Basketball is as much a mental game as it is a physical one, if not more. When athletes take control of their minds, they take control of their game and put themselves in prime position of receiving the best return on their game. In honor of May, Mental Health Awareness Month, The Zone spoke with Dr. Alex Diaz, a licensed psychotherapist, certified Peak Performance Coach, and founder of Sports Mental Edge about the psychology of sports and how it pertains to the athlete, coach, and parents.
AD: My pleasure.
TZ: What are things parents should know or start to think about in terms of the psychological aspect of their athlete?
AD: Parents can provide a very important support in the development of a strong-minded athlete. All athletes need support, guidance, and a shoulder to lean on as success in sports is very challenging, it requires a lot of sacrifice, and demands huge commitments.
In wanting to succeed, parents can easily be distracted by paying too much attention to end results or make comparisons with other athletes. To promote a strong-minded athlete, parents should emphasize effort above any other quality. It is effort, more so than natural talent, what will determine whether the athlete will succeed in his/her sport career. There are many naturally talented athletes who never made it to the pro level. On the other hand, there are many hard working and determined athletes who have beaten the odds and made it. To promote effort, parents need to remain in the role of parents, not coaches. They should inquire, how was your game today?, did you have fun?, what did you learn about the game today? They should refrain from primarily focusing on whether the athlete won or lost, or show mood swings that match the athlete’s performance. Parents need to know that athletes want to be accepted for whom they are as human beings first, second as athletes. Otherwise, if the athlete lost, so did the human being. This situation will make the development of tenacity and effort so much more difficult to build.
AD: The culture around athletics has steadily shifted from playing for fun to playing to get a scholarship or becoming pro. The pressure young athletes have is very high as the competition to be recruited by a top university is extremely intense. More than ever before, young athletes are training like pros do. They practice, compete, train, and eat like professional athletes. Their lives are organized around sports. Given that they also need to manage academic requirements, it leaves little room to relax or to have fun. It is a business mindset from a very young age. As a consequence, focus is on winning at the expense of anything else. We intensely celebrate wins, just like we angrily demonstrate losses. This strong emotional roller-coaster only puts extremely high pressure on athletes. We also know that college recruiters select the best athletes, and those will be found at club teams, more so than at varsity. This means that many parents finance their savings to place their athletic children to play in clubs. As long as the young athlete wins, everybody is happy; but if he/she losses, parent often remind their children about the money they are spending on them. This conversation only puts even more pressure on those young athletes.
We also know that, for some parents, seeing their children excelling in sports may be the culmination of a personal frustrating sports experience, now realized through the lens of achievement of their children’s success. Parents love to talk about how their children are excelling in sports and how they might be recruited by a top college. They look competent and receive admiration from their social peers.
In my experience, parents mean well. They want the best for their children and will do anything to see them succeed. There are times when, in seeking this goal, may overlook the need for their child to rest and develop a more rounded sports experience, in particularly when the young athlete is under 14-years-old. Committing to playing just one sport year-round only increases the chances of getting an injury that will set the athlete back. Finding the right balance devoted to sports participation is often a challenge.
AD: There is not an easy answer to your question. Each situation is different. However, there is an element of self-determination that goes a long way into developing the type of an athlete, and human being, that can succeed in sports and life. One of the key traits seeing in top athletes is the values they hold as humans. Where does honesty, responsibility, curiosity, humor, forgiveness, respect, acceptance, etc fall in their belief system? How is each one of these traits demonstrated? When is it more difficult to demonstrate them and what triggers those moments? What can we learn for next time and how are we planning to respond differently when the next challenge is upon us? It is easier to focus on sport psychology strategies, such as self-talk, imagery or breathing relaxation, but I believe that what really matters lies in the inner core of each individual, who happens to be an athlete.
If parents and coaches promote high quality values, then the young athletes learn to develop an introspective view of who they are. It promotes looking at him/herself to continue striving to improve, facing challenges, and be willing to go for the grand prize knowing that, if he/she does not get, there will another opportunity if he/she continues to improve. On the other hand, if the athlete is raised hearing that his/her lack of success is because the referee made a bad call, the opponent got lucky, or it is my teammate’s fault, then there is little space for self-learning. We often hear them saying, “success is 100% due to me, but failure is somebody’s fault.” Growth takes place when we are 100% owners of our experiences. Granted we cannot control everything, but for those elements where we have control over, we need to fully embrace our responsibility of ownership, learn from defeat, and grow from those upsetting moments to achieve higher goals.
TZ: I had my personal experience with struggling with the pressures of a college student athlete facing many injuries, struggling in school, making the game of basketball who I was instead of what I did and enjoyed. Lucky for me I had you throughout those years and it helped me see the bigger picture. Unfortunately, not all athletes have access to some like you, Dr. Diaz, or don’t understand what they are going through. What advice can you give to them to explain how they are feeling and begin to take steps to get better mentally?
AD: I am glad to hear that you felt supported in those moments when you needed somebody to listen to you. It is true that many athletes grow up following Vince Lombardi’s motto: “winners do not quit, and quitters do not win.” When athletes feel overwhelmed, they tend to keep emotions to themselves. Partially, the athletic culture places a lot of stigma on seeking mental help. It is often view as a weakness rather than a strength. Even for those athletes who “dare” to seek help, they feel they cannot tell anyone nor being seeing by anyone else walking into the psychologist’s office. It may promote shame or some other negative feeling.
