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The Emotions of Sports: Mastering mentality

Sports psychology aims to help athletes unlock higher levels of performance

Posted: July 30, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: July 30, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Sports psychologist Dr. Michael Gervais, left, works with athletes and elite performers to develop mental skills just like a coach would technical and physical skills.

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Maybe it's just easier to say an athlete was born great, that he or she was just destined to be the best.

But perhaps that's not true.

In fact, it might even be a cop out.

"Yeah, it is," says Dr. Michael Gervais with a boisterous laugh.

Gervais is a licensed psychologist and the Director of High Performance Psychology at the Pinnacle Performance Center, D.I.S.C. Sports and Spine Center and for Red Bull North America.

He also developed the FOCUS - Mental Conditioning program, which has been implemented at Velocity Sports Performance locations, including Santa Clarita's.

"Talent is important, our God-given gifts, or natural abilities, that's what talent is," Gervais says. "Skill is the development of those natural talents. There are technical skills, there are physical skills and there are mental skills. They can all be developed and enhanced."

In the developing field of sports psychology, the relationship between emotions, the athlete and the mind is at the forefront of fostering elite athletes.

The fact is, sports are emotional.

There are highs and low, successes and failures and high-stakes moments that can define a person or program.

The key is to be prepared for such moments.

"I don't think it is possible to control your emotions," Gervais says. "I think we have the ability to harness them and guide them. But emotions are such a prominent internal force, to say we can control them is a bit naive in my mind. But we are able to guide our thoughts, which are directly linked to our emotional experience."

In order to do so, Gervais has certified the team at Velocity to help athletes develop mental skills such as goal-setting, breathing and centering, positive self-talk, control, and vision.

They are principles essential in sports psychology, a relatively young blend of kinesiolgy and psychology.

The field's founding fathers, Coleman Griffith and Bruce Ogilvie, laid the groundwork in the 1920s and 1960s, respectively, for what is now in its fourth generation and helping athletes achieve new heights of performance and personal growth.

To do so, Griffith and Ogilvie looked at elite athletes' approach to the game. Current practitioners do as well.

"The mind thinks what the body feels," says Dr. Bob Corb, director of the sports psychology department at UCLA, citing Bruins track and field coach Mike Maynard. "Emotion is what actually drives everything that we do, depending on how you define emotion. I call them feelings. You can call them whatever you want. It is your belief in your ability or belief in yourself or belief in whatever it's in that is going to drive your performance."
But that is only part one, Corb says.

The second arguably presents a bigger challenge.

And it's potentially the most difficult factor.

"Self-awareness, not only of the emotion, but what is driving the emotion," Corb adds.
Gervais agrees.

Self-awareness and self-talk are at the heart of both Corb's and Gervais' work.

"Self-confidence is developed by mastering your inner dialogue," he says. "Confidence comes from one place and one place only, which is the conversation you are having with yourself. Either you are building confidence or you are taking away confidence."

Once that self-talk is identified, the athlete can "begin to guide (his or her) thoughts and develop ways of thinking to lead to that aim," he adds.

Both Corb and Gervais take the athlete through a process of self-evaluation and documentation of what drives their attitude.

They encounter a mix of positivity and burnout.

"I can't tell you how many freshman I see that want to quit their sports," says Corb, who oversees the behavioral health needs of Bruin athletes. "They come in and say it's not fun anymore. It's a business. It's a job."

Gervais also works with athletes at UCLA, USC and at the Olympic and professional level.

The training translates to all ages, and can't begin soon enough, say Corb and Gervais.

"Optimism and self-confidence and resiliency are all learned behaviors," Gervais says. "So is self-doubt, pessimism and self-defeat. They are all learned behaviors, and we learn them all at a young age from people in our lives."

That doesn't mean that a switch is just flipped at a young age, nor that the athlete is doomed to obscurity.

It's a process of self-realization.

And it takes time.

"It's a life-long journey, and it's an ongoing process to be able to master and have command over your inner experience," Gervais says. "What's great about sports is it provides immediate and instant feedback on how well you are connected to your ideal image of performance."

The success may come and go, but one thing is certain.

It's not something you are born with.



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