. “I know from this experience and all the help I’ve been getting, it’s only helping make me a better player in the long run. It’s really helped me grow. This is a process, and I’m going to continue using it. It’s helped me in many positive ways, and I think other people should utilize it as well.”

Tashman has worked with Rockel on stress management issues, juggling different demands and coping strategies.

“Those are very big,” Rockel said. “They help us on short-term goals and long-term goals. They help us in staying focused on a task at hand. I would say a lot of tools that they’ve given me, like the different strategies to help me to focus on one task at hand have really been beneficial for me.”

Barry launched its sports psychology undergraduate program in the spring of 2013. Barry is the only school in Florida to offer an undergraduate sport psychology degree. Its mission is to offer students a humanistic and psychological education to prepare them to become effective decision makers, leaders and lifelong learners.

“This is a vastly growing field,” Simpson said. “People are starting to recognize the value in it. People are now starting to see the importance of the psychology part in athletics. The U.S. military is the biggest hirer of sports psychology graduates in the US because it’s performance. It’s how do I cope under pressure? How do I be a good team member? How do I lead? How do I cope with my stress? How do I cope with my resilience? How do I have mental toughness? So whether its exercise, sport or performance, our graduate students can look into a whole host of fields.”

Surgeons are now using sport psychologists because they see the value in performing in high-stress environments without making mistakes. Athletes hold similar performance expectations.

“I’m really a perfectionist,” Rodrigues said. “When you have too many things going on in your head … I felt like the first semester was kind of like a nightmare and then after it was more manageable. The year I got hurt, I would have to study for the GMAT to get into grad school. I had to finish my last semester of undergrad. I had to do rehab. I was on crutches for three months. I was mentally exhausted. Everything was frustrating me.

“The reason I started working with Duncan, I feel that it really helped me. I was the type of guy if the pen would fall off the table, I would get so mad. Nowadays, I can control that better. That really helped me to handle all the emotions and troubles that I had as I got injured.”

Simpson has published research which looked looking into mental skills training in intercollegiate athletics. The following are excerpts taken from his research:

Mental skills training (MST) programs have been shown to improve athletes’ ability to cope with the pressures of competition (Curry & Maniar, 2003; Thelwell, Greenlees, & Neil, 2006). However, despite the benefits of MST, less than 40% of NCAA Division-I (D-I) schools offer such services to their student-athletes (Wrisberg, Withycombe, Simpson, Loberg, & Reed, 2012).

Whereas, the number of school offering MST services in D-II is likely to be even smaller. This is what makes partnership between the athletics programs and academic programs at Barry so unique.

Research on 2,440 NCAA D-I student-athletes’ receptivity to MST showed that student-athletes are open to being taught mental skills if it would benefit their performance (Wrisberg, et al., 2009). Furthermore, a majority of student-athletes supported a role for a sport psychology consultant at their university. Research also shows that 84.5% of NCAA D-I coaches support the full-time availability of MST at their university if the services focus on performance enhancement issues as opposed to personal concerns (Wrisberg, Loberg, Simpson, Withycombe, & Reed, 2010).

Barry men’s soccer coach Steve McCrath believes individual awareness of one’s self is the first step in the resourcefulness of the sport psychology services.

“I think the biggest thing is recognition,” McCrath said. “When someone calls out something in your personality, and you’re willing to look at it and say, ‘Hmm.’ And the ‘Hmm,’ leads to, ‘Let me ask more questions about strengthening that area versus becoming defensive.’ I think sport psychology, the way Duncan and Lauren do their job, it’s really helping our kids take the second step of after ‘Hmm’ is how do I make an improvement there? So I think it’s been vital in that regard.

“We’re experiencing some success because when the players in their individual meetings with us say, ‘You know coach … I never thought of that until this, and now I think this way.’ Or, ‘I’m practicing working on this, and I feel much more confident.’ So I think it’s an incredible tool that I think has such great future to it, and the only issue is being willing to go through the growing pains of the failure side like you would as an athlete. But we’ve had some good benefit from it, no question.”

Coombes uses the sport psychology services to get things off his chest, and to see other points of view.

