Winning mindset: Sports psych & the athlete

womble-nats-blogFor pro athletes like players on the Washington Nationals, keeping the body in top physical form is undeniably important. But there’s also more to baseball than muscles and reflexes. In many ways, baseball is a mind game.

“It’s been estimated for baseball that mental factors determine as much as 80 percent of the fluctuations in day-to-day performance,” said Melissa Womble, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist with the Inova Sports Medicine group, the official hospital network and sports medicine partner of the Washington Nationals. The Inova Sports Medicine team offers comprehensive, personalized care for athletes at every age and activity level, with a focus on injury prevention, recovery and performance. Athletes can access this care all in one convenient location in Fairfax, Va.

Despite the importance of mental factors, amateur athletes and their coaches are often much more likely to focus on physical skills. Womble added, “Unfortunately, sport psychology services are underutilized mostly due to lack of knowledge.”

Luckily, Womble and other sport psychologists are experts in preparing athletes — both pros and amateurs — for competitive success as well as overcoming psychological obstacles that may be detrimental to their performance.

Mental toughness

Picture a player in the last inning of a long, tough game. He or she might be mentally counting statistics, experiencing negative thoughts or watching what the coach is doing. He or she might also be worried about disappointing teammates or fans, or dwelling on a mistake made a few minutes before. On top of that, there’s the fatigue, especially after a long, draining baseball season.

“Sport psychologists can teach skills to help players stay in the moment,” Womble said. “We commonly work on maintaining concentration, enhancing confidence and maintaining composure — that mental toughness piece that refers to an athlete’s ability to play at or close to their best regardless of internal or external circumstances.”

But seeing a sport psychologist doesn’t mean the athlete isn’t tough enough. Rather, sport psychology is designed to give athletes better skills to perform consistently and ultimately succeed.

“We all know that physical skills need to be regularly practiced and refined. But psychological skills also have to be worked on regularly,” Womble said.

Tools for success

Sport psychologists such as Womble teach athletes concrete skills and techniques to improve their games. Those skills cover a range of areas, including:

  • Mental imagery: Sport psychologists often help athletes develop mental “scripts” of their perfect game that they can rehearse in their mind.
  • Perspective: Athletes can discuss their ideas of success and failure with a sport psychologist to help them better understand motivating factors and ways to put minor setbacks into perspective.
  • Anxiety and negativity: It’s not uncommon for athletes to suffer anxiety about their performances or to dwell on mistakes. Womble recalls working with a golfer who would become frustrated by his errors and lose focus during tournaments. “By learning to control his thoughts and anxieties, he went on to be very successful at the pro level,” she said.
  • Relationships and communication: Tensions with coaches, teammates or even friends and family members can get in the way of playing well. Psychologists can help athletes work through these internal circumstances. For example, Womble recalls working with a runner who was struggling with performance during races because of her coach’s comments while running. Womble taught the runner tools to restructure her negative thought processes, and she also helped the coach learn ways to incorporate positive motivation when offering feedback.
  • Injury recovery. Coping with an injury, whether it be a concussion or an orthopedic injury, can be stressful for athletes who are eager to get back in the game. And athletes who have been injured, such as those who have been sidelined with a concussion, can sometimes be nervous to return to play. That hesitancy can put them at risk for more injuries, Womble said. Sport psychologists work to help athletes regain their confidence to play at the top of their game. They can also assist athletes in the process of coping with injury by educating the athlete about the recovery process, teaching specific psychological coping skills, preparing the athlete to appropriately cope with setbacks in rehabilitation and fostering social support during the process.

The healthcare professionals at Inova Sports Medicine are dedicated to helping athletes at any level improve their game.

For more information or to make an appointment, call 703-970-6464 or visit Inova Sports Medicine. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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