By Meg Mills
LEXINGTON, Ky. (March 25, 2019) (UKNOW) — It’s basketball fans’ favorite time of year, March Madness. Whether it is the love of basketball, or the thrill of competition, every fan is rooting on a favorite team.
What does it take to win it all? Marc Cormier, director of the Sport and Exercise Psychology graduate program housed in the University of Kentucky College of Education Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion and director of Counseling and Sport Psychology Services in UK Athletics, recently explained to UKNow how student-athletes handle high-pressure situations.
UKNow: What exactly does a sport psychologist study?
Cormier: Basically, sport psychology professionals study the relationship between psychological/mental factors and optimizing human performance. This can include: focus, emotional regulation, cohesion, motivation, imagery, self-talk and even the psychological aspects of sport injury and rehabilitation.
Elite athletes have strength and conditioning coaches to train the body and athletic trainers to rehabilitate the body and keep it healthy. Sport psychology professionals are another piece of the puzzle as we aim to do each of these for the brain. We may help an athlete through difficulties known as a “slump” or help them develop the skills to prevent slumps from ever happening. By making athletes aware of the importance of his/her mental factors, we can hopefully help them understand that they have control over the way they think and, therefore, perform.
UKNow: From your studies what usually goes through a student-athlete’s head in high-pressure situations?
Cormier: Stress can have a real impact on a person’s performance. Physical symptoms such as muscle tension, sweating, increased heart rate and trembling/shaking may be the difference between a basket and a missed shot. But there are many instances where an athlete looks fine but is experiencing what is called cognitive anxiety (e.g., racing/clouded thoughts, fear of failure, doubt in abilities, poor decision making, etc.). These can be just as detrimental to performance and require different skills to manage.
Every athlete will respond differently to a high-pressure situation. In the end, it all depends on how an athlete appraises the situation. Athlete A may appraise a regular season game at Rupp as “high pressure” because of the crowd noise and bright lights, whereas Athlete B appraises it as no big deal. So, first we must understand the individual athlete and identify what situations lead him/her to thrive and what are potential areas of growth.
What makes the NCAA tournament format so unique are the high stakes, the build-up and importance placed on each game. There are no do-overs. It’s win or go home. So, in addition to student-athletes needing to be physically ready, they need to, somehow, quiet the noise that goes on internally and reduce the negative traffic in their minds — things like fear of failure, negative self-talk (e.g., don’t miss this shot, don’t lose it for the team) and general self-doubt. Basically, in high-pressure situations, everything is magnified, which can lead athletes to fear mistakes, dwell on mistakes or avoid complex/risky plays altogether.
UKNow: How important is mental rehabilitation after injuries?
Cormier: Very important for some. It’s short-sighted to assume that once an athlete is physically cleared for play, he/she will be mentally prepared to return and perform at full physical capacity. Particularly if the injury occurred in a game, athletes may experience fear or hesitation when put in a similar position. A player may avoid a cut or battle for the ball because they’re afraid to re-injure their knee or ankle. So, they play it safe. Some athletes are the complete opposite. They’re so ready to come back that they may rush their rehab and ignore pain or signs of injury — causing further, more serious injury.
We try to approach rehabilitation from a holistic standpoint, where athletes get an opportunity to discuss and process these things before they become problematic.
UKNow: Does team cohesion play a part in team success?
Cormier: It all depends on how we define “success.” Cohesive teams don’t always win but tend to play closer to their full potential. Sometimes the opponent is more skilled and just as cohesive, and we can’t control that. Ultimately, coaches should want a team full of athletes who will play for one another. That begins with establishing many of the components that determine cohesion: trust, communication, work ethic, role clarity/acceptance, etc.
UKNow: Are there any mental stress coping skills you tell athletes to use that an everyday person could also benefit from?
Cormier: A lot of what we do is transferable to everyday life because much of what we teach athletes are, in fact, life skills. One major thing I try to do is help athletes focus on the process, not the outcome. It can be counterproductive when athletes/non-athletes are too outcome-oriented, because the outcome can be out of our control. Instead, by focusing on the process (i.e., what YOU can do to achieve the outcome), we become agents of success. Imagine a person whose goal is to get into medical school. Wanting the outcome can help motivate this person, but ultimately, medical students are chosen from a “best available” approach. Meaning, whether or not a person gets in may depend on who else applies that year. But by focusing on the process — controllable things you can do to improve your chances (i.e., completing internships, working hard, submitting a strong assignment) — you work harder and simultaneously increase your chances of meeting your outcome by becoming a more desirable candidate. Likewise, in sports, we’re helping an athlete focus on executing the small things (e.g., foot speed, positioning, defensive awareness), to increase baskets and increase the likelihood of winning a game.
I also use mindfulness a lot in my work with athletes. There are so many benefits, both on and off the court, to being present. Being in the moment. This means not dwelling on mistakes or thinking too far into the future, but focusing on what you’re doing right now.
UKNow: What sport psychologist opportunities are available in the College of Education?
Cormier: Those interested in a career in sport psychology can apply to the graduate program in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion. This is a two-year program and allows students the choice of pursuing the applied or research track. Applied students will complete a 300-hour internship, while research students will complete an original thesis project.
Students in both tracks will complete coursework in sport and exercise psychology, group dynamics, counseling techniques, leadership, diversity and inclusion, and psychology of injury. More information can be found on the College of Education website at: https://education.uky.edu/khp/graduate-students/sport-and-exercise-psychology/.