“They give you a different outlook into your sport,” he said. “If there’s something you want to address, it’s easier to get it out in the open and get some feedback on it. I’ve never really done anything like this, so I came over here with an open mind. I think it should be implemented more. It lets you see something from a different perspective sometimes, which can only benefit the team in some way, and you as an individual.”

In early March, Coombes tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. During his freshman year, he tore the ACL in his right knee.

“It’s hard to come back and still remain an influence on the team,” Coombes said. “Duncan is helping me stay positive and stay involved with the team. Our team is trying to become a lot more positive from the influences Duncan has put in place. For me personally, I’m trying to remain a key part of the team while not being able to demonstrate what I can do, but taking a different approach to things.”

Time management is extremely important for student-athletes with all that’s going on in their lives.

“Other students don’t always appreciate the amount of work we put in,” Coombes said. “They say we have it easy because we’re athletes, but in reality we have it ten times harder. You’ve got to manage your time, but the way you go about it, you can be very negative towards school or you can realize that’s effectively the main reason you’re here – to get an education.”

Barry women’s tennis player Emma Onila is a self-admitted emotional player. She uses the sport psychology services to tone it down, so to speak.

“It’s really helping me get into a deeper thought in how I control my emotions on the court, a deeper look into the way I can change different strategies and using routines,” Onila said. “It makes you think more about your self-control and really what matters in your sport. Sometimes as athletes you get really intense into a game, and you don’t really think about the mental side anymore because you’re so intense in thinking about the score and how you’re playing. So I think the mental side is really important, especially for tennis. When you’re mentally strong, mentally fit, it all comes together.”

Onila had always been told she was talented, but she believed she could become a better player if she enhanced the mental side of her game.

“I felt like talking to a specialist kind of opened my mind to a different side of my sport, and realizing more important things, rather than getting upset,” she said. “I’m learning how to control myself a lot better than I used to. I feel like going through these (sessions), it’s kind of helping me mature on the court and off the court. It teaches you, even in life, sometimes things are going to be difficult, and you’re going to have days where nothing is going your way. You’ve got to learn how to deal with them.”

On the court, Onila has learned to take a step back when she doesn’t feel in control of the match by using breathing techniques or seeking her towel for a reprieve.

“I feel like it has helped in developing a pretty big part of me as a person,” she said. “Even on the court because in my first semester, I knew I still played well, but I felt Iike I would get more irritated more often. I wouldn’t use as many routines to help me get back on my game. Now I feel like it’s much harder for the opponents to get me upset. I feel like I’m a much stronger player, knowing how to manage myself when things are not going right.”

The women’s tennis team began using the sport psychology services in 2010-11, a season which culminated with the program’s first national championship.

“Most of our players come from an individual setting, and when you come to college, it’s all about team,” Bucs women’s tennis coach Avi Kigel said. “That’s something that a lot of them are not familiar with or struggle with. So understanding the team concept, and you can help one another, that’s something (Duncan) helps us a lot with for the whole team. We see individual improvement in behavior and the mental toughness, and we see improvement with team chemistry.

“I think it’s good for the team to hear a different opinion from someone that’s an outsider who can see a different perspective or who can relate in a different perspective. It can only help. I’m definitely convinced that this is the right way.”

Four of Barry’s women’s golfers use the sport psychology services.

“Duncan plays an important role in helping our players talk about the mental side and understanding how important it is to think properly on the golf course,” Bucs women’s golf coach Shannon Sykora said. “I think it’s a valuable resource, however I leave that up to the players. I want them to feel comfortable in being able to make their own decision if they want to use a psychologist or if they want to talk to me about it. I feel like it helps them on the golf course in difficult situations.”

Bucs men’s and women’s assistant golf coach Chris Carlin began using the sport psychology services as a player during his junior year at Barry.

“I wish I would’ve used it my freshman and sophomore year because I think it was a big help,” he said. “Mainly, it’s just you kind of getting a lot of the stuff out that as an athlete you kind of keep in. Most of the time they’re listening and understanding what you’re saying, and they kind of redirect your mind in a certain way.”

