When I was growing up, I never heard from any coach statements like: “From a mental perspective, here are some tips that will help your free throw percentage;” or “I know you are in a batting slump, so I’d like to give you some mental tricks that you can implement when you are two batters out,” or, “Here are some mental exercises you can employ prior to the game that will lower your anxiety.”

Back in the day, most coaches taught and treated every athlete the same way.  Coaching was a “left-brain” cognitive exercise, and if athletes experienced a major stressor in their lives, they were merely told to “suck-it-up” and forget about it.

Then it happened.  Looking for an edge over competitors, a coach here and a coach there began to implement mental solutions to the roadblock’s athletes were facing. What they found was that their “C” player began to play at a “B” level, and the “B” player increased his/her productivity to an “A” level.

So, what part does sports psychology play in the betterment of today’s athletic teams?  It has been demonstrated that whether on the field or on the floor, there are three components that come together to bring success.  First, is the innate ability of the individual. No amount of sports psychology can turn a non-player into a superstar.  Second, is to consider the technical skills learned and implemented by the athlete from his/her coach, and third is the contribution of one trained in the psychology of sport performance who imparts to athletes’ techniques that will assist in motivating them to a higher level of play.

Before we go into some specifics of how a sports psychologist or mental coach can help a team, I’d like to define how we at Truett McConnell define success.  To us, “success” is more than wins and losses.  In his book, More Than Winning, the former head football coach at Nebraska (and a devout Christian), Tom Osborn said, “I measure success more in terms of how closely a team has come to realizing its potential.”  The athletic arena is the mere training ground for life, for from sports a player learns how to face adversity and pain, to develop tenacity, and to set goals.

So how can one trained in sport psychology assist a coach? I already mentioned that in the past, coaches mainly focused on left-brain cognitive training when developing their athletes.  A trained mental coach however, is not concerned about the logistics of the sport as it pertains to “x’s and o’s”, but rather, his/her focus zeros on what’s going on in the right-side of the athletes’ brain which houses the emotions. Sports psychology seeks to understand why two teams of equal ability have very different win/loss records.

Of course, the answer to questions like that are multifaceted. The sports psychologist may first begin by looking at peripheral issues such as, “What is the level of school spirit like on campus?” and “Are the students mostly commuters and gone on game days?” Then the researcher may move on to questions regarding team composition to determine how that dimension affects their performance. Third, he/she probably would investigate the degree to which players operate from intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation.  And fourth, he/she would consider what fears and anxiety plagues team members which would lower their confidence level.  The factor analysis can go on and on until clear reasons are realized, and strategies are set in place to change the trend.

In part the focus areas of a mental coach at a university include:

  • Administer psychological assessments to determine specific temperament traits along with strengths and weaknesses that a coach needs to know in order to effectively train that individual.
  • Offer individual counseling to student athletes. Getting to the root of their day-to-day problems will keep minor issues from escalating into major hurdles.
  • Through biblical devotions, helping athletes learn how to transfer athletic skills into life principles.
  • Assist a coach with game specific issues such as: mental pregame readiness; focus skills; team unity concepts and exercises; conflict resolution; “bounce back” techniques after a loss, etc.

So then, how is TMU implementing this third dimension of emotional awareness into its athletic program?  Beginning in 2018, The Professional Counseling master’s program at Truett began a joint project with the athletic department to begin the integration process.  In the past year, our graduate faculty and graduate students have evaluated ninety-two athletes through the administering and scoring of five different assessments.  The results were then tabulated and a written report for each of the ninety-two athletes was provided to the respective coaches.  Since each player is unique, these reports were aimed to help coaches to better address the specific needs of the athlete.  In addition to these individual reports an overall team profile for the coach to observe was developed.  Finally, our department combined all the research data to reveal an overall profile of the TMU athlete.

A further step to implementing the third dimension for the athletic department is the development of a soon to be counseling center, where our licensed faculty plus graduate students completing their practicum and internship training will be available to counsel the myriad of student athletes that attend TMU.

In John 17, in His prayer to His father, Jesus states “that they (referring to all believers) may all be one, even as Thou, Father are in Me, and I in Thee.” At TMU, those of us who teach in the Leonhard Schiemer School of Psychology and Biblical Counseling wish to be “one” in this instance with the athletic department, striving toward our goal to train the body, mind, and soul of our student athletes. Thus, in a small way our department can become the “hidden boost” to the success of our athletic programs.


Dr. Rick Fowler is Professor of Psychology for the Leonhard Schiemer of Psychology & Biblical Counseling.

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