In other words, all you have to do is just…trick the mind!
Studies show that more rapid loss of greater amounts of productivity in an athlete is associated with an improper understanding of the athlete’s psychology at initial consultation compared to established programs encouraging positive, proper, progressive and steady psychological productivity.
Does reading up on Sports Psychology make a difference? The researchers say probably not.
Evidence does not support the common advice that any knowledge is better than no knowledge.
Does walking an extra mile per day, which burns around 100 calories, lead to significant weight loss over time? Not as much as you would think. We typically think of 3,500 calories burned as equivalent to one pound of weight lost. In reality, if nothing changes in the diet, a person would need to burn around 18,000 calories to lose a pound. That would mean walking 4-5 miles per day to lose 10 pounds in a year.
So, why would reading an online blog on Sports Psychology daily help you?
Will increasing fruits and vegetables in the diet help with weight loss? Fruits and vegetables have many health benefits, but healthy foods do not lead to weight loss if calorie consumption overall remains unchanged.
Then, why would a lecture on Sports Psychology at a convention or a symposium be able to assist you?
Does snacking lead to weight gain? Not necessarily. Excess calories lead to weight gain. It does not seem to matter whether the calories are consumed all at once or little by little.
…OK…then why all of these daily or weekly emails with Sports Psychology information in them continue to be distributed from some of the top minds in the field?
The New England Journal of Medicine released a study where researchers pointed out that debunking these common misconceptions about Sports Psychology is important because people tend to believe even erroneous advice if it is stated repeatedly by numerous, often trusted, sources. However, the researchers are quick to point out the good news. The benefits of Sports Psychology are attainable by all even those whom have never taken a psychology course in their lives. It may take focused effort and hard work, but it is possible for anyone.
In fact, there are several things we know to be true about Sports Psychology.
Sports Psychology: What really works?
With having a Masters in Sports Psychology I am often asked which methods are best for a particular athlete or situation. The nature of the ever-growing and evolving field that makes up the realm of ‘sports’ psychology is such that in broad and general terms it turns out that the best method for most of these inquiries is actually no method at all. In fact, over-sensualisation, combined with too many ‘internet-taught” sports psychology ‘pundits” have begun to dilute the facts and truth.
Many common remedies being tossed about the football world are in reality nothing more than just “tricks” or “mental illusions.”
These “Mind Tricks” are especially dangerous for young footballers because in some cases, it can be like giving aspirin to a young child who is suffering from viral illness – the aspirin may set off a chain reaction leading to liver failure and brain death. While the detriments to a footballer are nowhere near as drastic as the failure of an organ or death, they can be so to the Player’s Development and their future in the game.
Furthermore, many coaches are so inept at sport psychology that their efforts are usually more prone to cause sedation among their roster than anything. What many of these coaches don’t realise is that improper application of psychological aspects can actually compound the issue they’re attempting to solve.
This does not mean coaches without degrees or experiences in the sport psychology field are without options. Quite the contrary to be exact. I call them “Mind Tricks.” Understanding them; knowing what they are and how to deal with them can be a very valuable asset to your coaching arsenal.
MIND TRICK #1: “Similar tragedies play out time and again when players try to rescue teammates.”
Domino Effect: The problem began with a well-played football match that remained scoreless after 120 minutes and being that it was played within a format where one of the two competing clubs had to advance the match was now headed into penalties.
Stacy Scotterson, a 24-year-old senior from Virginia was the first to step up to the charity spot to shoot for her team. As she’d done probably a million times before, she bent down and used her fingers to free the ground immediately surrounding the penalty spot from any obstructions. However, what she neither knew nor sensed was the inevitable fate of the game that was about to fill the pit in the bottom of her stomach. Within only a few seconds and just a few breaths later, she had keeled over. Her ball had sailed high and wide off the wet and sloppy surface completely missing the goal. Very soon, a teammate, Amanda Stoyouz, strolled down into the penalty area where Scotterson had missed just moments before, but she too succumbed to the same fate as her teammate. One by one, each teammate strolled down to rescue the others and one by one, each one missed in turn.
