Below you will find the slides for the sport psychology talk that I gave at the All-American Camp in July 2017.
Thanks to all the coaches, staff, and campers!
Below you will find the slides for the sport psychology talk that I gave at the All-American Camp in July 2017.
Thanks to all the coaches, staff, and campers!
See links below for the slides and mindfulness resources from the June 2017 talk at UNC Asheville: Pursuing peak performance in basketball.
In my last post, I described David Willey’s goal to run a marathon in under 3:30, which would make the cut for a BQ (Boston Qualifying time). He and I had several conversations about mental strategies that would complement his physical and tactical training that he was receiving from a group of Nike coaches.
A key for David was being able to identify the specific obstacles he would encounter, both in training and in the marathon, and then to mentally rehearse how he would respond to those obstacles. Of course, pain and fatigue were in there. But, more important perhaps was David’s fear that he wouldn’t be able to respond when it came to crunch time. He had experienced several disappointing attempts over the past decade and was worried that history would repeat itself.
Instead of worrying, David set his mind to practicing the strategies we discussed to build his mental capacity and toughness to deal with whatever was thrown at him (e.g., injury, fatigue). He did visualizations, mental contrasting, and even learned how to keep his face somewhat relaxed (with “smiling eyes”) during exhausting interval training.
You can listen to David and me discussing these strategies to prepare for his race on the Runner’s World Podcast (starting at about the 65 minute mark).
David did everything his coaches asked of him. And he did the mental training. So, when he ran last month’s Bayshore Marathon in Traverse City, Michigan, David felt ready — confident that he would make his BQ time. The race went pretty well until David’s hamstring began to seize up — multiple times. Each time he would need to slow or stop to stretch it out, impacting the race plan significantly. This happened towards the end of the race and it looked like an injury might cause him to miss his goal. But David dug in, with the support of his coach Julia (who ran the marathon by his side) and his pacers. They all picked up the pace, calculating what he would need to do over the last 4-5 miles to be able to make the cut.
The pain and fatigue increased, as you might imagine. But David recalled his mental strategies, stayed in the moment and didn’t panic. He showed incredible grit as he sped up over the last few miles. Despite all the pain, he was passing other runners who were fading/bonking at the end.
David crossed the finish line at 3:28:55, making the BQ time. The race was documented by the staff at Runner’s World.
Congratulations to David. See you in Boston in 2018!
A few months ago, I was contacted by Julia Lucas, a former professional runner now coaching with Nike. She is training David Willey, editor-in-chief for Runner’s World, in his goal to qualify for the 2018 Boston Marathon. David will probably need to run a 3:27 in his BQ (Boston Qualifying) marathon, which he will attempt at the Bayshore Marathon in Traverse City, Michigan (May 2017). Here is what David wrote about himself when it comes to marathons:
That [3:27 time] may not sound audacious, but here’s the thing: I’m not very good at running marathons, at least not when I try to run them fast. My first legit BQ attempt was at the Austin Marathon in 2007. It was the third 26.2 I’d ever run, and I was aiming for a 3:20. I was on pace, but hamstring cramps slowed me and I finished in 3:24. It was a nine-minute PR, and I felt like I’d stepped bravely onto the first rung of a ladder. Turns out I was already at the top. I made several other attempts at the Chicago, Richmond, and Marine Corps marathons, and all resulted in late-race flameouts that soured me on marathons altogether. My “best” was also my most recent: a 3:39 at Marine Corps in 2013. It was 14 minutes shy of a BQ. In six years of striving, I had gotten 10 minutes farther from my goal.
When Julia contacted me, it was about trying to help David with the mental part of his training. Julia strongly values the role of sport psychology in distance running; she worked hard to improve her mindset when she was a top runner in college and in the professional ranks.
David has great support in a team of Nike experts: sport scientists, nutritionists, massage therapists, and Julia.
I was happy to be connected with David to talk about mental strategies. When he and I spoke, David was struggling to overcome several setbacks related to injuries He was feeling discouraged and wondering out loud “Who am I kidding?” or “Here we go again”… getting stuck in a cycle of negative thinking.
With David, I needed to help him move past this cycle — but not by asking to engage in “positive thinking.” I’m not a fan of simple positive thinking. There is good evidence suggesting that being optimistic without being realistic can reduce our chances of achieving a goal. So, David and I talked about not predicting the future with a purely negative lens or a purely positive lens. Instead, I encouraged David to use a technique based on Gabriele Oettingen’s work: Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions. A mouthful, but actually quite simple. When you are visualizing your desired outcome (e.g., qualifying for Boston), you have to imagine all the potential setbacks and the plan that you will engage when you encounter the setback. Easy enough. And yet only 1 in 6 people use this strategy on their own. Most think it is better to fantasize about the ultimate outcome; they don’t want to think about the potential minefields, possibly fearing that they will set themselves up in some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.
