Advice from an NYC Sports Psychologist

competitive anxiety, sports psychologist

How To Deal With Your Competitive Anxiety: Everyday Advice from an NYC Sports Psychologist

 

“The ball’s in your court, now.”

“She really hit it out of the park!”

“He’s down for the count today.”

“Help us score one for the team.”

“Don’t drop the ball on this one.”

“We’re down to the wire!”

 

Sports metaphors are everywhere. In business, in the classroom, in the movies, in finance, in our day-to-day life. Lots of us don’t play a sport anymore, or never even did, but the competitive anxieties still remain in our modern life, well beyond the field or court. We judge and compare ourselves to others, whether it’s through a co-worker’s career advancement or a traveling friend’s Instagram account.

Competitive anxiety is real. It’s so hard in today’s fast-paced world not to feel like we aren’t performing at a high enough rate, or like we aren’t falling behind the group. We want to keep up, and sometimes it feels like we’re drowning. Everywhere we look, we are asked to be “better versions of ourselves,” which can be a good thing, but it can also cause a whole lot of stress. Enter the sports psychologist

One of our providers, Dr. Itzik, a Mental Performance Consultant, frequently deals with competitive anxiety with his clients. Itzik teaches athletes and high-performing individuals of all ages and backgrounds strategies to break down barriers and achieve great performance. He is a Sports, Health and Exercise Science professional who specializes in the mental and physiological elements associated with peak performance. He “believes that educating people on how to be mindful of their emotions and how to manage and channel them during a peak performance environment is a key factor in performance enhancement.” Sounds like this could be helpful in our day-to-day experiences, too, right?

What Is A Sports Psychologist?

But first, what does a sports psychologist do? Well, that’s a pretty general question with a pretty all-over-the-place answer. They may be a trainer, a consultant, or a therapist/counselor/psychologist. They might work with career transitions. Or with eating disorders. They can help with team building, team dynamics, and group leadership. They can work with rehabilitation after an injury, or the psychological impact of an injury. They might work in research or as a service provider.

All this to say… they don’t just work with professional athletes.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “The same strategies that sport psychologists teach athletes — relaxation techniques, mental rehearsals and cognitive restructuring, for example — are also useful in the workplace and other settings.”

Athletes also use a psychologist to help them with concentration, goal-setting, controlling their temper, communication with teammates, keeping up an exercise program, motivation, and working with a team.

They’re awesome, is what we’re trying to say. They’re really awesome. For you, for me, for Lebron… we can be lumped into the same sentence as him, right?

It’s a relatively new field. The man regarded as the “Father of Sports Psychology,” Coleman Griffith, only starting research in the field around 1925. He first was an educational psychology professor at the University of Illinois, where he broke barriers by conducting research on athletic competition and how it related to psychology. Eventually, he was hired as the sports psychologist for the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs went to the World Series the following year, but Griffith was still distrusted by many, and often not listened to by various employees of the team and in the professional sports world. They fired him the year after. If only he could see where sports psychology is today!

In under 100 years, Sports Psychology has gone from being poo-pooed by professionals to being utilized in top competitive environments, such as the Olympics. Why the drastic change? Well, psychology in general has gained much respect in the past century. More people view therapy as an important part of life now than ever before, and it’s finally being recognized in the performance sector, as well. A wider swath of people are beginning to realize that our heads and brains are just as much a part of our bodies as the rest of us… who woulda thunk?!

It’s still hard to categorize performance related to the brain, though. Athletes can see visible physical results from training with a fitness coach. They can feel when their injuries are healing after many sessions with a physical therapist. But what they can’t see or feel directly, and what they cannot see on a gameday chart, is mental work. They can’t literally see any progress from countless therapy sessions. This makes the importance of sports psychology more difficult for some to grasp, because we can’t view immediate tangible results.

Alas. People rejecting therapy. Brushing aside anything having to do with **gasp** THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS. Well, we know it’s helpful, so that’s a start, I suppose!

Anyway, onto the fun stuff from the pro!

Itzik’s Work

Dr. Itzik

Mental Performance Consultant

Member of the American Psychological Association

LWWellness Provider

As a former fighter in the Special Forces unit of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Itzik was drawn to learn more about the individual and team dynamics that affect performance. He has extensive hands-on experience working with top-notch athletes, military personnel, and business clientele from a diversity of backgrounds, cultures, and ages. He has also worked with athletes from the U.S. Olympic team, U.S. Karate team, and the Israeli National Judo team.

Below is some advice from Itzik to help you with team dynamics and competitive anxiety. Enjoy!

We all know that technical and physical skills are important in sports, but there is also a mental aspect that is just as crucial. Technical and physical skills are the foundation of performance, but mental ability is what shifts, shakes, or empowers that foundation.

As sports psychology professionals, we utilize a set of tools to improve an athlete’s performance: mental skills training, assessments, regular sessions, biofeedback, emotion regulation, among others.

Some common cases we see are clients who experience challenges with either Competitive Anxiety or Team Dynamics. Below, we’ll give a brief overview of what these challenges may look like and how they can be addressed.

