After decades of study, years of research, endless days of prodding and cajoling, and the endless stream of motivational words, the field of sports psychology may have finally it figured out.
IT’S ABOUT ENJOYING WHAT YOU DO
Dr. Gloria Balague is an assistant professor in Psychology at the University of Illinois in Chicago, and has worked for years with the U.S. Olympic Committee. She worked with the 1992 and 1996 U.S. Olympic teams, and has spoken at countless Sports Psychology seminars and conferences on the topic of using the mind to get the most out of the body.
In an interview with PS Magazine, Balague said the field of Sports Psychology has changed over the years, and has gotten to a point where she thinks is now pointed in the right direction.
“When we started many years ago, there was an approach to find what is in the personality of the sprinter, or skater, or long-distance runner, that makes them succeed,’’ Balague said. “It was kind of assuming that different personalities would be better at certain events.”
“But,’’ she said, “that turned out to be kind of useless.”
As the field evolved, the focus changed, in a way, to growing championship athletes- starting with young athletes and working with them throughout their development into more mature athletes.
“That is still somewhat present,’’ Balague said. “It’s the search for talent at an early age; how can we identify the most talented people so we can direct our talents on those people?”
In figure skating, it is certainly true that in most cases the best athletes start early. But again, Balague sees flaws in that approach.
“We actually don’t do very well with that,’’ she said. “We can identify who is going to have certain characteristics, and those are more or less stable, and we can do that at an early age when those characteristics are forming.
“But even if you can do the physical test, it doesn’t guarantee the person is going to have the motivation or love of an activity to make them successful at it. So many coaches have moved away from the search for younger talent, at least from a psychological standpoint.”
Which brings us to where the field is now.
From a physical standpoint, the skater can and will be identified early. But from a psychological standpoint, there is an element that actually cannot be coached.
“When you ask an 11, 12, or 13-year-old why they participate in competitive sports, the number one response is to have fun,’’ Balague said. “When you ask them ‘What makes sports fun?’, the first answer is ‘When Coach said I did a good job.’”
So, according to Balague, the best psychological approach to establish a successful athlete is to cultivate a positive and pleasant relationship between the coach and the athlete.
“The coach has become one of the most important elements in sports psychology,’’ Balague said. “It leads to having an athlete who is more confident and enjoys the activity more.”
Balague said “winning’’ was the seventh selection of pre-teen athletes when asked why they compete.
PSYCHOLOGY OF COACHING
It is necessary for coaches to create a climate that keeps athletes in the sport longer and, as a result, more successful. Balague said she works with coaches to help them achieve that goal.
“Everybody wants to feel successful and confident,’’ she said. “They can’t all be number one, and that is where the coaches come in. If they measure improvement, and measure effort rather than result, those are two things that are enjoyed by the athlete. If somebody feels they are not improving, not achieving their goals, and not being successful, that correlates quickly with a lack of enjoyment and abandonment of the sport.”
A key in most psychology work is self-awareness, knowing who you are and where your mind is coming from on the way to a new location. Balague says coaches need to be self-aware in order to make the most progress with the psychology of their athletes.
“For an athlete, we need to know what makes you nervous, what helps you in competition, what is conducive to doing well,’’ she said. “For a coach, it is what gets to you when you coach, and what is your reaction when it happens? Sometimes the kid will push something in you and you have to be aware of that and you have to manage it.”
“The coaches in the past said ‘This is how I coach, take it or leave it’,’’ she said. “But today coaches have to coach differently depending on who they are coaching. Not with technique, but knowing when to coach and when to back off.”
Balague admits there is a difficulty dealing with today’s athlete because of the way they have been coddled at a young age and enabled in a way that does not prepare them to face the difficulties that will come up in competition.
“Today’s athletes need to be approached differently,’’ she said. “One thing we see is that kids are not used to tolerating discomfort, tolerating challenges, but I think that is more the parent who tries to protect the child from any disappointment. That does not prepare them for life.”
Therefore, from a psychological standpoint, young athletes find it harder to cope with the stresses that come from competition, which makes them harder to coach.
PSYCHOLOGY SPECIFIC TO SKATING
There would be arguments from coaches of other sports involving individuals rather than teams - sports like tennis or golf or running sports – but coaching figure skaters is different. Balague has worked with coaches in all of those other competitive pursuits and delineates the differences figure skating presents.
“The sports psychology of skating is different,’’ she said. “The relationship with a coach is always important, but I think in skating it is particularly close and long and intense. I think it is impossible to separate the skater from the relationship with the coach and how that evolves over the years.”
Whether that is a good thing is a point of debate. “Like everything, it is a good thing when it works well,’’ Balague said. “When it doesn’t work it is very damaging. Coaches are always educators, but they have a huge impact on the young athlete, on those kids’ lives. The coaches get really hurt when a skater switches to another coach. They feel they invested a lot of themselves. So the relationship goes both ways, and that is unique.”
Competitive athletes train their bodies on a daily basis. They train parts of their bodies, muscle groups, hamstrings, ligaments, and lungs and all sorts of things you can’t see on the outside of the body.
Balague said the mind, a part of every human that no one ever actually sees, needs to be trained as well.
“Psychology skills are trainable, but they need to be trained,’’ she said. “Everyone is much more aware, and my field is doing a better job of explaining that psychology is one more skill. You can practice it. Energy, relaxation, confidence, you have to work at that daily.”
A skater unprepared for the psychological damage of a bad performance or score simply cannot recover as well as a skater who has mentally trained to handle such a moment.
“When there is a problem, and you have a competition next week, well, I as a psychologist cannot do anything in a week,’’ Balague said. “You have to have the training months and years in advance to be ready for that moment when you need it.”
Balague laughs when she talks about the belief in the skating world that talent must be identified and nurtured early. While she understands the need for a good base to be built in an athlete, she respectfully requests that you not contact her for assistance with the child.
“I don’t like to work with kids below the age of 12,’’ she said. “It’s like spaghetti before it’s cooked. I’d much rather work with the parents and coaches of those kids, telling them they have to let the kids relax.”
Even with changes in the scoring procedure over the last few years, competitive skating still includes an element of subjective judging. It is that element that makes the psychology of success such a challenge, according to Balague.
“I want an athlete to create a very good picture, to know what should be the focus of their attention,’’ she said. “I ask athletes, ‘What is your goal?’ If they answer ‘I want to have a clean program’ then that is an outcome I accept. And then we can talk about what to do if something goes wrong. I ask them ‘How do you recover?’
Judging I refuse to talk about,’’ she said with finality. “Have you ever seen a judge change a score? No. It is what it is.
“If you don’t like it, take up track and field,’’ she said.