In the next post, I will elaborate fully on the strategy. For now, you can listen to my interview with David on his podcast: The Runner’s World Show. This episode is called “Help from the team.” To listen to our part of the conversation, start at the 22:30 marker.
In March, I will be presenting in Colorado Springs at the beautiful Broadmoor Hotel on one of my favorite topics — using psychological science to help people make meaningful changes in their lives.
Robert A. Swoap, Ph.D.
When faced with the challenges of helping others make and maintain health behavior changes, how might we optimally blend motivation and skills training opportunities? How do we best motivate our patients, our employees, ourselves? And once we have found the motivation, what are key skills that need to be learned, developed, and implemented in order to maintain health changes? In this session, we will examine and combine three tactics drawn from psychological research: “getting out of your own head,” mental contrasting & implementation intentions, and mindfulness-based cognitive-behavioral approaches. We will highlight individuals who achieve behavior change goals consistently and how they blend these strategies. Finally, we will play with ways to apply these strategies in our own lives and to the lives of those with whom we work.
Stay tuned for more on this topic: the research and its applications….
This post was written by Jackie Dobrinska, a wonderful friend of mine who is a national wellness coach and lifestyle consultant. It is published in the December edition of the Laurel of Asheville.
What are you grateful for? The warmth of the sun? The fragrance of flowers? The wind on your face? The strength of your soul? We all experience the highs and lows of life—from abundance and love to lack and struggle. Yet, no matter the situation, gratitude has the power to make it better. It improves mood, heals the body and even transforms lives. In fact, it may be the best gift we can give this holiday season.
Gratitude is an attitude of appreciation. As Meister Eckhart, a 12th century German philosopher and mystic, put it, “If the only prayer you ever said was ‘Thank you’ that would suffice.”
Nine hundred years later, science is catching up—and the findings are remarkable. People who are grateful— whether it is an innate character trait or a virtue consciously cultivated—have stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure and higher levels of joy, optimism and happiness. They feel less isolated, anxious or depressed, show more generosity and compassion, and are better able to achieve their goals. They also are better able to recognize the interconnectedness of life and consider material goods less important.
“Gratitude is a function of where you put your focus,” says Dr. Robert Swoap, Professor of Psychology at Warren Wilson College. “Don’t deny. Adopt a stance that allows you to look at what the world can give you. To appreciate the moment, this breath, the fact that you’re alive.”
While the data is still emerging in this new science, several mechanisms are at play. When we direct our thanks to the things around us—the sun, our pet, our breath—we get more present. It pulls us out of the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response, engaging the parasympathetic nervous system. As a result, our bodies heal, our minds access better problem solving techniques and we take greater advantage of social bonding.
Turning gratitude inward—to our virtues, strengths and talents—we step away from comparison. Instead of seeing ourselves as better or worse, we see our interconnectedness, which builds compassion and tolerance.
Giving thanks also facilitates a positive type of memory known as ‘mood dependent memory.’ When depressed, we remember painful moments, when grateful we recall a more positive past. This is why it is imperative to practice gratitude, even when we least feel like it.
“You’ve got to fake it ‘til you make it,” says Kristin Ray, mother, teacher, musician and community leader based in Asheville. “When I’m humbled by life, I fall to my knees, and practice relentlessly. The practice is potent and eventually takes hold. It changes my neurology. And it is great for kids,” she continues. “They understand it. Because we give daily thanks at meals, before bed and on our bulletin board, I hear it in my five-year-old’s dialogue.”
Try gratitude this month. You don’t have to change your whole worldview to start. Just choose a few practices, such as giving at least one compliment daily, keeping a gratitude journal or vowing not to complain, criticize or gossip for ten days. If you identify a negative trait in a person or situation, look for something positive too. May the practice of gratitude energize and transform your life.
For local programs or appointments with Jackie Dobrinska, visit A simple vibrant life or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 828.337.2737.
Currently, the World Junior Table Tennis Championship is being played in Cape Town, South Africa. Sean O’Neill recently asked me to be available to the juniors from the U.S., to answer questions and provide tips for improving their mental game. If anyone would know about mental toughness, it is Sean.
