Ath­letes try to psych out slumps

The Washington Times Weekly - - Page Two - By Chris­tian Toto

Slumps hap­pen to the best of ath­letes. Just ask Alex Ro­driguez, the New York Yan­kees slug­ger whose bat grows cold when­ever the cal­en­dar turns to Oc­to­ber.

To­day’s ath­letes have a rea­son for op­ti­mism. A sports psy­chol­o­gist of­ten can help them shake the most mad­den­ing of slumps — should the ath­lete ac­cept the coun­sel­ing, that is.

Matt Cork­ery, as­so­ci­ate head coach for Amer­i­can Univer­sity’s women’s bas­ket­ball team, says the team al­ready has had sev­eral ses­sions this year fea­tur­ing sports psy­chol­o­gists.

“They sat down with the team and of­fered them tools to han­dle stress man­age­ment, how to gain a lit­tle men­tal tough­ness,” Mr. Cork­ery says, adding that many top univer­sity teams of­fer sim­i­lar ser­vices for their ath­letes.

“It’s a set of skills you can learn, not un­like what you learn phys­i­cally on the bas­ket­ball floor,” he says.

From Mr. Cork­ery’s per­spec­tive, that means help­ing his play­ers vi­su­al­ize vic­tory one bas­ket at a time.

To break a slump, “they need to see them­selves hav­ing suc­cess,” he says. “A player hav­ing trou­ble with the free-throw line [. . . ] they have to see them­selves mak­ing free throws, lit­er­ally see the ball go­ing in the bas­ket.”

Mr. Cork­ery drills the play­ers to shoot from short dis­tances first, then grad­u­ally moves them back to­ward free-throw range.

“You have to break it down, make it sim­pler, make it eas­ier to have suc­cess,” he says.

Steve Portenga, di­rec­tor of sports psy­chol­ogy with the Univer­sity of Den­ver, says his field dates to the 1920s, when the Univer­sity of Illi­nois’ Cole­man Grif­fith started the first lab­o­ra­tory ded­i­cated to sports psy­chol­ogy.

The field took its sweet time in­te­grat­ing it­self into the sports cul­ture.

“You re­ally don’t see the pro­fes­sion wide­spread un­til the start of the ‘70s,” Mr. Portenga says. “In the ‘90s, it re­ally took off.”

When Mr. Portenga tries to help a slump­ing ath­lete, the first thing he does is make sure the slump is ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing.

“There are times when you’re go­ing to have hot streaks and cold streaks. It’s the way sports works,” he says.

The prob­lem could be phys­i­cal, not men­tal, so Mr. Portenga tries to rule out any ail­ments that could lead to a slump.

The next step is to spend enough time to ac­cu­rately di­ag­nose the is­sue. In a per­fect world, the psy­chol­o­gist will have an in­ti­mate knowl­edge of the team in ques­tion, he says.

“Hope­fully, you’ve been a part of the life of the team [. . . ] you know what they re­ally are ca­pa­ble of,” he says.

It also helps if the sports psy­chol­o­gist un­der­stands the game in ques­tion, re­gard­less of whether he or she ever has strapped on the pads or swung a bat.

“I’ve never been a gym­nast, but I’ve worked with gym­nasts for eight years now,” Mr. Portenga says.

He points to a re­cent ex­am­ple of how he helped a stu­dent ath­lete move past a mad­den­ing slump.

This se­nior suf­fered a pre-sea­son in­jury but ap­peared healthy by the time the sea­son be­gan, he says, pro- tect­ing the ath­lete’s anonymity. Nev­er­the­less, the ath­lete didn’t “feel” the same way as be­fore the in­jury, Mr. Portenga says, which caused per­for­mance lev­els to suf­fer.

The ath­lete had an ex­pec­ta­tion to feel a cer­tain way while play­ing, and Mr. Portenga sug­gested that isn’t nec­es­sar­ily cru­cial to per­for­mance.

“A lot of times when you’re in the mid­dle of [per­form­ing] it’s hard to take that step away to get the per­spec­tive. That’s our role,” he says.

The mem­bers of col­lege squads aren’t the only ath­letes who rely on sports psy­chol­o­gists. David B. Coppel, a clin­i­cal and sports psy­chol­o­gist based in Seat­tle, says most pro­fes­sional sports teams ei­ther have an on-staff sports psy­chol­o­gist or have one avail­able for quick con­sul­ta­tions.

Just be­cause a team has such a re- source avail­able, that doesn’t mean the ath­letes are ea­ger to lis­ten, Mr. Coppel says. Some ath­letes bris­tle at the thought of such help. Oth­ers are ready to lis­ten.

“If a player seeks you out or is re­ferred to you by a coach they re­spect, they have a whole other at­ti­tude,” Mr. Coppel says.

The ma­jor­ity of ath­letes aren’t ea­ger to con­sult with Mr. Coppel or one of his peers.

“Most of them will do ev­ery­thing they can be­fore they get to me,” he says.

No two slumps are the same, Mr. Coppel says, which means psy­chol­o­gists should treat each one in­di­vid­u­ally.

“I’m al­ways a lit­tle cau­tious of a one-size-fits-all approach,” he says. A slump could be caused by a change in the ath­lete’s life out­side of the game, gen­eral stress or play­off pres­sure.

Cedric Bryant, chief science of­fi­cer for the Cal­i­for­nia-based Amer­i­can Coun­cil on Ex­er­cise, says slumps typ­i­cally stem from an im­bal­ance within the mind-body con­nec­tion.

“It can just be slight lit­tle dis­tur­bances in their tech­nique,” Mr. Bryant says.

Those sub­tle changes could mean the ath­lete stops get­ting the re­sults he or she usu­ally achieves.

“That’s when the men­tal as­pect kicks in,” Mr. Bryant says. “Frus­tra­tion is a nat­u­ral re­sponse.”

The ath­lete of­ten starts work­ing harder on tech­nique, so the faulty me­chan­ics get worse.

“Sports psy­chol­o­gists try to re­ori­ent [ath­letes’] think­ing. More isn’t nec­es­sar­ily bet­ter,” Mr. Bryant says.

Ath­letes mired in a slump for­get or ques­tion the strate­gies that worked for them be­fore, and their minds dial back to more re­cent fail­ures.

“All those things serve as dis­trac­tions,” he says.

Mr. Cork­ery says some slumps move from player to player, and sud­denly the whole team is slump­ing. When a team mem­ber is strug­gling, the other play­ers of­ten take it upon them­selves to pick up the slack.

They ask, “What do I have to do to help us win?” Mr. Cork­ery says. Sud­denly, play­ers leave their as­signed role and stretch be­yond their ca­pa­bil­i­ties. “It’s coun­ter­pro­duc­tive,” he says.

Ath­letes with su­pe­rior men­tal tough­ness can be all but im­mune to slumps, Mr. Bryant says. Michael Jor­dan, for ex­am­ple, “has the abil­ity to play for the mo­ment at hand and not be af­fected by things that tran­spired be­fore,” he says.

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