Top Mental Performance Stories in 2018

Zach Brandon
Dec 31, 2018 · 7 min read

2018 marked another year of growth for the field of sport psychology. Several media outlets throughout the year referenced the value and utilization of mental performance consultants (MPCs) as a resource for performers looking to gain a competitive mental edge in their sport and performance arenas. In fact, the American Psychology Association (APA) suggested that “a growing demand for sport psychologists” is a Top 10 trend to watch for in 2019. Before jumping into the new year, I thought it would be worthwhile to reflect on 2018 and some of the most popular stories published that highlighted the field.

Mental Coaching in Professional Baseball (December 26th, The Washington Post) —

Major League Baseball (MLB) has been one of the biggest proponents of employing MPCs as evidenced by the latest collective bargaining agreement between the league and the MLB Player’s Union which requires all teams to provide access to one. This particular article highlights several players from the Washington Nationals and their Director of Mental Conditioning, Mark Campbell, who’ve helped develop a culture where mental performance is viewed as a normal thing and a way to gain a competitive edge on the field. As the saying goes, “You don’t have to be sick in order to get better,” which organizations in MLB (and other arenas) are recognizing and utilizing to help their players exceed on and off the field. For more highlights and access to the full article, click on this link.

Think Like Olympians (October 2nd, The Gazette)

Favorite point of emphasis from this article is the reminder that all athletes, regardless of the level in which they compete at, are human first. Everyone experiences their own set of daily challenges both on and off the field, but thankfully there are some tools that we can use to help manage these stressors and challenges. Karen Cogan, a senior sport psychologist at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, shares some of the strategies that she discusses with the Olympic performers she works with. These strategies include simulating competition environments, developing pre-performance plans, and mindfulness techniques. For more highlights and access to the full article, click on this link.

Mental Wellness in College Sports (August 24th, The Conversation)

The Optimum Performance Program in Sports (TOPPS) was developed at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) to help student-athletes optimize their mental wellness on and off the field. Program interventions focus on a variety of topics including athletic (e.g. improving focus for free throws) and academic (e.g. practicing relaxation prior to tests) performance along with various life skills (e.g. job getting skills training, financial management, communication skills training, etc.). TOPPS provides an individualized approach for their student-athletes led by their performance coaches and places an emphasis on cultural influences for each individual. Both quantitative and qualitative analyses have suggested that TOPPS may serve as a beneficial alternative to traditional intervention programs in collegiate athletics. For more highlights and access to the full article, click on this link.

Dr. Ken Ravizza’s Legacy (July 25th, NY Times)

Steve Green/Chicago Cubs

The field of sport psychology lost a pioneer in July when Dr. Ken Ravizza, author of Heads Up Baseball and Heads Up Baseball 2.0, passed away. Ken’s influence has been significant and far-reaching for countless individuals. It’s been incredible to hear the stories from so many individuals who’ve benefitted from his wisdom and presence. He had an uncanny ability to make everyone feel heard, loved, and valued regardless of their relationship with him (something I was fortunate to witness for a few years as his teaching assistant and mentee at Cal State Fullerton). This article explores some of his legacy along with a few of the classic “Ravizzaisms” (e.g. flush it, next pitch, one pitch at a time, etc.) that have become staples in baseball dugouts, classrooms, and in everyday interactions for those who learned from him. Several professional athletes and coaches are interviewed about Ken’s legacy in this piece. For more highlights and access to the full article, click on this link.

Managing Performance Anxiety at the Olympics (February 16th, ABC News)

One of the most common challenges for athletes is their ability to manage anxiety and nerves before and during competition. “Most athletes experience performance anxiety and as you get better and the results get more uncertain, that anxiety goes up” as Dr. Amy Baltzell, recent president of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP), states in the article. Fortunately, there are several tools that performers can use to manage anxiety including visualizing an upcoming performance, breathing and relaxation techniques, and cognitive appraisal strategies. Our mind is a valuable tool for us when experiencing performance anxiety because our perspective can drive our nerves to “work for you, not against you” as Dr. Kristen Dieffenbach, an Associate Professor at West Virginia University, states in this piece. For more highlights and access to the full article, click on this link.

