At the Height of Its Game

Emphasizing a Strong Mind, Sport Psychology Is Taking the Performance of Professional Athletes to Another Level

When basketball phenom LeBron James takes to the hardwood this winter, there will be distractions: deific expectations of the man Sports Illustrated tabbed The Chosen One; reminders of a failed Olympic run by opposing hecklers coast-to-coast, from Jack Nicholson in Los Angeles to Spike Lee in New York; advertisers with dollars in their eyes; a mid-season birthday on which he will turn just 20 years old. Yet no matter how hard James practices and prepares, it’s his work with APS Fellow Charlie Maher that might be his best shot.

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Maher isn’t a coach or a teammate. He’s a sport psychologist, a growing discipline whose scientific efforts to integrate an athlete’s body and mind are becoming as recognizable in professional sports as the Nike Swoosh or Gatorade.

“National attention has been drawn to how participation in athletic competition is related to the psychological development of the athlete,” said Maher, team psychologist for the National Basketball Association’s Cleveland Cavaliers and Major League Baseball’s Indians. “Athletes function in high-risk environments, and in order to be successful in such settings, they need to be expert at emotions management.”

Maher represents a rising trend that has elevated an athlete’s psychological development to the pedestal erstwhile reserved for physical talent. Considering sport psychology’s historically low-profile in the United States – it was used primarily by Eastern European Olympians until two decades ago – the increased focus on mental techniques is quietly approaching a renaissance, something Maher attributes to the stress and strain that results from growing media scrutiny and stratospheric salaries.

“Professional sports franchises – for the most part – have ignored the systematic psychological development of young athletes. This is surprising since these same organizations are investing in these young products to the tune of millions of dollars,” Maher said. “However, there is a growing awareness in this area.”

APS Fellow Diane Gill, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, also acknowledged the awakening.* “The athletic community took some time to recognize the potential role of psychology professionals – whether for performance enhancement or in other counseling roles,” she said. “Some of the switch reflected the development of the sport and exercise psychology area, and the development of methods and measures.”

While global media and younger professional athletes have only recently created the circumstances for sport psychology to blossom, that’s not to say research on the mental role of athletics didn’t previously exist. In 1898, Norman Triplett published a study in the American Journal of Psychology showing that the performance of cyclists was enhanced when they competed against other cyclists instead of against the clock. Sport psychology’s public emergence is often correlated with the work of Coleman Griffith, who was appointed director of the University of Illinois research in athletics laboratory in 1925 after years of studying athletes’ mental behavior. In a move decades ahead of its time, Chicago Cubs owner Phillip Wrigley hired Griffith in the late 1930s to become the team’s psychologist. Griffith produced reports on how to handle superstitious players, how to apply psychological techniques to minor league scouting, and how to ensure that Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean pitched at maximum effectiveness.

Soon after, sport psychology programs began popping up around the country, each with more scientific foundation than the last. Thomas Tutko and APS Fellow Bruce Ogilvie created the Athletic Motivation Inventory, or AMI, in 1966 to measure the traits of successful and unsuccessful athletes. They found that successful athletes tended to score more highly on 11 traits: aggression, coachability, conscientiousness, determination, drive, emotional control, guilt-proneness, leadership, mental toughness, self-confidence, and trust. The psychometric properties of the AMI became debated, but more reliable research tests such as the 16pf, which examines the relationships between success and personality, found that athletes had different levels of independence, objectivity, and anxiety than non-athletes.

“Early in its conception, sport psychology was consumed by theorists involved in state anxiety as it related to performance on complex motor tasks,” said Bruce Parsons, University of Utah. “Out of this grew the application of managing and creating optimal levels of anxiety through cognitive rehearsal, in order to maximize performance. All of the great athletes of that era were evaluated and they were found to have moderate to high levels of anxiety but not so high as to interfere with performance.”

By the 1980s, sport psychology had emerged into the public arena with the establishment of the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology. It reached a culmination in 1988, when the US Olympic team was accompanied by officially recognized sport psychologists for the first time.

