How and why did you get into the field of sport psychology?
Sport psychology is what I was headed towards for a long time. Growing up, I was not allowed to watch TV on school nights unless it was sports; therefore learned that there was some intrinsic value to sports. Furthermore, my father was a congregational minister and as far as I can figure he did and still does most of his pastoral counseling on a basketball court. You could say I am the second in my family to work in sport psychology.
After these initial foundations, I did my first research study in sport psychology as a senior in high school (on between point routines in tennis), taught my first collegiate sport psychology class as a senior at Trinity College, and did my first official applied sport psychology work during the first year of my graduate studies at Boston University in 1996, and as they say, the rest is history.
Who in the field has influenced or helped you the most? Influenced your philosophy? What have you learned from them that you can you share?
I have really been influenced by a great many people from within and outside of the field of sport psychology. Currently, my greatest influences are my peers in the Professional Sport Psychology Symposium (Dr. Doug Gardner, Dr. Ed Kingston, and Matt Cuccaro). We challenge each other’s thinking daily, share new research regularly, and simply push each other towards serving athletes and coaches as best we can. It is great to have a bunch of colleagues that have worked with high school athletes through professionals in most every sport with whom to brainstorm.
Name 3-5 books everyone helping basketball athletes should have in their library and why?
The Power of Mindful Learning by Ellen Langer because learning is just about everything when it comes to developing as a player. The player that learns the best tends to make the greatest gains. This is a quick read that dispels many myths about how we learn and gives insights into optimal approaches to learning.
Mindset by Carol Dweck is a solid read that highlights the flaws with being an “ability-focused” individual rather than an “effort-focused” player. It is a good read for athletes, coaches, and parents.
How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer is an interesting read that gives some practical insights into decades of research in neuroscience. It is good for a basketball player because basketball is a game where quality decisions need to be made in a split second on the court. Understanding why and how we make good and bad decisions is clearly valuable.
Priming Performance: A Collection of Writings for Consistent Mental Toughness by Adam Naylor is written for the athlete and can be used as a workbook. O.k…a shameless plug for my own book, I admit… sort of. This was written as a mental training resource that is accessible and practical for the competitive athlete. Copies can be purchased at http://stores.lulu.com/telosspc.
What is the last book you read and why?
I just finished The Opposable Mind: Winning Through Integrative Thinking by Roger Martin. I read it because I truly believe that excellence in leadership, coaching, and sport requires integrative thinking. This is a refusal to accept conventional options and the undesirable trade-offs that seem to accompany “real world” problems. The integrative thinking finds creative solutions challenging problems.
Generally speaking, what is your philosophy for evaluating/treating a basketball player? How does it differ from other sport athletes?
The two big things I do when I evaluate any athlete are to get a sense of their goals/motivation and learn how they respond to adversity. The athlete that is motivated by learning each day and competing with himself regularly has a great foundation for success. Secondly, any athlete can play well when he is feeling good or is in the zone, but the great athlete succeeds when things are off and the game is a struggle.
Perhaps unique to basketball, I like to take a good look at how the athlete works with teammates and responds to coaches. The basketball team is so small and the environment so intense, it is important to be an effective communicator, take feedback well, and remain motivated regardless of the ups and downs of the team dynamic.
What has been the biggest mistake you made early in your career?
Early in my career, it was very difficult to “allow” an athlete to be uncomfortable. During work with individual athletes I was too quick to lend a helping hand or make them feel better. A modest level of discomfort is necessary for genuine cognitive change to occur. Unless we truly take time to assess and challenge ineffective thinking it is unlikely we can adopt a more productive mindset for the long term. Now if an athlete is “struggling towards success” I will support him through the journey, but will only throw out a life preserver if he is drowning in an unhealthy or ineffective cognitive spiral.
How has your philosophy changed in the last 3-5 years?
I don’t know if I’ve dramatically changed my philosophy over the past few years, rather I have simply added pieces to it. The one thing that I feel more strongly than ever about is that my work is about player development not simply teaching of mental skills. Goal setting, mental imagery, and the rest are valuable tools, but the seasoned sport psychology practitioner ought to be able to understand the social, psychological, and developmental needs of a player at the various stages in a basketball career.
