Get Your Head in the Game with Sport Psychology
Whether competitive or recreational, an athlete spends hours honing their skills. The position of the foot in the starting block, the angle of the hips, the push off - every small detail is practiced again and again. But there's one skill they may overlook - mental focus.
"Many athletes have physically trained well, but how they show up on the day of competition and how they manage their mental focus can determine the outcome of that performance," says UW Health sport psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, PhD.
A portion of Dr. Mirgain's work with athletes, then, is teaching them how to focus more effectively.
Developing Focus During Competition
"Our ability to focus has decreased since the year 2000," she says, citing a study by Microsoft that found our average attention span has decreased by one-third in the past 15 years, to eight seconds.
"The ability to stay focused and deal with distraction during competition is a trainable skill," Dr. Mirgain says.
She uses mindful focus techniques that encourage athletes to stay in the present moment, which can translate to better performance.
"If we can train our minds to focus, we'll be able to deal with distractions during critical moments," Dr. Mirgain says. "I help athletes get out of their minds and into the moment."
So what qualifies as a distraction? Trash talk, for one. Today even young athletes face opponents who spend a lot of game time trying to psyche their opponents out, often with rather colorful language and pointed opinion. The very objective of their taunts – to get into their opponents' heads – suggests a strategic mental approach to subdue them.
"Athletes can get derailed by negative comments from coaches, opponents, or parents," Dr. Mirgain says, adding that athletes also can become deflated after making a mistake. "These can lead to shutting down and getting critical, which drains your energy and doesn't allow you to be your best."
In response, Dr. Mirgain works with athletes on resilience techniques that teach them how to respond successfully to critical remarks or challenging situations. Self-talk is an example. Dr. Mirgain helps athletes develop positive narratives and mantras they can repeat to themselves during competition to counteract hostile opponents, coaches and fans, and quickly recover from set-backs.
Translating Off-Field Strategies to On-Field Success
Of course, demonstrating a healthy athletic mindset in a sport psychologist's office is one thing. Doing it during the heat of competition is another. How does Dr. Mirgain's work translate to the track, pitch, rink or field?
Just as actors can rehearse their lines away from white-hot glare of the stage, athletes can hone their focus and instill a positive mental template long before the game whistle blows.
"Athletes train in those lesser moments of intensity, in practice or at home," Dr. Mirgain says. "They can anticipate scenarios and practice their response. Rehearsal primes the brain and makes success more likely."
Athletic success, according to Dr. Mirgain, stems from not only practicing physical skills like shooting a basketball, but complementing those physical skills with mental training that allows them to flourish.
"Athletes invest a lot of time into training their bodies but often little into training their minds," Dr. Mirgain says. "You can only go so far with physical training. Athletes can make the jump by training with someone like me."
UW Health Services
Date Published: 11/16/2015