Don't Even Think About It

Athlete’s mental toughness as important as physical strength, say sport psychologists

Nov. 24, 2008

Former baseball player Ray Knight said, “Concentration is the ability to think about absolutely nothing when it is absolutely necessary” and very succinctly summed up about half of the tenets of sport psychology. Much-loved Longhorn and coaching legend Darrell Royal summed up the other half when he stated, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

Esbelle Jowers and John Bartholomew
Esbelle Jowers and John Bartholomew.Photo: Christina Murrey

In sports, what keeps us coming back for more, week after week, year round, is the good chance we’ll get to see a miracle or two. Someone will be able to stay airborne for an impossible length of time and make a ludicrously difficult but successful shot at the basket in the midst of utter chaos. Our team will win at the Rose Bowl in the last 19 seconds of the game because a symphony of improbable actions in perfectly trained human bodies and minds delivers the goods at the right moment, against the odds and under the gun.

Sport psychologists like Dr. John Bartholomew and Dr. Esbelle Jowers in The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education are among the first to admit there’s a lot that scientists don’t know about how or why top athletes’ minds and bodies work together so well. After all, when you say that someone broke the four-minute mile by ignoring those who said it couldn’t be done, have you really solved the deeper mystery?

What experts do know, however, is that there are strategies that athletes can nurture in training and then during competition to put them in that elusive state of “flow,” where they surpass conscious thought and all of the elements of peak performance come together–concentration, physical expertise, focus, calm, discipline, unwavering confidence. They’re in the coveted “zone.” Self-consciousness has fallen away and they’re transcending limitations.

I figure practice puts your brains in your muscles. Golfer Sam Snead

“Sport psychology, to put it simply, focuses on the psychological factors associated with physical performance,” says Bartholomew, an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education. “When it comes right down to it, you’re just trying to help an athlete consistently execute those behaviors that he’s practiced to virtual perfection so many times in training. During a match, Tiger Woods doesn’t have to puzzle over how to make a particular swing and the mechanics of his arm movements–he’s executed every single one of those physical moves before and could do all of them in his sleep. What he’s got to be able to do is allow his body to deliver the desired results. Ironically, you want to keep the mind from getting in the way of the performance.”

In addition to the necessary physical gifts–without which an athlete couldn’t excel no matter how well-schooled his mind–according to Jowers and Bartholomew top athletes first of all need a strong, overriding internal motivation that carries them through the pain of competitions like the Tour de France or the training that’s required of an NFL player during football season. The expectations of a dad who wants you to be a baseball pro or simply a desire for more money probably won’t fuel you.

Along with a high level of internal motivation, top athletes must also be able to quell mental and emotional demons like stress, loss of focus and fears of losing. Unlike many of us, they’re regularly placed in situations where there’s exceptional pressure, intense scrutiny by large numbers of evaluators and a very high incentive for success. Crippling stress can creep in. Distractions like a screaming crowd of 98,000 or an excruciating knee injury can wreak havoc with focus. The skill of athletes on the opposing team may be intimidating. The numbers on the scoreboard can take the mind off the moment and introduce fears of defeat.

I didn't hear anything today. I didn't hear anyone. The only people I could hear was maybe in my box, but other than that most of the time I don't hear anything. I am in a zone. Tennis player Venus Williams

“Experienced athletes have found ways of coping with all of this fairly well,” says Bartholomew. “But even they can lapse into trying to impose conscious control over something that’s been practiced enough that it should be automatic. They’re not trusting themselves and, worst of all, they’ve started to focus on the outcome.

“For athletes to deliver their best performance, they have to have the necessary physical gifts and aptitude, of course–the mental discipline and emotional steadiness don’t mean anything without that. If they’re more focused on the implications of their actions or what will happen if they win or lose, though, then their speed or strength won’t mean anything. We help athletes do their best by introducing techniques like deep breathing, positive self-talk, visualization and pre-performance routines that can remove distractions and stress and put them mentally where they need to be.”

A pre-performance routine can be something as familiar as a player bouncing the ball three times before a free throw or striking the same pose in the dugout each time before stepping up to bat. According to Jowers and Bartholomew, routines can help a player separate the thinking and planning time from the time when he must act. To help infielders silence distracting thoughts and shed tension, sport psychologists who work with baseball teams often draw a circle in the dirt and have the infielder do all of his mental prep outside the circle–once the player is inside the circle, thought is to stop and it’s time to react. Practiced often, stepping into the circle becomes a solid, effective cue.

With visualization, an athlete may run a very detailed mental “film” of swimming laps, sinking a putt or running around a track, effortlessly clearing hurdle after hurdle.

“In all of my years in sports, I don’t think I made a play that I didn’t visualize myself executing long before I made it happen on the field,” says Ahmad Brooks, a former University of Texas at Austin defensive back who also played in the NFL in Buffalo and New Orleans. “Mental preparation ahead of time is so vital to success on the field. It requires pondering ways to ensure success against your opponent.”

