Getting Minds in the GameSep 01, 2021 ● By Stephen Hunt
2021 has been a strange year on many levels, especially in the sports world where the physical and mental aspects of competition have collided like never before.
Earlier this year, Los Angeles Angels relief pitcher Ty Buttrey abruptly announced he was retiring from baseball simply because he no longer enjoyed playing. This summer, women’s tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrew from Wimbledon to spend more personal time with friends and family. During the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Houston-bred gymnastics superstar Simone Biles withdrew from the competition because she claimed her mind and body weren’t in sync.
This intersection of athletics and psychology is nothing new. As a field, sports psychology – whether practiced at the high school, collegiate or professional level of competition – has been around in some form or another for decades. However, in this era of tending to every aspect of an athlete, mental skills and health have taken on added significance.
Baseball’s San Francisco Giants employ several mental skills coaches at the major- and minor-league levels. This summer, the Giants also hired former Texas Rangers outfielder Drew Robinson, who survived a suicide attempt and returned to baseball with one eye, as a mental health advocate after he retired as a player.
Every Dallas-area professional sports team has either a full-time sports psychologist on staff or on retainer. For the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, that individual is mental skills coach Don Kalkstein, who previously held a similar role during two stints with the Texas Rangers and with the Boston Red Sox. Mr. Kalkstein was hired by Mavs owner Mark Cuban when he bought the team in 2000.
“I was the first person to be hired in the NBA to do this position. He (Mr. Cuban) was a visionary,” Mr. Kalkstein said. “We only had a couple people that were doing it full time, and for whatever reason, Mark said, `This is going to be important, having somebody on staff who does mental skills and mental health, so let’s go for it.’ I was able to get that position and currently hold the same position.”
One player with whom Mr. Kalkstein worked during his time with the Rangers was pitcher CJ Nitkowski. He pitched professionally for nearly two decades in Major League Baseball, including two seasons in Texas (2002 and 2003) and abroad in Japan and South Korea. Mr. Nitkowski now works as an analyst for the Rangers TV broadcasts on Bally Sports Southwest and remembers well his first exposure to sports psychology.
“About halfway through my career, players working with sports psychologists started to become popular,” Mr. Nitkowski said. “The first one I ran across was a consultant for the (Detroit) Tigers in 2000. He also had individual clients around the league, including some big names, which caught my attention. I enjoyed the initial conversations but had issues putting it into practice and would sometimes have a difficult time taking in and retaining the content of the conversation.”
Marco Ferruzzi is director of soccer operations for Major League Soccer’s FC Dallas, which plays its games at Toyota Stadium in Frisco. Before taking his current position, he was a longtime assistant coach for the team after playing professionally from 1990-2003. Ferruzzi also spent time with the United States Under-16 national team and remembers that is where he was first exposed to sports psychology.
“I remember when I was on the youth national team, you had access to it. If you went to Colorado Springs (to train for the Olympics) or were in training camp, you do your normal weekly cycle of training and games, but you’d have two sessions with a sports psychologist,” Mr. Ferruzzi said. “When I was playing pro, most teams did not have (psychologists), but you could always get access. Just prior to my last couple years, I did go, myself and other players. We were juggling a lot of different things at that point.
“We were getting our coaching badges. We were family men and had a lot of stuff going on. You’re on that edge of playing another two or three years or you’re retiring. All that stuff is swirling in your head. It became a welcome thing to talk to this guy who doesn’t know anything about me, just hear what he has to say and he’s going to bounce things off me. He’s going to teach me sports-relative techniques. I found it productive.”
Not Just for the Pros
Of course, sports psychology isn’t merely applicable to professional athletes. It can also assist players in high school and college.
Anne Kip Rodgers, who owns Frisco-based NeuroSports Sports Psychology and Athlete Assessments, has been in sports psychology since 1997 and is also a licensed professional counselor. Ms. Rodgers has assisted countless athletes at all levels. One of her most notable current clients is Hailey Hernandez, a diver from Southlake who competed in the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Ms. Rodgers, who holds a master’s degree in sports psychology, said, “It’s been a passion of mine to be able to address the whole person. Inevitably, every athlete has a therapeutic issue, but also I have the luxury of teaching life skills or mental skills using the vehicle of sports to do it.”
