My colleague Dr. Ciaran Dalton is a psychologist who works with athletes of all ages and levels, helping them to improve performance and manage the high and lows of being an athlete. He played soccer at Millersville University and professionally in Ireland. He is currently an assistant coach at Swarthmore College for the men's soccer team. I asked Ciaran some questions about sports psychology and how it helps athletes.
How did you become interested in sport psychology?
I'm a clinical psychologist, and my athletic background steered me into the world of sport psychology. My playing days as a collegiate and professional soccer player, coupled with my time coaching at the high school and college level, has provided me with a first-hand perspective of what athletes encounter.
I wrote my dissertation on mental toughness in sports. Personally, I struggled during my time as a professional in Ireland. I was a starting player and played well, but I struggled with confidence and a lot of negative self-talk, which are two of the main reasons athletes come into my office. I enjoy helping athletes work through these issues because I know what it's like.
How do you help casual athletes?
Casual athletes have different motives for playing sports: staying in shape, relieving stress, spending time with friends, or just having fun. I help these athletes clearly define their motivation and what they want to accomplish. Then we look to help the athlete get the most out of competing. Some became a casual athlete because of injury, so we would work on adjusting athletic expectations and working through the fear of getting re-injured.
I help other causal athletes improve concentration which can decrease during the course of a long game or run. Finally, some casual athletes make the mistake of comparing themselves to professionals. They develop problems with confidence and sometimes want to quit altogether. Helping these athletes shift their perspective can result in improved confidence and mental toughness.
How do you help high level athletes?
I help athletes manage negative self-talk and feelings (usually anxiety, anger, and worthlessness) which hurt their play. I also help athletes train their brain to work a little differently through mindfulness. With mindfulness, you can be in the moment or, as most athletes describe it, "in the zone." When I ask someone what was going on in his head during his best game ever, the player often struggles to answer because he was in the moment and free from mental distractions. When I ask the same question about his worst game, he can quickly rattle off a lot of negative thinking. This is an example of how the mind can hurt athletic performance when left unchecked and unnecessarily distracted.
What would you look for in a draft prospect?
From a psychological perspective I would look for true mental toughness. This is an athlete who can make a mistake, remain calm and focused, learn from the experience, and move on while playing at a high level. A mentally weak athlete will dwell on the mistake long after it's passed, which is distracting, lowers confidence and motivation, and eventually hinders performance.
Mental weakness in high school and collegiate athletes is easy to see because we all know the obvious physical signs of crumbling confidence: sullen facial expressions, slumped shoulders, reluctance to get involved in high pressure situations, and careless mistakes to name a few.
However, at the elite level like in the NFL, crumbling confidence may look different. You might see posturing and false bravado. NFL athletes have learned not to look like the sullen high school athlete because it is seen as a sign of weakness which will be exploited by the opposition. I would look for mental weaknesses at the NFL level through displays of uncontrolled anger. Some athletes see displays of anger as a sign of strength, but the truth is the anger often originates from a place of negative self-talk and lowered confidence.
If a draft prospect can remain passionate, motivated, yet calm and focused when they are struggling, then I would anticipate the same to occur when the bright light of the NFL spotlight is shining. There is a reason Joe Montana, regarded as one of the best, is called Joe Cool.
Pick a few players from the Eagles. What would you teach them?
Well, the current roster is a bit of a moving target, right? But as of when we're talking:
Kiko Alonso - Help him build a resilience in a place like Philly. There's no arguing Eagles fans can be pretty brutal, and I would anticipate Alonso could get a lot of heat with any mistake, especially because of the love fans had for McCoy. Plus, I would like to help him work through the psychological recovery of a serious injury.
DeMeco Ryans - Help him to return as an even more effective leader. He is obviously a great leader, but there is always room to get better.
Thanks to Ciaran for sharing his expertise in sports psychology. Visit his web page (http://www.cdaltonpsychology.com) for additional information.
Dr. Sarah Whitman practices sports psychiatry in Philadelphia. She is a guest contributor on Sports Doc.