Reducing Anxiety in Sports

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

Reducing Anxiety in Sports

Reducing anxiety in sports is largely about managing expectations. In my work as a sport psychology consultant I work with a large number of high level junior tennis players. Almost all young athletes I work see have the goal of playing with less anxiety.

In many cases the tennis athlete is far more anxious when competing against a weaker player than a stronger player. In playing a weaker player the expectation is “I am better. I should win easily. If I don’t put this opponent away quickly, others will think I am not very good”. This added pressure sets the player up for increased muscle tension, decreased concentration and a greater chance for mistakes and poor play. In fact the worry cycle might begin if he/she losses a few points or games. The fear of losing to a “weaker” player comes to the forefront and increases with every lost point.

In contrast, when playing a stronger player, anxiety is less because the thinking is, “I am not supposed to win. She is the ranked player. No one is going to think less about me if I lose.” As a result, the player plays more relaxed and with a greater sense of freedom. They often perform at their best and may, at times, pull off an upset win.

Another method to reduce anxiety in sports is training the athlete to monitor and modify their breathing. By learning to breathe, slowly and deeply through the belly, the athlete can take the edge off of negative emotions and anxiety and anger and maintain a steadier composure in the face of adversity.

Combining strategies from cognitive therapy with behavioral methods provides the athlete with specific tools they can use to reduce anxiety in sports and perform closer and more consistently to their true potential.

How to Become Resilient

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

When you are resilient, you can handle adversity, come back when you are behind and channel pressure into helping you perform at your best. Resilient people use an ABCD or 4 step approach.

First of all, when they make a mistake, resilient people quickly(A) analyze it without judgment or emotion. They know they can’t do anything about what has just happened but seek to prevent future mistakes.

Secondly, they (B) breathe- slowly and deeply. This relaxes the body and calms the mind. It helps to forget the mistake, keep it in realistic perspective and move on.

The third step resilient people use is (C), they correct the mistake by focusing on what they might do differently the next time to insure a different result.

The fourth step is they (D) decide on a plan or course of action that they will immediately implement in order to move forward with greater confidence and effectiveness.

Resilient people have learned these skills either through trial and error or by being taught by someone who is resilient themselves.

If we use the sport of tennis as an example, consider a resilient player. He or she double faults. Instead of becoming self critical or overly negative, he mentally reviews the source of the error and decides the ball was tossed too low. He takes a calming breath to help let go and forget the last shot and pictures himself tossing the ball higher at the next opportunity. As he prepares to serve he thinks to himself “Higher toss” and pictures his arm releasing the ball as his arm raises past his eyes. All of this is accomplished in a matter of seconds.

Resilient people practice this 4 part process in most things they do. Try it yourself for three weeks in a particularly area of your life and notice what results you get.


Self-help Books

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

I have been using self-help books as a supplement to my work with clients for over 40 years. My mentor, Dr. Albert Ellis was one of the earliest psychologists to write his own self-help books. Bibliotherapy is widely used by therapists in their work with clients. The reading of material and engaging in exercises provided provides structure and support for clients between sessions while strengthening the work that goes on within the therapy session.

Many self-help books fill the shelves of major bookstores and some people read and benefit by them without ever seeing a therapist. Most individuals with serious concerns find these books interesting but often insufficient to provide relief by themselves.

Over the past 10 years, I have written and published more than 14 self-help books. One of the unique features is they are in the format of small, pocket-sized publications that individuals can conveniently carry with them and refer to whenever they needed a helpful reminder about how to think or respond during difficult times or challenging situations. These pocket sized self-help guidebooks provide insights and strategies on many of the most common problems individual face including stress, anger, anxiety, depression, worry, alcohol, drugs, smoking, weight, marital stress and work conflicts.

The guidebooks are written simply and practically with illustrations to highlight various strategies and methods. Most are 24-32 pages. Concise and to the point, they are useful aids to help clients maximize their improvement between sessions. They are sold to therapists to use with their clients. At $10 a copy, they are inexpensive, durable self-help books that will assist clients not only in feeling better but getting better.