Similar tragedies play out time and again when athletes try to rescue teammates. A basketball player is fouled hard; his teammates follow up, one after the other, until they’re all in foul trouble. A quarterback gets drilled by an opposing defensive back and his offensive line goes into a frenzy to protect him; one taking the block, then another.
In each case, the domino effect results from a deep-seated emotion: the need to help others. The fear response shuts down areas of the brain that handle complex thoughts and planning, but it doesn’t affect simple emotions or well-learned habits like altruism. So we’re driven to think about helping others instead of rationally identifying potential hazards, like a wet and slippery surface or accumulating too many personal fouls.
“People lose the ability to think about the long-term consequences of their actions,” says Sian Beilock, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago.
Avoid the Trick: If you ever find yourself or your athletes in an unfolding situation like the one Scotterson was in, Beilock recommends pausing for a moment to take a deep breath and think about what’s going on. “Even taking one step back sometimes allows you to see it in a different light, to maybe think, ‘My efforts would be better spent re-evaluating the situation’,” she says. Of course, it’s extremely difficult to separate rational thought from emotion during an unfamiliar crisis.
Planning for potential pitfalls can help; for instance, every team should practice how to deal with certain weather conditions.
MIND TRICK #2: “When the balloon began to rise, he held on, despite a chorus of shouts from the ground urging him to let go.”
Double or Nothing: In February 2003, a collegiate baseball team visiting Northern California prepared to watch a hot-air balloon take off at the Domaine Chandon vineyard near Yountville.
Shortly before 8 a.m., the ground crew was repositioning the inflated balloon when one of the visiting baseball players, a 23-year-old Scotsman named Steve Branson, grabbed hold of the basket, perhaps in an attempt to help.
However, when the balloon began to rise, Branson held on, despite a chorus of shouts from the ground and in particular from his own teammates and coaches, urging him to let go. The balloon rose quickly: 10 feet, 20, 40, 100. The empty air below Branson’s dangling feet stretched to a horrifying distance; pretty soon, he could hold on no longer. His fellow teammates watched as their companion plummeted fatally to the earth.
If a balloon unexpectedly begins to rise, a person hanging on can follow a deadly logic: When he’s only been lifted a foot or two in the air, he may think, ‘Oh, that’s no big deal. I can just step down if I need to.’ Then suddenly he’s at six feet and thinks, ‘I could twist an ankle, I’d better hang on and wait until it gets lower.’ Before he knows it, he’s at 25 feet, realizing that a jump would cause serious injury at best.
The runaway-balloon problem is a manifestation of our irrational assessment of risks and rewards. We tend to avoid risk when we’re contemplating potential gains but seek risk to avoid losses. For instance, if you offer people a choice between a certain loss of $1,000 and a fifty-fifty chance of losing $2,500, the majority will opt for the riskier option; to avoid a definite financial hit. From the perspective of someone dangling 20 feet in the air, the gamble that he might be able to ride the gondola safely back to the ground seems preferable to a guaranteed pair of broken legs. Yet in the moment, he can’t factor in the price he’ll pay if he loses.
Avoid the trick: Casinos are a perfect example of a modern enterprise that makes a very good profit from our flawed ability to calculate true risk. Gamblers wind up in a hole and then instinctively take bigger and bigger risks in an attempt to recoup the losses. To a veteran in the field of applied psychology, it’s a foregone conclusion. “I always tell my students, if you’re tempted to go to Vegas, just write me a check instead,” says Art Markman, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.
MIND TRICK #3: “The narrow road took them into ever-deepening snow.”
Situational Blindness: In December 2009, an Assistant Women’s Basketball Coach at an NAIA school was headed out on a recruiting trip to Nevada after her team had played a Friday and Saturday double-header in Portland, Oregon. Following the directions of her GPS, she drove south on U.S. Highway 97 through Bend, then turned left onto Oregon Highway 31, passing through a dramatically beautiful high desert landscape before she connected with the highway to Reno near the California border.
