If we learned just one thing from watching the women at the 2016 Rio Olympics, it’s that those athletes are strong. We’re not just talking about physically strong, because clearly you know your way around a gym if you can propel your own body into the air and complete two backflips and a half-twist before touching the ground (we’re looking at you, Simone Biles). We’re talking about mental strength—the kind that gives you the guts to stand in front of a crowd and deliver.
And while we’re not all Olympic athletes, the advantages of sports psychology can be applied to everyday life. Her Campus U Mass Amherst turned to sports psychologist Barbara Steele for advice on handling stressful situations, performance pressure, and the benefits of building strong mental habits.
Her Campus: What do you perceive as the most common problem or block for athletes?
Barbara Steele: I have been treating athletes, performers and work professionals for over ten years, and the most common problem I find is negative self-talk. Self-talk is the act of talking to oneself, either out loud or silently in your head. What I find in my practice is that most athletes struggle to perform at their optimal level because they are talking to themselves in negative ways. For instance, the competitive figure skater who tells herself she may fall on that double axel, likely will fall on that double axel. Athletes who learn to be mindful of their “inner chatter” and are able to reframe, neutralize or challenge negative self-talk are much more able to optimize their performance.
HC: For many athletes, distraction can really influence their performance negatively. How do you recommend coping with distractions, such as loud noises or unwanted thoughts?
BS: There will always be distractions for athletes to manage during practice or competition. I work with my athletes on focusing on what is within their control, and then mentally file away what I call “uncontrollables.” Examples of things that are not within an athlete’s control are the weather, the referees’ calls, the judges, coaches, other parents, and the list goes on. Basically, the only thing within your control is yourself, and that is where athletes should center their focus.
HC: What kind of mental exercises tend to help people struggling with performance anxiety?
BS: Some of the main mental exercises I use to help athletes cope with performance anxiety are relaxation techniques, mindfulness of self-talk, energy regulation techniques and visualization.
HC: Do you think sports psychology can help people excel in fields beyond athletics?
BS: Yes, sports psychology can help people excel in fields beyond athletics. The psychological techniques are beneficial for anyone dealing with a pressure situation. I have applied the same techniques to musicians, dancers, actors and work professionals struggling with public speaking with great success.
And so, Collegiettes, whether you’re freaking out about a presentation, or worried about what people will think of you at the gym, remember that being aware of what’s going on in your mind can help a sister out. Stop with the negative talk, concern yourself only with things that are within your control, and go kick some booty!