According to Jowers, director of the Exercise and Sports Psychology Laboratory and a researcher in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, mentally creating a detailed scenario full of vivid, multi-sensory cues is a tried and true method for reducing stress and anxiety and making it more likely that you will be comfortable during competition. After all, you will already have been a champion, if only mentally, and the rigors of a game may feel less threatening, more conquerable. Visualization also is a way to keep the mind focused on the positive–mental imagery of winning, positive self-talk and a strong training session can give one fewer reasons to dwell on losing.

“Some top golfers even picture smiley faces on the flags at the holes because it helps them see shots as non-threatening,” says Bartholomew. “In sports, you find a really good example of the inter-connectedness of mind and body. Anxiety, while primarily a mental and emotional condition, can increase arousal and cause muscles to tighten. This not only impacts the ability to perform the coordinated movements required in sport but can even lead to injury. If you’re able to use your mind to see an idealized shot or see yourself weaving through the defensive line and almost floating to a touchdown, that puts you in a comfort zone where you can relax. It can only help your actual physical performance.”

When all of these techniques work and an athlete has mastered the physical elements of her training, she’s in a position to let go of conscious control, let life and thought fall away and react to what’s important during competition.

“If you think about it, it seems a little bit like we’re delivering contradictory messages,” says Jowers. “We’re working very hard on getting these athletes to relax and be calm, yet they’re going into high pressure environments where they have to be extremely alert, energetic, aggressive and focused. In sport psychology, you address this dilemma by examining levels of arousal.

“There’s an optimal level of arousal that elite athletes have learned how to obtain and sustain. They have practiced so much that they can keep their arousal level where it should be without too much thought. If you’re not aroused enough, you’re going to drift and start thinking about and seeing non-relevant cues. If you become too aroused, your attentional capacity begins to narrow more and more. Add anxiety into the mix and you’ve got it shifting even farther in the wrong direction. The mark of a good athlete is that he or she can balance this like a fine-tuned instrument.”

Sure, I am nervous before a basketball game because of the challenges around the game itself.... Once the ball goes up for the jump ball, all that nervousness goes away and I revert back to things that I have practiced and things that seem to be very routine. Basketball player Michael Jordan

What may be even more fascinating than the mental sharpness and discipline of any one athlete’s mind is how five or nine or 11 of those minds and top-performing bodies are able to fluidly work together to deliver astonishing plays. As it turns out, sport psychologists not only look at enhancing performance in individuals but also at group dynamics and how coaches can take teams to higher levels than anyone thought possible.

According to Bartholomew and Jowers, sports teams can have, or not have, what’s known as task cohesion and social cohesion. Together, these two attributes come together to define the level of group cohesion.

Social cohesion refers to the positive feelings that players have for one another and the degree to which they socialize, whereas task cohesion refers to how united a team is in pursuit of a common goal. It doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone on the team likes one another. It means they are willing to subjugate their individual success for the good of the group. Players on teams with high task cohesion are more likely to train hard in the off-season and often find it easier to accept a supporting role, working for the success of the team rather than the glory of any one member. These are the teams that exhibit that difficult-to-define esprit de corps that military leaders as well as coaches strive for.

“When someone becomes a wide receiver, he does it because he likes scoring touchdowns,” says Bartholomew, “but there are also much less glamorous aspects of the job, like having to block so that others can score. When he’s blocking, he’s playing for the success of the group, not just himself. You can see this aspect of self-sacrifice in the World Series as well. Much was made of the Tampa Bay Rays making productive outs. Batters were hitting to the right side so that a runner could move to third base, which hurt the stats of the batter but certainly helped the team.

My responsibility is to get my guys playing for the name on the front of their uniform and not the one on the back. Baseball coach Tommy Lasorda

“The best way to measure a team’s group cohesion is to look at how they act when they’re challenged–in other words, when they lose. This season, when Oklahoma lost to the Longhorns, they had several options for how they could proceed. It could cripple them or they could rally. They’ve handled it very well as a team and gone on to win almost every game since. In contrast, Clemson lost to Alabama early in the season and they’ve gone downhill from there. Looking at that scenario, one would conclude that they have weak group cohesion.”

And the role of a good coach? According to Jowers and Bartholomew, a great coach is extremely adept at defining what success means for his or her group.

“Taking football as an example,” says Bartholomew, “the coach is not going to define success by the score. He’s going to tell you to execute your plays the way you’re supposed to. Just worry about your plays and if you do that like you should, the winning will take care of itself.

“He keeps the player in the moment and focused on manageable, familiar tasks, saying ‘Go out and beat your man on this play–that’s all you need to worry about now.’ Then the player goes out, stops thinking and reacts to what he sees. Good coaches put players in a position to do this over and over again. Whether they know it or not, the best coaches are usually very good psychologists.”

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Banner photo: Matt Hempel, Texas Athletics