Getting Started with Sport Psychology: Helping Your Athlete Build a Mental Game Plan

By Linda Sterling, CMPC, LPC

In athletics, it’s widely known that mindset is key to being a well-rounded, competitive athlete. People talk about mindset. They share mindset quotes. They say things like “get out of your head” and “find your zone.” You hear it, you believe it, you’re all in. Now you’re left wondering how to help your athlete develop a strong mental game. 

As a sport parent, you see all of the time and effort your athlete puts in. You know that they’ve got talent (and you’re not just saying that because you’re the parent!), but you also see where a solid mindset would be helpful.

  • You see that they’re loving the game and dominating on the court in middle school, but you worry about how they’ll
    handle adversity when they try out for varsity next year.
  • You know your athlete has D-1 aspirations and that they’ll need to be mentally tough to make it happen.
  • You notice when they can’t seem to shake their anxiety. They’re so focused on what could go wrong, they’re terrified to make a mistake, or they’re worried a college coach won’t notice them.
  • You may be wondering if they’ll ever get out of their head and enjoy their sport again.

Whichever the scenario for your athlete, sport psychology skills are the difference maker in competitive athletics. Successful athletes (and their sport parents) realize that mindset is key to taking their game to the next level, whether that be making the team or signing a college offer.

Sport psychology is a new(ish) field. It’s actually been around for a while, but it’s just now starting to get the media exposure it deserves. Elite athletes sharing about mental health and their sport psychology work is paving the way for all athletes to work on their mindset and wellness game. It also helps that a sport psychologist is featured in the Apple TV+ sports comedy-drama Ted Lasso!

Since the field is still somewhat new, many athletes and sport parents have no idea what to expect when seeing a sport psychologist or mental performance consultant. Sometimes coaches and athletic staff don’t even really know. According to the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP), the goal of sport psychology is to “facilitate optimal involvement, performance, and enjoyment in sport and exercise.”

The way I see it, there are two sides to sport psychology, which I’ll explain ESPN style.

Sport Psychology ESPN Style

First there’s the SportsCenter Top 10 side of sport psychology.

This is geared toward achieving a best performance, every performance. It’s where sport psychologists help athletes develop their mental game plan. An athlete’s work with a sport psychologist or mental performance consultant would cover topics like confidence, composure, imagery, focus, goal setting (and getting), pre-performance routines, mindfulness, and even recovering from burnout.

Well-meaning individuals will tell athletes to “focus!” But they don’t tell athletes HOW to focus. That’s what sport psychologists do: How to focus. How to get and stay confident. How to maintain composure…even when the official blows the call. How to lessen the nerves but maintain game time intensity.

Next there’s the E:60 / Outside the Lines / 30 for 30 side of sport psychology.

This is about the athlete as a person: Being one’s best off the court and navigating the pressure and emotional challenges that come with being an athlete. Sport psychologists cover topics like communicating with teammates/coaches/professors, working through the mental side of injury and career transition, and developing an identity outside of sport.

When your athlete gets hurt, has a changing role on the team, becomes overwhelmed with the juggling of responsibilities, it changes more than the game. Sport psychologists and mental performance consultants get this and help athletes deal when challenges come their way.

Getting Started with a Mental Game Plan

Now that you know more about sport psychology, you may still be wondering about the next step for your athlete. They’ve put in the physical practice: the miles, the swings, the shots. Now it’s time for the mental reps. To get your athlete started on the path to a strong mental game, implement these strategies.

Leading Up to Competition

Time to See It & Believe It

  1. Imagery: Visualize success in your upcoming competition. Find a quiet place, close your eyes, and mentally take yourself through your performance. Always end with a stellar performance.
  2. Self-Talk: Become aware of your thinking. Our thoughts determine our feelings, actions, and results so you’ll want to dump the doubt. Write out your thoughts, throw out the mind trash, and give yourself a pre-game pep talk.
  3. Recognize & Replace: Recognize if negativity comes your way. Acknowledge it, then replace with
    a focus on your breath and a thought that feels better. You may have to work up to the super positive, confident thought you’re ultimately going for.

Pre-Game

Your Mental Warm-Up

  1. Green/Gold Zone: The green zone is everything leading up to the game. It’s important to stay loose and relaxed in the green zone. The gold zone is game time. In the gold zone your sole focus is your role as an athlete. It’s important to know when to flip that switch. Decide where that transition is for you.
  2. Routine: Develop a repeatable routine that you can do at every competition. Great routines have three components: a focal point, an action that you’ll take, and a go-to phrase you’ll say to yourself. Pair it all with a breath.
  3. Zone of Optimal Functioning: Each athlete is different in how they approach their athletic events. You’ve probably noticed that athletes have their own hype levels. Super psyched, quiet & chill, or somewhere in between. Find what’s best for you.

Game Time

Keeping Your Head in the Game

  1. Control the Controllables: Make sure your focus is where it matters. Make lists of what is in your control and what is out of your control. When you find yourself focusing on the uncontrollables, use a refocus routine to get back on track.
  2. Refocus Routine: Sometimes we lose focus. The key is to have a quick refocus routine. Something you can do to remind yourself to get back on your game. It can be a short version of your pre-game routine or something new to quickly remind your brain where it needs to be.
  3. Breathing: This may be the most underrated mental training technique. Being able to focus on your breathing allows your heart rate to slow down, your body to relax, and your thoughts to stop racing.

Implementing these techniques will help your athlete develop their mindset and go from pre-game to podium. Want a personalized mental game plan for your athlete? Consider seeing a sport psychologist or mental performance consultant. It’s a game changer.

LINDA STERLING, PHD, CMPC, a former collegiate softball player, has masters and doctoral degrees in Counseling Psychology and Sport Psychology and is a licensed professional counselor and Certified Mental Performance Consultant. To learn more about her approach, visit drlindasterling.com.

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