Sport psychology is a field that is becoming increasingly popular with athletes of all levels. As a sports psychologist I work with athletes from a number of sports at a variety of different levels such as junior, college, pro, and recreational. I have worked a lot with tennis players and prior to becoming a psychologist I competed as well coaching tennis.
I’ve been impressed recently in watching Gael Monfils a 32-year-old tennis professional from France. He was always an extremely talented player who never quite broke through with a grand slam win or top five ranking. Clearly he has always had awe-inspiring physical talent and what I have noticed is that he is mentally getting much better now. He appears much more focused on the task at hand-which is of course to play optimally. In the past he was prone to showboating, trying overly flashy and risky shots and would not play close to his ability frequently. Don’t get me wrong I enjoy witnessing some incredible shot making which is often high-risk and Monfils clearly has enjoyed a lot of these moments. However when the flashy shots get in the way of success or are at important junctures of a match they become self-destructive.
As he has matured it is clear that his top goal is no longer to simply please the crowd by attempting the spectacular. Often people showboat in order to escape the anxiety of competition. If you are feeling the stress of a match and you try a trick shot and the crowd roars or gasps, the tension is frequently eased. Although this may temporarily succeed in diminishing the athlete’s anxiety, he does not give himself the best opportunity to win. Now that Monfils is in his early 30s perhaps he has matured enough to tolerate the tension and is more willing to compete hard throughout each match. He does not have to rely on a low percentage flashy shots to ease the pressure. Human beings often go into fight or flight mode when faced with stress. This fight or flight mode is very common in athletics which can at times feel to the athlete like life or death. The brain perceives threat or danger even though it is just a game.
As a sports psychologist my task is to help people get out of fight or flight mode and reframe the event as a game as well as a challenge. As a clinical psychologist I apply these principles to help people in job interviewing, job performance, speeches and other situations that feel anxiety provoking. Sports are great for presenting challenging situations and demonstrate how humans can at times rise to the occasion, sometimes showboat to ease the pressure, and frequently simply choke. Choking, such as missing an easy shot at an important juncture, is a common phenomenon and how the athlete responds to it is crucial. How do you respond to mistakes in your life? Do you use them as information to learn and grow from or as weapons to beat yourself up with? How were mistakes, performance, and achievement handled in your family of origin? These are important questions to explore and understand. Clinical and sports psychology actually go hand-in-hand and principles of both can be utilized to help both athletes and non-athletes.