In my practice, I often teach clients how to relax using diaphragmatic breathing. I demonstrate and they practice within the session. The guidebook provides clear and easy reminders that help them practice more effectively at home.

Whether you are one of my clients or seeing another therapist, you should consider inquiring about using a self-help book to add to your therapy experience.

Anger Management: Managing by Negative Example

Friday, February 25th, 2011

“Anger” is a powerful emotion which, when channeled properly can motivate and inspire us to do heroic things, perform at our best and even push us to do more than we ever thought possible. Sadly, especially in sports, anger is “mismanaged” and “unregulated” resulting in unpleasantness not only for the angry person but for all those exposed to him or her.

Since we all learn, to some extent by watching others and give extra attention to those who are famous or excel in sports, these “celebrities” can exert strong influence on our own reactions to adverse situation. Fortunately, we can use their occasional “bad displays” of behavior to take a different path when faced with similar circumstances and frustrations.

Recently, I was watching a tennis match between tennis legend and former world champion, John McEnroe. He was getting killed by an opponent and rather than give credit to the excellent play of his opponent or accept his own occasional lapses in performance, in typical McEnroe style, he would find fault with the calls, intimidate the lines people and even yell and scream at the chair umpire. Upon hitting a double fault (totally his own fault), he would then whack a ball into the stadium.

Such outrageous behavior is totally against the rules of the game and the umpire should have penalized him. McEnroe does this to try to pump himself up, distract his opponent, and intimidate the officials so he can perhaps get a favorable call or two later on. I believe some of it is just a conditioned reaction to his intolerance for others and his intensely self-critical nature.

As we watch this behavior unfold a good take away would be to feel sorry for McEnroe. How sad it must be to have such little control over his emotions and to go through life living at the edge of an explosion. How embarrassing it must be to his friends and family to see the whining, complaining and cry baby behaviors of a grown adult unfold in public before an audience of millions.

Whenever you witness this type of anger problem in someone, let it be a trigger for you to say to yourself, That’s bad. I don’t want to ever behave that way.” “I’m in control of my emotions.” “I will find a better way to handle my frustrations and disappointments.”

In my role as a sports psychologist, I teach my clients these and other tools from cognitive therapy help them more effective “manage their emotions”, “tame their anger”

Egg Your Way to Better Tennis

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

Tennis legend Martina Navratalova talked about the importance of “soft hands” in becoming a good player. Since tennis is a game of “feel”, the ability to create softness in the hands translates to improved shot control. 

As a sports psychologist who works a lot with tennis players, I am constantly looking to create effective ways to teach mental skills to my students and those who participate in my mental toughness training seminars. I recently found that holding a raw egg automatically creates a sense for holding the racket lightly. Too much pressure and the egg breaks. 

Practice holding an egg in your hand for a few minutes each day for a week. Once you get a good feel for the degree of pressure, try to bring up the same feeling in your hand and racket grip when playing and notice the impact it makes on your shots.

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Monday, November 1st, 2010

Basketball great, Bob McAdoo recently shared his anxiety about watching his 15 year old daughter compete in tennis. Apparently, the 15 year old nationally ranked daughter at times fights herself rather than her opponent. The on-court outbursts interrupt her concentration and hurts her performance. McAdoo claims she inherited her temper from her mother. As a sports psychologist I don’t buy it. The greater likelihood is it is learned behavior that she has either observed in others or comes from her own overly perfectionist standards and unrealistic expectations of herself. It is also possible that she puts tremendous pressure on herself by demanding that she compete at the highest level as her father did. I have worked with a number of children of famous and successful parents that feel that way. Hopefully, she will learn how to channel her desire to win and become a pro one day, focusing more on “one day at a time” and “improving rather than winning”.

Sports Psychology for the Corporate Athlete

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

“Slumping at Work? What Would Jack Do?” That is the headline of a Wall Street Journal that focused on how sports psychologists apply the same mental toughness skills they use with professional athletes to businessmen and corporate executives. For example, the causes that lead to “slumps” such as self-critical thinking, loss of confidence, over analyzing and other types of negative thinking are commonly found in both the sports and business arenas.