Athletic departments, schools, and clubs need to improve in sending the message that athletes do go through difficult emotional moments. They carry the responsibility of not only meeting school requirements, but also needing to travel, practice, and compete at the expense of sleeping fewer hours. There is a lot of pressure to do well. For some, their scholarship may be at risk if they do poorly in school. Injuries also bring strong emotions. The fear of being replaced, uncertainty of ability to perform well enough, and feeling of isolation from coaches and teammates is emotionally felt inside the athlete’s skin. When these experiences become too much to handle, then unhealthy coping choices become the norm. Disordered eating, anger issues, depression, distractibility, drinking or drugs are often demonstrated when athletes and non-athletes reach a state of emotional overwhelm. Educating and normalizing all these experiences can surely alleviate a lot of discomfort to many athletes. They often feel they must be the only ones suffering with the difficulty of managing emotions.
TZ: Take us through your background. How did you get to where you are at now and why are these topics so important to you?
AD: As a psychotherapist, I learned that what we think really matters. If we could change our thinking patterns, then the uncomfortable attached feelings would go away. However, not all uncomfortable feelings can go away just by changing our thoughts. Hence, there must be something else that is holding emotions in place. This curiosity led me to learn and later pursue a doctoral degree in somatic psychology. Somatics seeks to integrate how the nervous system and the brain communicate with one another. It is not just paying attention to our thoughts, but ALSO to our felt sense awareness. When we pay attention to bodily sensation, such as tingling, warmth, tension, etc., we are paying attention to how our nervous system is non-verbally expressing past experiences. When the nervous system is in a state of overwhelm, it shuts down reasoning and triggers coping responses to compensate for its compromised state, often toward unhealthy behaviors. Learning how the body works led me to wanting to help athletes as they use thinking to regulate emotions. In reality, body sensations come first, thoughts later. A baby connects with her mother non-verbally; language come later. This non-verbal/verbal process remains for life. Even as adults, body sensations come first; we then express those sensations verbally.
I wanted to help athletes to normalize, educate, and heal past emotional experiences that are still trapped inside their bodies. I knew that once they understood how their bodies work, not only their uncomfortable emotions would subside, but most importantly, they would feel empowered knowing what their bodies were doing and what to do to regulate emotions. Isn’t emotional regulation what athletes are looking for? Precisely! I wanted to provide not only sport psychology strategies that promote peak performance, but also embrace the individual wearing the sports uniform. When work unites the athlete and the individual, we get a powerful human being. Somatic psychology can truly provide the edge in athletic performance.
AD: Everyone is looking for an edge over other athletes. Not too long ago, young athletes were not trained by physical trainers or coaches. Talent was the edge. Now, young athletes are coached by physical trainers, coaches, and even dietitians. But, much to my surprise, the psychological aspect of performance has yet to be seriously incorporated in their preparation. This is quite surprising given that mental readiness is what separates top athletes from the rest. To be mentally ready brings a lot of benefits: 1- higher confidence; 2- better able to manage competitive performance; 3- greater sense of mental awareness; 4- enhanced ability to re-gain focus; 5- multiple life skill applications. The better an athlete is able to regulate his/her emotions and remain focused, the higher the probabilities of achieving his/her best performance. I highly recommend incorporating the mental component in sport readiness as skills and talent can only go so far, but having the mental tools to navigate pressure can catapult the athlete to higher levels.
TZ: From a coaches perspective – is there anything you consider they do differently with mental health being huge now and social medias also having its affect? What’s you take?
AD: Great coaches promote an athlete’s self-belief. Their teaching is based on solidifying great skills while instilling self-confidence. They are aware that it is the athlete, not themselves, who has to perform. Athletes can only achieve their best if they completely trust in their skills, talents, and have complete confidence in themselves. No athlete achieved greatness thinking how to do a specific skill or trying to remember mechanical movements. Instead, the athlete’s inner trust is so ingrained that they perform with no hesitation. Coaches have a great responsibility to instill inner confidence in athletes. When they promote the athlete’s self-learning, self-awareness, and correction, then they have accomplished their goal. Coaches need to have the wisdom of knowing when to let go and allowing the athlete to learn because it is at this precise moment when major breakthroughs of awareness and trusting take place.
As far as social media, it has a lot of benefits, but its over-use can also invite major emotional concerns. Depression has more than double since the IPhone came out. The younger generation is having great difficulty developing meaningful relationships and they struggle with how to share thoughts and emotions. It is quite common to see a group of teens, all next to one another, using their smart phones and not talking amongst themselves. Sometimes, they are even texting each other instead of using verbal language. One of the main concerns is that our nervous system is dependent on the human interaction for the purpose of developing the capacity to regulate emotions. If this experience is minimized, so is our capacity to remain focused. We become increasingly distractible, have a harder time to socially connect with others, have elevated mood swings, and show poorer ability to achieve peak performance. We need to take a stronger stance to educate the benefits, but also the emotional and behavioral consequences for its multiuse. A good beginning is to put the phones away at dinner time. No exceptions. Have an engaging family dialogue and enjoy each other’s company. Laugh and converse. The body and your health will greatly appreciate it.
Thank you again, Dr. Diaz!