Competitive Anxiety

Let’s talk about something that many people have experienced: Competitive Anxiety.

One thing I often experience is clients who come in and perform really well in practice but fail to deliver during competition. It can be due to fear of being criticized or their inability to manage emotions. There can be many factors that affect an individual’s ability to perform well under pressure.

So, in this situation, we perform an assessment where we try to identify the true, underlying cause of what is affecting their ability to compete or play to their full potential. The experience of not being able to perform on the field as well as in practice can be extremely frustrating and confusing. People just don’t know what to do, and they often can’t see a way to fix it. They’ve tried many different things over and over again, but with no result.

Many times, I see these kids after they have exhausted all other possibilities and methods. In this case, we first have to identify the problem and then start work on targeting that issue (or issues) which can include anything from mental skills to managing emotions. We have many tools available to address this issue, but they must be tuned to the individual. Usually clients begin to notice changes in their ability/behavior after a couple of months of therapy.

These kids, and the people around them, are going through this experience together. It is not an isolated incident, but it is one that affects everyone within that circle. It can almost become a vicious cycle of frustration, confusion, and fear.

Team Dynamic

The second most common includes challenges with the Team Dynamic.

In team sports, the athletes must (of course) deal with their own challenges, but they must also deal with being part of a team. The first requires overcoming challenges individually, and the other demands overcoming challenges as a team and collaboratively. One could say that our work could be divided into two parts: helping an entire team by improving their cohesiveness and communication, and helping individuals to address their personal struggles. This could include anything from miscommunication with coaches, fears of inferiority, or challenges with sub-groups or ‘cliques’. I help these individuals to identify their specific challenges and provide them with the tools needed to become an active part of the team, while navigating and managing these problems in a positive way. Sometimes, these individuals are already very good players with plenty of potential, but the only thing that’s holding them back is their social environment. They go to practice and put in the work, but they don’t get along with their teammates and often feel isolated. There can be many small things that affect the individual and team dynamic.  

..And?

Alright, so you’ve read the stuff. But how can this help you in your intramural league? In the office? In your family relationships?

Here are some basic tools that sports psychologists use with their clients to help them with anxiety related to competition or performance. You might be surprised by how seeing a psychologist can help you.

Focus On What You Can Control

What is in your control? Practicing. Eating well. Getting enough sleep. Being as prepared as possible. What is out of your control? What other people think. How other people do in life. What other people say. Who wins or loses. What you cannot control is impossible to control — I repeat, IMPOSSIBLE! — so take this off your plate. Set your mind on what you can control, instead.

Practice Self-Confidence

Instead of focusing on past failures, focus on past successes. What brought you here today that put you in this competitive position? There are things in life that you did well to get you here in the first place. The more you prepare, the more confident you will be, because at least you won’t be worried about not having done the work.

Set Goals

Set very specific goals that you know you can accomplish. “Having two kids by the time I’m 35” is not an example of something you know you can accomplish. “Exercising for 30 minutes of every day for two weeks” is.

Practice Relaxation

What relaxes you? Is it aromatherapy? A bath? A run? Specific breathing techniques? Start to narrow down the things that give you relaxation (hint: it usually has to do with the mind and body together), and use them leading up to the event.

Find Distraction

It’s ok to distract yourself before a competition if it helps you with your anxiety. You can read a book, talk with coworkers, listen to music, stretch — find something that works for you!

Visualization

This is also known as imagery or mental rehearsal. Imagine each moment of your event, including physical movements. Try to imagine it from your own perspective (not someone watching you), and at the speed in which you will actually do it. Make it as real as possible in your mind and do it step by step.

How Can A Certified Psychologist Help Me?

Think you might be interested in working with a sports psychologist? It bears repeating here that you don’t need to be an athlete to work with one. You don’t have to be anything special to work with one. (Although you are special, I promise.)

When choosing a psychologist of any kind, it’s important to know what you’re looking for. A therapist or psychologist should specialize in whatever you need. The best psychologist for you might be a local psychologist — ask for psychologist recommendations and do your research.

Looking For A Psychologist Around Me

  • Do an online psychologist search to find a psychologist locator/psychologist lookup tool.
  • Look up your options in a psychologist directory for a licensed psychologist in the area.
  • Ask a psychologist office! Many can point you towards a good psychologist/psychotherapist.

Psychologist Vs. Therapist

What is the difference between a therapist and psychologist? Well, both strive to improve people’s lives. And after that, it gets a little murky. One main difference is that psychologists have advanced degrees (often PhDs) in psychology, whereas therapists can have any number of degrees in specific disciplines, such as social work, family counseling, or substance abuse. A psychologist is a social scientist, often having dealt with research or clinical settings, who is trained to study mental process and human behavior. A psychologist and psychiatrist often work together. A therapist is a broader umbrella that many fields fit into, including psychologists.

Alright, there you have it! Sports Psychology in a nutshell. Many thanks to Itzik for his words of wisdom! All this talk about healthy competition almost makes us want to join a soccer league… almost.

If you would like me to connect you with one of our expert therapists or dietitians, please contact me. I look forward to hearing from you!

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