Overcoming these problems teaching “mental skills” can restore or lead to “peak performance” whether it be on the playing field or in the boardroom. Teaching relaxation skills, guided imagery, focusing on past positive performances and practicing effective “self talk” are but a few of the methods sports psychologists use. Some specific strategies include: -After a mistake or failure, refocus immediately on a past success. -Visualize yourself succeeding on the next sale, meeting, play or game. -Record or refer to your past peak performances, on video or in writing.

In my own work with athletes, business people and performing artists, I use “hypnosis”, “cognitive behavioral therapy” and “mental conditioning” to restore and improve performance. My mental skills training program (TENNISMIND- Dr.Robert Heller) provides short lessons or suggestions to train effective coping strategies.

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Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

The following is an excerpt from Dr. Robert Heller”s  book “Weight Management”. 

In America and many other countries having a great body is associated with being thin. A popular saying is “You can never be too rich or too thin”. When taken to an extreme, this obsession with thinness results in an unhealthy pursuit of excessive weight loss. 

Types of Eating Disorders

Anorexia Nervosa. A condition where individuals see themselves as overweight even though, objectively, they are quite thin. They tend to exercise compulsively, and eat very little. In some cases, they can starve themselves to death.

Bulimia. A condition where individuals eat excessive amounts of food and then cause themselves to throw up. They may stick their fingers down their throat or abuse laxatives, enemas or diuretics. 

Binge Eating. A compulsive behavior characterized by out of control and excessive periods of eating. For example, eating a gallon of ice cream at one sitting. 

Characteristics of Eating Disorders

–          90% are female adolescents

–          More commonly see in gymnasts, swimmers and figure skaters.

–          Anorexics tend to be perfectionists.

–          Bulimics tend to be impulsive.

–          Low self-esteem

 Sometimes a healthy desire to look good and feel fit transforms into an unhealthy obsession with food, the body and self-esteem. In an effort to be fit, fast and compete effectively in certain sports, teens may go to an unhealthy extreme. Parents and coaches need to keep a watchful eye and intervene early in the process. 

Self-help programs are NOT recommended. Seek professional help. Full blown conditions usually require medical, psychiatric and psychological treatment.

Childhood Obesity and Tennis

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

Childhood obesity is at epidemic proportions and continues to spiral out of control. Many factors contribute to this program. The USPTA, the largest tennis teaching professional organization sees Tennis as a healthy outlet to help fight obesity. Obviously, enrolling more children at younger ages is also good business for the tennis profession, providing jobs and increased income. While staying and keeping active is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, there are greater long term opportunities in enrolling kids in a good tennis program. As a potential role model, the tennis professional could introduce and reinforce healthy eating and drinking habits for a healthy and strong body and be “alert” to attitudes and behaviors in children that are or could be problematic later on. 

Often times, obesity is connected to emotional factors such as low self esteem, anxiety, depression and related issues. Early detection and treatment might help in preventing the development of obesity when combined with a healthy lifestyle of exercise and eating. 

Troubled children are not that hard to spot: overly withdrawn, problems with peers, impulse control and so on. Being alert to these symptoms and a willingness to talk to kids and their parents can make a big difference in kids getting the help they need to get on track.

As a psychologist and sports psychologist I know it is much easier to prevent children from becoming obese than dealing with them later on as obese adults.

Andre Agassi

Friday, December 4th, 2009

Former tennis great Andre Agassi’s new autobiography, “Open” should more appropriately have been titled, “Closed”. Closed is how Andre was for most of his life. Although depressed, confused and conflicted for long periods of time, he apparently suffered silently. As great as his tennis accomplishments were, had he reached out for professional help earlier on, he might have achieved even more on the tennis court and suffered far less in his personal life and psyche. I find it hard to believe that except for his ex-wife, Brooke Shields, none of his inner circle nor family ever pushed him in that direction. Given the stressors on a child prodigy and professional athletes, I believe psychological “training” should be required and is every bit as important as the technical training and physical conditioning athletes undergo.

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