Train your brain

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ANGELINE GERVACIO

Today, sports psychology is seen as something utilized only by professionals athletes. It’s an aspect of sports performance that is taken for granted. Some, if not most athletes think that they don’t need it believing that competition experience would make them mentally tough.

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For this article, I interviewed University of the Philippines College of Human Kinetics professor and sports psychology practitioner, Marcus Manalo. In his experience, sports psychologists are only called upon when there is already an issue that is beyond the expertise and experience of the coach, athlete or parent. This practice has its roots in the culture of coaching in the Philippines. Some of the coaches that we have right now got the position just because they played the sport at one point in their lives. We have to consider the fact that just because one was once an athlete doesn’t necessarily mean that one can immediately be an effective coach. To some coaches, having a professional practitioner, an outsider to monitor and observe their coaching methods and their athletes’ performance would seem encroaching their territory. That is why he gives importance to building trust and rapport with coaches immediately. Once Manalo established this, he can start educating both coaches and athletes in mentally preparing for competitions.

Manalo believes, and I agree with him on this note, that the psychological aspect of sports performance should be treated as equally important as training one’s physical skills. It takes systematic and consistent practice before one could master, say visualization wherein one can create full vivid mental images of game situations. This aspect shouldn’t be treated as a quick-fix remedy, but rather athletes should incorporate psychological skills even before a season starts. The Ateneo women’s volleyball team’s ability to use meditation would be an example on sports psychology’s role in competition. With Coach Tai’s initiative, these ladies started using this technique at the same time they started physically preparing for the UAAP season, and consequently they’ve effectively applied it during matches.

In all of his engagements with athletes, Manalo focuses on teaching them psychological skills. Some of these skills are goal setting, anxiety regulation, and imagery/visualization. The first skill, goal setting, means that the athletes are expected to set team and/or individual objectives. These are effective goals that should not only be outcome-oriented, or just focusing on winning games alone. Winning, as Manalo stressed are not entirely under one’s control, since this will also depend on their opponents. Athletes should be able to specify the steps toward achieving the goals they have set.

Another skill is anxiety regulation, which most athletes have trouble dealing with. Manalo recognizes that distractions and negative thoughts will always be part of the competitive process. For example, in the UAAP alone, there are seven other teams apart from yours that have been preparing and working hard everyday to achieve the same goals as yours. At some point, you would probably start thinking how much different is that team from yours when they also clock in the same number of hours at the gym and that maybe they also deserve to win the title? The key in this situation is how an athlete will be able to manage these thoughts. As mentioned, one should already acknowledge the fact that there will be distractions along the way and as Jack Donahue says, “It’s not a case of getting rid of the butterflies, it’s a question of getting them to fly in formation.”

The last skill that Manalo shared is imagery/visualization. With this, athletes can create images in their minds like, having a big crowd in the arena, with all the drums and with live television coverage so that when game day arrives, one will already be prepared with the environment that they will be in. Also with imagery, athletes can recreate situations. They can visualize and look back at a good performance and use that past feeling and mindset coming into another match. One can also remember past poor performances and try to learn from it.

All of these skills would not be as effective if the coach wouldn’t provide an optimal environment for learning for their players. The athletes may be physically and mentally prepared for a competition but coaches may be a distraction that would lead to a bad performance, say, when they start yelling at a player every time he makes an error. In effect, the player would most likely tend to focus on his mistakes rather than recovering from it.

These are just some of the things that sports psychologists could help coaches and athletes with. Right now, I commend the Philippine Sports Commission for creating the Philippine Sports Institute that offers regional training facilities all over the country that teach athletes to prepare both physically and psychologically.

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