Endurance, skill, strength. These among various other physical qualities are often times believed to be the only things needed to make a great athlete. It would be a fatal mistake for any athlete, however, to disregard the mental aspect of sports. Many pro athletes utilize mind games to gain an edge, even if it was something as simple as Lance Stephenson blowing into Lebron James’ ear during game five of the 2014 NBA Eastern Conference Finals.
Understanding the role psychology plays behind our wins and losses can make all the difference in a season that has either hit a wall or risks falling from greatness. This is where the concept of control theory and motivation meet.
“This would be based on control theory,” said Dr. Kristin Mauldin, director of the masters of sport and performance psychology program. “It’s this idea that when it feels like it’s within our reach, we’re more motivated to go towards it so that would lead to an increase in motivation. When you get far away enough from it, you can almost become despondent. You can get angry and frustrated. You see those erratic plays. They’ll take risks sometimes: the hail Mary comes out of that. That’s true on both an individual and team level.”
The complexities of the mind can affect players even in the middle of a game.
“If you exceed the goal or you feel like you’ve already reached it we actually become demotivated,” Mauldin said. “Sometimes you’ll see that in a game too, where a team feels like they’re doing fine, and they’re almost unable to kick their motivation back into gear because they’ve become demotivated. That’s what control theory would say about that.”
Seeing just how much the mental aspect is involved in sports, having practical ways for athletes to strengthen themselves mentally is key to having a successful year overall.
“It’s really focusing on growth versus a fixed mindset. It’s really focusing on how their performance ties to their own past performance,” Mauldin said. Not focusing so much on the overall win but on how good they can do at their individual roles and even if they need to within that, like, I’m gonna really work on this particular throw, or I’m gonna see if I can really get this one [shot] in.”
How do the athletes themselves tackle the challenge of dealing with the mental side of their sports? After all, many games move fast in the moment and it can be tough to keep up with making adjustments on the fly. Each sport offers pros and cons in regard to this concept.
“An edge that wrestling has over other sports is that I know I’ll only be on that mat for seven minutes and knowing, I just need to give it all for 7 minutes can be a relief compared to some other sports that might have a longer game,” said Chaz Hallmark, senior finance major and wrestler.
Pushing forward is a hallmark trait of any athlete.
“You can’t let the little mistakes bother you, especially in wrestling, because anything can happen at any given time during the match,” said Colton Silva, junior nursing major and wrestler. “I just take the match one point at a time. When you are down in score, you just really have to keep your composure and not let the opponent get in your head.”
Remembering the people who helped get athletes to this point in their sport can also be a great motivator and is a perfect example of playing for something bigger than themselves.
“Swim is a unique sport as it is more of an individual sport,” said Tania Brooks, sophomore film major and women’s swimmer. “Only one person races in a lane at a time but we have a whole team and school we represent and supporting us. Every time we dive in for a race we are not only swimming for ourselves but for the team on our caps.”
With such long seasons at the collegiate level, it can be hard to stay focused all the time. Knowing who you can rely on can be almost as important as the training itself, as no one wins a championship alone.
“Sometimes, when you get to that rough patch in the season, you have to reach out to your teammates and have them lift you up,” Silva said. “I think that if you constantly put yourself in tough positions, you will become more comfortable with being uncomfortable, building your mental toughness. What I do in wrestling to keep up mentally all the time is just do my best; there is nothing to be mad about or upset about if you give it your all.”