What advice would you give for young professionals looking to follow in your footsteps?
Hone and refine your craft - truly become an expert. Too many young professionals want to work in applied sport psychology so badly they rush to open their mouths and fail to appreciate primary research and gain a depth of understanding about psychology and its practice. Too often this leaves them little more than motivational speakers with a graduate degree. I suggest, taking many years working “athlete’s hours,” listening to coaches, and reading the “tough” scientific reads. This leads to a depth of knowledge that leads to a long and successful career.
What areas do you address for those players that don't play significant minutes during the in-season?
With players that do not play significant minutes, I focus on maintaining motivation. This can happen a few different ways: 1. By serving as a “bitch board.” I am a safe spot where a player can vent frustrations, 2. By helping them appreciate and embrace their role, 3. By helping ensure quality practices regardless of playing time, 4. Lastly, by keeping minutes in perspective so they are able to perform well when their number is called.
What recovery methods have you implemented with your athletes during the season? During tournament play?
Mental recovery is just as important as physical recovery to assure excellent play. Monitoring stress levels and sleep is key. Furthermore, helping athlete chose time when focus is necessary and when they can simply flake out helps regulate cognitive energy.
During tournament play, it is important that players focus on the right things at the right times. This means when the ball is in play, play. When the game is over, reflect and learn. Between games, rest. Before the next game, refocus.
What arousal strategies would you employ for an athlete prior to competition?
There are myths on both ends of the spectrum on this one. First, a player can be too pumped up to play well. Secondly, a player can be too relaxed, hurting one’s ability to find the explosiveness and focus necessary for success. With this in mind an athlete’s self-awareness is critical to pre-game prep. Taking some time to determine what is the right emotional level for “me” is important. A nice way to formalize this is to pick an adjective that sums up one’s optimal feeling and focus at tip off. Answers could range from “mellow” to “pumped.” Whatever a player’s word might be, it does give a clear target for one to strive towards during the day, hour, minutes leading up to the start of the game.
Pre-game mental prep is a true mind-body experience. Meaning, the mind ought to find focus while the body finds a level of relaxed-energy that will lead to good play. A simple way to focus the mind is to remind one’s self of two keys to success for the upcoming mind. There are a variety of ways to manage one’s physiological arousal. A few good diaphragmatic breathes are perhaps the simplest approach. They can be done while stretching, reviewing a game plan, or moments before tip off. A good breathe is a great skill as it both energizes and relaxes the body, while being a simple skill to add to pre-game prep. Regardless of how one focuses his mind and body, it is important to be consistent and committed to the approach in order to lay the foundation for great performances.
What would you suggest basketball athletes do prior to shooting a foul shot?
Have a simple pre-shot routine. A simple three step process is: Relax – Rehearse – Refocus. Relax after the foul or the previous shot. Take a few moments to slow your heart rate. Rehearse by either mentally or physically doing a dress rehearsal of the shot. Refocus narrow your focus to a small target at the hoop or a simple idea in one’s mind (i.e. “smooth). Then shoot. In essence get control of your mind and body and then commit to your shot.
What Recovering from injury?
When recovering from injury, don’t be mentally tough. Yes, it sounds strange, but research has shown that mental toughness or an overly determined mindset when injured only leads to further injury or poor recovery. The art to rehab is to be both patient and persistent in the training room and at the gym.
A player does not have to enjoy being injured, but he should take advantage of the opportunities injury presents. Being injured affords a player to look at practices and games from a different perspective. When healthy, a basketball player gets few chances to sit back to watch plays fully evolve and to appreciate the subtleties of the game. The wise injured athlete takes this all in to be better upon return to play. Furthermore, injury provides an opportunity to rest and recover. A season can be mentally taxing. Although the break is unwanted, taking advantage of the opportunity to recharge leads to sharper play upon return. Injury stinks, but one can continue to grow and develop even with limited physical capacity.