Carlin is one of the more decorated men’s golfers in school history. He saw the sport psychology services as a means to playing the game with a more stress-free approach.

“You have so much time to think on the golf course that bad thoughts are going to get in,” Carlin said. “Over time, it can kind of wear on you a bit. Working with them helped me realize different ways to think on the golf course. If I get in a bad situation, I’m able to just stay calm and move on.”

For some, the idea of seeing a psychologist, even in a sports setting, was an adjustment, maybe even awkward. But afterwards, they’ve noticed the benefits.

“I never really believed in sport psychology, but decided to give it a try the beginning of my junior year,” Barry women’s golfer Francesca Perini said. “I found it to be absolutely great, and it made me understand more about golf and myself. I thought psychologists would just throw theories at me, but instead they only made me realize things I was seeing ‘blurred,’ and say them out loud in my own words. It helped me tremendously control my nerves on the golf course, and deal better both with good and bad rounds. It also helped in studying for school, and dealing with tough situations in my everyday life. All the graduate assistants are great, and absolutely into the work they're doing. They constantly keep up with us athletes both when we play or not. They came multiple times to the golf course for special sessions, and also came to watch us perform in real tournaments in order to analyze every situation. Talking to some impartial person outside my everyday life made me open myself more, and maybe even realize that some problems weren't actually problems.”

They say in golf, 10 percent is physical and 90 percent is mental.

“Going to see a sport psychologist doesn’t mean that you are crazy or weak,” Buccaneers junior women’s golfer Daniela Murray said. “On the contrary, it means that you are willing to work on every aspect of your performance to make you even better. The same way athletes work on their physical abilities, they should work on their mental abilities, too.”

Murray’s brother, Patrick, a freshman on the men’s golf team, also has benefitted from the sport psychology services.

“I would definitely recommend the sport psychology services because it can help one improve, not only in the sport he or she practices, but also in their private life,” he said. “One can apply the knowledge gained through those services on to her or his private life. It is important for a student-athlete to have someone to talk to because a student-athlete has to deal with tremendous pressure coming from everywhere, including teachers, parents, coaches and sometimes even from themselves. Talking to someone can help to relieve some of the pressure. Knowing that you have someone to talk to gives a person a certain safety and confidence that he or she is not alone.”

Tashman sees the importance of developing a growth mindset as paramount these days, especially as it relates to athletes. She believes student-athletes need to focus more on the present moment and the immediate process for a better chance at success.

“Everything you’re doing and everything that happens should be looked at in a way for you to use it as information to get better,” Tashman said. “I think a lot of times now the student-athlete focuses on just success or failure … and gets stuck in that, rather than thinking about, ‘OK, so today didn’t go how I wanted it to, and maybe it went really badly, but how do I learn from that and keep getting better?’”

For an athlete, it’s easy to get caught up the results that come from performance. But how those results are evaluated and compartmentalized may play an even bigger role in terms of future outcomes.

“We work so much on our physical game that we forget what sports are is mental,” Copeland said. “We spend four hours at the fields every day, and no time on mental game. Dr. T helps us to think about more areas of our game than just physical. A lot of the stuff that we’ve been working on this year has been our attitudes, and how it can affect our teammates that we may not necessarily realize.

“A lot of us respond to different communication in different ways. We’ve learned how to talk to each other when we’ve made errors. We learn how we want to be treated. She’s helped us to not just think about our sport individually, but think of it more as an aspect of our lives, and not just what we’re here to do because that makes it very overwhelming. I know personally that she’s helped me forget about everything that’s happened in the past, good successes and failures, and to make sure that you’re just living in the moment, and not allowing those things to affect you. Past successes and past failures can be really overwhelming. Personally, trying to live up to how I played last year is the hardest thing to do.”

What is the state of a college athlete’s mind?

“The state of my mind is I’m always very tired,” Coombes said. “I think, ‘Why do I do this?’ I can kind of see myself being negative sometimes. Then the one day your coach gives you a day off, I find myself sitting in my room and I’m bored, and I’m like, ‘What am I going to do with my spare time?’ In reality, I wouldn’t change anything about being a student-athlete.”

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