Near the town of Silver Lake, Oregon, her GPS told her to turn off the highway onto a little-used forest road. If she had continued straight, then she would have arrived at her desired destination in less than six hours. However, her GPS was programmed to take the “shortest route,” not the “fastest.” The narrow road took her into ever-deepening snow. After driving more than 30 miles, she got stuck, managed to dig herself out, drive further and then get stuck again. She tried calling 911 but was in a location where she was unable to get cell phone reception.
For three days, she fought to stay warm and survive until she finally managed to get a cell phone signal and call for help. A sheriff’s deputy came to winch out her car.
As GPS units and satellite navigation smart-phone apps have flourished recently, there’s been a spate of similar cases in which travellers follow their devices blindly and wind up getting badly lost. The underlying mistake is not merely technological but perceptual: the failure to remain aware of one’s environment, what aviation psychologists call Situational Awareness, or SA.
People have always had difficulties maintaining SA, psychologists say, but the proliferation of electronics, and our blind faith that these devices will keep us safe, has led to an epidemic of absentmindedness.
Avoid the trick: Full Situational Awareness requires incorporating outside information into a model of your environment and using that model to predict how the situation might change. If all you’re doing is following the lines of the GPS and it turns out to be wrong, you’ll be completely clueless about what to do next.
In the athletic realm, we rely on what Beth Blickensderfer, PhD, a professor of applied psychology at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, calls Competitive SA to navigate our way through the consistently changing labyrinth. It’s especially relevant when you’re traveling to compete at another location, for example. If you’re not paying attention, you might not realize that the ball blends in with the bleachers when it is punted or the hills surrounding the pitch open-up behind one of the goals which allow larger gusts of wind to blow back towards play and you wind up committing a serious faux pas that could ruin the occasion.
MIND TRICK #4: “Once we form a theory, we tend to see everything through it.”
Bending the Map: Our minds are wired to find order within randomness. We look at clouds and see sheep. This can be useful for making decisions, since we’re helpless without a theory that makes sense of our quandary. However, once we form a theory, we tend to see everything through it. A consequence is that sometimes when people actually get physically lost, they can convince themselves they know exactly where they are; a problem sometimes called “bending the map.”
A few years ago, three collegiate-level skiers went out-of-bounds while doing some training via cross-country skiing at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort located at Teton Village in Wyoming. Looking for fresh powder in Rock Springs Bowl, they took a wrong turn, headed north instead of south and wound up at the bottom of Granite Canyon. If they’d been where they thought they were, the stream should have been flowing from their right to their left and thus heading towards their left would have taken them back to the ski area. Instead, they found the stream flowing in the opposite direction; from their left to their right. They knew they needed to go left in order to get home, but based on the topography of where they thought they were, they knew they also had to go downhill.
Eventually, they decided on a solution: In this particular case, they made a collective decision that based upon the knowledge they already knew as fact; contrary to science and physics, the water had to be flowing uphill.
The group marched upstream, away from the ski area and wound up spending the night in the snow without any survival gear. The next morning, they reconsidered their earlier logic and still – once again – decided that, yes; the stream must indeed be flowing uphill.
They continued on and bushwhacked another quarter mile in the wrong direction before a rescue helicopter found them and flew them to safety.
Such errors of overconfidence are due to a phenomenon psychologists call confirmation bias.
“When trying to solve a problem, we get fixated on a specific option or hypothesis,” explains Jason Kring, president of the Society for Human Performance in Extreme Environments, “and ignore contradictory evidence and other information that could help us make a better decision.”
A vast collective error of confirmation bias unfolded in the past decade as investors, analysts, and financial advisers all convinced themselves that legions of financial derivatives based on subprime mortgages were all fundamentally sound. There was plenty of evidence to the contrary, but the money was so good that many found it easier to believe. They kept convincing themselves right up until the roof caved in.
Avoid the trick: To outsmart “confirmation bias,” make a habit of scepticism, including scepticism toward your own gut feelings and assumptions. If you’re part of a group that seems prone to agreement, play devil’s advocate to encourage others to share different points of view. “Don’t use your intuition to convince yourself that things are going right; use it to alert yourself to potential problems,” says Jeff Haack, a former search-and-rescue specialist for Emergency Management British Columbia. “Listen to those nagging doubts.”