Why Baseball is 90% Mental (April 3rd, USA Today)

Chicago Cubs’ Manager, Joe Maddon, is regarded as one of the most progressive and innovative thinkers in baseball which includes his view on mental skills coaches in MLB. Maddon states, “To think that psychology is an indicator of weakness, truly is an ignorant statement…It’s no different than your hitting coach, your pitching coach, your infield coach. A mental skills coach is going to help you think better, think more clearly in the moment, and control your emotions.’’ There are now 45+ mental skills coaches employed across teams in MLB with several organizations boasting multiple coaches within their mental skills departments (titles for these positions vary across the league). This article makes reference to several individuals who’ve acquired significant experience in various organizations and been well-regarded for their positive impact on players and coaches. For more highlights and access to the full article, click on this link.

Mexico’s Psychological Advantage at the World Cup (June 6th, NY Times)

Every four years the soccer world shifts its attention to the FIFA World Cup where national teams compete for the coveted gold trophy and their respective fans cling to every moment of every game throughout the tournament. To say there is a lot of “pressure” put on these players and their coaches would be an understatement. This article chronicled Mexico who had been heavily criticized for their historic inability to advance past the 2nd round in the tournament. Mexico’s coach, Juan Carlos Osorio, added a mental coach, Imanol Ibarrondo, to his staff in 2016 to assist his players in preparation for the 2018 World Cup. For more highlights and access to the full article, click on this link.

Thai Soccer Cave & Meditation (July 25th, Vox)

In late June and early July, one of the biggest news stories anywhere in the world was that of the 12 Thai youth soccer players who were trapped for over 2 weeks in a cave along with their coach. The terrifying scene was covered daily while British divers attempted to rescue each boy one-by-one. A video was later shared that showed the boys looking incredibly calm and stoic as they were discovered. Eventually, people found out that the boys’ coach trained as a Buddhist monk for over a decade and he taught the boys, ages 11–16, how to meditate in the cave to keep them calm and preserve their energy during their entrapment. Meditation practices have become increasingly popular in the sport’s world for individual athletes, and even some teams/organizations, and this story is a great reminder that these mental skills apply to our lives on and off the field. For more highlights and the full article, clink on this link.

How Athletes Train Themselves to Defy Their Limits (February 10th, NY Post)

NIKE / CLAYTON COTTERELL

This article highlights Alex Hutchinson’s (author of Endure) recent exploration of fatigue and endurance and the question, “Which quits first: the body or the mind?” Hutchinson says, “Limits that feel concrete and physical are often created by the brain and are negotiable as a result.” Ultimately, our perception influences our ability to endure physical strain on the body and there are some cognitive tools that can be employed to help us dig a little deeper. For example, self-talk statements such as “push through this” were able to help cyclists last 18% longer during one endurance experiment. Smiling while running can improve your efficiency by about 2% as well. For more highlights and the full article, clink on this link.

What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From A Sport Psychologist (October 29th, Forbes)

Athletes aren’t the only ones who can benefit from sport psychology techniques. This article discusses how entrepreneurs are performers, in their own right, and can utilize various mental skills to help them perform on demand. Dr. Alex Cohen, a senior sport psychologist for the US Olympic Committee, shares that athletes and entrepreneurs can develop what he calls “a performance readiness plan.” These plans involve individuals recognizing and building on their current strengths, identifying potential obstacles (internal or external) on their journey, and imagining “if-then” scenarios so they can prepare and respond accordingly to each obstacle. Other areas of emphasis within the article include Dr. Gabriele Oettingen’s work on mental contrasting, the importance of pre-performance routines, and the relationship between preparation and pressure. For more highlights and the full article, clink on this link.

Zach Brandon is the Mental Skills Coordinator for the Arizona Diamondbacks organization. For more on sport psychology and mental performance, follow him at @MVP_Mindset on Twitter or contact him at zbrandon1022@gmail.com.

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