Team Sport: Research and experience have shown that in order to help athletes perform their best, they need the right psychological environment from their coach, team, family and friends, too. Image: iStockphoto/microgen
The crowd has quieted, but an electric energy from the packed grandstands fills the air. The diver stands atop the platform, aware of television cameras below that are broadcasting his every muscle twitch to millions of viewers worldwide. He can smell the chlorine wafting up from the diving pool 10 meters below. The texture of the platform feels rough beneath his feet. He takes a breath, makes his approach and jumps sharply upward. Then he twists through the air, executing a perfect dive and, finally, with no more than a few drops of splash, knifes smoothly into the cool water.
The diver opens his eyes. Feeling confident and relaxed, he now looks ahead at the platform and gets ready to climb the familiar ladder to make his practice dive before the actual competition, still weeks down the road.
This diver had just gone through one of his most important workouts before he actually stands up on the Olympic diving platform: visualization. Olympic divers, such as David Boudia and Thomas Finchum, as well as other top athletes, use trusted psychological tactics such as visualization and positive self-talk to stay at the top of their games—even when the pressure is on. Yet the sports psychologists who teach these techniques now have more scientific results in hand, and they are learning that the athlete's mental tools are just the jumping-off point to achieving peerless performance. Giving an athlete or team the best chance of bringing home the gold also requires creating an entire environment of carefully constructed group and interpersonal dynamics. Sports psychologists are no longer just training athletes. They are also training the coaches and family members in the competitors' lives.
"We've learned a lot in the past 10 or 15 years about how to be more effective" in teaching everyone around an athlete how to help him or her excel, says Daniel Gould, professor of applied sports psychology at Michigan State University. And the athletes say the work is paying off.
Getting inside the coach's head
Even an athlete in the most individual of sports is part of a complex network of relationships. Coach, family, friends, even team administrators are an extensive and often under-recognized part of the experience. Elite athletes might be better than the average person at shutting out distractions, managing their emotions and controlling their energy levels. But they are not immune to an overbearing parent, negative coach or unsupportive teammate.
Coaches and support staff, whether they realize it or not, are creating a mental environment for athletes, not just a physical training regimen. And although sports psychologists are often deployed for the benefit of the athletes, "a lot of times we work through the coach because the coach is creating a psychological climate," Gould says.
Counselors are achieving "a huge gain in better educating our coaches," Gould continues. By the time an athlete reaches college or professional levels, coaches are almost operating like CEOs, Gould notes. They're in charge of coordinating a huge organization of specialists—athletes, nutritionists, strength coaches, media liaisons and psychologists. So to gain access to athletes, physically and mentally, a sports psychologist must first be accepted and supported by the coach. Then the expert can start working to help the coach maintain a productive, balanced emotional arena for the athletes. Gould describes this environment as a fine balance of autonomy—individually empowered athletes and staff—and connectivity, essentially a feeling of relatedness among the entire group. "That's pretty easy to say," Gould says. But helping coaches and teams achieve that state is no small task. Especially when everyone is under extreme stress of high-level competition.