She works with athletes at all levels of competition, including assisting some National Football League teams with player evaluations before the annual draft. However, as a former competitive gymnast herself, there is one group of athletes with which she especially enjoys working.
“My sweet spot is definitely the high school athlete that’s aiming to reach collegiate level. Then, because I’ve been doing it so long, those college athletes, we’ll still have sessions together,” Ms. Rodgers said. “I really like the high school athlete who is … really open to learning, they’re hungry to learn and we’re not dealing so much with the stigma that comes with it when you become collegiate or professional.”
While some young athletes and their parents take it upon themselves to seek out the services of a sports psychologist to improve their performance on the field, some local high schools also take the initiative and utilize similar techniques for their teams.
Andrew Embry is dean of students at Frisco’s Legacy Christian Academy and its longtime baseball coach. He is aware of the positive impact sports psychology and other performance-improvement techniques can have on young student-athletes.
“I think if it’s done right, it’s a great tool,” he said. “It’s so needed. … The psychology aspect is playing a more important role now than ever.”
Coach Embry said a young athlete “needs to understand he or she has been given a gift and needs to be thankful and happy. A happy athlete is a better athlete and I think that’s huge, but I think the psychology part can play a huge role if it’s done correctly.”
Frisco Lone Star High School football coach Jeff Rayburn has been a head coach for 10 years. Sports psychology has been in his DNA for as long as he can remember, dating back to his time as an offensive coordinator at Duncanville High School.
Coach Rayburn, his players and staff regularly listen to words of wisdom from Brian Cain, a renowned mental peak performance coach.
“We do some mental training, especially on game days. Throughout the week, we’ll have our kids sit down and visualize positive things like the highs and lows of the game from a mental aspect to try and prepare them as much as possible for what could be in a game, so they know how to handle it,” Coach Rayburn said. “We try to talk about it and do as much prep work as we can. That’s a big thing we’ve always done since I’ve been head coach. We do a little meditation on game days. Before we leave [the locker room], we turn off the lights and listen to Brian Cain and envision ourselves making the play and everything to get in that frame of mind.”
Rob Flanagan is a Frisco father of two who for more than a decade has coached youth football as a volunteer. Due to the young age of his players, he doesn’t rely on sports psychology techniques. However, there is one technique he has used successfully with his own children that he encourages parents of his current players to employ.
That technique centers on the car ride home after a game. During that time, it’s common for parents to discuss with their child what happened during the game, specifically what the youngster did right or wrong, or how they may improve their performance going forward. After adhering to this standard operating procedure like most other parents, Flanagan opted for a different strategy – one that ended up paying big dividends.
“Somebody interviewed 100 of the top NCAA Division I athletes and asked them what do you remember from when you were young that was negative when it came to sports? Almost all of them said the car ride home,” Mr. Flanagan said. “I stopped doing that immediately after reading that article and told all my (players’) parents the same thing.” Kids, “as soon as they get in that car … they’re not thinking about the game. They want to go to a waterpark or go home and watch cartoons.”
Mr. Flanagan said the study also queried athletes about their most positive youth sports recollections. “They all said (it was) when Mom and Dad said they loved to watch them play. I think it was of huge benefit to my players and my team. We had some success, and good deal of that was due to pulling it back, (saying) let’s just teach discipline and then safety and sprinkle in a little bit of this thing called football.”
Sometimes it’s the simplest piece of advice that can have the most impact on a young athlete. Coach Embry remembers an infielder who played for him at Bishop Lynch High School in Dallas who was struggling at the plate. He asked whether the coach knew someone who could help him repair his swing. “I told him to relax, breathe and hit the ball the other way,” he recalled. “I sent him to a hitting instructor who told him to keep swinging and to smile more.”
An Ever-Evolving Field
The field of sports psychology is one that continues to evolve. One way in particular that the field has changed over the years is that it is now much more widely accepted in sports.
“Oh, it’s changed tremendously. In the beginning, when somebody talked about mental skills, it was looked at like we’re speaking a foreign language or it was something that was taboo to talk about,” Mr. Kalkstein said. “Often players, because they didn’t know what it was, didn’t want to engage in it, didn’t want to talk about it. I think the connotation of hearing about mental skills was more of a thought process where they were going to walk in and lay down on a couch from what they had in their minds or had seen on TV or heard about.”
