Athletes try to psych out slumps
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.