Conference Preview
Sport Psychology and Skating

By: Gloria Balague

February 1, 2012

   In The Loop Articles

1. In your own words, what is sport psychology?

Sport Psychology is learning to be your own best “Mental Coach”, learning to “think right” in sport.

2. Briefly describe what you plan to share with the coaches at Conference?

I would like to share two basic ideas with coaches: First, psychological skills, just like physical skills, are trainable. Therefore they need to be trained in practice first and then in competition. Second, that most of the basic psychological skills training is done by the coaches; coaches end up coaching fear of failure or coaching confidence, promoting a sense of responsibility in the skater or a dependent, passive approach. Often, coaches do not realize they are coaching these attributes, so I want to talk about how to “create an environment of excellence”.

3. What experience do you have working with skaters?

I have been working with a variety of levels of skaters for the past 10 years, and I have had the good fortune to be able to work with a number of great coaches who have taught me a lot.

4. How does sport psychology help coaches and skaters plan for success?

Sport psychology aims at helping athletes and coaches identify what works for them.  Coaches need to know effective teaching and motivating strategies, what kind of feedback achieves the desired results, etc. For skaters, we try to find out what focus is helpful in practice, what is helpful in competition, what is the most effective type of thinking, the self-dialogue that helps and the one that hinders, etc. Once we identify what works, we aim to reproduce the successful patterns. Sport Psychology will not make good a skater who is not skilled or who does not practice, but it will allow a skater to CONSISTENTLY perform at the level he or she is physically and technically able to achieve.

5. Does an athlete’s sport psychology needs change throughout the season?

I believe that early in the season, when the programs are being developed and new jumps or moves are being taught, the psychological demands are different than those required at competition time, when the goal is to perform what has already been learned.

6. Is it best to tailor sport psychology based on the level and age of an athlete?

The level and age of an athlete are essential determinants in the psychological plan, but other issues are also relevant, such as the personality of the athlete: As coaches know well, not everything works the same way for everyone. There are also important circumstances in the daily lives of the athletes that will impact the intervention: a divorce in the family, a serious injury, a very stressful school phase, etc. All of these issues have a strong impact and must be considered.

7. As a sport psychologist for the 1992 and 1996 Olympic games, what were some of your responsibilities?

There were two major goals: make sure that the preparation was solid and that athletes knew what they needed to do to get themselves in the most effective frame of mind, including re-focusing after a problem or distraction. We also tried to anticipate possible sources of stress or distraction and prepare for it. Once we got to the Olympics my role switched to that of observing the athletes and coaches to detect as early as possible signs of anxiety or stress. For that reason it was very important that I knew the athletes and had seen them in practice and in competition, so I could detect the changes and intervene early. I also tried to remind them of our plan and we kept as many things as possible the same.

8. What is one of the most important things to remember about the periodization of psychological skills training?

The main point to remember is that psychological skills, like physical skills, build upon one another. We must teach the basic skills under easy, non-stress conditions, and then build up so they can use them under the stress of competition. Often athletes and coaches seek psychological interventions right after a competition failure, often too close to the major competition (i.e. regionals). At that time it is not feasible to teach the basic self-management skills needed and expect the athlete to be able to use them under stress. We can teach an athlete to relax, but we really do not want an athlete to be too relaxed in competition, only the right amount. That requires learning to relax, and then learning how much relaxation is needed in competition, and finally, learning to regulate the levels of tension with “mini” relaxations. It is a progression.

9. What is one of the most forgotten or unknown things when it comes to coaching at the elite level?

Even at the elite level enjoyment is crucial. If the athlete is not enjoying it, it is hard to continue giving a high level of effort. Part of that enjoyment is positive feedback by the coach. Elite level athletes need to hear that the coach is noticing solid attempts at changes, which are small details that are now better. Also important is encouraging the input of the elite athlete. Coaching has to adapt also to the level of experience and achievement of the athlete, allowing more input.

10. What is a good way to keep a skater motivated when he ors he is having a difficult time with a particular skill?

Like most coaches do, the best way is to break down the skill and ask the athlete to redefine success. Success cannot be at that moment to complete the move well because it may take a while.  For example, success may defined as: 1) attempting it the new way, 2) doing the right take-off, 3) right position in the air, and 4) finally landing it. Coaches and athletes should keep track of the level of success at these intermediate steps. A good way to evaluate learning phases is to ask the athlete (and the coach!) to use three words: Good-Better-How. What was good about this attempt, what do you want to do better next time,  and what do you need to do to improve that?