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Davit Ismailian Sports Psychology, LLC

Why is Sport Psychology Relevant today?

Throughout the history of sports there has always been factors that have greatly influenced the outcome of athletic performance. Talent, physical fitness, practice, and opportunity. From the days Rome when athletes would run for the gods and people to the hardwood of the NBA finals today, we have identified what makes for a high performance athlete that will have success accurately. It has influenced the ways our athletes train, the way our bettors bet, the way professional teams sign players and the way schoolyard football teams are picked. Due to all of this we have been privileged to see some of the greatest athletes ever: LeBron James, Tom Brady, Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, Michael Jordan, Roger Federer and many more. However, in our journey in sports performance we have referenced, sensed and even appealed and even at times neglected to fully acknowledge another variable that is of great importance: the mental aspect.

It is spoken of quite often in even casual circles. The mental make-up of an athlete has been discussed as being very important and has even been the difference maker in critical moments. Athletes that have a good mental game are labeled as “clutch” and have “killer mentalities” some athletes have even gone as far as saying their mental approach to their game is their approach to all of life, such as the late great Kobe Bryant’s “Mamba Mentality”. Athletes that do not have such a strong mental game and have suffered because of it are labeled athletes that “choke” or are “soft” amongst other things. Which leaves us with a strange reality, the mental aspect of sports is acknowledged as critically important but athletes today are left inspirational movies and figures to draw from for mental toughness but no actual help for an important element of their game. This is why sport psychology is so needed.

Athletes today struggle from a wide array of psychological issues that impact their game. We have seen countless examples across time and even more so recently. Simon Biles at the Olympics not competing due to mental health, Ben Simmons with his on and off court struggles with the Philadelphia 76ers, Calvin Ridley taking time away from the game of football, Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets citing psychological health as a problem. There are many cases and they are all complex and different. Even outside of famous athletes and performers athletes all over the world seem to all cite struggling with mental aspects of their sport. Practice to game performance drops, performance anxiety, struggles with motivation, struggles with focus, spectator anxiety, peer anxiety, coach anxiety and many more.

All of these issues can be treated effectively with the correct techniques and sport psychology skills. The problem is that as a society we have put a stigma around needing a sports psychologists help. The people who have insufferable “problems” are the ones that need extreme help from a sport psychologist. Athletes may see their own mental shortcomings as minuscule or insignificant. They may even try to combat it themselves but neglect the help of someone more qualified to do so. This is in large part due to the fact that the psychological aspect of an athlete is seen only as a health component by many and not a skill set that needs to be trained. Clinical Psychological issues are absolutely real and need real solutions and treatment for them from clinical psychologists. However, in sports there is also an aspect of psychology where there is no real debilitating “problem” but a lack of skills and training of one’s mind. These skills and training can be provided by sport psychologists or mental performance consultants as they are also called.

It is absolutely true that people with debilitating mental performance issues can get help from a sports psychologist but someone who is doing just “fine” can also receive a ton of help from a sport psychologist. This is because the mind is the muscle that just like others can be improved even when at a healthy state. Someone may not particularly feel uncontrollably nervous before a game but could have much better focus if he did some visualization techniques. Another could feel they have a normal level motivation for their sport but could unlock even more of his potential of he knew how to set and work toward proper goals. It could be that due to how the word “psychology” has been used across time it has created either a bonus section or stigma in how it relates to athletes performance. Athletes may have accepted that burn out, lack of focus, lack of confidence, performance anxiety, and many other psychological shortcomings are just a normal part of an athletes life and they must be lived with. These problems are absolutely normal and difficult to overcome but the overall attitude of the sporting population is that there is no way to combat, solve, and move past these issues. Even when one does seek help it is considered an unorthodox method of help. Once again this is due to how the word psychology is viewed and how seeking mental help may have a stigma attached to it but we wouldn’t consider someone weird or weak if they went to tennis coach to help improve their serve or a weight trainer to gain muscle. Quite the opposite actually we would view them as hard workers and determined because they sought to improve a part of their game that needed improvement.

For example, In the early part of LeBron James career he had struggled to shoot from the three point line in a game. He said that it was a problem he had to overcome because in the playoffs teams would sag off of him and force him to shoot from deep. He knew he wasn’t a good three point shooter so he would miss and it impacted his team’s performance greatly because their best player was limited. LeBron did what people would naturally reading this would suggest and that is to practice. He had coaches help him practice his shot and as a professional player put in countless hours and repetitions in shooting his jump shot. This isn’t frowned upon at all, an athlete who was already very dominant and didn’t really have a glaring weakness is shooting but he wanted to reach a higher than viable level. He tells this all to his Sport Psychologist Bob Rotella who got LeBron on different mental techniques to help his shooting like visualization and video watching of his highlights making three pointers. Since that time LeBron’s shot has improved greatly and the crowned jewel of his hard work showed up in the 2020 NBA Finals where LeBron shot over 40% from three in series on route to winning his fourth NBA championship and Finals MVP.

The mental game of sports has always been critical and crucial to the success of the athlete and sport psychology is the answer to improving the mental game of athletes and in turn their performance as a whole. With so many different internet outlets for content and sport psychologists on the around it has never been easier to access information and receive professional training that could help your game reach the next level.

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