It was about this time that Maher received a call similar to Griffith’s. A Chicago White Sox pitching coach, who was studying for his master’s in psychology, read an article of Maher’s about goal-setting and contacted him to help the team. In the 22 years since, Maher has served as a consultant for many professional baseball, football, and basketball organizations, including the New York Yankees and the National Football League’s New England Patriots. He was also team psychologist for the IBM Deep Blue computer team that defeated reigning champion Garry Kasparov for the world chess title in 1997.

“Being able to perform according to expectations, night in and night out, demands an understanding by players of factors that are under their control, as well as development of a belief that they can affect these factors before, during, and subsequent to competition,” said Maher, who uses a “cognitive-behavioral social learning approach” to guide players in quality preparation, sustained competitiveness, and accurate self-evaluation.

One of the many techniques involving this approach is a mental composure process Maher calls Mind in the Moment, or MnM. MnM is used to focus on the immediate task at hand and to block out a multitude of distractions. This is particularly helpful for pitchers, whose ball location and movement can be severely affected by an emotional surge. “Some pitchers rush their delivery if there’s a man on base, and then their pitches aren’t precise.” Maher said. When a potentially detrimental anxiety becomes imminent, the pitcher is trained to recall a trigger phrase, such as slow down, stay calm, or, in one case, Joe’s Tiki Bar. Anything will do, so long as it keeps the focus on the next pitch.

“If a quality pitch is the task, you need to execute it,” Maher said. “Then whatever happens – whether it’s a strike or a homerun – you move on to the next task.”

Long before a player steps onto a field, psychological profiling is used to assess his or her mental and behavioral solidarity. Profiling, which involves devices such as the 16pf, determines a player’s basic personality structure, ability to cope with on- and off-field risks, ability to work as a teammate, and ability to accurately assess his or her own performance. Profiling helps athletes focus on the “controllables of competition,” Maher said. “The player identifies those mental, emotional, technical, and physical factors that seem to account for effective performance.”

Once a basic profile is established, Maher uses the VAK, or Visual-Auditory-Kinesthetic mechanism, to guide athletes’ mental development and obviate performance inconsistencies. The visual component consists of a player’s pre-game visualization of possible scenarios and post-game videotape scrutiny of how such moments were handled. The auditory component focuses on being able to hear what teammates and coaches are saying, not just before and after games, but also in the heat of the moment. (“If a pitcher is on the mound at Yankee Stadium, can he listen to his coach tell him what to do?” Maher asked.) The kinesthetic, or movement, component can consist of a player’s pre-game rituals, game-day routines, and practice habits. Retired Washington Redskin Darrell Green’s tendency to place a Tootsie Roll in his sock before kickoff, and Cubs shortstop Nomar Garciaparra’s elaborate batter’s box routine – a dozen-step procedure that is meticulously repeated between pitches – are two such examples.

“For each athlete, we have an individual plan that focuses on needs in mental and emotional domains,” Maher said.

Sport psychology isn’t finished growing just yet. According to Gill, it’s likely to move in several directions. “Consultants are developing new techniques and adapting older ones,” she said. “Issues are expanding beyond performance, to injury rehabilitation and career transitions. Performance enhancement and psychology skills training is expanding to business and the arts.”

This expansion is apparent in Maher’s work. He continues to do research despite splitting time between two sports teams – like a regular Bo Jackson of psychology, Maher Knows Mind. “I am investigating how an athlete’s understanding of his or her strong points and limitations helps in preparation for competition, as well as in self-evaluation,” he said. “I am expanding my database on what professional athletes consider to be their ‘de-railers,’ that is, unwanted people, places, and things.” But The Chosen One’s “de-railers,” if they exist, won’t soon be on display in psychology journals, nor will the MnM focus word of one Indians pitching prospect, whom Maher wouldn’t name though “people would know him.” He did, however, concede that James has a lot more going for him than the psychologist taking notes from the stands. “Starting in elementary school, LeBron has known celebrity and, thus, he has been at ease at handling it,” Maher said. “In the area of sport, the word ‘exceptional’ is used too loosely and inappropriately, but not so in this case.” At least that’s what the Cavaliers are hoping.

*Read Gill’s “Workout Tips From the Exercise and Sport Science Department”.

Observer Vol.17, No.12 December, 2004

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