Sports psychology consulting: Think like an athlete

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The calories balanced, the litres drank, and the hours slept are common quotas the student athlete may consider during their physical conditioning for optimal performance. But Austin “Wade” Wilson also recognizes that the thoughts passing through the athlete’s mind bear influence on their physical performance. Wilson is a recreation and leisure studies lecturer and sports psychology consultant with the UW Athletic Therapy department. He works with varsity teams and student athletes to build stress management skills, which can help enhance their athletic performance.

“They have huge responsibilities,” Wilson said. He elaborated that the stresses student athletes face are unique among their peers not involved in UW athletics. The athlete is expected to maintain physical strength throughout the season through commitment to personal conditioning schedules, as well as team and player schedules. This can amount to an additional 20 hours a week on top of their academic demands. Furthermore, they need to be attentive to their health to avoid illness preventing play. “[Being a student athlete] is basically a very intense part-time job,” Wilson said.

Sports psychology consultants encourage student athletes to recognize their stress, either through identifying triggers or physical symptoms, and suggest techniques, which they can adopt for stress management. “We teach breathing techniques,” Wilson said. Other areas worked upon include goal-setting, time management, and positive self-talk, which help students balance their athletic, academic, and personal lives and develop healthy coping behaviours in times of high stress. 

“There is a direct connection between the way you talk to yourself and the way you physically perform and behave,” Wilson said. “For example, if an athlete is telling themselves they are not ready or not good enough, this sends signals to the body and the heart might beat a little faster, some of your muscles might tense up, so there is a connection between the negative things we say to ourselves and our physical behaviour.”  

Long term negative self-talk is a habit that is difficult to give up and can have detrimental effects on the athlete.

“Conversely, if you’re positive [and say to yourself] ‘I can do this! I prepared well! I trained well!’ you already start to breath more deep and feel excited, you are more eager to take on tasks and even have more graceful movements,” Wilson said. He helps students find strategies to combat negative self-talk and promote positive self-talk to improve their performance. Another strategy taught for confidence involves visualization, where athletes envision themselves succeeding.

When asked about what initiatives would be beneficial to the student athletes’ mental well-being, Wilson highlights the need for education. Specifically, there is a need to stress the benefits of an attentively managed mentality for athletic performance. Despite the evidence-based services offered through sports psychology consultation, students must recognize its value and willingly adopt it to be effective.

Sports psychology is a discipline better known today than 10 or 15 years ago, and has been incorporated into athletic training. UW coaches are encouraged to seek out these services, which are often personalized to the needs of the team or player. Information on sports psychology consultation is available through the UW Athletic Therapy page on the UW Athletics website.

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