I first met Sean during my internship with the U.S. Olympic Training Center in 1990. I was working on my Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, but had a focus in sport psychology. When I arrived at the Colorado Springs training site, I was happy to be assigned the table tennis developmental team. Sean was there, not as a junior, but as a veteran member of the National Team. His goal was to make the 1992 Olympic team. Sean asked me to help him with visualization, positive affirmations, etc. I have worked with many athletes over the past 25 years, but few have shown the dedication to mental toughness that Sean did. He was relentless in his physical and mental training and it paid off.
A 2008 USATT Hall of Fame member, Sean O’Neill has represented the United States in every international competition possible, including the Pan Am Games, Olympic Games, World Championships, World Cup (team, doubles, and singles), and various international championships.
A five-time U.S. Men’s Singles, Doubles Champion, and six-time U.S. Mixed Doubles Champion, Sean won a total of twenty-eight U.S. Olympic Sports Festival medals, of which twenty-one were gold. A member of four Pan Am Games teams, Sean won two Gold, five Silver, and one Bronze medals.
Based on my work with Sean and with many other table tennis athletes, here are some of my thoughts about competing successfully. (This does not speak specifically to the mental training that you should do outside of competition — but most of what I write below should be employed in practice sessions too.) Since games are played to 11, here are:
Eleven Tips for Mental Toughness in Competition Table Tennis
Have a pre-serve routine (whether serving or receiving) that is unshakable.
Have an emotion-setting routine. You will be nervous — no question. That is not the problem. The problem is interpreting the butterflies in your stomach as negative. They are not. They are your body’s way of saying “I’m ready. I’m excited.” If you are really over-the-top anxious, slow things down a bit. Take a little more time before a point to breathe from your belly and to calm your mind and body.
Have a refocusing routine (when you lose a point or become distracted) — more on this in Tip #2
2. Refocus after distraction or a poor point. When Todd Sweeris was a junior, many times after he made a mistake, he would look to the crowd (anticipating negative feedback). I had Todd draw a small blue dot on his racquet that he would focus on after each point. This allowed him to prepare for the next point (see #3). (Todd went on to represent the U.S. in the Olympics in ’96 and 2000.)
3. Next point mentality (NPM). Once the point is over, it is over. Quickly analyze what just happened and then move on. The mentally tough player is immediately onto the next point and rally.
4. Process not Outcome. Focus on the process of playing well. The second you think about the outcome (winning or losing), you are no longer in the present moment. You can only control the current point and the way you play it. Of course you want to win. But wanting to win (and thinking about winning/losing) isn’t the route to successfully competing. Wins come from playing each point with full intensity, courage, and composure. There is no point where you relax. And there should be no point where you over-try.
5. Thought control. Ideally, your thoughts will remain positive throughout a match and a tournament. The reality is that you may have negative thoughts (e.g., self-criticism) pop up. That’s okay. Just don’t attach any weight to those thoughts and self-statements. They are just thoughts. Let them go without trying to force it. The easiest way to do this is to get back to #3 (NPM).
6. Confidence. Confidence is easy when you’re playing well. But what about if things aren’t going so well. Remind yourself of how hard you have prepared for this and don’t allow your mind to move to negativity. Sean did this very well. He had a set of positive affirmations that he would repeat before a match and during visualizations. This got him into a confident mindset that translated to…
7. Try for every ball. (Sean’s rules…
Rule #1: Try for EVERY ball
Rule #2: If the ball is too far away to reach, see Rule #1
8. Display mental toughness. This mentality in #7 translated to an intensity in competition that was hard to ignore. It demonstrated to Sean’s competitors that they couldn’t beat him by getting into his head. They knew they would have to beat him tactically.
9. Reframe. A mental trick you can use when the game is tight (say 10-10) is to reframe the score in your head as something like 4-4. How would you play a 4-4 point? That’s how you should play a 10-10 point. We often get tighter at 10-10 and play more conservatively. But that is moving away from your game. Always play your game.
10. Body language. Before matches and in between points, be sure to keep your head up. When nervous or self-critical, we tend to gaze down. Keep your head up and try to have a body language that suggests confidence, but not cockiness.
11. Have fun. Table tennis is a blast. I have played since I was a little kid and now I’m teaching my own children. We can sometimes take it way too seriously. Remember, it is a GAME that is fun. Have a small smile on your face as you play. You’ll confuse your opponent (“Why is she smiling?!?). And you’ll put yourself into the right frame of mind. Have fun out there.
The US Olympic Swimming Trials begin today in Omaha. Missy Franklin, Katie Ledecky, Caeleb Dressel, and many others (1800+) will be competing for 52 spots to go to Rio in six weeks. Among those trying to make the team is Michael Phelps. Should Phelps qualify for Rio, he will become the first American male swimmer to make five Olympic teams.