Being in a field that is always evolving and trying to find ways to improve athletes’ performance is one reason why sports psychologists love their chosen field. “I think anybody who’s in this field loves to learn,” Ms. Rodgers said. “Part of it is keeping up with the research and the latest things that go on.”
A sports psychologist or mental skills coach can have all the necessary credentials and experience to improve an athlete’s performance, but if that individual and the athlete are not a good fit working together, those efforts will likely prove fruitless.
“Just like any coach in sports, finding the right fit with a sports psychologist could take years,” Mr. Nitkowski said. “Someone you can connect with, who speaks your language and can present their information in a way that makes sense to you is key. Over the rest of my career, I had opportunities to work with different mental skills coaches and really enjoyed it. Their ability to evaluate you was probably the most eye-opening part for me.
“Showing me how I thought and how that might be negatively affecting my game was almost scary – things that I either didn’t realize about myself or pay attention to. One example was self-criticism. I learned that I was highly self-critical and never gave myself credit for anything I did well. Over time, that will wear you down and the perception of yourself can get lopsided and likely inaccurate. For the last eight or nine years of my 19-year career, mentally I was in a much better place. I don’t think I (would have played) that long without it.”
Ms. Rodgers has developed an assessment process that shows athletes how they’re wired mentally, increasing their self-awareness. “Then they understand their strengths and weaknesses given their sport and then sometimes, like with baseball or football, (their) position within the sport,” she said.
“We’re customizing a little more the mental-skills training or the performance-training stuff based on what we find from that, their innate wiring to their sport of choice. But then if I’m finding some therapeutic issue, I don’t have to farm that out to somebody else unless it’s a serious thing like an addiction or an eating disorder that really needs to be addressed in a more concentrated way than I can provide.”
Seeing the Complete Picture
If there is one thing that has driven the increased focus on mental skills and helped lead to more acceptance of sports psychology at all levels of competition, it is the realization that spending time and effort to prepare an athlete physically yet neglecting the player mentally is simply no longer acceptable.
“Fast forward (to) today where you’re hearing people talk about mindfulness, you’re hearing people talk about visualization, imagery or goal setting on a daily basis. Yeah, it’s changed where organizations and high schools and colleges understand the need for it,” Mr. Kalkstein said.
“We do all of this training from a physical standpoint, we do all this preparation from a strategy viewpoint, take care of our bodies from a nutritional standpoint, but along the way nobody was training our brains to be successful in probably the most important times in the game. In the most stressful or anxiety-producing times, nobody was training athletes to do that. We’re in that space now.”
While some coaches and players remain resistant to accepting the merits of mental-skills training, most realize that taking care of the mental side of a team’s staff and players can pay off in a big way.
“There’s only so much you can do physically,” Coach Rayburn said. “Our saying is that everything happens twice. It happens in your mind first and then it actually happens in reality. So, if you can envision doing those things ahead of time, it’s not a shock. You know how to handle situations, especially the negative things that happen in games. You miss a tackle or fumble the football, drop a pass – those things are going to happen.
“We want our kids always thinking positive, but we also want to talk to them about and to have them envision what happens when something negative happens. `How do you respond? Close your eyes and tell yourself how that feels. … Now, can you get rid of that and play the next play so it doesn’t affect you in a negative way? You want to be confident out there on the field.’ The idea of positive self-talk and belief go a long way.”
For those who have been in the sports psychology field for some time, seeing high-profile athletes open up about their mental health has been overwhelmingly positive.
“There are a lot of major universities today that have mental-skills people or sports psychologists on staff. They’re starting to understand the utilization and necessity for it,” Mr. Kalkstein said. “Then you have the other major factor (of) having athletes come out and talk about mental health, that it’s there, it’s real and it’s part of being a human being.
“Like having a stomachache or a sprained ankle, if there’s a mental issue that’s causing a limitation or an obstacle in your performance, there are ways to manage it so it’s not something we shy away from anymore,” he said. “There was a day when I talked about mental skills, somebody looked at me cross-eyed. Now, when we talk to players and I ask them about mental skills and if they have ever done mental-skills training, a large percentage have dabbled in and can at least talk about what those skills might be.”
Stephen Hunt is a Frisco-based freelance writer who is doubly blessed with two dream jobs.