By Margie Sugarman
Margie Sugarman is a leading board-certified psychotherapist and sports consultant based in New York. Margie’s desire is to enhance performance through the connection between the mind and body, and her current client list includes Olympic, professional and amateur athletes across the country. Her experience employing various therapeutic modalities has helped equestrians win classics, junior medals and grand prix. Do you have a question you want Margie to answer? Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m looking to up my sports game and improve my performance. I work out, eat healthy foods and practice diligently with my horse and trainer. Someone recently suggested adding a sports psychologist to my team. How can a sports psychologist help me reach my goals?
When we think about an athlete’s physicality, a specific description typically comes to mind: strong, high endurance, lean, muscled and fast. However, physical abilities alone are never enough to achieve notoriety in any sport. The field of sports psychology is based on the concept that mental skills and psychological attributes, along with physical qualities, are the true ingredients for athletic success.
Remaining calm under pressure, analyzing the competitive arena, maintaining motivation to follow the training regime and many other innate skills shape the differences in performance personality and go far beyond muscle mass. To achieve and maintain the gold standard of performance, athletes need to be able to perform at a very high level while under an incredible amount of pressure. This leads us to the question: How much are personality types and athletic success related?
What’s interesting is that studies have shown that, despite popular opinion, no athletic personality type truly exists. An interesting place to begin is by asking, “Is the athlete’s ability innate, or does he/she really need to work at it?”
What we do know is that the research has pinpointed specific personality characteristics in successful athletes as compared to unsuccessful athletes. One of the biggest differences is related to the way we think and the way we respond to the challenges in our chosen sport; in other words, our mental toughness. Mental toughness is either the natural or psychological edge that the athlete develops that helps them cope with the competitive demands of their sport: the focus, confidence and ability to stay in control under pressure.
Upper-level athletes identify critical personality qualities that have to be developed for their mental toughness:
- Reacting positively to and ultimately loving the pressure of the competitive arena
- Coping with and adapting to the sudden changes that occur in the competitive arena
- Positively channeling their anxiety
- Not being hindered by mistakes and allowing those mistakes to be part of the process
- Being aware of the negative self-talk statements that might be thought and immediately changing them to positive statements
- Learning from failure and allowing that failure to be a driving force
- Knowing how to deal with success
Equestrian sports, and sports in general, are social, mental and physical activities. The same personality traits that make social situations a breeze for some and a chore for others may also have an impact on athletic success. Extroverts feel energized by the clapping and cheering of the crowd, while introverts become progressively drained by the noise around them. Assertive individuals take extreme glory in their victories, but accept defeat with aplomb. Self-conscious perfectionists dread losing so badly that it interferes with their chances of winning.
This is where sports psychologists can intervene and help with changing/enhancing the perspectives of the athlete. Techniques can be taught that add depth to the athlete’s attitude and allow for mind/body changes to occur. The winning combination is then to include the coach so they can tailor their methods to meet the specific needs of the individual athlete. The result is improved athletic performance.