Phelps is the most accomplished swimmer on the planet. And, yet — or perhaps because of this — he has struggled over these years to find his identity. Phelps has had trouble with alcohol, drug use, and some reckless behavior — and difficulties with trying to live up to a role model status that he has had mixed feelings about.
In a recent New York Times profile, Karen Crouse captures the struggles that Phelps has experienced from a young age when he was asked to sacrifice everything in order to become the best in the world. But Crouse’s piece is not the sad story of “great athlete can’t cope with success.” Rather, Crouse moves us toward identifying a key factor in Phelps’ return to swimming and to a breakthrough beyond winning.
I won’t repeat all that Crouse wrote, but here’s the crux. For true success, our efforts must be tied to authenticity and to a purpose greater than the outcome of a race, a game, or any competitive venture. We often pay lip service to this concept, but Phelps is now actively working towards this.
Phelps has discovered, primarily through rehab, therapy, and self-reflection, that the medals are not enough. He has read Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl and other books that are guiding him towards purpose. He has reconnected with his family of origin. And he has started his own family. Crouse writes: “What on earth is Phelps here for? For starters, he said, to be [Nicole] Johnson’s life mate and his son’s father. To have more medals than any other Olympian? He said he no longer sees that as his sole reason for being.”
Vic Strecher has recently published a book on this topic that I highly recommend — Life on purpose: How living for what matters most changes everything. Strecher writes: “Your life is a boat. You need a rudder. But it doesn’t matter how much wind is in your sails if you’re not steering toward a harbor — an ultimate purpose in your life.”
Phelps wants to swim fast, for sure. But it appears that he is searching for something even greater in his life: a purpose that goes beyond medals. And one that allows him to simultaneously be himself and to go beyond himself. I’m excited to see how Phelps does in these Olympic trials… but moreso in the trials of being a partner, a son, a friend, and as the role model that perhaps will be most important to him: being a father to his new son.
Sunday at the Masters has always been a tradition in our family. Back in Conroe, Texas, my parents, brothers, and I would watch — pulling for Jack Nicklaus or whomever was our favorite at the time.
I still remember, 30 years ago this week, the amazing Sunday that Nicklaus put together. He shot a final round 65 (–7), with a back nine of 30 (–6), for a total score of 279 (–9).
At age 46, he became the oldest winner of the Masters. He was a few years younger than my dad — and everyone thought that my father looked like Jack. That was a great day.
In the last decade, I’ve lost my mom, dad, and my younger brother Bill. Watching the Masters on Sunday helps me feel closer to them (and to my two living brothers who live in different states).
This past Sunday looked to be another terrific day. It appeared that Jordan Spieth would win the Masters for the second year in a row. (He had an amazing year in 2015, winning two of the four majors, and getting second and fourth in the other two.) As I watched the front nine, I saw Spieth close with four birdies and make the turn to the back nine in a solid position to win, up five on his nearest competitor.
Then, the wheels began to come off. Spieth bogeyed #10 & #11, coming to the short par 3 #12 with the famous Rae’s Creek flowing in front of the green. You can watch what happened next here:
While Spieth had a disastrous quadruple bogey on the 12th, Danny Willett played an excellent final round and was crowned the Masters Champion.
It was hard to watch Spieth’s breakdown. And we shouldn’t take away from what Willett did to win. He played excellent golf.
But for sport psychology, it is worth watching the post-match interview with Spieth. He explains what happened to him — mentally, tactically, physically — as he began to play the back nine.
Spieth looked at the leaderboard and changed his decision-making and shot-making strategies. He began to protect a lead, by playing more conservatively. This led to a change in his swing speed, particularly on the 12th, where he was not committed fully to each shot.
Spieth admitted that he decided to play it safe, and the safe play choked him.
“I knew par was good enough and maybe that’s what hurt me … just wasn’t quite aggressive,” Spieth said.
“I said, ‘Buddy, it looks like we’re collapsing,’ ” said Jordan Spieth.
What can we learn from this day? Clearly, it is important to continue to play with confidence and “with what got you there.” I talk about this a lot with teams and individuals with whom I work. Don’t begin changing things for “the big game” or the “big moments” in a competition. You will feel more nervous, for sure, but that is all the more reason to stay with the aggressive mentality. I like to remind athletes that you can mentally be the pursuer and not the pursued, no matter what the game situation.
A little trick that I’ve been using with some of my athletes is to have them wear a green band (or draw a green dot on their hand) — signifying “all in.” It reminds the athlete(s) to stay in the moment, commit to the action, and not change the decision-making process to play more conservatively.
Easier said than done… but it is something Spieth will learn and grow from. He has some more exciting Masters Sundays ahead of him, I’m sure.