Sports Education

Sports Education

Beyond on-field achievement

n my senior year of high school, in the midst of what would become a 32-game winning streak, my Compton High basketball team went up against Ventura High. During that game I took 16 shots outside the key (equivalent to today’s three-pointer), and made 15 of them.

Sports psychologists have a term for how I performed against Ventura. It’s called being ‘in the zone’. When athletes are ‘in the zone’, mind and body work together in perfect harmony to attain success. Therefore it’s not uncommon for athletes and sports professionals to pay huge sums of money to coaches and motivators, whose job it is to help them get in the zone.

If you’re a parent, maybe you’ve experienced those heady times when your child is in the zone. And more likely than not, you’ve experienced many more times when your child hasn’t been in the zone, and you’ve wished you knew what to say or do to help him or her get there.

What would you think if I said I knew a way for kids and parents to regularly — not just once in a rare while — experience the satisfaction that comes from being in the zone?

Before I tell you about that, let me give you a little background in the history of sports psychology. The discipline of sports psychology is a fairly new one. In the beginning (what I call the ‘first wave’), its focus was primarily on the physical — what the body needed to do to perform sport-specific skills more successfully. For example, baseball players would be told to visualise their swing, the premise being that if they could mentally ‘see’ themselves using the correct form, they would follow suit physically.

Then came the ‘second wave’ of sports psychology. This wave focused on helping athletes improve the mental aspect of their performance. Athletes were taught techniques to help them concentrate, remain calm under pressure, and effectively manage competitive stress. Still, the primary goal was performance enhancement.

The first two waves contributed mightily to the sports experience in helping athletes and sportsmen improve performance, raise standards of achievement and set new records. But they have a drawback, in that they both revolve around the goal of enhancing a sportsman’s satisfaction through improving on-field performance. While performing well is a critical ingredient of a successful sports experience, it’s not the only factor which makes sporting activity fun and rewarding.

That’s why I believe a ‘third wave’ of sports psychology — a different attitude toward experiencing sport — needs to be introduced. This wave needs to move beyond performance enhancement and explore the meaning, value and contribution of sports to individuals, families and communities. This third wave should follow a similar movement in traditional psychology, which began with Freud and the focus on the subconscious mind (we are all a bundle of neuroses), and then moved on through behaviourism (we are primarily shaped by our environment) to humanism (each individual has unique inherent capabilities which can be fully realised only when she is valued, supported, and provided with meaningful activity).

In the imminent third wave of sports psychology, I visualise the focus turning toward using sports as a means to develop the whole person — not just the athletic persona of an individual. Beyond that, enthusiastic participation in sports activity should help to develop and strengthen bonds within families and, by extension, entire communities. This is not entirely a new idea or proposition. Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic movement, continuously propagated the potential of sport to reform humanity, even in his later days when he became disillusioned by the growing corruption of organised sports.

How can we accelerate implementation of the beneficial third wave of sports psychology? To begin with, athletes would have to be trained to open their minds to accept a more expansive view of sports activity. Together with teaching sportsmen to visualise themselves connecting with a ball, or substitute negative thinking with positive self-motivation, they need to be taught to regard competitors and fans as partners in an exhilarating, shared experience. In addition, as athletes learn new skills and techniques, they need to habitually ask themselves: "How can what I’ve learned benefit me as a whole person — not just as an athlete?"

Finally, athletes and sportspersons need to realise that the pinnacle of sporting achievement transcends performance. There is a zone beyond the one athletes and sports icons aspire to today. Entry into this new high-potential zone requires conscious connection of mind, body and community to achieve athletic and sports success. Tomorrow’s zone, I hope, will be the more beneficial connection of athlete to self and to the larger community to realise the full potential of sports to provide meaning and value to life.

(Dr. George Selleck is a California-based sports psychologist and advisor to the Bangalore-based Sportz Village)