Over Coming Stress And Pressure Is No Game:

Principles From Sport Psychology Can Help You On And Off The Field


Dr. H. Jean Wright II

It’s that time of year again when students are preparing for fall semester.  Whether you are an upper classmen, or beginning freshmen, the energy of anticipation, promise, and potential, all seem to gravitate simultaneously into the pit of your stomach as the first day of class fast approaches.  Most college students can relate to the mild headaches and frayed nerves that are all too familiar registration week.  The student athlete is no exception.  In fact, student athletes are saddled with even more on their “to do” list than general students whose top priority may simply be trying to make sure they get that chemistry class in the afternoon instead of early morning.  The reality is that student athletes have two extremely time consuming jobs: school and sports.  Success in either, hinges on how well a student athlete handles stress and pressure on and off the field.  The probability of performing consistently well in both can be greatly enhanced by learning and implementing key principles from sport psychology.

 It is now fairly common to hear coaches, athletic trainers, and educators from a variety of disciplines, state what we in the world of psychology have known a long time: the mind and body have a very powerful connection.  This is especially true for athletes.  As we explore how principles of sport psychology enhance athletic performance, you will notice how these same principles have great utility toward improving performance in all goal-oriented activities.

 To help us understand how sport psychology principles can benefit athletes and non-athletes alike, I enlisted the help of noted sport consultant, and former figure skater, Karlene Sugarman, MA, and interviewed former NFL player, All-Pro Wide Receiver, Fred Barnett.  In her book: Why Mental Training? (1998), Karlene Sugarman outlines the most basic principles of sport psychology, but for our discussion we will focus on just one: Peak Performance.

 When you think of peak performances, generally what come to mind are fantastic individual performances that become a catalyst for overall team victory?  For instance, Michael Jordan’s play during six NBA Championships; or more recently, Tom Brady’s performance during three NFL Super Bowl victories.  Most would agree that these individual performances qualify as “peak.”  What is it that causes one player to perform flawlessly under pressure, while another player wilts under stress?  The mind/body connection and individual circumstances influence performance on game day.

 Many athletes and sport psychology consultants describe peak performance as being in “a zone”, or in “a grove.”  Regardless of how you describe it, most agree that it’s the feeling that everything will go your way.  When things are going your way the basket looks as big as an ocean and everything you put up goes in.  Players often describe being in a zone as seeing things in “slow motion.”  Karlene Sugarman identifies seven key elements to peak performance: relaxation, confidence, staying completely focused, effortless, automatic, being in control, and having fun.  How can this “groove” or “zone” of peak performance be recreated consistently?  The best way to create an atmosphere for peak performance in any endeavor, and repeat it consistently, is quality preparation. 

 Former Philadelphia Eagle and NFL All-Pro wide receiver, Fred Barnett, understands preparation.  He talked about what it took to go from playing in high school, playing in college, and finally, not just playing pro ball, but becoming All-Pro.  Fred Barnett’s key elements included taking basic God-given talent and working hard to improve every single day.  He talked about motivation as key to peak performance.  “You have to want it, whatever ‘it’ is, very much.”  Student athletes are under tremendous pressure to perform in the classroom and on the field.  Fred Barnett was no exception.  He spoke of the stress that accompanies trying to balance playing a sport and preparing oneself academically.  Some may not see this as a “mental health” issue.  However, stress handled inappropriately can wear you down mentally and physically, diminishing performance.  Fred emphasized that he has used visualization since age fourteen to help him prepare for any challenge.  While off the field he actually visualized himself making key plays.  So, when it was time to perform on the field, his mind and body were on “automatic” and more often than not Fred reached peak performance.

 While, everyone can’t be an All-Pro wide receiver in the NFL, you can be “all pro” in your preparation for every day life activities simply by adhering to the basic principles of sport psychology.  Preparation is the key to peak performance.  The old adage “practice makes perfect” applies here.  Visualize yourself carrying out the activities that lead to a consistent quality performance.  This will create a sense of confidence that carries over to the “real game.”  Use relaxation and breathing techniques to find your center, calm your mind, and create a quiet intensity.  Stay focused and in control of your emotions.  You’ve done the work; now reap the benefits of your preparation.  Applying these simple suggestions to all that you do will most often lead to an automatic, effortless, peak performance.  Now, how fun is that?