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Mind Games

By Bethany Bradsher

Hoping to boost morale and productivity, companies often bring in a motivational speaker to lead a rah-rah meeting to improve workers’ attitude and motivation. Golfers rush out to buy the latest video promising mental secrets to lower scores. But these quick-fix approaches hardly ever work, according to psychology professor Tom Raedeke, who has worked with athletes and coaches for more than 20 years. Coaches around campus agree with him that just as physical skills can only become consistent through practice and repetition, improving your mental game only comes from learning proper thinking patterns and then committing to practice, practice, practice.

“Some athletes are more physically gifted than others, but everybody can improve their physical skills,” Raedeke says. “It takes systematic training, it takes hard work, it takes conscientious effort. The same thing is true with the mental game. Some athletes are naturally more mentally tough, but every single athlete can learn and grow and improve in their mental game.”

The mental demands in college athletics vary from sport to sport, but the common thread is this: A breakdown above the neck can nullify untold hours of physical training. It happens when athletes can’t duplicate how they perform in practice when they’re under the pressure of competition.

Raedeke has worked with volleyball players, runners and other athletes, but he prefers to train coaches in the fundamentals of sport psychology. If he can help a coach, he reasons, the impact will be much broader than if he works with just one athlete at a time.

“In talking to a lot of coaches, they say, ‘I’m really good at the Xs and Os. I know the game. But that mental stuff? That’s kind of touchy feely. I’m not sure what to do with that.’” Raedeke says. “I think coaches are receptive to it, but some just aren’t very comfortable in that side of it.”

For us weekend warriors looking to improve our games, the good news is that this touchy-feely stuff that works for college athletes can work for us, too. The experts say you should start by focusing on your attitude. Think about it like a muscle needing a workout.

Take your mental pulse daily

If any coach understands the necessity for mental as well as physical workouts, it’s Rick Kobe. As the head coach for 60-plus swimmers and divers, he presides over a sport requiring early-morning workouts in a chlorine-scented facility that is more than 40 years old. College swimmers never see the sun; it’s a grind that tends to wear on some psyches.

“In swimming, it’s every single day, every single practice,” says Kobe, ECU’s longest-serving head coach, with 29 years of experience. “Any good swim coach has to be a psychologist or it’s not going to happen.”

Kobe relies on his team leaders to continually take the mental pulse of other team members and let a coach know when someone is struggling. He might not do anything if one of his swimmers seems off at one practice, he said, but if he sees the same poor attitude on the second day he will have a one-on-one meeting with the swimmer to help get them back on track.

When he works with athletes, Raedeke, who has been at East Carolina since 1998 and has experience in venues like the U.S. Olympic Training Center, tries to identify what has cropped up to block their focus. “What I try to do is figure out what is standing in the way of them reaching their potential or performing up to their physical abilities and then try to improve their mental game,” he says. “What I try to do is give them the skills to perform in a pressure situation.”

Golf, it’s often said, is played on a six-inch course between your ears, which is why men’s and women’s golf coaches Press McPhaul and Kevin Williams are completely sold on the benefits of the mental game. They teach kids that if you master the little things, big things usually will follow. “It may be oversimplifying it a little bit, but a good round is built on a lot of good shots, and good shots are built on being confident, and being confident is built on feeling prepared, and feeling prepared comes from having a trusted process that has yielded good results,” McPhaul says. “Most of the time that they are having some swing error or physical error, if you trace that back far enough that root is probably in some mental or lack of trust breakdown. “

Avoid ‘mental blindness’

So, you develop and religiously adhere to a practice regimen, which helps you produce a winning backhand or a great putting stroke. It pays off when you hit that great shot and feel that rush of adrenaline. You feel great until your next shot sails out of bounds. What happened?

Williams is constantly preaching a concept he calls “emotional blindness,” which teaches golfers to avoid letting one emotional experience affect their next decision on the course. “Emotional blindness is, you hit a bad shot, and you let that control your next decision.”

Often it helps to stop thinking about your performance altogether. When Williams first took the ECU job in 2007, the team’s lone senior was a Swedish golfer named Emelie Lind. Lind had been averaging 77 strokes per round, scores that Williams felt didn’t reflect her potential. He concluded she was struggling because she was too fixated on her own scorecard. He tried a new approach, telling Lind that as the team’s senior leader she needed to stop thinking about her own score and instead focus on what she could do to direct her teammates.

“During her senior year she had her lowest stroke average ever, taking off almost two-and-a-half strokes per round,” Williams says. “I firmly believe that because she stopped worrying about her game and just played golf, she got out of her own way.”

Volleyball coach Pati Rolf has integrated a campus ROTC instructor’s experience and insight into her quest to develop leadership on her squad. Lt. Col. Eric Buller, who fought in Somalia and now teaches military science in Army ROTC, has met with the volleyball players weekly to challenge them to dig deeper in athletics, in the classroom and in the community.

“The first step was defining a leader,” says Buller, who came to view his sessions with the volleyball team as one of the highlights of his week. “The act of defining leadership is the instrument that has gotten them to open up and talk about things.”

Jeff Connors, strength and conditioning coach

Jeff Connors, strength and conditioning coach

Realize it’s a battle out there

Jeff Connors is a coach known for his ability to zero in on the mental side of the game. A strength-and-conditioning coach, he’s fond of saying, “Confidence is born of demonstrated ability.” And that ability, he believes, comes from showing determination and focus through intensive strength-and-conditioning regimens.

Connors has made a 30-year career out of helping athletes find the internal motivation to push themselves up to and past physical limits in the weight room and on the track. With a bookshelf full of military biographies and tactical books, Connors adheres to the ideals that soldiers carry into battle, and he believes that coaches can inspire athletes to the type of loyalty, hard work and selflessness that defines our military.

When he held the same position at ECU in the ’90s under head coaches Bill Lewis and Steve Logan, Connors became known for pulling surprising results from athletes who started out smaller, weaker and less recruited than their opponents at larger programs. With his drill sergeant mentality and plenty of tough love, Connors combined a stream of positive motivation with a brutal conditioning regimen to ensure that no team would be fitter in the fourth quarter than his team.

“My favorite book is the Marine Corps warfighting skills manual, because I can go in there and read about character, and I can read about discipline, and I can read about accountability and I can read about leadership, and all these things have parallels to athletics,” Connors says. “What I always tell athletes is I draw these parallels because if it’s good enough for the most successful war fighting machine in the history of the world, it’s probably going to work for us, too.”