MIND TRICK #5: “There’s a risk that in the heat of the moment, we’ll be tempted to overstep our own set parameters.”
Redlining: Mountain climbing at high altitudes is a race against time. Human endurance is severely limited in the face of extreme cold and limited oxygen and windows of good weather can shut abruptly. Lingering too long is an invitation to disaster, so when mountaineers prepare to summit, they need to set a turnaround time and strictly abide by it.
The consequence of failing to heed this sacred rule was gruesomely manifested on May 10, 1996. It was on that date that there were an unprecedented number of climbers preparing to make the final stage of their ascent of Mount Everest, including some who had paid as much as $65,000 each.
For expedition leader Rob Hall, getting his ‘clients’ safely to the top and back down meant meeting a turnaround time of 2:00 p.m.. However, as they continued to ascend towards the summit, the turnaround time came and went. Eventually, at 4 p.m., the last straggler arrived at the summit and Hall began to lead his high-paying ‘customers’ back down. Unfortunately, it was too late. A deadly storm had already begun, lashing the mountain with hurricane-force winds and whiteout conditions. Stuck on Everest’s exposed face, eight climbers died, one by one. Hall would be one of the last in his group to succumb. Trapped just a few hundred feet below the summit and paralysed by the cold and a lack of oxygen, he radioed base camp and was patched through via satellite to his wife whom was at their home in New Zealand. “Sleep well, my sweetheart,” he told her. “Please don’t worry too much.” Today his body remains where he sat.
Hall became a victim of a simple but insidious cognitive error that I call “redlining.” Anytime we plan something that requires setting a parameter, then there will always be a risk that in the heat of the moment, we’ll be tempted to overstep it. Examples of such are: divers who see an interesting wreck just beyond the limit of their dive tables and proceed to check it out or airline pilots who descend through clouds to their minimum safe altitude, fail to see the runway and then go just a little bit lower.
It’s easy to think, “I’ll just go over the ‘redline’ a little bit. What’s the big deal?” The problem is that once we do, there are no more cues reminding us that we’re heading in the wrong direction. A ‘little bit’ becomes a ‘little bit more’ and at some point, it becomes ‘too much.’ Nothing is there to call you back to the safe side.
A similar phenomenon has been dubbed the “what-the-hell” effect, such as when dieters control impulses with strict limits on their eating, a nutritional redline. One day, they slip up, eat a sundae and boom—they’re over the line. “Now they’re in no-man’s-land,” says Markman, “so they just blow the diet completely. They binge.”
Avoid the trick: As in mountain climbing, the best response for footballers when passing a redline is to recognize what you’ve done, stop and calmly steer yourself back in the right direction. When it’s not a life-or-death situation, possessing the knowledge that ‘redlining’ is an actual reality and thus trying to keep it in check as much as possible will take care of most, if not all, situations.
So, What’s Next?
First, understanding that any psychological article you read (including this one) may be heavily influenced by the author’s own experiences, but inherently is not destiny. Changing the factors that lead to the efficiency of any element of sports psychology; like a better understanding of both your players and yourself, can prevent issues from compounding and getting even more out control.
Second, sports psychology comes down to a balance of emotions.
Increased understanding of emotions, and how they affect decisions, leads to better understanding of your players and a decreased risk of faulty results from attempted sports psychology practices. Therefore, any attempt at sports psychology should include some form of emotional consideration.
Finally, regardless of what anyone says (even the author of a blog such as is this one) education is good for you, regardless of whether or not it leads to changes in your players’ performance. Many coaches are discouraged to find that sports psychology, even via certified and educated professionals, does not automatically lead to a solution.
This is because the brain is wired to replace the reactions used during normal stimuli very slowly, so we tend to replace these reactory responses in what sometimes seem like years. However, education and experience offers many benefits that offset this time-consuming natural mental response to new stimuli even if there is no overall change in noticeable output. When a change in how an athlete reacts to a stimulus is achieved, research shows that sustained consistent education and experience aids in long-term maintenance of the preferred reactionary response.