"These athletes haven't lost their skills," says Dr. Richard Dauber of the Morris Psychological Group. "They've developed a psychological block. The events that triggered their difficulties are different, but the result is generally the same - a loss of confidence based on fear of failure actually causes the feared outcome. There are numerous techniques and strategies that psychologists may use to help these professionals get back to form. But these very public cases represent only a fraction of the applications of psychology to athletic performance and elite professionals aren't the only ones who benefit."
It is commonly said that winning is 90% mental. If that is the case, why isn't as much attention paid to training an athlete's mind as to developing physical skills? "It should be," says Dr. Dauber. "All the best athletes - both professionals and amateurs - have well trained bodies and well developed skills, but those who break through and perform at the highest levels almost certainly have better focus, better motivation and better ability to visualize success. That's where sport psychology comes in - it addresses the mental aspects of sports performance."
What does a sport psychologist do?
Sport psychology is a relatively new discipline. It originated in the 1920s, but didn't achieve wide prominence until the 1980s after visualization techniques were used by athletes in several sports at the 1984 Olympics. "Visualization is a powerful tool for improving performance," says Dr. Dauber. "The simple act of repeatedly visualizing the performance of a particular maneuver with perfect form or of visualizing the successful outcome of a competition has a measurable effect on performance." Visualization, also known as guided imagery or mental rehearsal, creates a mental image of the desired outcome and serves as a mechanism to train both the mind and the body. The athlete tries to imagine the details of the act and how it feels to perform in the desired way."
Helping the athlete visualize success is one of the basic tools used by sport psychologists. Other facets of sports performance addressed include:
Who can be helped?
Sport psychologists are not consulted only when there is a problem. They help athletes at all levels improve performance and cope with pressure. Furthermore, they are often asked by coaches to work with a team to improve morale and camaraderie. "Sport psychology plays a unique role with our youngest athletes," says Dr, Dauber. "Sometimes the focus simply has to be on helping children enjoy sports. Parents and coaches who believe they are simply being supportive may be unintentionally putting too much pressure on youngsters to succeed. Lowering expectations can raise confidence and, as a result, improve performance."
Richard B. Dauber, PhD., is a clinical and sport psychologist with over 30 years of experience, specializing in child and adolescent psychology. Morris Psychological Group, P.A. offers a wide range of therapy and evaluation services to adults, children and adolescents. www.morrispsych.com
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